The site of the city was originally a small military post established in 1872 with the mandate of protecting work gangs from the Northern Pacific Railway. It was called Edwinton after Edwin F. Johnson, chief engineer of the Northern Pacific, and spotted at one of the most advantageous crossings of the Missouri River. 

The railroad arrived on June 4, 1873 and the town name was switched to honor German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the hopes of attracting German settlement and perhaps some investments of Deutsche Marks. Then gold was discovered in the Black Hills and nobody much cared what the town at the head of navigation was called.

Another boom descended in 1883 when county sheriff and political boss Alexander McKenzie orchestrated - by stealing votes and intimidating voters his opponents claimed - the move of the Dakota Territory capital from Yankton to Bismarck. When the territory was cleaved into two states in 1889 Bismarck became the North Dakota capital and, despite a vote to leave for Jamestown in 1930 after the original capitol building burned, has been the only seat of government the state has known.

The face of Bismarck changed forever on the night of August 10, 1898 when a fire broke out in a Northern Pacific Railroad warehouse. Before the flames could be beaten back kegs of gunpowder exploded, stoking the conflagration. Winds whipped the fire from the railroad to the doorstep of the capitol building, ten blocks to the north. When the losses from the Great Fire of 1898 were added up the bill reached for than one-half million dollars and the days of constructing commercial buildings from wood in Bismarck were over.

Our walking tour of downtown Bismarck will discover how the city rebuilt, a process that dominates the streetscape more than a century later. But first we will begin on the grounds where we can see the very first structure raised in Bismarck...

Camp Hancock
101 East Main Avenue

A military installation here, established as Camp Greeley in 1872, served to protect workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad; the following year the name was changed to Camp Hancock. On site is the officer’s quarters that was crafted of logs and boards and is the oldest building in Bismarck; it was later used by the Weather Bureau. Other artifacts include the splendid Carpenter Gothic Church of the Bread of Life that was built by the town’s Episcopalians in 1881, later renamed Saint George’s Episcopal Memorial Church, and a 1909 Northern Pacific Railway locomotive manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. Locomotive #2164 was retired in 1955 and hauled into place by a bulldozer that year to help launch the Camp Hancock State Historic Site.  


Dakota Block
200 East Main Street at northeast corner of 2nd Street

This commercial block was constructed in 1883 and is one of the town’s very few Victorian souvenirs as it survived the Great Fire of 1898. It stands today without two bays that burned on the eastern side and without its roofline ornamentation but the three-story brick structure still retains hints of its Gothic influences.

Elks Building
206 East Main Avenue

The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. The Bismarck Lodge, BPOE #1199, erected this brick building in 1918. The Bismarck-Mandan Elks Lodge today, long since departed from this two-story brick home, is the largest in the United States, with over 4,600 members. Look up above the modernized street level storefronts to see the fanciful brickwork on the facade including the stepped parapet above the roofline.   

Webb Brothers Block
317 East Main Street at southeast corner of 4th Street

The Webb brothers, William and Phillip, arrived in Bismarck from New Jersey in 1884 and began selling furniture. They added dry goods and carpeting to their line and operated the only such store in town for five years. After the Fire of 1898 the Webbs immediately got back in business with this classically flavored brick commercial building, one of the finest erected in the aftermath of the conflagration. William, who also put in a stint as mayor of Bismarck, passed the business to his sons who took Webb Brothers to 1945 when Sears & Roebuck moved into the building. This was also the location for Webb Brothers Funeral Parlor, the town’s first, beginning in 1928. 

