- Historic Sites
The Hinckley Fire
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
As the train approached Hinckley the smoke lifted and the day brightened, but Frank Daugherty, who was traveling with his ten-year-old son Otto, was not reassured. “This lit up the atmosphere in a very peculiar way—into a sort of dull, glowing, yellowish twilight, which had a brilliant but at the same time unnatural effect on the things within the range of vision.”
Root had pressed on diligently through “total darkness about forty miles” when he saw that lurid, beautiful light. In its glare he saw the desperate people running up the tracks.
He stopped the engine, climbed out and asked the first people who reached him—an old woman and her two daughters-what was going on. He could get nothing out of them but, “For God’s sake, will you save us?”
He told them to get aboard the train ,and then saw somebody he knew. It was Mr. Bartlett, who had run the railroad’s eating house in Hinckley. “Everything is burned up!” screamed Bartlett.
Root waited while men with their eyebrows burned away threw their wives and children into the train. Earlier he had thought to make a run through the fire, but now he realized that this was bigger than anything he’d ever seen, and all he could do was back away from it. The flames were advancing around the train in great leaps; the treetops swayed in the gale and, swaying, tossed huge balls of fire through the forest to the tops of other trees.
Root had just started to back the train when something exploded nearby, and a shard of glass from the cab window sliced into his neck. At about the same time, he heard people yelling in the forest and looked to see three men making for the train. He stopped, and then realized that during the wait the fire might burn through the air hoses, thereby setting the brakes. So he started up again. Two of the men jumped onto the engine, the other fell behind. Root backed his train, the cut in his neck spraying blood on his overalls.
Back in the cars, Prank Daugherty felt himself fortunate; he had his son to care for, and hence was not frightened for his own life. The little boy was saying, “Have we got to die papa, have we got to die?”
Daugherty had just succeeded in convincing his son that everything was fine, when “a great big fellow, evidently a religious fanatic, with eyes bulging out of his head went through the car shouting, ‘We are all going to heaven together.’”
The cars were burning and the window glass melting. John Blair, a sturdy black porter, passed up and down the aisles between the seats, reassuring everybody, talking calmly, and giving wet towels to women whose hair had caught fire. The towels were being handed out from the lavatory in the chair car. William Blades, a Duluth businessman, was soaking the towels when a panicked passenger caromed into him. “What chances do you think we have of getting out of this?” the man wanted to know.
“About one in twenty thousand,” said Blades, and passed back another towel. There was nothing but yellow flame outside the coach windows.
Up in the cab, Root fainted and, falling on the controls, nearly shut off the steam. When he came to, the train was crawling up a slight grade with a scant ninety-five pounds of pressure showing on the gauge. Jack McGowan, the fireman, spilled some water on Root. “My God! Give me some more of that,” said the engineer, who, revived, called for a bucket of water to dip his hands in. They were badly burned, and he didn’t want to rub them together for fear the flesh would come off.
Dazed though he was, Root had long since given up any idea of outrunning the fire. He was making for Skunk Lake, a marsh with a small pond of scummy water. At last the engine rolled out onto the bridge above the marsh. Root stopped the train, and collapsed on the floor of the cab. McGowan tried to help him, but the engineer protested: “Leave me and go help the passengers into the water.”
The fireman took a pail, and went out to join the conductor, who was dousing the burning steps so that people could get off.
The passengers tumbled into the lake while the fire boomed through the sky above them. When McGowan saw everyone was safe, he ran back and helped Root down into the water.
Root was a railroad man, and he had one job left to do. He had saved his passengers and his crew, but there was his train on the low bridge, the coaches all burning, and the engine threatened.
“You can’t live on the engine for the coal is all on fire,” McGowan told him when he heard what Root had in mind. But nonetheless McGowan went along when Root climbed back on the bridge, unhooked the locomotive from the burning tender, and drove it a little bit forward, away from the consuming blaze.