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1918 FIRES: Fleeing from Cloquet

Photo courtesy Carlton County Historical Society

Editor's note: This is the uncut version of a letter written a few days after the fire by an unnamed refugee from Cloquet. An edited version appeared in the March 15, 2018 issue of the Pine Journal.

The day before the big fire, the air was blue with smoke. In fact, the smoke had been annoying for a day or two before, but on Saturday its density increased to such a degree that people began to comment on it. The daughter of one of my neighbors, a country school teacher, had been driven from her school on Thursday by fires in the vicinity of Gowan, about 21 miles from Cloquet. When the air became so dark, her family became anxious, one of them commenting to me: — "This is just like the day of the Hinckley fire."

But people as a rule were not alarmed. In this northern country where farmers are clearing the land, we are used to smoke in the air. There were fires in the country, but everyone supposed settlers were watching the fires on their own land, to guard against possible danger. I was, however, one of those who grew alarmed early in the day. Not having been reared in the north, the combination of dry woods and high winds suggested awful possibilities to me, but I could get no one else excited. Everyone I talked with said, "There isn't any danger."

At three o'clock a man from the reservation reported Sawyer on fire, and, at the same time word came that Brookston was burning. About an hour later the train with refugees from Brookston pulled into town. They refused to stay in Cloquet, saying we were too close to the fire. Still the town people refused to believe danger imminent. Too nervous to settle down to anything else, I went home, got out a couple of suitcases and began picking up a few things to put in. I confess I was a little ashamed of my panic, but I went about the house planning what I should put in if the worst came.

Everyone expected the wind to die down at sunset. The plan formed among the men was to go out as soon as the wind died down and make a fire break west of town. But the wind rose immediately after sundown to a gale. While we were eating supper, the murky sky suddenly changed in glowing red. We were alarmed at first, but as the glow was short lived, we decided the sunset through the smoke had produced the effect. Afterward, all through the night we saw similar sudden bursts and each time realized that another haystack or another house was gone.

By this time people began to be alarmed. Fortunately, after the Brookston refugees passed through, arrangements were made for train service if it became necessary to move people out of Cloquet. But, even now some did not hurry. I finished packing my suitcases and prepared to leave with my husband and little girl. A neighbor sent over to say that in case the wind did not change, they would take us out of town in their automobile. It was then 7:30 and the lumber yards west of town were beginning to burn. The smoke became intense, so that breathing was difficult. People began to hurry to the depot, carrying bundles of clothing. Finally, our auto was loaded, starting out at 9 o'clock with 10 people and such luggas as they could take. By this time the flight was general. Flames roared in the wind and leaped lurid through the smoke, as the Northern lumber yards caught fire. As we stood loading the auto the shower of sparks, carried a half mile, reminded one of a rain of fire. They were literally hurled against the sides of the houses.

As we left town we discussed the best place to go. Some favored heading for Moose Lake and Barnum, but it was decided to go to Carlton and there inquire as to the country around. All along the road was a stream of people, walking, pushing baby carriages, riding in every conceivable kind of vehicle. The sky was lurid with flame, and a shower of cinders fell about us. The wind was so strong that at one time it threatened to blow the car over. Indeed, the next morning I saw box cars which had been blown from the tracks by the wind.

As we went along I was reminded of the flight of the Belgians. There was the town burning behind us, and we were fleeing in a terror as real, if not so awful, as that from which they escaped. We passed a family of seven, trudging along, carrying two babes in arms. We stopped long enough to pick up the mother and babes, leaving the father and boys to follow on foot.

Meanwhile the whistles had given the alarm, so that no one within doors could ignore the warning. My heart goes out to those women who endured the wait for that last train to pull out. Every whistle in the city was shrieking, flames roared a couple of blocks away, the smoke was stifling, sparks fell thick about them, and the wind carried it forward in demoniac glee. To add to the horror a dynamite house just beyond the lumber yard blew up. Those were the worst experiences suffered by any of those who did not actually fight through fire to safety.

When we reached Carlton, we stopped to make inquiries at the garage, and there met Mr. Henry Oldenburg, who directed us to his home. Here we found other friends who had preceded us. Every few minutes other parties would arrive until fifty-one in all were housed in his residence. The children were put to bed, but the adults stayed up all night. No one wanted to sleep.

As soon as the men had seen their families safe, they went back with the cars to pick up people on the road and bring them down to the court house. They went back and forth all night, returning to the house at intervals to report what they knew. It was three o'clock in the morning before they could get into the town at all, but from time to time, from the height of land south east of the town, they could locate special buildings which were blazing.

The women were very composed. There was no hysterics among them, at the Oldenburg home at least. We would go outside occasionally and look at the awful fire which was burning our homes, but the smoke was too dense to stay long. We talked of our experiences, naturally. Once in a while a woman turned to me and remarked calmly: — "Well, they say our house is gone." We talked of what we had and had not brought with use. One of neighbors had snatched her children out of bed, wrapped them in blankets and fled. The only clothing they had was their night wear, overcoats and caps. Others were in the same plight. Some brought funny things, which made us laugh in spite of our losses. There on top of a pile of miscellaneous things was a blue satin boudoir slipper! It certainly looked silly and incompetent in the light of those awful flames.

Finally the lights went out, and we knew the wires were down. We had plenty of candles and did not lack light, but we knew the work of the men who were trying to get back into town was more dangerous than ever.

Carlton is six miles by railway from Cloquet, and hills intervene but the flames mounted so high in that roaring holocaust that we could see them plainly at times.

To add to our anxiety, fires started on the other side of town. Carlton was literally walled in by fire on three sides. Parties attempting to get through to Duluth had been obliged to turn back. The only avenue of escape was Carlton. If that had burned our only hope was the half-dry bed of the St. Louis River.

For the future I shall have more faith in newspaper reports. There has been no exaggeration about this. There couldn't be. No one but those who actually experienced the fire could conceive of its horror.

Cloquet is all gone — not a house left standing in our part of town — not anything. Even the trees are burned to the ground. You see they got the intense heat from the lumber yard before the houses caught.

Of the mills, the Cloquet Lumber Company's two mills are standing, although their yards were burned. The Johnson-Wentworth Company plant is O.K., the toothpick factory is O.K., the box factory and the papermill. One school house, located in open space at the edge of town escaped, and seven houses near the toothpick factory are left in the town proper.

All the rest of it is gone.