Our NeighborsFire of 1918 remembered – through the eyes of our neighbors
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
This Friday, Oct. 12, marks the 94th anniversary of the Fire of 1918 which took the lives of 453 people and consumed 52,000 homes. The terrible conflagration came on the heels of months of hot, dry weather – conditions that set the stage for the tragedy. The fire was ultimately sparked by a railroad engine that ignited dry brush along the tracks and spread through the ruthlessly high winds on that day.
Though many lost their lives during the fire, and many others lost their homes and businesses, those survivors who lived to tell about that fatal day had quite a story to tell….
Following are excerpts from documents in the files of the Pine Journal that tell the story in the words of some of those who witnessed the terrible fire first hand.
Jean Totu, Dube Hotel, Cloquet:
As I was returning home from work on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1918, I noticed the sun was blood red and the smell of smoke in the air was getting stronger and stronger. I was informed that the reason was that the town of Brookston was burning.
At about 6:30, the dreaded cry of “Fire! Fire! The fire is coming!” was heard in the streets. The alarm increased and fear for the safety of the town was felt. The tornadic wind was driving the fire closer and closer to town. Box cars, gondolas, and any other form of train cars were pressed into service to take the people out of town.
I took my car from the garage and took our family down to the depot. Then returning, I helped transport all the people I could find, who, with all their worldly goods they could possibly carry with them, were making their way hastily to the depot. As I was bringing the last load of passengers down, I noticed a horse and buggy arriving at the depot. The driver proceeded to tie his horse to the nearest telephone pole, got on the train and left the horse to die with no possible way of escape.
Everyone had seemed to lose all sense of reason, and it was a miracle that more people were not hurt or burned while trying to board the trains and leave town. The last trains that left town had to uncouple some of the rear cars because they were already on fire.
My friend Bob and I then proceeded to try and get out of the fire with my car. The flames and smoke made one continuous roar. My eyes were so bloodshot from flame and smoke I could hardly see. I went back uptown to be sure that there was no one that needed additional help. I could find no other human beings, but as I was traveling down Cloquet Avenue at about 25 or 30 miles per hour, I heard a clatter of hooves behind me and Old Dobbin pulling a delivery wagon passed me so fast that I thought my vehicle had come to a dead stop!
The most horrible sights I ever expected to see were all around me. Pigs, cows, and horses were to be seen running wild, partially burned. Cats were to be seen running with most of the fur burned off along with chickens with all their feathers missing.
I then proceeded to try to get out of town before it was too late. I first tried the North Road but the bridge had already burned over the St. Louis River. I then realized the desperate plight I was in and that I would be extremely lucky to get out of the fire alive. I next tried the old Carlton road, but it was of no use, the flames were ahead of me. I then tried the Scanlon road.
My friend Bob had to lie on the running board and direct my procedure by means of a pocket flashlight and yelling to go left or right if I got too far to one side. I could see practically nothing from inside the car because the smoke was so dense. We finally arrived at the Scanlon bridge, and it was already burning on the other side, but we knew this was our last avenue of escape and we had to pass over it. As we approached the bridge we looked down and to our dismay we saw several cars in the ditch at the head of the bridge. The first car that came along had gone into the ditch with the tail light burning and the other cars, as they approached, perceived the tail light burning and naturally thought that they were following the right way and proceeded to go right into the ditch with the first car.
We took all the ladies and children we could possibly pack in the car and hurriedly proceeded across the bridge, which was already burning. We were extremely fortunate to get across because just after we crossed, the bridge went down with a shower of sparks and flames. There were many poles and trees to go over, but we finally sighted the city of Duluth from the big hill and we knew our fight was won.
In the meantime, my family was not faring so well in the coal cars which they had been placed in. My youngest sister, Bernice, had a weak heart and she had fainted. My mother was beside herself with fear. However, there were amusing sights to be seen. One elderly woman had hitched her children to a clothesline because she had so many children she could not keep track of them all. My youngest brother John, in his haste to bring what he thought was something of value, had hurriedly put an old corset and an empty cream jar under his arm and when they arrived safely in Carlton, much to his humiliation he discovered the garters hanging down from what he supposedly thought was an article of “extreme value”!
