The Plato Fire

It was a soft autumn evening, and a stiff, southernly breeze wafted across Plato, MN. It was 5pm, and the good people of the community were just beginning to settle down. Stores were closing for the day or would soon do so, buggies pulled along by horses were rolling down the dirt streets of town, and meals were being prepared in the homes on the community’s outskirts.
On the south end of town, atop the Hastings and Dakota Railroad Track, sat a long, westbound freight train. The train had a heavy load to pull and in Plato was unloading a bit of cargo. In those days, the trains were pulled by large, black steam engines that were fueled by wood or, more commonly coal. Tasked with pulling a heavy load, the fire in the firebox would have to be stoked hot with fuel before taking off. With a shovel in hand and soot on his brow, the train’s fireman shoveled copious amounts of coal into the firebox until the glowing inferno was such that the train could be powered.

With its bell ringing and black smoke curling toward the sky, the freight train began moving westward toward Glencoe where it would drop its next load. The engine began to chug, puffing smoke and steam from its chimney. Suddenly, and without warning, a large ember, glowing red, was spat upward from the engine’s smokestack. It flew through the sky, then descended on the cedar shingled roof of the Empire elevator building. As the train slowly rolled out of town, the shingles around the ember began to smolder.

It didn’t take long for the breeze to turn the dry shingles into a smoking, smoldering bed of coal. Before long, the roof had caught fire. In what seemed like moments, the Strong and Miller Elevator, too, had caught fire, and in no time at all, the strong wind blew the heat and coals across the narrow street and started an entire block on fire.
Buildings in those days were made of wood and were built near one another. The hot, tickling flames from the fire spread from building to building with little effort. The townspeople, by this time, were well aware of the situation and worked frantically to fight the fire, but it was appearing to be a losing battle – like a prairie fire spreading across a windswept and drought stricken field.

The last hope for the town were the fire departments of Glencoe and Norwood where the alarm had already been sounded. Firefighters from both towns, aboard horse pulled fire carts, raced to meet at Plato where the inferno was out of control. By the time they arrived, it was nearly too late. Most of the downtown business block was engulfed in flames. At this time, it was decided by both departments to abandon fighting the fire and concentrate their efforts on saving the remainder of the town. This they did, with Glencoe working on the west end of town and Norwood on the east. Though much of the downtown was destroyed, the fire was contained to the one block. When it was over, only two buildings were left standing.

Fires were a regular evil in those days. Most buildings were made of wood and heated by burning wood, coal, or oil. Unfortunately for Plato, another fire would spread just four years down the road, yet never as bad as the famous fire of 1896 – one which went down in history and is still talked about today.

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