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One of the last survivors of 1918 fires dies

Ailie Amanda Costello, 102, of Cromwell died Saturday, Oct. 6. She was one of the last survivors of the 1918 fires. (file / Pine Journal)

One of the last survivors of the 1918 fires died Saturday, Oct. 6. She was 102.

Ailie Amanda Costello of Cromwell and her family, then living just north of Kettle River, escaped the blaze that ripped through Pine, Carlton and St. Louis counties from Oct. 10-12, 1918, killing 453 people, displacing over 11,000 families and charring 1,500 square miles.

Natalie Frohip, vice president of the Moose Lake Area Historical Society, only knows of three fire survivors who are still alive today — two in Minnesota and one in California — and is confident the number is in the single digits.

"They would have been infants; they probably only remember the stories they were told," Frohip said.

That was true for Costello, who in 2016 — just after her 101st birthday — recalled to the Pine Journal surviving the fire while living with her family on a farm 4 miles north of Kettle River.

"I was a survivor of the 1918 fire," Costello said. "I don't know if I remember anything or only what I've been told, but that shaped my family's life in so many ways. We were very lucky."

A plowed field and her father's quick thinking saved her family, one of only a few families to survive in that area, she said.

"My dad saved us," Costello said. "Our neighbor close by had just plowed their field and my dad put us in a wagon pulled by horses into that field. And this plowed field, that's how we got saved. There was no grass or anything to burn, so the fire couldn't reach us. But we got the smoke. I don't know how we survived the smoke."

Costello's house, schoolhouse and one other neighbor's home survived the fire.

Costello was born to John and Amanda Sillanpaa on Dec. 15, 1915, in Kettle River.

In the years after the fire, Costello moved to Ely for seventh and eighth grade after her mother died in 1927. She married Peter Chernich in 1937.

Chernich, a Merchant Marine, was lost at sea in 1943.

She moved to Wright in 1946, working at the Trolley Inn in Cromwell for 13 years and at the Tamarack Co-op for 10 years.

She married Anthony Costello on Dec. 2, 1972; he died 11 years later.

Costello is survived by niece Frances Stevenson and nephews Loren Sever and Robert Sillanpaa.

Later in life, Costello made Cardinal Court, an assisting living home in Cromwell, her home.

Julie Hedin, activity director at Vista Villa and Cardinal Court, described Costello as "a remarkable lady" who attended every activity, even as she lost her eyesight.

"Her motto was 'Get up and go,'" Hedin said.

Costello's visitation is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cromwell. The service will follow at 11 a.m.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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