The next morning, Sunday, Oct. 13, I returned to Cloquet – or what was left of it. It was a sight to make the most courageous downhearted. The town was leveled off as if some giant hand had passed over it and brushed the houses off. Soldiers were stationed at every block and no one was allowed to take anything off their property without first establishing their identity.
The starting of the fire was laid to the railroad, which was at that time under government supervision. Suits were brought up in the courts so the people could get at least part of the losses back which they had incurred in the fire. Settlements were established at 50 cents on the dollar, and less in some cases. The people were forced to accept because of the desperate need for money. In 1922, the fight was renewed in Congress and through the untiring effort of our Congressmen and the undying courage of the people of Cloquet, they were finally rewarded by the passing through Congress and signing of the same by the President in 1935, the so-called Pittenger Bill. This bill was a godsend to most of the old settlers of the community and in most cases enabled them to be independent for the rest of their lives.
Emmet J. O’Brien of Minneapolis (who found a job in a logging camp in the Cloquet area while he was awaiting his assignment to officers’ training camp):
On Friday, Oct. 11, 1918, I left Minneapolis by train and arrived in the city of Cloquet the same evening. When I arrived the sky was overcast with smoke from brush fires to the north and west of the city. On the morning of Oct. 12, a strong wind had made the overcast very much worse. The violence of the wind did not diminish, nor did it change the course of the fire, and about 9 o’clock at night the fire reached the first of the lumberyards. From that time on there was no chance to save the city and total evacuation of the population became an urgent necessity.
Before morning the temperature approached the freezing mark, adding the misery of cold to the terror of the night. The influenza epidemic was at its 1918 height and this added to the critical situation.
Horses for hauling lumber in and out of the yards were stabled in two barns at widely separated points, both adjacent to the lumber yards. One barn containing 94 horses was in direct line of the fire as it roared southward. Two men, R.M. Weyerhauser and Joseph Wilson, who were officials of the local lumber companies, reached this barn ahead of the fire. They hoped they would have time to release all of the horses, get them out of the barn and guide them to safety. But the terrified horses continued to return to their stalls as fast as they were driven outside. The two men decided to release all of the horses before starting them out of the barn. Then each man took a haltered horse, led it out of the barn, and the rest of the horses fell into line and were guided over a bridge onto an island in the river. All of the horses were saved and the two men remained on the island throughout the night and watched their city burn.
While all this was going on, the city was being destroyed. From the burning lumberyards flaming timbers borne by a 65-mile wind were flying through the air like shooting stars, setting simultaneous fires in various parts of the city. It was a spectacular, if terrible, sight, and one not readily forgotten by those who saw it.
Lilly Torma, Cloquet:
I was a 7-year-old girl at the time of the Oct. 12, 1918 fire. Our home was located about eight miles west of Cloquet, one mile off Big Lake Road.
Dad and Mother took all of the furniture out of the house, along with our piano and sewing machine. The team of horses was hitched to a wagon and we took those things, along with some smaller items and personal belongings, to store in a nearby plowed field. By this time, the fierce flames were really traveling through the air, the wind carrying burning boards like flaming arrows in the sky. These ignited the wagon and its contents, but with everyone carrying water from the well, they managed to save everything.
During our escape, the wind blew the fire through the air at tremendous speed. Near our home was the Bergman schoolhouse that we attended as students. Very soon it was obvious that this school was burning, but being children this was no big deal to us. I do recall that I had on my person a small coin purse which somehow was dropped during our run to the plowed field. Naturally I did not have much money in the purse, but to a small child this was a much bigger loss to me than the burning school house. The purse was never recovered.
Near our home was a small lake, not much more than a marsh, and many of our neighbors sought refuge there, only to become victims of the fire. In some cases entire families perished.