The Hinckley Fire

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All through the late spring and summer of 1894 a haze of woodsmoke hung over the town of Hinckley in Pine County, Minnesota. Small fires burned unheeded in the cutover timberlands throughout the county, throughout the whole eastern part of the state. In mid-July, section gangs of the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad were out fighting fires north and south of Hinckley, and they succeeded in getting the flames under control before the right-of-way was damaged. At about the same time, a correspondent for a St. Paul newspaper observed: “The fires around here are spreading rapidly, and everything is as dry as tinder. Unless a heavy rain comes soon there may be a great loss sustained.” Later, after the horror and the dying, those words would be remembered. But at the time all that the people in Hinckley and the nearby towns had on their minds was getting through the hottest, dryest summer any of them could remember.

This curiously negligent attitude toward the danger of fire had long been instilled in the settlers of the Pine County forests. For nearly a quarter of a century they had been clearing their farmlands by burning them over—a quick, easy, hazardous method. Drifting sparks would settle here and there, starting little fires that crept through the slash—debris left by the lumber operations—throughout the summer. Every once in a while a barn would go up, but prior to 1894 nothing really terrible had ever happened in Pine County.

Hinckley was a healthy, steady town of twelve hundred inhabitants, most of whom drew their livelihood in one way or another from the Brennan Mill Company, a big operation capable of cutting two hundred thousand board feet of lumber in a day. The town had an Odd Fellows’ Hall, five hotels, eight stores, a restaurant, a town hall, three churches, eight saloons, a roundhouse, and two depots. The depots served two railroads whose tracks crossed just south of the town: the St. Paul & Duluth, and the Eastern Minnesota, which ran between Duluth and Minneapolis. This latter road had caused a good deal of annoyance to the citizens of Hinckley by digging an unsightly three-acre gravel pit right there in the town, and then refusing to fill it in. Now, in late August, the pit held about an acre of stagnant water.

At seven o’clock on the morning of Saturday, September 1, the Brennan Mill’s whistle announced the beginning of another simmering, monotonous day. The smoke was thick enough to make the oxen cough in the outlying logging camps, but the Hinckley lumbermen were accustomed to smoke. The dust was worse; it had not rained for three months, and the haggard ground threw up white, choking clouds that made moving about a misery. The saws started up, and the ten-hour workday began.

Toward noon a stiff breeze blew up. The swamps west of Hinckley had been smouldering for most of the summer, and now the wind carried a gust of sparks from them into the mill yard. The piles of lumber stacked there began to burn. J. W. Stockholm, who worked in the Brennan company store, turned out with some others and hauled barrels of water to the yard. The wind died down and the men put out the fire, but Stockholm didn’t like the look of things. He went to his home, and told his wife to “act quickly if it should come to look pretty bad, and have a few barrels of water ready .…” On his way back to the store, the wind came up again so strongly that Stockholm could scarcely keep his eyes open.

At about two o’clock John Craig, chief of the volunteer fire department, rang the gong that called the firemen to assemble at the engine house. “It looks threatening in the south and in the southwest,” Craig told his men. “I don’t think there is any danger, but it’s well to be prepared for an emergency.” Nobody thought there was much danger, even though the fires were burning again in the mill yard.

Craig’s men ran out two thousand feet of hose, and soon had a job on their hands. The fires were growing, and threatening to cross the St. Paul & Duluth tracks into the town. The wind was rising, the smoke growing thicker. Men began to show up with wagons loaded with barrels of water.

 
 

Chief Craig ran to the St. Paul & Duluth depot and had Thomas Dunn, the telegrapher there, wire nearby Rush City for more hose. Craig returned to the fire, and Dunn’s sounder started clicking. The last message he would ever receive told Dunn that Pokegama, a town nine miles to the south, was in flames.

At 2:45 P.M. Edward Barry, driving engine No. 105 of the Eastern Minnesota Railroad, pulled into Hinckley with a freight drag. He found the town deserted—everyone was out fighting the fire, which was now coming on in a great, solid wall to the east, south, and west. The town wasn’t burning, but the yards beyond the Eastern Minnesota depot were; the ties were on fire, and the rails warping. Barry ran his train onto a siding and sat waiting for the southbound passenger train, which was due in at 3:25.