1894 Hinckley Fire
This memorial to the victims of the 1894 fire stands near “The Pit,” a portion of a gravel pit beside Eastern Railway line where about 100 found refuge from the flames in the water pooled there.
Truth is stranger than fiction,” Mark Twain observed, “but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
I’m not sure if this true story from our family is stranger than fiction, but my grandmother did not make it up. It’s locked in my memory, with its frantic wagon ride that made the difference between me writing this story and me not being here at all.
I grew up in the shadow of the DM&IR ore docks in West Duluth. Dad worked at Clyde Iron and Mom managed our house and us kids; I was the middle child in their nest of three. Of all the stories Mom and Dad told, those about traumatic events stuck most vividly in my memory, like the flu pandemic or the Cloquet Fire, both in 1918.
My grandparents on my mother’s side lived across the alley, so I was lucky to spend many hours in Grandma Clara’s kitchen. She was a favorite of mine, partly because she often treated me to biscuits so fresh from the oven they melted butter.
Her stories have stayed with me, too – like the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, which took her mother’s life.
Today, for many of us living by or visiting to Lake Superior’s Minnesota shore, Hinckley is the halfway point between here and the Twin Cities. It’s a natural break in the travel.
Hinckley was that halfway point even 120 years ago, but often for train travel. Its history ties closely to that of other northern towns and also links tightly to our own family story.
The 1894 Hinckley Fire destroyed six towns; Hinckley was the largest, with more than 1,000 residents, most of them recent arrivals from Sweden and Norway. Estimates of lives lost vary, but all exceed 400, more than the Chicago Fire of 1871.
In 1891, at age 16, Clara Hansen (my future grandmother) had immigrated to Hinckley from Fredrikstad, Norway, with her mother, Sophia, and three brothers, Ole, 14, Hans, 12, and John Norvall, 10. Her father, John Hedwin Hansen, was waiting for them. He had come in 1888. Once he found work in a Hinckley lumber mill and built a home, he could send for his family.
There was a summerlong drought in 1894. A common logging practice then was to leave branches scattered in the wake of the cutting, and thousands of acres of slash baked dry in the July and August sun. Sometimes this debris was burned intentionally, but also ignited by lightning strikes or accident, such as by sparks from a steam locomotive. That summer, volatile gases from scattered small fires were trapped by a temperature inversion, increasing the danger.
The small fires merged September 1 and exploded into a cyclonic firestorm. Flames reached 4 1/2 miles into the sky; the red glow could be seen as far away as Mason City, Iowa, more than 200 miles south.
The fire was so hot it melted kegs of nails into a solid mass. Wheels of idle boxcars fused with rails on a spur of the Eastern Railway of Minnesota, a subsidiary of James J. Hill’s Great Northern.
The Eastern operated a daily freight train round trip between Duluth and Hinckley. On that fateful Saturday, the southbound freight was slowed by poor visibility in ominous smoky air, arriving in Hinckley at 2:45 p.m. The train moved to a siding, unable to reach its turntable to reverse direction. Regardless, it couldn’t head back because Eastern’s daily passenger train No. 4 from Duluth to St. Paul was right behind it, approaching Hinckley on the same track.
The passenger train arrived at 3:25 p.m. and managed to take on water, although flames repeatedly drove fireman George Ford away from the spout. His locomotive was also unable to reach the turntable. The crews decided to hitch the two trains together – the freight train with its three boxcars to carry evacuees – and prepare to run tandem northward in reverse, with no headlight to show the condition of the track. The freight train moved from the siding to the main rails to lead the way, its engine centered in the arrangement, with the passenger engine pushing from the rear; they carried nearly 500 people, including my three great-uncles Ole, Hans and John, and 100 captive southbound passengers who had boarded in Duluth-Superior.
Clara and her mother got on a horse-drawn wagon taking people to the trains. A moment later, Sophia jumped off the wagon and ran back to their house, possibly to get a purse. The wagon driver hesitated briefly. As the flames burned closer and Sophia didn’t return, Clara tried to run back, but other passengers restrained her. The driver pinned her to the wagon’s floor with the heel of his boot. He whipped the horses and drove them northward just ahead of the flames.
Life-and-death decisions also were made at the trains. The Eastern freight train’s engineer, William Barry, whistled twice to show he was leaving. Edward Best, the passenger train’s engineer at the rear of the formation, defied the signal and applied his brakes while many others clambered aboard. When William threatened to uncouple, he was overruled by his conductor, who had seniority over both crews. But despite the many people still running alongside, attempting to get on, Edward knew that the intensifying heat could buckle the rails; he had to release the brakes. They headed north in the dark of the dense smoke.
Another grave danger lay in the shadows ahead: Would the Kettle River Bridge bear this heavy burden?
After the double train passed through Sandstone, the Kettle’s steel and timber trestle 150 feet above the river was already in flames. Ignoring the conductors’ fear that the span couldn’t support two engines and their cars, the engineers eased the throttles forward. They made it across. Minutes later, when the trains had steamed ahead less than 2,000 feet, the bridge’s wooden legs collapsed into the deep gorge. Across the river behind them, the fire soon consumed the town of Sandstone.
Two other trains arrived in Hinckley to join in the evacuation. One was southbound on the St. Paul & Duluth line. Its engineer, Jim Root, backed northward away from the inferno, carrying about 150 fleeing the fire and his excursion passengers the 5 miles to Skunk Lake, where they took refuge in the slimy shallows. Grandma Clara and the wagonload of evacuees were among them.
On September 7, 1894, one week after the fire, the Duluth News-Tribune published this item: “The mother of John, Hans and Ole Hansen, boys 13, 15 and 17 years old, has not been heard of. The father has been reported alive, but no one here has seen him yet.”
The newspaper ran lists telling where refugees were located, helping many families to be reunited, among them the Hansens except for Sophia. Clara’s father, John, had escaped the fire by fleeing to the Grindstone River where he spent the night scooping hatfuls of water over his head. I don’t recall learning how the boys, Clara and their father (my great grandfather) eventually found each other.
We do know a little about what happened after the tragedy. My great grandfather found work as a planer in a sawmill in Rutledge, about 55 miles southwest of Duluth, for a few years, but then moved to Duluth and became a storekeeper. His daughter Clara married and had two daughters, my mom, Myrtle Sophie, born in 1898, and Julia Helene, born in 1900. His son, Ole, joined the Duluth Fire Department, retiring as its chief mechanic. Son Hans served in the Spanish American War (1898) at age 19 and young John became a lumberjack, got into a fight at age 35 and was found beaten and drowned in the Grand Marais harbor – an ending that seems even more brutal after having escaped the fire.
It’s up to you to decide if Mr. Twain’s thoughts about truth and fiction apply to our story. For me, the truth about how our family may never have come to be is stranger than fiction.
The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 burned 480 square miles in four hours, claiming more than 400 lives.
The Cloquet/Moose Lake Fires of 1918 burned 1,500 square miles in two days, killing 453 people and destroying 35 towns.
The Pagami Creek Fire in 2011 burned 145 square miles in about two months.
Good to Know
Hinckley Fire Museum
St. Paul & Duluth Depot
Open May 1 through mid-October
Moose Lake Area Historical Society’s History Center
The Depot, Moose Lake
Open to October 31
An exhibit on the 1918 fire
Donn Larson, on this magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board, is a frequent contributor.