Dakota Datebook

Belfield Prairie Fire

Friday, November 7, 2003

This was a tragic day in North Dakota’s history. As a result of a runaway prairie fire southwest of Belfield, the teacher of a country school and six of her students were killed.

It was 1914, and the prairie fires that had been devastating western North Dakota that fall had been particularly severe. Within the previous week alone, big fires in the Fayette area burned a strip twenty-five miles long between the Knife River and Crooked Creek. It was only stopped when it reached a large fire-break plowed by farmers ahead of the flames. Several people narrowly escaped death, and farmers took heavy losses.

Another prairie fire near Manning had caused similar losses.

The Belfield fire had been sparked by a threshing machine that was moving from field to field southwest of town. Five miles away, a 23-year-old teacher, Gladys Hollister, was holding classes for her 12 students in the Davis School. She was popular with students and parents and had been teaching in the county for several years.

At one o’clock, Miss Hollister spotted the fire moving down the valley toward them; high winds were fanning the flames, and she panicked. She knew there was a plowed field a distance away, and not knowing what else to do, she and the children headed out across the fields to reach it.

Six of the children broke off from the group and headed for their homes, which weren’t in the fire’s path. They were the only ones to survive.

The fire soon overtook those who were still running. Three of the children got separated from their teacher. They were later found huddled together and alive. But they were so badly burned that all three died by the following morning.

Meanwhile, as Miss Hollister got closer and closer to the plowed field, she and her remaining three students suddenly found their escape cut off. Smoke engulfed them, and they went down. After the fire rushed on, they were found clutching each other. Their clothes were burned off, the three children were dead, and Hollister was following close behind.

The six children who died were all between the ages of 6 and 12 and included two sets of siblings. Frank Davis, an uncle to some of the children, had struggled heroically to save them and was, himself, now in critical condition.

Doctors were rushed from Belfield, but it was too late; Miss Hollister and the three children who were still alive were too damaged. The young teacher did regain consciousness long enough to say she realized she made a mistake when she made a run for it. But she had done what she thought was best.

In a grim twist, the little school house had barely been touched by the fire. The flames were moving so fast they swept past and left little more than soot stains on the building.

But, unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20…



October 10

Yesterday, we talked about a five-foot meteorite that landed near Carrington in 1910. But about 214 million years ago, a meteorite that landed in what is now McKenzie County was so large that it left a crater 5 miles across.

Many people confuse meteors with shooting stars. Generally, a shooting star is the size of a grain of sand. A meteor, on the other hand, is large enough to survive its fiery trip through the atmosphere to reach the earth’s surface – at which point it becomes a meteorite. Meteors of this size are often asteroids or comets or fragments from a comet’s tail.

The Red Wing Creek crater near Williston is believed by many scientists to be connected to a group of at least five massive comet fragments that bombarded the earth within hours of each other during the Triassic Period about 240 millions years ago.

The largest crater formed by these collisions – the Manicouagan in Quebec – is 62 miles across. The remaining three of the group are in Manitoba, France and the Ukraine. The craters are located very far apart from each other, but at the time of impact, the planet’s continents were still primarily one land mass, and the five locations were very close together.

When large meteors like these collide with the earth, the damage can be spectacular. Shock waves roll over the earth’s surface, through its fragile crust and into its mantel & core. Trillions of tons of debris can be sent into the atmosphere.

Dust and debris from cosmic collisions and explosions can remain in the atmosphere for months and sometimes even years. Around the year 535 AD, Earth was wrapped in a swarm of atmospheric debris that produced two years of continuous winter. It’s believed that this vast dust cloud came from either outer space or from a massive volcanic eruption somewhere on the globe.

During those two years, it snowed in the winter, drought-stricken areas had constant flooding, crops failed, and famine decimated Italy, China and the Middle East. A 6th-century Syrian bishop wrote, “The sun became dark… Each day it shone for about four hours and still this light was only a feeble shadow.” This event marked the beginning of… the Dark Ages.

When the Red Wing Creek grouping landed, the impact of comet fragments was nothing short of catastrophic. In fact, it’s believed that these collisions caused history’s 3rd largest mass extinction, affecting approximately 80% of the planet’s species and bringing the Triassic Period to a close.

Many millions of years later, a massive meteor hit Mexico, forming a crater more than 100 miles across. This one is believed to have caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Despite the fact that North Dakota’s Red Wing Crater is more than five miles across, it unfortunately has filled in over the millennia and can’t be seen from either land or air. Unlike craters formed by volcanoes that leave a rim above ground level, the Red Wing Crater, as well as another smaller on in Renville County called the Newporte, are both below ground and were accidental discoveries recently made by oil drillers.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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