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Great Hinckley Fire, 1894

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View of the Hinckley main street the morning after the fire, 1894.

View of the Hinckley main street the morning after the fire, 1894.

On September 3, 1894, the headline of the Minneapolis Tribune screamed, “A Cyclone of Wind and Fire: Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin Bathed in a Sea of Flame and Hundreds of Human Lives are Sacrificed to the Insatiable Greed of the Red Demon as He Stalks through the Pine Forest on His Mission of Death.” In just four hours on September 1, the red demon destroyed an estimated 480 square miles, resulting in massive destruction and over 418 deaths. The fire zone lay within Pine County, which was named for its majestic white pine forests.

In 1894, Hinckley was a booming lumber town that lay halfway between St. Paul and Duluth. With a population of about 1500 during the logging season, it had many shops and homes, an opera house, and a new brick school. The Eastern Minnesota and St. Paul and Duluth railroads ran through Hinckley. Although it was named the Hinckley fire, the fire zone extended from Quamba, Brook Park (Pokegama) and Mission Creek to the south of Hinckley and north to Sandstone, Groningen (Miller), Askov (Partridge), and Finlayson.

A fire survivor described Hinckley as occupying “a hole cut in the brush lands and for miles in all directions young trees, huge stumps, and fallen logs covered the land.” This was the “slash” that remained after the land was logged; it was an excellent fire fuel in the dry, hot summer. Fires, often caused by sparks from passing trains, burned in the area all summer long, and residents complained about sore eyes due to the constant smoky air. Until September 1, the fires had been suppressed.

The Hinckley fire began as two separate fires—one south of Mission Creek and the other south of Brook Park. No lives were lost in Mission Creek, but all buildings burned except a log cabin. Seventy-three people survived by taking refuge in a potato field while enduring ash and intense heat. Twenty-three people in Brook Park died when the fire roared through at 2 p.m. The entire town was lost, including the new schoolhouse. Survivors said that the fire made a rumbling sound as it reached the town with its superheated air and wind-driven fire balls.

The fires merged together south of Hinckley, and witnesses described it as a tornado of fire or firestorm. The volunteer fire department deployed its new steam fire engine but abandoned the fight when the fire overcame them and burned through the hose. Some residents had left town on the noon train; many others started packing their belongings to escape either by the afternoon trains or by wagon. By 3:30 p.m., people began a desperate run to save their lives. One hundred people reached the shallow water of a gravel pit and survived by submerging themselves while enduring intense heat and fire. Another hundred died of suffocation in a swamp. Many suffocated while taking refuge in root cellars and wells or died when the fire overcame them.

Eighty Sandstone citizens died in the fire, and many survivors took refuge in the cold Kettle River. At least twenty-three Ojibwe people died in their hunting camp on the eastern shore of Mille Lacs. The fire had melted their rifles and shotguns.

At about 4:00 p.m., evacuation by train began. The Eastern Minnesota train left Hinckley with about four hundred fire refugees added to its existing passengers. Witnesses reported people on fire running after it as it left. Near Sandstone, the train crossed the burning bridge over the Kettle River just minutes before it collapsed. The St. Paul and Duluth Railway train left Hinckley with over 300 refugees. Hit by an explosion, the train caught on fire but managed to reach Skunk Lake where the people took refuge in the water. The trains’ engineers (James Root, William Best, and Edward Barry) and crews were honored as heroes.

Many survivors had severe burns, and some died of their injuries. Many had eyes swollen shut and were unable to see. Heavy wool clothing saved one young woman, since it did not burn as easily as cotton.

Many communities provided immediate relief and shelter for the survivors, including Pine City, Mora, Duluth, and Superior. On September 3, a state fire relief commission was appointed to manage the recovery. Contributions were received from around the world, including 500 pairs of shoes from the Montgomery Ward Company.

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“A Cyclone of Wind and Fire!” Minneapolis Tribune, September 3, 1894.

P2698, Box 2
Betty Moore and family papers, 1848–1973 (bulk 1920–1950s)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/01196.xml

Bly, Nellie. “Path of the Big Fire: Nellie Bly Explores the Blackened Waste that Marks its Course.” The World, September 8, 1894.

Brown, Daniel James. Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016.

