- Historic Sites
The Hinckley Fire
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Root, McGowan, and the rest of the survivors huddled in the dank waters of Skunk Lake for four hours until the incandescent ground cooled, and then crept out. They sat shivering in the darkness, while near and far stumps and branches still burned fitfully. At length it was decided that three strong men would head south to seek help at Pine City, fifteen miles away.
The small party set off down the tracks, stepping over charred bodies as they went. They picked their way along until they reached Hinckley, where they saw nothing left standing save the roundhouse and water tower. Those two gaunt structures, the twisted railroad tracks, and level fields of rubble were all that remained to indicate that there had ever been a town there.
Men and women who had survived the fire in the gravel pit were prowling through the ashes. Peter Knudson, Hinckley’s Presbyterian minister, had found a few watermelons, cooked in their skins, and passed these around. His wife milked a cow that had sought refuge in the pit, and gave the milk to the children.
The party from Skunk Lake, joined by a few of the gravel pit survivors, passed on through the ravaged town and found a handcar on the outskirts. They set off on this, and a few miles later came to a work train.
Once out, the news spread rapidly. On Sunday a relief train stocked with provisions set out from St. Paul. The next morning another train started out from Pine City. Aboard it were five thousand board feet of lumber and Frank G. Webber, who would be in charge of burying the dead.
Webber had a big job. The dead were everywhere. Many corpses were found in a running position, having fallen in midstride. One girl was found on her side with her hands clasped; she had apparently been praying when the flames took her.
That first morning, Webber and his men dug a trench sixty feet long, and in it placed ninety-six bodies, all burned beyond recognition. Drinking liquor to steady their nerves, Webber’s men worked for three days, burying in all 233 corpses. Among them were the mummified remains of the 126 whom Fraser had heard die. Their clothes had been entirely burned away, and only the soles of their shoes remained.
The heat had been unbelievable. Barrels of nails had melted into one mass, and in the yards of the Eastern Minnesota, the wheels of the cars had fused with the rails.
On November 24, D. W. Cowan, the Pine County coroner, signed the official list of people who had died in Hinckley and in the nearby towns. There were 415 names on it.
And still the dead kept turning up. The fire had roared along for twenty miles, laying desolate tens of thousands of acres, and it was not until four years later, in May of 1898, that the last victim was discovered. The Hinckley fire had been a colossal disaster and, if not the most costly blaze in American history, it nonetheless had taken well over a hundred more lives than the notorious Chicago conflagration of 1871.
The town of Hinckley was rebuilt. Something of the spirit that helped rebuild it is evident in a small book about the disaster written a few months afterward by a man named Elton Brown. After more than two hundred pages of the most harrowing descriptions of the catastrophe, Brown concludes with the ingenuous note: “For particulars regarding lands and other data of interest to a person contemplating removal to the Northwest, application can be made to Mr. Wm. H. Phipps, Land Commissioner of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company .…”
Brown’s book contains dozens of eyewitness accounts of the holocaust, but none sums it up so succinctly as that of C. P. Fadden, a railroad man on the St. Paul & Duluth who saw the town burn up. When asked to describe the experience, all Fadden had to say was that he “had been in hell, and saw everything there was to be seen except Satan himself.”