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Cloquet, Duluth, and Moose Lake Fires, 1918

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Black and white photograph of people and ruins after the fire, 1918.

People and ruins after the fire, 1918.

The worst natural disaster in Minnesota history—over 450 dead, fifteen hundred square miles consumed, towns and villages burned flat—unfolded at a frightening pace, lasting less than fifteen hours from beginning to end. The fire began around midday on Saturday, October 12, 1918. By 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, all was over but the smoldering, the suffering, and the recovery.

What is often called simply the Cloquet Fire was really a host of fires, fifty or more, that combined in a single event. It had two major theaters, one called the Cloquet–Duluth Fire and the other the Moose Lake Fire.

Conditions for both had been building for months. Lumbering, the region’s main industry, created giant depots of cut, dry lumber and left the countryside littered with wood waste. Farmers routinely burned fields and brush. Locomotives, contrary to law, spewed sparks and embers. The summer and fall of 1918 had been extremely dry.

The Cloquet–Duluth Fire began before noon on October 10 when a Great Northern locomotive set a small fire at Milepost 62 northwest of Cloquet. It smoldered for two days, then came alive when a cold front brought stiff winds and a steep drop in humidity. At about 1:30 p.m. this fire began to move and join with others.

It moved on two axes: east toward Duluth and southeast toward Cloquet. Around 2:00 p.m. the Cloquet-bound fire destroyed the village of Brookston. Moving slowly at first, it reached the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation around 7:15 and the city of Cloquet around 8:00.

Winds had by then risen to sixty miles per hour. Later, survivors described phenomena of terror: walls of flame hundreds of feet tall, houses exploding from heat, bolts of flaming wood propelled through the air, the sun turned red, and a roar louder than thunder.

The people of Cloquet got just enough warning. Factory whistles blew, the fire department sent runners, telephone operators called every number, and the mayor organized four evacuation trains. The city, full of frame houses and tons of dry lumber at three sawmills, burned almost flat. But only five people died there; over seven thousand got out by train.

The Duluth-bound fire crept west from Milepost 62, joined with another fire around 2:00 p.m., and then began to dash. Winds rose to hurricane force, pushing forward the fire’s front, ten miles wide, at up to twenty miles per hour. The world’s fastest sprinter, given a one-hundred-yard head start, would have been in flames within thirty seconds. For people caught in the inferno’s path, survival often depended on luck.

The fire reached the northeastern corner of Duluth around 7:00 p.m. It burned a country club and train depot but never descended into the main part of the city. Winds began to fall around 9:00 p.m. By 3:00 a.m. the fire had reached its limit at Lake Superior; around eight hundred square miles had been charred.

The Moose Lake fire—at least five fires combined—had begun October 4 along railroad tracks near Tamarack in Aitkin County, then lain low until the winds and humidity drop of October 12 whipped it into motion at about 1:00 p.m. that day. It drove southeast toward the towns of Kettle River and Moose Lake, combining with other fires along the way. Twenty-five people in the village of Automba were killed when the flames raced through, destroying it completely.

The fire reached Kettle River around 6:45. Seventy-five to one hundred people, some of them fleeing by car, were killed by fire and an accident at a sharp highway turn south of town called Dead Man’s Curve. People could not outrun the racing flames. They saved themselves in streams, ditches, and open fields, or died, many in root cellars by suffocation.

As the blaze neared Moose Lake around 7:30, relief trains rescued a few hundred. Most who survived, however, did so by taking refuge in Moose Head Lake. Some simply drove their cars in and waited. By 10:00 p.m. the fire had passed. The Moose Lake Fire consumed over four hundred square miles and caused more than half of that day’s deaths. Other fires added to the destruction and tally of victims.

A statewide relief effort, assisted in part by the Minnesota Home Guard, began October 13. Rebuilding followed soon thereafter.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Carroll, Francis M., and Franklin R. Raiter. The Fires of Autumn, the Cloquet-Moose Lake Disaster of 1918. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1990.

Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission. Final Report of Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission. Duluth, MN: N.p., 1921.

