1918 FIRES: For Cloquet, it all started at milepost 62
Today, milepost 62 along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway line west of Brookston is a mostly quiet place. A few cattails wave in the breeze below the simple sign with its plain metal numbers: 62. Train tracks and a mostly-plowed, but imperfect, access road cut a path through the woods. With the leaves gone for the winter, it's easy to glimpse the St. Louis River through the trees north of the tracks.
There is nothing here to suggest or show people that the massive fire that destroyed Brookston and Cloquet almost 100 years ago originated at this spot.
"Milepost 62 may be almost forgotten today, but its name haunted a whole generation," wrote authors Francis Carroll and Franklin Raiter in their definitive book on the 1918 fires, "The Fires of Autumn."
Of course, five or six major fires and numerous small ones burned across the Northland on Oct. 12 of that year, but the two largest ones were the one that destroyed Moose Lake and Kettle River; the other wiped out Cloquet and Brookston.
What is commonly known as the Cloquet Fire actually began two days earlier, at milepost 62, 4 miles west of Brookston and 15 miles northwest of Cloquet, on the south bank of the St. Louis River.
At that time, milepost 62 was home to a siding (a low-speed section of track separate from the main running line) known as O'Brien's Spur. For years, private contractors used the siding as a loading station for various wood products. Piles of pulpwood, cordwood, railroad ties, fence posts and telephone poles were piled on either side of the track. The ground was covered in bark and chips, "making the siding a tinderbox in the autumn conditions," farmer Steve Koskela testified in court after the fires.
Koskela and his neighbor, John Sundstrom, saw the train to Hibbing stop at O'Brien's Spur that afternoon, and saw a small column of smoke rising from the western edge of the siding after it pulled away. They found a fire burning in the tall dry grasses near the piles of wood, and tried to put it out with their feet, but to no avail.
Both men left to get pails and shovels from home, and other neighbors joined them to try to put out the fire. By 6 p.m. a Great Northern Railroad section foreman arrived; his crew came 90 minutes later. Several business owners and the mayor of Brookston also arrived to fight the fire with the section crew, but they were unable to put it out.
The next day, Friday, Oct. 11, the wind died down a bit and the fire — while still burning — seemed less dangerous. The crews soon left to work in Brookston and didn't return.
Koskela worked on the fire more later that day, but he was unable to put it out alone.
Bear in mind that small fires were not uncommon at that time. Burning forests to clear the land for farming was not uncommon. Timber companies often burned the slash left behind by logging. Mother Nature ignited fires with lightning.
But the most identifiable cause of forest fires 100 years ago was the railroads. Most fires came from sparks and embers blown from the massive smokestacks of the locomotives, while live coals also fell from the ashpans of the fireboxes, Raiter and Carroll write in their book.
Back to milepost 62. Now, it's Saturday morning, Oct. 12. Farmer Koskela got a lift into Brookston on a railroad speeder and the fire was quiet. By the time he returned at 11:30 a.m., the siding was in flames, with lots of black smoke being driven by a strong wind from the northwest.
Koskela went home, knowing he now had to try to save the farm. His sons filled pails of water, they wet down the buildings and set the animal free. The fire reached the farm by 1:40 p.m. They saved the house and family, but lost outbuildings, some stock and their timber. Sadly, many of their neighbors weren't so lucky.
By 4 p.m., Brookston was burning.
"In the great heat, houses along the streets in the town began to burst into flames before the fire actually emerged from the woods to the west," Carroll and Raiter wrote.
The relief train, carrying about 200 people, pulled out at 4:10 p.m. After another fire encounter and a stop in Brevator to pick up more people, the train reached Cloquet at about 5 p.m.
"The scorched cars and blackened, injured and hysterical refugees presented a frightening spectacle to many people in town," Raiter and Carroll wrote, adding that the refugees "warned their comforters that Cloquet could not be saved."
Reading the stories of those survivors near the tracks of the railroad that both caused the fires and saved so many lives helps bring that long-ago event to life.
"It was worth it," said Cloquet native Don Walsh, who made the trip out there for the first time Tuesday morning. It's a voyage he recommends making in the summer, or in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
"I can't believe the fire traveled that far," he said.
The Finnish fire experience
The Carlton County Historical Society (CCHS) will remember St. Urho's Day with a program about Finnish 1918 fire stories at 1 p.m. Friday, March 16, at the museum at 406 Cloquet Ave.
Family business rebuilds and remains
John Buskala of Buskala's Jewelry and Gifts will present on his family's 1918 fire experience at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at CCHS. This family-owned business has been around more than 100 years. Visitors to CCHS will be able to view the museum's new exhibit, "A Century Ago — The Great 1918 Fire." For questions, call 218-879-1938.
1918 fire archaeology
Archaeologist Steve Blondo will present on 1918 fire archaeology at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Moose Lake Area Historical Society, 900 Folz Blvd., Moose Lake.