Every year when the day passes, it’s easy to forget with the passing of time that almost 125 years ago, 250,000 acres — almost 400 square miles — an entire town and over 400 people went up in smoke in a fire seen around the world.
Newspapers as far away as London reported on a logging town in northern Minnesota that, in a window of four hours, would be burned to a pile of ashes. The horror of the Great Hinckley Fire may have left the world in shock and awe, but the stories of the brave heroes who risked their lives to save others continues to capture our attentions today, even if as a reminder of how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
Hinckley was like most other northern towns in Minnesota’s 19th century population boom: rural, but with a growing center city. The unincorporated settlement housed many newcomers looking for a better life. Some came from as near as Quebec and New York; others as far away as Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland and about a dozen other countries. Many could not speak English, but held the same sense of optimism despite the other-worldly wilderness that surrounded them. Outside the settlement resided Ojibwe tribes, the first to settle the area. They practiced fur trade at surrounding area posts.
The area was naturally rich in white pine trees. The first railroads were built in 1869 — not long after European settlers began to come into the area. Logging was an inevitability at that point.
Hinckley was then, and is still, considered to be roughly the halfway point between Minnesota’s two major hub towns: Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth. So when the logging industry began to blossom, the railways began to expand, with the Northern Pacific Railway depot serving as the anchor of the region’s economic hub.
The spark that caused the fire is, frankly, irrelevant. Focusing exclusively on what started the fire fails to recognize the conditions where a spark could spread into a flame.
Daniel James Brown, the author of “Under a Flaming Sky,” notes the summer of 1894 was uncharacteristically dry — drought had stricken the entire state. At a weather station northwest of Hinckley in Sandy Lake, a little over 3 inches of rain had fallen since May 1, a record low when considering 12 more inches was the seasonal norm.
Additionally, logging crews’ time demands created unintended consequences. Crews would cut down trees, the horses or oxen would drag the timber out of a section, then the crew would be onto the next site. Left behind was a mess of scrap wood, mangled pine branches and tree saplings that would continuously dry in the sun. No work was put in to clear the land unless the property proved to be good farm land. It would then be sold to an immigrant for a few dollars an acre. When the immigrants had to face the mounds of scrap, they’d often just set fire to the brush, leave and come back when the fire settled.
This creates a perfect storm, so to speak. The air was so dry that summer that moisture was being sucked out of not only the air, but of already combustible objects. This made sawmills and lumber yards extremely susceptible to fire, as lumber was stored under shelters. These were fire bombs waiting to explode.
Scattered blazes started throughout the forests on Sept. 1. The blazes turned into a literal firestorm. The firestorm grew to 2,000 degrees, hot enough where barrels full of nails melted into one metal mass. Rail tracks warped and fused to railway wheels.
Some tried to escape by jumping into wells and cisterns but died. Many escaped to a nearby swamp, but suffocated. Anybody who was around the source of the fire simply died. The fire destroyed the towns of Mission Brook, Sandstone and Brook Park before it reached Hinckley. As it reached the town of 1,400 people, many began to escape. Some panicked and couldn’t escape.
Amidst the tragedy, despite a 4-mile high wall of inferno, heroic actions by everyday people saved numerous others.
Two examples: James Root, a train engineer, made multiple trips and saved 300 people. Despite being badly burned, he stayed at the throttle until he made his final trip. Thomas Dunn, a depot agent, stayed at the telegraph sending warnings and requests for help as the fire approached. Heartbreakingly, his final transmission read, “I think I’ve stayed too long.”
In the aftermath of the fire, Hinckley was completely destroyed. At the end of the day, an estimated 418 people died. However, this number is contentious, as this doesn’t take into account the Native American population and other miscellaneous wanderers in the woods. Given that, the number is more likely 600-800 deaths; bodies were still found years after the fire.
In modern-day Hinckley, the Hinckley Fire Museum is established in the rebuilt Northern Pacific Railway Depot, a fitting location. The tragedy allowed for improvements in logging practices. The media blitz surrounding the fire made the situation so notorious, it lives in infamy.
As time passed, the fire became better known as books and news outlets continue to speculate and analyze the tragedy. Years after the fire, survivors were still haunted — as Brown writes: “40 years after the Hinckley Firestorm, my grandfather still sometimes awoke at night, screaming.”
It proves a haunting chapter in Minnesota’s history. A day that forever lives in infamy.