“The Burnt District.” St. Cloud Daily Times, September 17, 1894.

City of Hinckley. History.
https://hinckley.govoffice2.com

P1193-2
“Death at My Heels” (unpublished typescript by May Gorman Newman, 1953)
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: A reminiscent account of the experiences of a sixteen-year-old Hinckley, Minnesota, girl in the 1894 Hinckley fire. Newman describes the first alarm to the city, attempts to flee by train, and the arrival of survivors in Duluth.

First Annual Report of the Chief Fire Warden of Minnesota for the Year 1895. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Company, 1896.
https://books.google.com/books?id=-B4WAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=First+Annual+Report+of+the+Chief+Fire+Warden+of+Minnesota+for+the+Year+1895

Foster, Earl J., and Amy Troolin. Images of America: Northern Pine County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.

Haines, Donald A., and Rodney W. Sando. Climatic Conditions Preceding Historically Great Fires in the North Central Region. Research Paper NC-34. St. Paul: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station, 1969.
https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/555

Hinckley Fire Museum.
http://hinckleyfiremuseum.com

Hinckley Fire Museum display, Hinckley, Minnesota, July 2019.

P1788
John W. Blair papers, 1867-1915
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers collected by an African American St. Paul and Duluth Railway Company porter, mostly concerning his heroic rescue of train passengers and townspeople during the 1894 forest fire in Hinckley, Minnesota.

“May Reach 500.” Duluth News Tribune, September 5, 1894.

Minnesota Legislature, Office of the Revisor of Statutes, Minnesota Session Laws—1895, Regular Session. Chapter 196, An Act to Provide for the Preservation of Forests of this State and for the Preservation and Suppression of Forest and Prairie Fires.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/1895/0/General+Laws/Chapter/196/pdf

115.K.16.1B
Minnesota State Commission for the Relief of Fire Sufferers records, 1894–1895
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Records of a commission created to provide relief for victims of the Hinckley fire, and of fires near New York Mills and Milaca, and in Carlton, Cass, Itasca, Kanabec, and Todd counties. Documents include account ledgers of donated goods, applications for relief for fire victims, vouchers and receipts, correspondence.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr01044.xml
SD421 .M63

Report of the Minnesota State Commission for the Relief of Fire Sufferers. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Company, 1895.

Swenson, Grace Stageberg. From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894. St. Cloud: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1994.

SD421.W6
Wilkinson, William, Reverend. Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires in the Year 1894 with a Chapter on the Forest Fires in Wisconsin in the Same Year. Minneapolis: Norman E. Wilkinson, 1895.

Nobisso, Josephine. John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Related Images

