Fires of 1918
95 years later
“SEARCHERS FIND 569 BODIES” and “DEATH TOLL MOUNTS HIGH” the headlines proclaimed in the Duluth News-Tribune on October 15, 1918, just three days after horrific forest fires swept through northern Minnesota. This year marks the 95th anniversary of that fateful day, Saturday, October 12.
The Hinckley Fire took place on September 1, 1894, and was nearly as devastating. Six villages were destroyed, and more than 400 square miles were burned. An estimated 418 people died.
Twenty-four years later, the conditions were similar. A dry summer had created a drought, and fires that had been burning in the piles of railroad ties alongside the railroad tracks and fires that had been set by sparks from locomotives were whipped up by strong winds from the west, creating a huge fire that raced through the area, devouring everything in its path.
The fire created its own wind. Wind speeds have been estimated from 60 to 70 miles an hour.
“It was so smoky and thick outside,” recalled Hilda Carlson Wold, who was 14 at the time. “My mother said that the roof on the woodshed, a tin roof, was blowing off.”
Hilda’s story was recorded, transcribed and published in “The Other West Side” story, written by Don Wold, her son.
Hilda, her parents, Carl and Johanna, and her brother, Walfred, were home at the time of the fire.
The fire had come in from western Carlton County. Automba, a huge lumber-production area, a town with an estimated population of 350 at the time, was the first town the fire destroyed.
The fire raced along, devouring everything flammable in its path that afternoon.
It raced to the east, scattering families and livestock from the farms that it devoured. People took refuge from the flames in root cellars and wells to protect themselves from those raging flames, while others crouched on plowed fields.
The Carlson family, who lived about three and a half miles west of Moose Lake near the Soo Line Railroad, had eaten supper shortly before the fire came roaring along the tracks towards their home around 7 in the evening. The Carlson family took refuge on a field.
“Pretty soon it was so thick with smoke that we couldn’t breathe,” said Hilda. “We lay down on the ground. I put my mouth on a stone. We could breathe when we had our mouths right along the ground.”
The Carlson family heard a train whistle.
“It whistled all the way as it passed and went east,” said Hilda.
Ray Hemingson wrote about that train in “Death by Fire.” Ollie told him that he was a brakeman on a train that was westbound out of Superior or Duluth, and apparently reached the Moose Lake area sometime mid to late afternoon. His train was ordered to proceed posthaste to rescue people to the west of Moose Lake Village.
“Proceeding west of Kettle River Village their progress was stopped by a wall of fire and the fact that a trestle on the right of way was on fire,” wrote Hemingson. “Apparently reversing their course, they backed into the Kettle River siding or spur, and proceeded to load passengers who wished to escape by train to Moose Lake or beyond.
“At this point, he mentioned an unusual situation. Most people did not want to leave their homes, quite possibly regarding them mistakenly as places of refuge.
“The short train, consisting of two coaches plus a couple of flat cars, was forced to pull out without a full load. Even then the fire raged on all sides as they traveled as fast as possible through the thick smoke and flying debris. One of the cars caught on fire, presumably the rear one, which was extinguished upon their arrival around Soo Hill. The Soo Line Depot had not burned, even though Moose Lake Village was almost completely destroyed.”
In past interviews, Clarence “Swede” Nelson, who was 5-years-old at the time, said that his father worked for the Soo Line, and had moved his family to Moose Lake just a short time before the fire. They lived in a home located next to what is now Hope Lutheran Church on Elm Avenue.
When the fire approached and the family had to leave their home, they took refuge in Moosehead Lake, along with the other people from the town and those who had come in from the county.
When the fire had passed, the family walked back up the hill from the lake and saw nothing but a chimney standing where their house had been. They took refuge in one of the work cars of the Soo Line that were on the siding by the depot until the family boarded a train to Superior a few days later.
Dr. Walters and his nurse moved the patients from his small hospital to the lake. One patient had been undergoing surgery when the approaching flames forced them to flee.
