The historic Columbian Hotel, built in 1892, burned to the ground in Ortonville, Minnesota in an early morning blaze that brought firefighters from nearby Clinton, Big Stone City, South Dakota, and Milbank, South Dakota, to the aid of Ortonville’s fire department.
According to KSFY in Sioux Falls:
At about 3:07 am, Ortonville Police and Fire Departments were called to the fire at the intersection of Northwest 2nd Street and Jefferson Avenue.
The initial report stated fire was coming out of the basement windows of the old Columbian Hotel building. However, when police and fire crews arrived they found the building totally engulfed by flames.
Firefighters extinguished the fire around 6:30 a.m. It was all over except for the smouldering and doughnuts when Bluestem Prairie arrived around 8:30 a.m.
Building owner Damian Mullaney (“Everyone calls me Clear”) looked over the smoking pile of bricks and cursed. “This sucks. It’s a travesty,” he said. “It’s my legacy, our legacy, and now it’s gone.”
“Clear” told Bluestem that the building was empty, but he “had everything in place” for its renovation.
“We always feared that this would happen if it ever caught on fire,” Ortonville Fire Chief Alan Arndt said, given the building’s age and size.
No one was injured fighting the fire, Arndt said, though the Ortonville firefighters were exhausted because they had answered an earlier, unrelated fire call at 10:30 p.m. the night before.
“Everybody had just gotten cleaned up and gone to bed when this call came in,” he said. A crew member was distributing doughnuts to the exhausted firefighters.
The listing for the building in the Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway notes:
The Columbian Hotel in Ortonville, overlooking Big Stone Lake, represents hundreds of significant commercial buildings in small, agriculturally based communities in western Minnesota. These communities are often losing population due to changes in the agricultural economy and are struggling to find markets to maintain viable historic downtown business districts. These communities should be encouraged to find the resources to adapt these landmark buildings to viable uses and preserve them for future generations.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Ortonville’s loss comes at a time when the city and Big Stone County are divided over the direction economic development should take in the area along Minnesota’s western boundary waters.
Nearby Ortonville Township and Big Stone County had quarrelled over a proposal by North Dakota’s Strata Corporation to put a large blast and smash granite quarry in a pasture marked by the county’s namesake stone outcrops. While the county had approved the permit, residents of the township had earlier persuaded its board of supervisors to impose a year-long moratorium to gain time to write zoning rules.
Those supporting the proposal touted jobs the quarry might bring to the area, while opponents felt it be an eyesore, dampening tourism while lowering property values and posing health and safety risks. Citizens testifying at a Big Stone County hearing in April were overwhelmingly opposed to approving the permit, which the Board approved in May.
Landmarks like the Columbian Hotel, built by a member of Rochester’s Kahler industry family for commercial and tourist trade, were cited by both sides as an emblem of the area’s past and potential.
The landowner has divided his property among relatives and asked for the properties to be annexed by the City of Ortonville. Annexation would allow Strata Corporation to develop the quarry, as Ortonville Township would no longer have jurisdiction over the property. Ortonville’s City Council is in the process of amending its annexation ordinance in order to allow projects like the Stata quarry on newly annexed properties.
This development provoked many of those opposed to Strata’s giant quarry. Two activists are running vigorous write-in campaigns against sitting county commissioners, and lawns across town are dotted with “Stop Annexation” signs amid those promoting candidates and the marriage amendment. Ortonville Township’s Board held an information listening session last night attended by 60 people.
Earlier in June, a storm damaged storefronts in downtown Ortonville.
Update: Big Stone County resident Duane Ninneman notes that the columns have collapsed into the ruins.
Photos: The Columbian’s signature columns are all that is recognizable in the ruins (top); Ortonville Fire Chief Alan Arndt (top middle); The Columbian Hotel in 1909 (bottom middle); Ortonville’s Fire Department keeps an eye on the smouldering ruins of the downtown landmark (bottom two).