Northern Pacific Railway Depot
411 East Main Avenue

St. Paul, Minnesota architects Charles A. Reed and Allen H. Stem, best known for their participation in the design of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, completed many projects for the Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway. Here they delivered a rare splash of Mission Revival architecture to the Bismarck streetscape for this passenger station in 1901. The depot replaced the Sheridan House, the town’s leading hotel, that was the largest building in Dakota Territory when it was constructed in 1877; it doubled as the passenger station. At its peak the Northern Pacific Railway Depot was handling a total of 24 passenger trains a day - Bismarck saw its last passenger train in 1979. Its massing is typical of historic railroad depots, with the central portion of the building rising two stories, flanked by one-story wings. The towers were originally capped with Spanish-styled domes.  

Dahl Block
410 East Main Street

C.M. Dahl was one of Bismarck’s pioneer businessmen, opening his clothing store in 1881. Dahl moved to this location in 1905, offering mens’ and boys’ clothes, furnishings and shoes. Light colored bricks are used to embellish the upper facade with trim and a central keystone. Dahl’s daughters took the business into the second generation and operated the hsitoric shop until 1945.     

Patterson Building/Dakota Stage Playhouse
412 East Main Street

Milton Earl Beebe was a prominent architect who hailed from Buffalo, New York. After waging a losing mayoral battle in that town to future United States President Grover Cleveland and abandoning his wife, Beebe landed in Fargo, North Dakota in 1898 when he was 58 years old looking for a quick divorce. He immediately built a flourishing architecture practice, including designing the north wing of the original North Dakota State Capitol. Beebe did several projects for ambitious builder Edward G. Patterson, including this commercial building highlighted by a pair of copper-sheathed oriel windows in 1905. Beebe retired in 1911 and moved with his second wife to San Diego. The west side of the building was occupied by the Capitol Theater from 1905 into the 1970s and has been spruced up to serve as a stage once again. 

McKenzie/Patterson Hotel
422 East Main Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street

Herman Krentz, another architect from St. Paul, gave Bismarck its first steel skeleton high-risebuilding constructed of reinforced concrete in 1911. The moneyman was Edward G. Patterson, an amateur boxer who bought the town’s leading hotel, the Sheridan House, in 1893. It was rebuilt after the Fire of 1898 as the Northwest Hotel. Patterson and his wife Agatha also owned and operated the Soo Hotel next door and Grand Palace Hotel before opening this 250-room guest house. Named for his friend, political boss Alexander McKenzie, the hotel sported more private bathrooms than any other in North Dakota - the mark of luxury at the time. After McKenzie died in the 1920s the name was changed to Patterson as the hotel grew to ten stories and became the place for power brokers and celebrities to see and be seen. With the declining fortunes of downtown the Patterson Hotel was shuttered in the 1970s. It dodged the wrecking ball long enough to receive an extensive makeover, including the pulling down of the Patterson nameplates to reval the original stone McKenzie nametags. 

Lasken Block
101 North 5th Street at northeast corner of Main Street 

This corner commercial block presents a typical early Bismarck form with business space - in this case a billiard hall and soda fountain - on the ground floor and living space up top. Herman Lasken erected it in the early 1910s.    


Soo Hotel
112 North 5th Street

This was briefly the tallest building in town after Edward Patterson raised it in 1906 to function as a working class hotel in his constellation of Bismarck properties. The building is dressed in glazed pressed brick manufactured by the Hebron Brick Company in Hebron, North Dakota. Patterson originally christened the hostelry after the Soo Line Railroad but after he changed the name of his first-class hotel next door in the 1920s he switched the name here to the Princess. 

Nicola Building
413 East Broadway Avenue at southwest corner of 5th Street

Another example of the retail-residence configuration in downtown Bismarck commercial buildings, this one dates to 1930. Look up to see Art Deco detailing on the light tan bricks.


Bismarck Civic Auditorium
201 North 6th Street at northeast corner of Broadway Avenue

With $45,000 the City of Bismarck set out to construct a first-rate stage for the performing arts in 1912. They initially contracted with the prestigious Minnesota architectural firm of Reed and Stem, who had been responsible for the town’s railroad station, to draw up plans but the design burden instead fell on prolific Bismarck architect Arthur Wesley Van Horn. He delivered an exuberant Beaux Arts building that was greeted with praise as “one of the handsomest and best appointed play houses in the Northwest.” The New Amsterdam Theatre of New York City opened the Auditorium on January 19, 1914 with an interpretation of the comic opera, Robin Hood. Through the years the civic stage has hosted everything from high school plays to presidential speeches.