Evening came and darkness fell after the fire passed. Smoke still filled the air when people began walking, trying to find shelter. The temperature had dropped and turned cold.
Hilda was fortunate to be wearing a winter coat that she had hastily donned before going to the basement to get away from the terrible wind. She had also grabbed her mother’s wool shawl, and that had kept sparks from landing on the family as they had taken shelter after the worst of the fire had passed.
When the family got up and started moving again, they could see that all of the buildings on their farm had been burned. The house and barn were still burning.
The family found a house that had been vacant and had not burned, and they took shelter there for the night.
Later, the family walked to Hilda’s uncle’s place, Emil and Hannah Carlson, and found that family still alive. They had taken refuge in a potato field. The two families ended up living in the vacant house for the winter.
Hilda’s dad and neighbors found a gruesome sight the next day.
“Walfred and my dad decided to walk out and see how the rest of the world was,” said Hilda. “They went to the Soderberg’s place and to the cellar and looked in. There they saw bodies lying on top of the potatoes.”
Wold wrote: "John and Joseph Soderberg, along with neighbors, the Jonas Holmbergs, died in the fire along the road to Moose Lake. They had taken a horse and wagon and were trying to get to the lake in town. Also with them were the Soderberg’s sister, Emma Samuelson, and her three children. They had been home visiting her brothers. The Charley and Axel Soderbergs were discovered dead in a large stone root cellar on the original Soderberg property.”
One of the Soderberg sons was fighting in France during World War I. He came home to no family.
The home of Charles Eckman, located on Highway 27-73 three miles from town, did not burn in the fire. The house is over 100 years old at this time.
“From there they walked up to the Eckman’s house, and when they got there, the house was full of people,” said Hilda. “Some were burned, and other people were sitting and lying on the floor. They had no food left. They did find a few biscuits that they gave to Walfred to take back to us.
"Hilda’s dad walked to Moose Lake the next day and brought home a box of food that the Red Cross was distributing. Later, the family received a box of dishes from the Red Cross, containing four cups, four tin plates and some silverware. And the Red Cross provided the lumber for the men to build a barn and a house. They moved back to their farm in April."
In a story published in the Star Gazette in 1968, Agnette Staberg said that the men had been digging a trench at the Sandquist place for everyone to hide in. (Firebeast)
“The trench was dug and planks were placed in the bottom of it,” she said. “Just as the men were about to get everyone into it, the fire came upon us and were forced to flee from the Sandquist home. Everyone there piled into Mr. Sandquist’s old Ford car (it was quite a squeeze to get us all in) and drove out to the main road. If we had gone into the trench we would have surely smothered.”
Most of two other families also perished in a root cellar.
Hilma Niemi Lampi said in an interview that the seven children of Nick Koivisto, Mrs. Gabriel Berkio and her daughter, Clara, Mr. Berkio’s nephew, her mother, Ida Niemi, and children, and Walter all sought refuge in the root cellar of their home on the Niemi farm (Firebeast).
“Leaving my father near the fire scene, my brother, John, ran back to our farm. There he met Mr. and Mrs. Koivisto and, together, they tried to keep the root cellar containing those 16 people from burning. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that their work had gone for nothing because all of the people in the cellar were dead, suffocated from the gas produced by the fire.”
Hilma had been away at the time.
“It was not until three days later that I heard about the tragedy,” she said. “When I got home, smoke still hung in the air. Everything that one could have once recognized as being part of our farm had burned. It was hard to believe that 16 people had died in that root cellar.”
The wind switched in the evening, and the fire stopped just beyond Moose Lake.
The villages of Sturgeon Lake, Denham and Barnum did not burn, although the fire was facing towards them from the west.
Duluth was spared by the wind shift but the fire raged through Hermantown.
Moose Lake Mayor Richard Hart walked to Sturgeon Lake and sent a telegraph to Governor J. A. A. Burnquist asking for relief supplies and help for the fire victims.