View of the Hinckley main street the morning after the fire, 1894.
View of the Hinckley main street the morning after the fire, 1894.
Oxen pulling a sled of white pine logs near Hinckley in Pine County, 1885.
Oxen pulling a sled of white pine logs near Hinckley in Pine County, 1885.
High bridge over the Kettle River near Sandstone before September 1, 1894, and before the trees in the area were cut down by a logging company, which left highly flammable debris (slash) to serve as fire fuel. Photograph Collection, Hinckley Fire Museum, Hinckley.
High bridge over the Kettle River near Sandstone before September 1, 1894, and before the trees in the area were cut down by a logging company, which left highly flammable debris (slash) to serve as fire fuel. Photograph Collection, Hinckley Fire Museum, Hinckley.
High bridge over the Kettle River near Sandstone, before September 1, 1894, and after the trees in the area were cut down by a logging company, which left highly flammable debris (slash) to serve as fire fuel. Photograph Collection, Sandstone History and Art Center, Sandstone.
High bridge over the Kettle River near Sandstone, before September 1, 1894, and after the trees in the area were cut down by a logging company, which left highly flammable debris (slash) to serve as fire fuel. Photograph Collection, Sandstone History and Art Center, Sandstone.
The Brennan Lumber Company in Hinckley, Minnesota, before September 1, 1894.
The Brennan Lumber Company in Hinckley, Minnesota, before September 1, 1894.
The Hinckley fire house, firemen, and Waterous steam fire engine, before September 1, 1894. The steam fire engine was manufactured in South St. Paul.
The Hinckley fire house, firemen, and Waterous steam fire engine, before September 1, 1894. The steam fire engine was manufactured in South St. Paul.
People gather at Skunk Lake after the Hinckley Fire, which occurred on September 1, 1894. Photograph Collection, Hinckley Fire Museum, Hinckley.
People gather at Skunk Lake after the Hinckley Fire, which occurred on September 1, 1894. Photograph Collection, Hinckley Fire Museum, Hinckley.
Map on page 96 shows the towns and area in Minnesota that were burned in the Hinckley fire. From Grace Stageberg Swenson’s From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894 (St. Cloud: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1994), 96.
Map on page 96 shows the towns and area in Minnesota that were burned in the Hinckley fire. From Grace Stageberg Swenson’s From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894 (St. Cloud: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1994), 96.
A search party finds the remains of an entire family in the ruins of the Hinckley fire, 1894.
A search party finds the remains of an entire family in the ruins of the Hinckley fire, 1894.
Burying ninety victims in one trench following the Hinckley fire, September, 1894.
Burying ninety victims in one trench following the Hinckley fire, September, 1894.
Tents erected for victims of the fire in Hinckley, 1894.
Tents erected for victims of the fire in Hinckley, 1894.
September 15, 1894, letter from the C. D. and Thomas D. O’Brien Law Office in St. Paul to John W. Blair in recognition of his gallant conduct on September 1, 1894. Enclosed was a check for $25 dollars from Mrs. Charles E. (Lida) Smith. From the John W. Blair papers, 1867–1915 (P1788).  Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
September 15, 1894, letter from the C. D. and Thomas D. O’Brien Law Office in St. Paul to John W. Blair in recognition of his gallant conduct on September 1, 1894. Enclosed was a check for $25 dollars from Mrs. Charles E. (Lida) Smith. From the John W. Blair papers, 1867–1915 (P1788).  Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
People posed in front of a house built for Hinckley fire victims, after September 1, 1894.
People posed in front of a house built for Hinckley fire victims, after September 1, 1894.
Root's engine, St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company. The engine powered the last train load of survivors out of Hinckley during the fire in 1894. Photographed ca. 1895. James Root was the engineer on the evacuation train.
Root's engine, St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company. The engine powered the last train load of survivors out of Hinckley during the fire in 1894. Photographed ca. 1895. James Root was the engineer on the evacuation train.
St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company train and several railroad men, including John Wesley. Blair was an African American porter on the Eastern Minnesota train that rescued hundreds of people from the fire in Hinckley. He was honored as one of the heroes. He is second from the right in the photograph.
St. Paul and Duluth Railroad Company train and several railroad men, including John Wesley. Blair was an African American porter on the Eastern Minnesota train that rescued hundreds of people from the fire in Hinckley. He was honored as one of the heroes. He is second from the right in the photograph.
A pocket watch taken from the hand of a victim of the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. The watch has a silver alloy case and a white porcelain face. Manufactured in 1884 by the Elgin National Watch Company of Elgin, Illinois.
A pocket watch taken from the hand of a victim of the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. The watch has a silver alloy case and a white porcelain face. Manufactured in 1884 by the Elgin National Watch Company of Elgin, Illinois.
Slash in a Minnesota forest, ca. 1905. Slash is the debris that remains in an area after it has been logged. Forms part of C. C. Andrews photograph collection (I.99).
Slash in a Minnesota forest, ca. 1905. Slash is the debris that remains in an area after it has been logged. Forms part of C. C. Andrews photograph collection (I.99).
Photograph of survivors of the 1894 Hinckley fire taken at the reunion held on the fiftieth anniversary of the fire, 1944. From the Betty Moore and family papers, 1848–1973 (bulk 1920–1950s), P2698, box 2. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Photograph of survivors of the 1894 Hinckley fire taken at the reunion held on the fiftieth anniversary of the fire, 1944. From the Betty Moore and family papers, 1848–1973 (bulk 1920–1950s), P2698, box 2. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
A fire relief house built on Court Avenue in Sandstone for victims of the Hinckley fire. after September 1, 1894. Photographed in October of 1979.
A fire relief house built on Court Avenue in Sandstone for victims of the Hinckley fire. after September 1, 1894. Photographed in October of 1979.
Cover of the program for the Hinckley Fire survivors’ sixtieth reunion, held in Hinckley on August 14 and 22, 1954. From the Betty  Moore and family papers, 1848–1973 (bulk 1920–1950s), P2698. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Cover of the program for the Hinckley Fire survivors’ sixtieth reunion, held in Hinckley on August 14 and 22, 1954. From the Betty  Moore and family papers, 1848–1973 (bulk 1920–1950s), P2698. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Turning Point

