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Bismarck History: Development and Expansion

Ranch-style homes being developed.

Ranch-style homes being developed.

Because of its nature as a major railroad hub for the Northern Pacific Railway, the city that would become Bismarck sprang up along the railroad. For decades, the railroad marked the southern edge of the city. Major businesses began sprouting up near the train depot, forming a complex business district in Downtown Bismarck. The first houses developed were only blocks from downtown, or even downtown itself. When Bismarck was selected as the new capital of Dakota Territory in 1883, housing development began to push northward towards the new capitol facility, however most of the business remained in the thriving downtown, receiving an endless flow of business from both the railroad.

Fire Reinvents Bismarck

Like most prairie towns, Bismarck began as an isolated frontier town, with most of the structures constructed of wood, which would help fuel a major fire that consumed most of downtown Bismarck in 1898. The fire forced the city to rebuild, but this time with buildings constructed of more durable materials like brick and concrete. For years, many of the buildings constructed following the fire were advertised as “fire proof”. Despite the fallback, the 1898 fire helped catapult Bismarck passed its frontier roots and into a modern city complete with everything needed to sustain a booming region.

Downtown Bismarck Booms

As residential areas began to push northward, downtown Bismarck continued to grow and boom in leaps in bounds. Two grand and luxurious hotels, Hotel McKenzie and Grand Pacific Hotel, opened to serve the never-ending flow of prominent politicians and businessmen. As the automobile grew in popularity, downtown Bismarck would get a boost in traffic from vehicles traveling on Highway 10, which went through the heart of downtown. The Liberty Memorial Bridge, completed in 1922, finally allowed year-round automobile travel between Bismarck and nearby Mandan.

Rapid Growth and Expansion

Bismarck experienced rapid growth throughout the 1930s, due partially to the migration of citizens from small towns and farms as a result of the Great Depression. National retailers like F.W. Woolworth, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney had all arrived by 1930 to serve the growing city. Fire destroyed the capitol in 1930, in the midst of the depression. The new capitol was completed in 1934, followed one year later with the opening of a new facility to house Bismarck High School.

Development Patterns Change As Garrison Dam is Completed

Until the Garrison Dam was completed on the Missouri River in 1954, most of the land south of the railroad was prone to major flooding, inhibiting southern development. Until the dam’s completion, Bismarck grew northward from its downtown roots. As it did in the beginning, the railroad marked Bismarck’s southern edge. Northern development was now pushing passed the state capitol toward Divide Avenue, western Bismarck had been developed up to Washington Street, and the city’s eastern limits were now pushing towards twenty-sixth street. For the first time, the dam allowed development to push southward. That same year also marked a major change in the city’s retail trend when the first shopping center, Arrowhead Plaza, opened on Third Street, only blocks from the state capitol in the midst of major housing development.

Southern Expansion

Northern development began to boom north of Divide Avenue in the late 1950s, sparking the construction of Northbrook Mall in 1959. Northern development was now slowing, however, as most of the development beginning in the late 1950s until the 1970s occurred south of the railroad. It was not until the late 1970s that northern development really boomed again, pushing toward the city’s new northern border,Century Avenue.

Bismarck Stretches Its Resources

During the post-war boom, Bismarck’s limits as a city were pushed well beyond what its infrastructure could handle. Hughes Junior High and Hillside Park Junior High replaced the former facility were both constructed in the late 1950s-early 1960s. By this time, downtown Bismarck was already showing signs of decay. Many of the buildings located in downtown were over fifty years old, and inadequate to fulfill the needs of the growing city. Two major shopping centers had been built in northern Bismarck, marking the beginning of business migration.

Development Also Pushes Westward

The 1960s not only saw major development to the south, but also westward, beyond Washington Street. The completion of the Holiday Inn on Memorial Highway in 1962 would help spark development in the area. It wouldn’t be long before a gas station, restaurant, houses, and a massive apartment complex would open along Memorial Highway near the new hotel.

Interstate Is Completed

The Grant Marsh Bridge was completed in 1965, completing the stretch of Interstate 94 through Bismarck-Mandan. At the time of its completion, very little development had occurred beyond Divide Avenue, except for near Northbrook Mall. The completion of the interstate, however, would soon make way for the next wave of changing developments within the city. Until this point, all through traffic in the city had to cross the Liberty Memorial Bridge, which was the only vehicular bridge in the region to cross the Missouri River. This meant most major traffic traveled through downtown Bismarck on Highway 10 (Main Avenue). The city’s developers had failed to anticipate how the interstate would affect business in the city, instead focusing on the rapid development near the Liberty Memorial Bridge.

South Bismarck Development Explodes

With the closure of the Garrison Dam in 1953, southern Bismarck exploded with rapid development. Only six years after the opening of Simle Junior High, Wachter Junior Highopened in south Bismarck – a sign of the housing boom in the area. That same year, construction commenced on the Bismarck Civic Center, also in southern Bismarck. Despite a recent surge, by the end of the 1960s southern Bismarck was still largely undeveloped. Construction on Kirkwood Mall in 1970 would spark an even greater boom in southern Bismarck, and forever change the shopping trend in the region. Major retailers flocked to the new shopping center, located next to the newly completed Civic Center.

Continued Northern Development

Kirkwood Mall would spark a major boom in business development in southern Bismarck, hindering residential development in the area. Helped in part by the completion of the interstate, development once again pushed northward, toward what is now Century Avenue. The point at which Interstate 94 would bisect with US Highway 83 would soon join Kirkwood as a major retail hub for the region. One of the first businesses to open along the State Street Corridor was Kmart in 1971. Century High School opened in 1976. Several hotels also opened near the I-94/US-83 bisect in the 1970s, in addition to restaurants. Gateway Mall opened in 1979, serving as a major anchor for the corridor.

From that point onward, most of the city’s development has occurred in northern Bismarck. Housing development in southern Bismarck has slowed considerably since the 1970s, with most of it occurring southwest near the river.

Bismarck History Chapter Index: