- Historic Sites
The Hinckley Fire
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
To Barry’s immense relief, it was running on time. Edward Best, the engineer on the passenger train, took his locomotive down to the water tank. The wind was blowing a full gale now, and burning embers showered George Ford, Best’s fireman, as he struggled to take on water. The heat was terrific, and Ford was three times driven from the spout; but he knew that if the engine ran out of steam, crew and passengers would most likely die. At last the job was done, and Best spoke with H. D. Powers, his conductor. “What do you think of putting the freight engine behind us?” Powers asked. Best thought it a very good idea.
Powers was senior to the conductor on Barry’s train, and so took command. He had Barry couple his locomotive to the rear of the train—the front, actually, since they would be backing up once they were under way-and got three empty boxcars hooked up.
Then the town of Hinckley virtually exploded. The very air seemed to be burning, and the roaring of the fire storm drowned out the screams of the townspeople. Dense smoke completely hid the sun, but as buildings took fire they briefly lit the howling darkness like flashes of lightning.
People began running for the train, and the crews helped them aboard. Best, at the front of the train, controlled the air brakes, which was fortunate, since Barry didn’t want to wait. Barry gave two sharp tugs on the whistle cord—the signal to pull out—and began to back the train away from the depot. Before he got more than a few yards, however, Best jumped up into the cab of his own locomotive and put on the brakes. According to Best’s fireman, Barry’s conductor then came running over and shouted, “Barry will cut off his engine and pull out!”
“I guess not!” yelled Best.
It did, in fact, seem time to leave. The paint was melting and running off the cars, and the ties beneath them were afire. “It was at this juncture,” said Best, “that excited men pushed women and children from the coaches in their mad haste to get in themselves.”
Still, Best kept the brakes on. “I was constantly implored to go, but there was still time, and many lives to be saved by the waiting.”
Up ahead, Barry’s whistle kept screaming to start, and frame buildings half a block away were detonating like bundles of fireworks. Men, women, children, and animals fell burning in the street just yards away from the train. Finally, Best pulled the whistle cord and released the air brakes. The train backed out of the blazing town. It was already moving when J. W. Stockholm and his family scrambled into a boxcar.
Among those who were not aboard was Thomas Dunn, the St. Paul & Duluth telegrapher. The depot was burning above his head, and friends had begged him to save himself. But he was waiting for orders; the No. 4 Limited was due on his line. So Thomas Dunn stuck by his key while life, in the form of five scorched coaches and three boxcars, drew away from him.
In his cab, Best turned for a last look at Hinckley and saw houses “burning so rapidly that one could see bedroom sets and other contents of the rooms. The fire would seem to burn the sides right off the buildings, revealing the contents in the glare. Buildings seemed to melt rather than burn in the fierce glow.”
Barry’s tender had no backing light—not that one would have helped much-and so brakemen O. L. Beach and Peter McLaughlin climbed up on the car and, soaking each other with water, kept watch as the train backed up. It was a terrible job; burning embers kept swirling toward them through the scalding murk, and the forests were blazing all around. Just after crossing the bridge over the Grindstone River, a small, nearly dry creek north of Hinckley, Barry saw people running toward the train. He whistled twice as a signal to Best, and stopped. Some forty more refugees were pulled aboard. There were more coming, but the rails began to buckle with the heat, and there was no time to wait.
“Trees were thrown down,” said Best, “and terror and death stalked through the forest and clearings. Our train seemed like a sentient thing, but how insignificant in that tempest of wind and flame.”
But seven miles outside of Hinckley the air freshened a little, and two miles later the train entered the undamaged town of Sandstone.
Crew and passengers called to the people there to come aboard and save themselves. But despite the tall flames right outside town, and the obvious fate of Hinckley, not a single Sandstone citizen chose to leave. The train moved on, and an hour later Sandstone was gone and forty-five of its people dead.