Elk River Chronicles

Members of the Heritage Preservation Commission write articles exploring the interesting residents and stories of the early days of Elk River.  

Elk River: Well Done
By Commissioner Tony Mauren

This article was made possible through research done at the Sherburne History Center and on the City of Elk River’s Laserfiche archive online. These two great resources are available to anyone interested in learning more. Thanks in particular to Mo Galvin, curator of the Sherburne History Center, for her help in compiling resources. 

"There were quite a lot of hobos about town, and it’s possible some of them may have set it on fire...either intentionally or accidentally," the Sherburne County Star News reported the morning after 13 buildings were reduced to ash in downtown Elk River. The April 28th, 1898 edition included a quote from a witness, which provides a glimpse at life in the town during this time. "Mrs. Wheldon, who was sleeping next door, says there was quite a party of toughs out on the street during the night, and they were boisterous in their conduct, shooting off revolvers, singing and shouting." With this type of behavior, in a town whose major industries produced large amounts of wood shavings and flour dust, perhaps it’s not surprising that Elk River experienced no less than six geography-shaping fires between 1868 and 1915. The cause of these fires ranged from the clearly accidental to completely mysterious. In 1915 the newspaper published their suspicions saying, "Elk River is again in the hands of the fire fiend," suggesting the town had been the victim of an unknown, serial arsonist. The fires also ranged in effect; in some cases it amounted to a five figure insurance claim, and in one unfortunate incident it led to what was reported as a "Holocaust of Horses." Regardless of cause or effect, the city faced numerous tests from the outset of its settlement, and it would be a steady process to build an equal response.

While 13 frame buildings burned in April 1898, citizens made a valiant effort to put out the flames with every firefighting tool available. Lacking an actual fire department, those tools consisted of a water tank and a hose, both of which were provided by the Great Northern Railroad. However, at that hour there was no steam to operate the water pump and no one could find the hose. By the early 20th century, networks of fire departments from bigger cities were offering their services to smaller towns, but a 90-minute trip by train to bring an engine from Minneapolis meant help often took too long to arrive. The city was going to need to invest in the architecture and infrastructure to protect itself in order to continue its development. Elk Riverites in this period had important decisions to make. The questions to be answered were what sort of town did they want to have and what were they prepared to do to have it?

In January of 1903, the section of downtown known as The "Brick Block," with buildings specifically designed to limit fire risks, fell victim all the same. There was extensive damage to many of the businesses along Jackson and Main Street. However, the Sherburne County Star News reported something remarkable among the wreckage, “...all except the situation with the best grace possible, confident that the future of Elk River is so well assured that they can make no mistake in hanging on under adversity and waiting for the reward that is sure to follow." The response to the brick’s failure to prevent the blaze wasn’t anger or helplessness. The community of Elk River banded together to overcome one more challenge, using collaboration and creativity. The newspaper operated inside a furniture shop for a period of time. A doctor practiced on the second floor of a bank, while a lawyer used the basement. "It might be discouraging to some communities," the Star News reported, "but the energy and local pride of those who were chief sufferers by the disaster of last week, is not to be quenched…" Though the citizens of Elk River may have had inexhaustible pride, it was clear they would need to do something to quench the fires.

By 1911 the city-owned a fire engine which was a positive step in prevention, but it lacked a supply of water that made firefighting effective. When the Post Office block caught fire that year, it had already progressed too far for the engine to be of any use. It would be eight more years before the city was able to fund and install the necessary infrastructure.

In the fall of 1919 a plot of land was purchased on the north side of the train tracks for $200. Several weeks later, work began on Well #1, the first municipally owned well in the city. On Christmas Day 1919 the Sherburne County Star News reported that a steady flow of water was obtained. In 1920, in the same part of town where Mrs. Wheldon once reported hearing "toughs" and gunfire, the city’s first water tower was built on top of the well. During the years and decades to follow, the city of Elk River and its infrastructure continued to expand and develop, forging a community that proved to be equal to the challenges of the early days of settlement. As the highest point of the city, the Jackson Street Water Tower embodied the same resiliency, creativity, and commitment to the future that brought Elk River out of the ashes time and again.

Appendix: The six major fires referred to in this article include:

1868 - The Mills and Houlton flour mill was destroyed.

May 1887 - Several buildings including saw mills, a chair factory, flour mills, and a hotel were destroyed. Volunteers were able to save a blacksmith’s shop.

April 1898 - A row of 13 frame buildings were destroyed. Businesses shifted their location to the Southside of the train tracks to rebuild.

January 1903 - Several buildings on the “Brick Block” (the northwest block of current day Jackson and Main Street) were destroyed.

January 1911 - The “Post Office Block” was destroyed, believed to be caused by an overloaded stove at Ward’s Confection Shop. 

April 1915 - Buildings on Jackson and Main Street were destroyed. 

Our next article will continue to highlight a series on Hungarian immigrants establishing their lives after arriving in Elk River.