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Flashback Friday: Looking Back 100 Years on the Great Fire of 1918

October 12, 2018 11:11 AM

One hundred years ago on October 12, Minnesota experienced the deadliest natural disaster in the state. 

The Great Fire of 1918, which destroyed much of the Moose Lake, Cloquet and Duluth areas, claimed the lives of an estimated 450 people, and destroyed nearly 1,500 square miles of the region, according to Rachel Martin with the Carlton County Historical Society and Dan Reed with the Moose Lake Area Historical Society. 

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Reed, who still lives in the area, remembers growing up hearing about the fire from his grandparents who survived the tragedy.

"(Grandpa) said even though they lost everything, they were lucky people," Reed said. 

Both Reed and Martin said fires had been going in the area for quite some time in the fall of 1918, but what occurred on Oct. 12, 1918, is what led to a majority of the devastation. 

Casey McCoy, the fire prevention specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said sparks from train tracks are listed as the initial cause of the fire on many state files. 

"I think that really oversimplifies it too much," McCoy said. 

Both McCoy and Martin said the area had been experiencing a prolonged dry period leading up to the fire. McCoy added that the logging industry and conversion of forest to farmland also played a major role in the fires that led up to the massive destruction on Oct. 12. 

Rebuilding in Carlton County following the 1918 fire
Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

"One account that I read was there was tendency of local folk not to react to (fires) very quickly because they thought it was more work and preparing what was timberland," McCoy said. 

According to Martin, some sources report there were already five separate fires in the area. What made the area light up like a tinder box on Oct. 12, according to Martin, was an extreme drop in humidity.  

"It all broke loose at once," Martin said. "Some of (the fires) merged together. It covered a five county area." 

According to Martin, every area was impacted differently by the fire. 

Martin said Cloquet suffered the largest amount of property damage, with most of the city burning, including brick buildings. Martin said police and firemen were forced to go through the town to alert people of the evacuation. She added the telephone company called those who had phones to warn them of the impending fire. 

The bank in Cloquet following the 1918 fire
Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society 

Thanks to the evacuation efforts, more than 8,000 people were evacuated from the Cloquet train station, according to Martin.

"Each community had its own unique problem or asset to fight the fire or escape the fire," Martin said. 

Reed says he remembers hearing stories from family in the Moose Lake and Kettle River areas about flames that came through the area like a wall. Reed said his grandpa told him the story of being in a farm field when the fire came through and how he feared for his life. 

According to Reed, the fire that devastated the Moose Lake area spread after the railyard in Automba caught fire. The local historian said the fire then continued to roll through the Kettle River area, eventually reaching Moose Lake. Reed said a majority of the town burned, with the exception of a few buildings. One of those buildings was the Soo Line Railroad depot, which now serves as a fire museum. 

Aftermath of the 1918 fire in Moose Lake
Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

"There's no fabricating those kind of stories," Reed said. "That's the progression that occurs." 

According to Martin, the fire eventually settled and rain helped put out what flames were left. Reed said heard stories growing up that smoke could be seen in the air for weeks after. 

After the fire died, Martin said newspaper headlines reported that 500 people had died from the fires. Martin said that number eventually lowered. According to "At the Time of Our Misfortune" written by Francis Carroll and Franklin Raiter, the fire claimed 453 lives. Martin argues that it is hard to count how many people died during the tragedy.

"Years later they found the remains of unidentified people who were in the woods in places like streams who hadn't been discovered prior to that," Martin said. 

Martin also said the Spanish influenza was going on at the time, and those in the hospitals recovering from burns could have died from the disease. 

For Reed, the talk of the deaths hits home. Reed said his grandma's aunt and five cousins were victims to the blaze. 

Aside from those killed, Martin said 2,100 were treated for injuries.

In "At the Time of Our Misfortune," Carroll and Raiter said it is reported 52,371 people were displaced by the fire. 

According to Martin, many of those who evacuated were taken by train to Duluth. Martin said families in Duluth were at the depot prepared to take in those who evacuated. 

"Families would be down by the depots saying 'We have room for two at our house,' or 'We have room for four,'" she said. 

Evacuees and recovery workers after the 1918 fire
Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society 
 

According to Reed, others went to the Twin Cities. But many, including his relatives, stayed in the immediate area and began to rebuild. 

"A lot of people got lumber right away and started building Red Cross shacks," Reed said. 

According to Martin, the lumber industry is what helped rebuild much of Cloquet. Martin said the owners of the three major lumber mills in Cloquet had gathered after the fire to discuss their losses. When the mill owners realized what they still had, Martin said they pooled their resources and started a rebuilding operation.

"That really helped to bring people back to Cloquet because there were jobs and lumber for them to build their homes," she said. "Then there was really such a spirit of community support that every business wanted to rebuild immediately."

According to Martin it took 20 years for Cloquet to rebuild the population it had prior to the fire. 

Aftermath of the 1918 fire in Moose Lake
Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society 

Reed said the fire did force many people to shift their way of living. 

"People made their money out of the woods and sawmills," Reed said. "After the fire, with most of the woods gone, it shifted to farming."

While the fire shook the area, Reed echoed Martin's sentiment that there was a sense of community that forced people to rebuild.

"Even with all of this sadness and loss and misery, it is also a story of rebirth and hope," Reed said. 

"Not an if, but a when"

Could an event like the Great 1918 Fire occur again?  McCoy says that's a tough question. 

"I would say we've done a lot in the last 100 years to change things," McCoy said. 

McCoy said if a fire were to start, it would be difficult to have the same amount of area that burned in 1918 due to the drop in logging. 

McCoy also said the Minnesota DNR is also more prepared to react to forest fires, should they occur. Part of the addition that allows for a faster reaction is the addition of an aviation unit. 

While things have changed, McCoy said large wildfires in Minnesota are still very possible. 

"From my standpoint, I look at it not as an if, but a when," he said. 

McCoy added, "We live in a fire environment. I think it's only a matter of time before fire reintroduces itself back to the landscape."
 

 

Credits

Ben Rodgers

(Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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