February 20, 1901: “Old Main” burns down before it has a chance to get old

The Duluth Normal School and surrounding campus, ca. 1905. (Image: X-Comm.)

On this day in Duluth in 1901, the Duluth State Normal School, which was under construction at 2205 East 5th Street, was nearly completely destroyed by fire. Mrs. George Ashe of 2327 East Second Street reported the fire at 8:49 p.m. Actually, she told her son to run to the home of Zar Scott at 2218 East First Street and ask Mr. Scott to call in the fire—it was the closest home to the Ashes that had a telephone, as at the time there were fewer than 1,000 phones in the entire city. By then, flames were already bursting from the second-floor windows of the four-story building. According to Duluth Fire Department historian Jerry Keppers, “The fire department was unable to save the building probably because it was too far from available water supplies.” Indeed, while the department used all the hose it had to stretch from hydrants to the fire, it was such a distance that there was little water pressure to fight the blaze. There was some debate about the cause: the construction foreman thought it was arson, but Fire Chief Black did not agree; it may have been caused by the carelessness of men finishing the woodwork on the second floor, who failed to destroy flammable materials at the end of their shift that day, and those materials spontaneously combusted. Luckily the State of Minnesota—which owned the nearly completed $68,000 four-story brick building—had insured it for $40,000. Three of the original outside walls were stable enough to remain standing, and the building was completed by September, 1901, at a final cost of $80,000. The Normal School would later become the Duluth State Teachers College and later still the University of Minnesota Duluth. When UMD began moving to a new campus in the 1950s, the original Normal School building was dubbed “Old Main.” It was destroyed by an arson fire on February 23, 1993, 92 years and three days after the first fire. Three of its walls still stand as a memorial in what is now “Old Main Park.”

2 Responses to February 20, 1901: “Old Main” burns down before it has a chance to get old

  1. Is “Old Main Park” city owned?

    I always thought that area would make a nice sculpture garden / botanical garden / people-friendly gathering space.

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