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418 Victims of Minnesota Firestorm Live in Memory : Disaster: On Sept. 1, 1894, flames swept over 480 square miles of white pine forest. In just four hours, six towns were reduced to rubble and the woods to a wasteland of charred stumps.


HINCKLEY, Minn. — When the fire came, some hid in wells or cisterns.

They died.

Some escaped to a swamp, and they suffocated. But others survived, boarding trains to outrace the flames or wading into water to avoid their reach.

One hundred years ago, on Sept. 1, 1894, a firestorm swept over 480 square miles of northeastern Minnesota's white pine forest. In just four hours, six towns were reduced to rubble and the forest to a wasteland of charred stumps.

And in that time, at least 418 people died.

"Really, it probably was more like 600. They didn't count any of the Indians or any of the people who died later," said Jeanne Coffey, director of the Hinckley Fire Museum.

Only one forest fire on record was more deadly, according to the World Almanac. The fire that hit the Peshtigo, Wis., area on Oct. 8, 1871, killed 1,182. The deadliest fire in history hit a theater in Canton, China, in 1845, killing 1,670 people.

The Minnesota fire "was the talk of the world," Coffey said. The London Times reported on the "Great Forest Fires in America." The New York World sent journalist Nellie Bly, who telegraphed a 5,000-word report five days after the fire.

A front-page sketch in The Chicago World showed bodies scattered over charred terrain and piled on a wagon: "A cyclone of fire sweeps through Minnesota--leaving in its wake an awful record of charred corpses, unutterable desolation and awful destitution."

More than half of the dead were from Hinckley, a town of more than 1,200. Brook Park, Mission Creek, Sandstone, Miller and Partridge also were destroyed.

Today, the dead are memorialized with a granite obelisk and with the fire museum, housed in a train depot rebuilt after the blaze.

Among the exhibits is a purse, found beneath the charred body of Mrs. John McNamara. It contained the $3,500 she had saved to send her two sons to college. She and the boys died after getting off a train that carried fleeing residents to Skunk Lake, a shallow swamp 6 miles north of Hinckley.

The McNamaras ran down the railroad tracks in fright rather than wading into the 18 inches of mud and slimy water. Most of those who made it into the water survived.

The Skunk Lake survivors owed their lives to Jim Root, engineer of a southbound St. Paul and Duluth Co. train that was met by fleeing residents about a mile north of Hinckley. About 150 refugees piled aboard the train before Root put the train in reverse and opened the throttle.

The train was on fire as it backed away from Hinckley and Root was knocked into a daze when the cab window was shattered by an explosion. Fireman John McGowan revived the engineer by dousing him with water and the train reached the lake.

The 127 people who took refuge in a swamp at the north edge of Hinckley were not so lucky. Their charred bodies were found after the fire. All apparently died of suffocation. Others suffocated after trying to escape the fire in wells and root cellars.

Among the survivors were about 100 people who fled into 3-foot-deep water in the middle of a gravel pit on the east side of Hinckley.

The largest group of survivors, nearly 500, were aboard the last train that made it to Duluth from Hinckley.

People on the heavily loaded Eastern Railway of Minnesota train could only watch as fire engulfed neighbors who missed their last chance to escape. The train crossed the narrow trestle bridge 150 feet above the Kettle River just minutes before the burning bridge collapsed.

When it was over, all that remained of Hinckley, the largest town between the Twin Cities and Duluth, was the Eastern Railway's roundhouse and water tank. Gone were the town's 250 homes, the school and more than 70 businesses.

Many of the dead were not identified before burial. Names of 101 of the bodies in the coroner's tally made two days after the fire were listed as "unknown." The blanket-wrapped bodies of 248 victims were laid to rest in long mounded trenches now covered by grass.

Survivors carried the scars for the rest of their lives. Edna Shober's grandparents and three of their children survived the firestorm huddled next to the well on their farm near Hinckley.

"They wet quilts in the well and covered themselves. My grandmother's shoes were burned off, her eyelashes and hair were singed," she said.

"In grandmother's older years, she was always afraid of fire. She'd get very nervous and upset."

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