By Mary Dodge Allen
On the afternoon of Saturday, September 1, 1894, a massive firestorm destroyed the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, along with five smaller communities nearby. This devastating fire took the lives of well over 400 people, causing 100 more deaths than the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Years of timber harvesting had left behind large areas of stumps and tree debris – acres of tinder for fires. The summer of 1894 had been extraordinarily hot, and barely two inches of rain had fallen between May and September. With so little rainfall that summer, the fire risk increased as these areas grew dryer and dryer. Lumber companies regularly set small fires in an attempt to clear the dry tree debris, and sparks from trains set fire to debris piled near the tracks. Throughout the summer, these numerous small fires filled the air with a smoky haze. On that fateful day of September 1, the heat level rose to the mid-90’s, and a temperature inversion covered the area, trapping the layer of hot, smoky air below the cooler air above.
Hinckley’s largest employer, Brennan Lumber Company, covered a 36-acre area, filled with huge piles of sawdust and stacks of cut lumber. Shortly after noon, one of the stacks of lumber caught fire, ignited by wind-driven sparks from fires burning south of Hinckley. The wind briefly died down, and workmen were able to extinguish the small lumber fire. But employee J. W. Stockholm didn’t like the look of things. Smoke from the fires south of town seemed to be growing thicker.
Hinckley Volunteer Fire Department (Mnopedia.org)
At 2:00 p.m., John Craig, chief of Hinckley’s volunteer fire department rang the gong, summoning all the firemen to the fire house. The fires south of town were growing larger, and the wind had increased, igniting new fires at the lumber yard. As the volunteers began fighting the fires, Chief Craig ran to the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Depot and asked Thomas Dunn, the telegrapher, to wire nearby Rush City for more fire hose.
Burning embers swirled in the hot, smoky air as William Best pulled into Hinckley. He saw the southbound fire danger, and quickly realized he needed to back up his train to save his passengers. To harness more power, Best ordered Barry to hook his engine to the rear of the passenger train, (which would actually be in front, as it backed up).
The fierce wind continued feeding the fires south of Hinckley until they joined together, becoming a massive wall of flames. Chief Craig halted the futile firefighting efforts and rode through town on horseback, 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!” The gravel pit was a town eyesore that had been dug by the Eastern Minnesota Railroad. It held about an acre of shallow muddy water, and well over 100 Hinckley residents sought refuge in it.
As soon as Barry hooked his engine onto Best’s passenger train, the firestorm swept into Hinckley. Dense smoke obscured the sunlight. Buildings lit up in the darkness as they exploded into flames. Wind-driven smoke darkened the sky in Duluth, more than 70 miles away. The howling roar of swirling flames mixed with the shouts and cries of townspeople as they rushed toward the train. Crewmembers helped them climb aboard.
Edward Barry gave the whistle signal to pull out. But William Best, who was inside his engine at the other end of the train, controlled the air brakes and held the train back for an additional few minutes, as people scrambled on board. Paint was melting off the train and the wooden ties were ablaze when Best finally released the brakes. As the train began backing up, Brennan Lumber Company employee J. W. Stockholm and his family jumped aboard.
The train backed up for miles, through dense smoke, flames and heat. The air cleared a bit as it entered the undamaged town of Sandstone. The crew urged people to come aboard, but nobody did, even though flames were visible outside town. Less than an hour later, Sandstone was gone.
Just beyond Sandstone, the railroad bridge that stood nearly 100 feet over the Kettle River was on fire from one bank to the other. Best was amazed when he saw the two bridge watchmen, Jesmer and Damuth had remained on duty. Jesmer shouted, “You can cross it now, and it will go down in five minutes!” The train crossed the bridge just before it collapsed into the river. After crossing several other burning bridges, the train made it safely into Superior, Wisconsin. Engineers Best and Barry were blinded from the smoke and heat. They didn’t regain their sight until the next day.
The firestorm approached quickly. Roaring flames were visible through the windows as the glass began cracking and melting. The train’s porter, John Blair walked up and down the hot, smoky aisles, calmly reassuring passengers as he passed out wet towels. Inside the engine cab, a window had burst, showering Root with glass. He was dazed, bleeding and his hands were badly burned, but Root remained at the controls until his backing train reached Skunk Lake.
Root knew he couldn’t outrun the fire, so he stopped on a bridge above the lake and ordered the crew to help the passengers into the water. Meanwhile, Root - a dedicated engineer - saved the train engine by unhooking it and moving it forward, away from the flaming coal car. Then he joined the rest of the people submerged in the muddy water, as flames swirled around them. Everyone stayed in Skunk Lake for hours, until the superheated ground finally cooled.
The Great Hinckley Fire burned an area of over 350 square miles. It took the lives of 418 people, although some believe the death count was much higher. The last fire victim was discovered nearly four years later, in May 1898. The Hinckley Fire Museum contains personal stories and displays about the tragedy.
Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of the 2022 Christian Indie Award from the Christian Indie Publisher's Association, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards from the Florida Writer's Association. She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers.Website: www.marydodgeallen.com
Mary's recent novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Awards, First Place - Mystery/Suspense.