Richardson, H.W. “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918.” Geographical Review 7 no. 4 (April 1919): 220–232.

Skalko, Christine, and Marlene Wisuri. Fire Storm: The Great Fires of 1918. Cloquet, MN: Carlton County Historical Society 2003.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of people and ruins after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of people and ruins after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of building ruins, Cloquet, 1918.
Black and white photograph of building ruins, Cloquet, 1918.
Black and white photograph of scene in Cloquet after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of scene in Cloquet after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of ruins of Masonic Temple, Cloquet, 1918.
Black and white photograph of ruins of Masonic Temple, Cloquet, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Duluth & Northeastern Railroad yards after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Duluth & Northeastern Railroad yards after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of street view after fire, Moose Lake, 1918.
Black and white photograph of street view after fire, Moose Lake, 1918.
Black and white photograph of automobiles in Moose Lake after fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of automobiles in Moose Lake after fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of mass grave at Moose Lake after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of mass grave at Moose Lake after the fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of the ruins of a car after fire, Kettle River Road, 1918.
Black and white photograph of the ruins of a car after fire, Kettle River Road, 1918.
Black and white photograph of wrecked cars along Pike Lake Road near Duluth, 1918.
Black and white photograph of wrecked cars along Pike Lake Road near Duluth, 1918.
Black and white photograph of the National Guard giving out clothing to refugees, 1918.
Black and white photograph of the National Guard giving out clothing to refugees, 1918.
Black and white photograph of a view of Cloquet after fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of a view of Cloquet after fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of refugees and relief workers after the Moose Lake fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of refugees and relief workers after the Moose Lake fire, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Home Guard camp providing assistance after the fires, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Home Guard camp providing assistance after the fires, 1918.
Black and white photograph of the Minnesota Home Guard digging graves after the fires, 1918. Minnesota Governor J.A.A. Burnquist looks on (hatless, at center back).
Black and white photograph of the Minnesota Home Guard digging graves after the fires, 1918. Minnesota Governor J.A.A. Burnquist looks on (hatless, at center back).

Turning Point

On October 12, 1918, high winds from the west and a sudden drop in humidity turn scattered, small, and harmless fires into a fire storm.

Chronology

1916

Two years of unusually dry weather in the Arrowhead begin, preparing conditions for a major fire.

1918

On October 4, sparks from a train ignite a small but persistent fire near Tamarack in Aitkin County, northwest of the Kettle River. This becomes the main source of the Moose Lake Fire.

1918

On October 10, sparks from a train ignite another small but persistent fire—this one at Milepost 62 near Brookston, four miles northwest of Cloquet. This will become the main source of the Cloquet–Duluth Fire.

1918

On October 12, a cool front enters Minnesota from the northwest, bringing high winds and a sudden drop in humidity—the two remaining elements needed for a major fire. At about 1:30 p.m. both the Cloquet–Duluth and Moose Lake fires begin to move.

October 12, 3:30 p.m.

The first known death occurs when Laura Miettunen is thrown from a fleeing car near Brookston. Her body is never found.

October 12, 4:00 p.m.

Winds exceed seventy-five miles per hour. Soon, the Duluth sky is so dark from smoke that street lights are turned on.

October 12, 6:15 p.m.

The fire reaches Kettle River. Seventy-five to one hundred people are killed at a highway turn called Dead Man’s Curve south of the town.

October 12, 7:00 p.m.

Fire reaches Duluth.

October 12, 7:30 p.m.

Fire reaches Moose Lake.

October 12, 8:00 p.m.

Fire reaches Cloquet.

October 12, 10:00 p.m.

Flames chase the last relief train out of Cloquet.

October 13, 3:00 a.m.

The fires have subsided. Later in the day, a statewide relief effort begins that grows to include the Minnesota Home Guard, National Guard, Motor Corps, Red Cross, and other groups.

October 16, 1918

The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety meets at Moose Lake and creates the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission to oversee relief work.

October 19, 1918

Heavy rains douse what little remains of the fires.

1935

The last of the litigation arising from the fires is resolved by large payments from the railroads, authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt on August 27.