Trains carried fire survivors, including those that had suffered burns, to the Cities and to Duluth and Superior. A railroad bridge was burning between Superior and Duluth and kept the trains from taking more people to Duluth. Both the Great Northern and Soo Line railway lines that passed through the western fire district ran into Superior (Fires of Autumn).
“Several social workers were sent from Chicago to assist and, by the end of October, Governor Burnquist was informed that of 8,375 refugees taken care of in Superior, 3,685 had left and 4,690 remained. There had been 295 cases of influenza, with two deaths, and there were 110 refugees still in the hospital, suffering from burns or injuries. The people of Superior had privately housed 735 refugees, organized their own fire relief committee, and raised a fund of $126,819.33. Burnquist sent his thanks to the State of Wisconsin.” (Fires of Autumn)
Minnesota Home Guard troops came to Barnum and Moose Lake by train Sunday morning and dispensed first aid. The National Guard shuttled burn victims and the injured to Moose Lake. A hospital was first set up in a railway car and then moved to unburned Moose Lake school. The serious cases were sent on the train to hospitals in Duluth. Soup and sandwiches were served to all of those that got to Moose Lake.
Other troops picked up the burned bodies at Dead Man’s Corner and other places west of Moose Lake and took them to the Elm Tree Hotel on Soo Hill, which had not burned.
The 1918 flu epidemic was also raging throughout the nation. Major E. L. Paulson, the National Guard’s chief medical officer, who was traveling with General Rhinow after the fire, ordered all people in the fire district to wear influenza masks. One-hundred-six deaths in the area were attributed to influenza and pneumonia.
About 453 people lost their lives the day of the fire, and another hundred in the days and weeks that followed. Other tallies showed that 250,000 acres were burned, along with 4,089 houses, 6,366 barns, 41 schools, and 4,295 farm animals. All or part of 37 towns in seven counties burned, with Carlton and St. Louis counties being the hardest hit.
The townships of Silver, Split Rock, Automba and Kalevala had the heaviest losses. About 20 died while escaping by automobile on Highway 73 at “Dead Man’s Corner,” and 59 died within a two-mile radius of the Eckman farm. (Firebeast)
Governor Burnquist came to Moose Lake and oversaw the burial of some 200 fire victims in a mass grave in Moose Lake. While Mrs. Burnquist helped with relief work in Moose Lake, the governor and his party traveled on to Cloquet and Duluth to view the devastation and to talk with the fire survivors. After what he saw, Governor Burnquist was convinced that the dimensions of the disaster required special measures by the state government. (Fires of Autumn)
The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety met in a special session on October 16 in Moose Lake, and created the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission, which was empowered to take over all responsibility for relief operations in the fire district.
The commission took over the work that had been provided by the Red Cross, the military and private groups. The commission provided food rations, which enabled people to do their own cooking, rather than be dependent on public mess halls run by the military or the Red Cross. Refugees also received the lumber, hardware and furnishings to make small shelters.
Clothing was also distributed from state funds and contributions from around the state.
The commission provided lumber for the construction of barns and outbuildings and farm implements and equipment. The surviving farm animals had to be fed; hay and feed that had been destroyed by the fire were replaced by the commission. The relief groups attempted to make a start at replacing the animals that had been lost in the fire.
In the minds of the public, the railroads were responsible. Early in 1919, suits against the railroads were launched in the Minnesota courts. The legal battle lasted until 1935.
President Theodore signed the fire sufferers’ bill on August 27, 1935. The first checks were sent out in mid-November.
“The DEBT is Paid” proclaimed area newspaper headlines. An amount of $10,837,326.12 was paid to the fire survivors. Other payments paid in 1921 brought the total up to $23,538,990.29.
“It was a great triumph for the victims of the Fires of 1918. For the first time in a forest fire disaster, a substantial proportion of the fire sufferers had been able to successfully sue in the courts for damages traceable to railroad origins. Openly defied by the Railroad Administration in the 1920s, the fire sufferers, their lawyers and the elected officials of the state had, after more than 10 years of struggle, pressed their claims victoriously in the halls of Congress.” (Fires of Autumn)