On September 1, 1900, a fire monument is dedicated at the burial site of 248 fire victims. Many of the victims in the four trenches were unidentified. The official mortality figure of 418 does not include the many trappers, loggers, and hunters, including Ojibwe people, who lived and died in the surrounding woods, or the bodies found in the later months and even years.

Chronology

August 31, 1894

The Brennan Lumber Company in Hinckley sprawls over thirty-six acres. Although protected with water mains, hydrants, and water barrels, 28 million board feet of lumber and huge sawdust piles explode in the fire the next day.

September 1

The Collegeville weather station reports a maximum temperature of ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, wind at twenty miles an hour, and twenty-eight percent humidity. Drought conditions exist throughout the area.

September 1

The Eastern Minnesota evacuation train stops in Sandstone. Hinckley refugees beg citizens there to board the train to escape the oncoming fire, but very few, if any, do. Eighty people die there.

September 2, early a.m.

A train carrying volunteers, doctors, and relief supplies from Pine City arrives in Hinckley after a dangerous trip on damaged rails through fire devastation. Pine City citizens prepare to care for the victims who will arrive on the returning train.

September 2

The Minnesota National Guard ships sixty-five tents to Hinckley to shelter fire victims. Loss due to damage after use was $929.

September 3

The Minneapolis Tribune reports 200 fire deaths in Hinckley, forty-six in Sandstone, twenty-five in Sandstone Junction, twenty-five in Pokegama, twenty-nine in Skunk Lake, and thirty others for a total of 355.

September 3

Governor Knute Nelson appoints a five-member state commission to receive and disburse donations of money and supplies to fire survivors. Included are basic frame houses, housekeeping supplies, seeds, and animal feed. By year end, the value of aid is $184,

September 3

The General Relief Committee of St. Paul reports that forty fire refugees are receiving care there. The number includes six Jewish families and four Jewish men. Cumberland and Shell Lake, Wisconsin, receive fire-relief donations from St. Paul churches.

September 5

The Duluth News Tribune reports that in addition to human bodies there are putrefying dead cows, horses, cattle, dogs, wild animals, pigs, and chickens to be buried or burned. The bodies are described as smelly and offensive.

September 5

The Duluth News Tribune estimates the total property loss from the fire to be $3,000,000. Hinckley losses include the Brennan Lumber Company ($500,000); Henry’s Hotel ($3,000); and the schoolhouse ($18,000). Sandstone losses are $202,500.

September 8

The New York World runs an article by Nellie Bly, the famous journalist, written after she toured the fire zone. A survivor told her that “it was no forest fire; it came in balls out of the clouds, and the balls exploded and burned everything.”

September 16

Three hundred sightseers board a train to tour the destruction. Armed with shovels, scavengers find souvenirs such as melted silver dollars and iron tools. The St. Cloud fire relief committee, which sponsors the trip, makes $475. Lunch is included.

November 24

Dr. D. W. Cowan, Pine County coroner, certifies 413 fire deaths and identifies some victims only by their knives, boots, or buttons. Included are the Costigan family of eight and the Englund family of nine. Ninety-nine are unidentified.

December 19, 1894

Morbidly, the Hinckley Enterprise claims that “the fire did in fifteen minutes what it would have taken the husbandman fifteen years to accomplish. All nature is with us; it seemingly knew our needs, and came to clear the land."

April 18, 1895

In response to devastating forest fires, the state enacts a law creating a chief fire warden position and statewide local fire wardens. They focus on preventing and suppressing fires and outline specific rules for railroads to follow.

1895

3,082 fire victims register for aid, including 344 single men, thirty-three single women, forty-nine (twenty-one new) widows with a 145 family members, 59 (twenty-two new) widowers with 143 family members, and four orphans. 314 farmers register.