Visitors to the U…

by Travis Reed

Visitors to the University campus in the mid-19th century would have had little difficulty learning their way around the area. For nearly 20 years, the entire Twin Cities campus consisted of only one building.
Old Main was the nexus of several firsts at the University, as the first University building constructed, the first to be destroyed and the subject of the first Minnesota Daily extra.
Completed in 1856 at a cost of $187,500, for several years Old Main exclusively offered assembly rooms, classrooms and dormitories for students of the young University.
But the building met an untimely demise on Sept. 24, 1904 when it was destroyed by a fire — the third, and ultimately most costly, of its existence.
The loss of Old Main left the Knoll, the area which comprised the campus at the time, with a noticeable vacancy in the ring of 12 University buildings. But it also provided an opportunity for Daily employees to demonstrate their journalistic skills.
The special issue was met with great critical acclaim, and subsequent issues of that week’s Daily hailed the extra as “the best issue of the Daily ever,” proving that the extra lived up to its billing as the “only detailed story” of the blaze.
The Daily staff was showered with praise from some unlikely sources as well. An issue of the Minneapolis Tribune, a paper in competition with the Daily, offered this sparkling review (reprinted on the front page of the Daily):
“The Minnesota Daily, which is edited entirely by students, came to the front in newspaper work yesterday and for the first time in the history of the paper issued an extra. All the details connected with the fire were told interestingly and in a style that would have done credit to a professional newspaper writer,” the Tribune reported.
The one-page extra spent equal time describing the work of firefighters to control the blaze and encapsulating student and spectator reactions from the disaster.
No one was injured in the event, and the cause of the fire remains unknown to this day. The extra attributed the fire’s roots to a faulty heating apparatus, but a story in the Daily more than 60 years later revealed that some officials still credited the loss to arson.
At the time of the fire, authorities estimated a loss of $135,500. But it wasn’t the money that concerned students and University officials. In its final paragraph, the extra sentimentally lamented the University’s loss.
“The property loss is secondary. The loss of the historical landmark of territorial days is what will be keenly felt,” it read.

Travis Reed welcomes comments at [email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235.