Burleigh County Courthouse
514 East Thayer Avenue

In the lean days of the Great Depression the government favored the stripped down classicism of the Art Deco style for its many building projects spurred by stimulus funds. This example from 1931, that replaced the original 1880s county courthouse on this location, came from the pen of Minot architect Ira Rush. Rush had a knack for winning commissions for courthouses, he designed four in North Dakota. Here he outfitted the house of justice with a pink granite base, a dressing of Indiana limestone, bronze doors and aluminum spandrels across the windows. 

Bismarck Tribune Building
222 North 4th Street at southwest corner of Thayer Avenue

The first issues of the Bismarck Tribune hit the streets in 1873 - the first train to arrive in town carried the paper’s printing press. North Dakota’s oldest newspaper moved into these digs in 1920, a handsome dark brick structure designed by architect George H. Shanley of Great Falls, Montana who specialized in creating newspaper publishing plants. Shanley accented his design, that includes sidewalk level windows, with generous helpings of terra cotta ornamentation. The Tribune made this its home for sixty years. 


Hoskins-Meyer Building
200 North 4th Street at northwest corner of Broadway 

The core of this building was constructed as the home of the Bismarck Tribune after the Fire of 1898; it was modernized in the mid-20th century in an International Style. Hoskins-Meyer was a purveyor of dry goods, paper supplies, tobacco and, for the better part of a century, a floral shop. In 1925 Phillip Meyer tinkered around with an experimental radio transmitter and, after receiving a broadcasting license, sent out Bismarck’s first commercial signal on February 8, 1926. In 1953 KFYR started television broadcasts and remains here today. 

Cowan Building
123 North 4th Street at southeast corner of Broadway

This was a two-story brick building when fire sept through the streets in 1898. Two more stories came along later and in the 1950s a Commercial Style building with a rounded corner was constructed around the old structure. It carries the name of the drug store that J.G. Cowan started and his family ran into the 1990s. 


U.S. Post Office and Courthouse
304 East Broadway Avenue at northeast corner of 3rd Street 

The federal government announced its presence in Bismarck in 1913 with this Renaissance Revival temple from the office of Supervising Architect of the Treasury, James Knox. The building boasts a rusticated base with arched openings and wide quoins at the corner. The upper floor is highlighted by pairs of smooth Doric columns and a dentil block cornice. The entire classical composition is crowned with a hipped red tile roof. One of only four such facilities in North Dakota, the federal building picked up a sympathetic rear wing addition in 1937.


Van Horn Hotel/Prince Hotel
14 North 3rd Street

The Van Horn Hotel - “100 Rooms of Solid Comfort” - was built in 1916 and carries the name of the architect, Arthur Wesley Van Horn. Van Horn was born in Hacksensack, New Jersey in 1860 and learned the carpenter trade from his father. After taking night classes for three years in the “art and science of architecture” Van Horn lit out for the Dakota Territory in 1883 that was in the midst of a building boom. He caught on as a construction superintendent with a local lumber company in Bismarck. By the early 1900s he had sought work independently as an architect and for the better part of the next thirty years Van Horn and subsequent partners are believed to have accounted for 90 percent of the buildings in downtown Bismarck. The four-story hotel was financed by entrepreneur and industrialist Edmond Hughes who brought Van Horn back in 1926 for a four-story wing. Over the years the guest register included the names of Shirley Temple, Eleanor Roosevelt, General George C. Marshall, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The hostelry was later purchased by Neil Churchill and renamed the Prince Hotel. In recent years it has been converted to residential apartments.