August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”