History of the Bismarck Fire Department

The Bismarck Fire Department, is the oldest of any organized company in the Dakotas. It was organized on March 20, 1877 when North and South Dakota was Dakota Territory and the territorial capitol was Yankton which is now in South Dakota. It was named the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company.

Pioneer Fire Co. No. 1

Organized in 1884

Firefighters in 1884

Early ladder wagon 1890

Early 1900's

Firefighters with horse and wagon in early 1900

Fire Department Downtown 1909

Department was on the first floor of the city hall building 1913

Firefighters with horse and wagon in front of the fire department downtown 1920

Firefighters in front of city hall in 1954

The Great Fire of Bismarck

Bismarck like every frontier town was a collection of rough wooden buildings. Fire was an ever-present danger and the volunteer fire company was not equipped to fight a major fire. On August 8, 1898, the Northern Pacific freight depot caught fire. A brisk wind fanned the flames and at least two explosions helped spread the holocaust. Mandan sent its fire company to Bismarck by special train. The fire was not brought under control until about 3:00 o’clock the following morning. Downtown Bismarck was in ruins with most business firms destroyed, particularly the area from the Northern Pacific tracks north to Thayer Avenue along Fourth Street to where the Tribune building now stands. Sparks were carried considerable distances. For instance, Alexander Hugh’s barn in the 700 block on Fourth Street caught fire. There was a fire in prairie grass north of the capitol. The Pacific Hotel was saved due to a vacant lot where Finney’s Drug Store is now located.
    Governor Frank A. Biggs died at 9:30 the next morning, he was dying of consumption. That evening he was placed on a couch on the front porch of the executive mansion (320 E B Avenue - 4th Street & B Avenue) so that he might be as comfortable as possible. He saw quite a sight at about 8:15 p.m. 1898
    REF: History of the City of Bismarck, North Dakota
      The First 100 Years –1872-1972.

Tolling of the Bell

Long before the Internet was invented, or telephones and radios were used across our great nation, fire departments used the telegraph to communicate - using special codes to receive fire alarms from those once-familiar red fire alarm boxes which stood on practically every street corner of America.

When a firefighter was killed, or in the language of the military and public safety:
"fell", in the line of duty, the fire alarm office would tap out a special signal. This
would be tapped out as five measured dashes - then a pause - then five measured dashes - then a pause - then five more measured dashes.

This came to be called the Tolling of the Bell and was broadcast over the telegraph fire alarm circuits to all station houses in the vicinity. Heard outside on the streets -with the fire department's windows open, the resonating echo was similar to that of fire stations of old where fire alarm gongs sounded the locations of thousands of emergencies throughout the history of our growing country.

This was done for the purpose of notification, and as a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who had made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities.

Such symbolism has been a time-honored fire service tradition and is repeated at
each service of a fallen firefighter.