Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Fire! Fire!


October 11, 2018

Photo provided

That was the cry of the people as the flames swept in from the west, hurled by a 60-mile-an-hour wind, that afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1918.

Mothers were making supper, and fathers were out fighting the fire or getting the cattle ready for the evening milking. The home guard unit had a dance scheduled for the pavilion that night, and a good share of Moose Lake's population were planning to attend.

Around noon, it was reported that Kettle River was in danger of fire, and nearly every man in Moose Lake drove to the scene and attempted to halt the flames, it was stated in an editorial in the Star Gazette on Oct. 11, 1928, 10 years later. "The wind gradually increased in volume until the flames were beyond control. The men hurried to their homes with the idea of protecting their own properties, if it became necessary."

All of a sudden, the billowing smoke and flames were upon them and they had to flee for their lives. They had to find a place where they and their families would be safe from the consuming flames.

Those who lived near the river or a lake, went to the water. Many survived in the cold water that dark night.

Others found protection from the flames on a plowed field, having wrapped themselves and their children in wet wool blankets.

Others found shelter in root cellars, a cave dug into the side of a hill for storage of vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, rutabagas or beets, and jars of canned fruit.

Others had no place to go but into a dug well.

The conditions that day set up the perfect storm for the fire.

Fire was not unusual, people would burn brush piles. Logging was a big industry, and piles of leftover tree limbs in the forests provided fuel for the fire. Peat fires were burning that dry year and were impossible to put out.

The locomotives of the day threw sparks from the smokestacks of the coal-fired steam engines. Those sparks ignited fires in the dry grass all along the tracks of the rail lines.

The land had been experiencing a drought that year. That day, the humidity dropped and the winds came up. The fires that had been burning joined in one giant conflagration and swept to the east, that afternoon until 6 or 7 p.m., when the wind switched and came from the northeast.

It wasn't just the Lawler- Automba - Kettle River - Moose Lake area that fell victim to the flames, the fires swept across much of northern Minnesota and as far south as Willow River. However, Willow River, Sturgeon Lake, Denham and Barnum did not burn.

To the north, the fire swept in from Brookston to consume much of Cloquet. Flames approached Duluth through Hermantown and started down the hill.

People were running for their lives all across the land.

The giant clouds of billowing smoke could be seen for miles. People in Superior, Wisconsin, reported seeing the huge black clouds and feared for the lives of loved ones.

Meanwhile, men were trying to fight the fire. Seeing no results of their efforts, they fled to their homes to take care of their livestock and families.

At the Soo Line depot in Moose Lake, an engineer and crew backed a train along the tracks towards Automba to pick up as many people as they could. They reached Kettle River but the bridge over the river was burning.

They stopped and picked up many people but had to flee when the fire started to burn the cars on the train.

The train made it back to Moose Lake, and the people ran for the lake. The cars on the train burned. The depot and that part of the village did not burn. The depot still stands today, a living reminder of the history of the Soo Line in the area and its role in providing shelter during that horrible night.

In Moose Lake, many people went to the lake and stood in the cold water all night for protection from the flames.

Dr. Walters was performing surgery on a patient in his hospital. They tried to take her to Sturgeon Lake but could not get through on the bridge over the Moose Horn River. They took her to the lake on a stretcher and two men held her above the water through the night.

The next day, families walked up the hill to the Soo Line depot and took a train to Superior. Others went to Carlton and Duluth on the Northern Pacific train.

Thousands of survivors of the fire came to Superior in the middle of the night and the next day. The community organized relief efforts quickly and found shelter in community buildings and in private homes for the traumatized refugees.

The Moose Lake School was saved from burning when two men put out the fire on the burning steps. That school became a hospital, as did a home west of Moose Lake and a church near Kalevala.

Most of the homes, barns and communities burned. It has been reported that 200 people lost their lives to fire west of Moose Lake alone out of the official 453 fire victims.

Mayor Richard T. Hart could not drive his car to Sturgeon Lake because the road was blocked at the bridge over the Moose Horn River.

He walked to Sturgeon Lake and sent a telegram to Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist in St. Paul to call for aid for the area that had been destroyed by the devastating forest fire.

That fire and loss of life still holds the distinction of being the worst disaster in Minnesota history.


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