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Fire destroys historic Stillwater prison
By Associated Press

September 4, 2002

Prison building fire
For more than an hour, flames shot more than 100 feet in the air and could be seen for miles. Fire crews during that time concentrated on keeping embers from lighting other buildings. See more images.
(MPR Photo/Matt Thueson)

A landmark structure at the site of Minnesota's oldest prison crumbled in a spectacular blaze of flames, a loss to history lovers and developers who wanted to convert the complex into apartments and condominiums.

Firefighters were called shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday to the grounds of the Minnesota Territorial Prison, where a massive three-story building that served for decades as the prison factory was on fire.

Firefighters from about a dozen cities eventually came to help fight the blaze, but they were turned away for a time by intense heat. A nearby one-story warehouse used for storing raw materials was also destroyed. Both were built in 1890.

For more than an hour, flames shot more than 100 feet in the air and could be seen for miles. Fire crews during that time concentrated on keeping embers from lighting other buildings.

The old Stillwater prison was Minnesota's first - opening in 1853. Its history is chronicled in a new book, Hard Time: Voices from a State Prison, 1849-1914, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. Editor Ted Genoways talked with MPR's Lorna Benson about the building that was destroyed. Listen.
See historical images from the book.

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

"A part of Stillwater's history is gone forever," said Mayor Jay Kimble. "On the other hand, our fire chief made the decision to pull back, and I'm glad he did ... As precious as the structure was, it's not worth a fireman's life."

Crews were still putting out hot spots Wednesday morning and the state fire marshall's office planned to visit the site to investigate the cause of the blaze.

The prison was Minnesota's first, opening in 1853 before statehood. The warden's house several hundred yards away is the only original building remaining from 1853. The house, along with a nearby carriage house, have been operated as a museum by Washington County since 1941.

"Those buildings are the ones we were concerned about because of embers flying up," said Brent Peterson, library manager for the Washington County Historical Society. "The fire department did a fabulous job protecting them."

The prison closed in 1914, six years after a new maximum-security prison opened nearby. But the factory and warehouse buildings were used for twine production into the 1970s by prisoners brought over from the new facility.

In the 1970s, the work buildings were sold to Maple Island Dairy. The dairy sold the buildings to the city of Stillwater in 1996, the year developers proposed converting them into a hotel and conference center. Those plans fell through and the buildings had been empty recently.

Prison debris
The scene Wednesday morning.
(MPR Photo/Matt Theuson)

This summer, a consortium of Twin Cities developers said they would spend $40 million to $50 million to renovate the two buildings and add six more to create 300 condominiums and apartments on the prison site.

Both buildings were built of wood, but the twine factory had a brick shell, most of which remained standing Tuesday night. The ceilings in the twine factory were 21 feet high to accommodate large machinery.

"It's a tragedy that Minnesota has lost this history," Peterson said. "It's incredible."

The prison once housed Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, brothers and members of the notorious Jesse James gang whose Northfield bank robbery in southeastern Minnesota was thwarted by townsfolk in 1876.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)