- Historic Sites
The Hinckley Fire
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Just beyond the town a bridge stood 150 feet above the Kettle River. As Barry approached it, he saw that it was afire from one bank to the other. That seemed to be the end of the Eastern Minnesota emergency train. But, incredibly, M. W. W. Jesmer and W. W. Damuth, the bridge watchmen, had stayed by their post. “For God’s sake, go on!” Jesmer screamed to Barry through a storm of falling sparks. “You can cross it now and it will go down in five minutes.” Barry ran the train across the trestle. He was no more than two thousand feet clear of it when the east end collapsed into the river.
Damuth, dazed, wandered toward the bridge and was killed. But Jesmer, his clothes on fire, climbed down into the river, where his wife and four children were waiting for him. Neighbors helped Jesmer keep his family above water. As he struggled against the current, Jesmer heard something howling. At first he thought it was Damuth, but as the flames died down he saw that it was his dog, stranded on the charred remnants of the bridge. For a day afterward the bridge was too hot to approach, but on Monday morning a railroad bridge builder scrambled up the supports with a rope and lowered the battered dog down to its master. The dog survived.
The train rattled on and at last reached Superior and safety. It had crossed nineteen bridges on the way, most of them burning. Both Best and Barry were blind when they got there, and did not regain their sight until the next morning. The two engineers and their crews had saved some five hundred lives.
Those were not the only lives the Eastern Minnesota saved that day, though the others were saved inadvertently.
When the blistering wind had risen to a point where it threw the water back in the firemen’s faces, Chief Craig called a halt to the effort. He mounted his horse and rode through Hinckley shouting: “We can’t save the town; it’s burning at the south end; run to the gravel pit; don’t lose a moment, but fly!”
More than a hundred people plunged into the fetid water of the railroad’s eyesore, and all of them survived. Some cool citizens stood and directed them there. Bull Henly, the Hinckley section man, posted himself in the road near the gravel pit and forced fleeing townspeople into it. Father Lawler, a Roman Catholic priest who had made himself popular in the community by “minding his own business” and faithfully serving the volunteer fire department, called for people to go to the pit.
One panicked man called to the priest, “To hell with advice of that sort.” He ran up the old post road toward Sandstone. It seemed a logical choice. The road led north, and the flames were lowest in that direction. Scores of people ran up that road, and 126 of them were caught in the swamp by a wave of fire. They died quickly. “When that wave struck them one wail of anguish went up from the whole people as one man, and in less than a minute after everything was still except for the roar of the wind and the crackling of the flames.”
The man who heard that final cry was named Alien Fraser. He had been fleeing with his wife and two of his children up the fatal post road when his wagon took fire. He turned the team loose, pulled his family to the ground, and waited to die. Then he heard a noise, and looked up to see another wagon, driverless, coming through the smoke. He stopped the horses, saw that the wagon held four barrels of water, and lifted his family into them. The terrible wave of fire passed over. The horses died in their traces; the Fräsers were unhurt.
Another crowd of panicked people was fleeing up the tracks of the St. Paul & Duluth. There were about two hundred of them, and they ran as fast as they could. The ties were burning under their feet, and every few yards a gout of flame would sp’fcrt from the woods and take one or two down. At last some thirty were dead on the tracks behind; the rest stumbled along as best they could. It seemed a hopeless race, until those in the front of the mob saw a headlight swinging toward them through the darkness.
Jim Root knew more about railroading than most people. He had been fourteen years old when he signed on with the Hudson River Railroad in 1857. He had driven General Sherman’s wood-burning locomotives toward the sea during the Civil War and ran the first load of prisoners out of Andersonville. After the war he drifted west to visit an uncle in Minnesota, took a liking to the vicinity, and became an engineer on the St. Paul & Duluth.
By the time he took the No. 4 Limited out of Duluth that awful Saturday, he’d been through twenty-four years of Minnesota railroading, and he wasn’t much scared by smoke. “We have had to run through smoke time and time again every year,” he said. “There have always been more or less forest fires in Minnesota.”
Still, the run started out somewhat differently from most. The smoke was thick even in the Duluth depot, and not long after the train started south a porter had to pass through the cars lighting the overhead lamps.