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1918 FIRES: Thomson Township farmers flee to river, trains, fields

Many Thomson Township residents escaped the fire via a DW&P train from the Harney depot, pictured here. Jennie Kinnunen Sota (1897-1981) remembered the train blew its whistle continually throughout its rescue attempt, hoping to guide people in the darkness. Contributed photo1 / 4
The Matt Konu family home, right rear, was spared by the fire but all the other structures in this pre-1918 photo were destroyed. The house still stands near the southeast corner of the North Cloquet-Erickson Road intersection. (Esko Historical Society photo)2 / 4
St. Matthew’s Church in Esko erected this black granite monument as a memorial to members whose wooden grave markers were razed by the 1918 fires. The monument will be be formally dedicated at 1 p.m. Oct. 12. Although the new church is located just off U.S. Highway 61 near Esko’s town center, from 1903 to 1961 it was on the west side of the cemetery at North Cloquet Road and Church Avenue. Jana Peterson / jpeterson@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Still standing a century later, this garage at 36 West Harney Road was built as a temporary home by the Nels Sunnarborg family in the fall of 1918. Nine members of the Sunnarborg family lived in the 24x24-foot structure, built from lumber donatedby the Red Cross. (Photo courtesy of PattiSunnarborg Lockman)4 / 4

A new book on the 1918 fire in Thomson Township was sparked by a mystery, according to resident, writer and former teacher Phil Johnson.

"We wanted to get a better handle on how many people from the township died in the fire," Johnson said, explaining that the book expands on the chapter in the previously published "Esko's Corner" history book.

The group of local writers and researchers ultimately concluded definitely 11, and maybe 13 or more, of the township's residents perished in the state's deadliest natural disaster. There are accounts in oral histories of a "baby Michaelson" and a Mrs. Maki dying in the fire, but no official records.

Thus was born "Thomson Township's Night of Terror: The Great 1918 Fire," which will be released later in July and be available for purchase at various gas stations, historical societies and gift stores around the county, Johnson said.

At the time of the 1918 fires, Thomson Township had been settled by mostly Finnish immigrants and lumberjacks. It was a land of dairy farms, where the families worked around the enormous white pine stumps left behind from the logging era.

Johnson said fellow writer Rodney Ikola found from the 1910 Census that 80 percent of the township residents were Finnish.

"Even in my lifetime, when you went to the Esko Co-op (now Eskomo Pizza Pies), it wasn't unusual to hear people speaking Finnish," Johnson said.

Not all of Thomson Township burned in the fire, which was part of the massive fire that started in Brookston and consumed most of Cloquet before finally ending on the western edge of present-day Proctor and looping around Duluth to the North Shore.

According to first-person accounts of the fire, the official map produced by two public agencies shortly after the fire probably showed it going farther south in Thomson Township — to present-day Esko — than it actually did.

Ikola noted that eyewitnessed living a half-mile north of Esko recalled seeing the fire burn north of their farms, and survivors displaced by the fire were housed at farms not destroyed between the small community of Harney and the Midway River. Farms in Thomson Township north of West Harney Road were hit hardest, Johnson said.

He also called the fire "capricious."

"On some farms, the barn burned but the house didn't. Some neighbors lost everything and another survived because an open potato field served as a natural firebreak," Johnson said. "People have a vision of a long fire line, but it jumped around."

With wind gusts reaching as high as 80 mph carrying burning debris, whether or not a farm burned depended on luck, the location of haystacks and buildings, how good the well was and more.

Johnson said he was most surprised to learn that the residents of Thomson Township all had to fight the fire in the dark.

"It was pitch-black, and they couldn't tell where the roads were because the air was full of smoke and people were disoriented," he said.

Many, like the Konu family, took refuge in the Midway River, bringing all the family members and their cattle into the river.

Included in the book is a 2010 account of his family's experience during and after the fire written by Arvid Konu, who was 3 years old at the time of the fire. Konu said Saturday night was "sauna night," when many of the neighbors and children came to play and enjoy the sauna.

"Looking back now, night was never so dark for the Konus that the dawn of a new day didn't inspire a new dedication of purpose," wrote Konu, who died in 2012. "Not wind, snow, rain or a variety of pestilences, yea, even fire, could alter the goal that Matti (1864-1947), Laura (1876-1962), and their children had set, with the blessings that God had started. Truly there have been many roses amid the thorns. This could be the story of many of the pioneers who survived and built a community, its schools and churches. They set the example for generations of people who followed the early settlers. The Finns call it 'sisu.' Maybe someone else might have a different name for it. It has been my great pleasure to jot down some of these historic facts as told to me by my parents."

The railroad also came to the rescue of many township residents, although on a much smaller scale than in the city of Cloquet:

"Only one railroad, the Duluth Winnipeg and Pacific (DW&P), now the Canadian National, had active operations in the northern part of the township impacted by the fire," Johnson wrote in Chapter 1. "It was along the DW&P track that rescue efforts were made. One DW&P train attempted to travel through the fire from the north. It was stopped by a small burning trestle spanning a small stream just north of the Stark Road, so the train barely made it into the township. As far as is known, that train failed to rescue anyone. A second DW&P train was mobilized from West Duluth, passed through Harney and proceeded as far as the Stark Road where it was stopped by the same burning bridge. It backed up to Harney, picking up fleeing families along the way as well as a group gathered at or near the depot. Jennie Kinnunen Sota (1897-1981) remembered the train blew its whistle continually throughout its rescue attempt, hoping to guide people in the darkness."

Also lost to the fire were records of those who had died before, as the fire burned the wooden crosses marking graves at St. Matthews Church, which was then located at the intersection of North Cloquet Road and Church Avenue. The church was spared, but the cemetery wasn't. The church was used by the Red Cross after the fire as a place where people could come and get food and clothing.

To mark the fire and the loss of cemetery records, the church commissioned a striking new monument, which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Oct. 12, on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 fires.

Davis Helberg wrote about the church and the new black granite monument in the book, explaining how it came to be. It will certainly survive any future fire better than the wooden grave markers it commemorates.

On the front of the monument is a finely etched image of the old church, with a woman in a long dress sitting on the front steps. The inscription reads: "In memory of those buried in unmarked graves in St. Matthews Lutheran Cemetery from 1903-1918."

On the back it reads: "Dedicated to the memory of those persons buried in the unmarked graves on this site between the years 1903-1918. Official documents of these buried here were kept in homes of church members and most were burned in the massive forest fire of Oct. 12, 1918. The wooden markers or crosses were also burned, leaving these graves unmarked. Early records for the burials of this period have come mostly from memory.

"The original church was situated on the west side of the cemetery and was not destroyed even though the fire came within six inches of the church building."

Upcoming 1918 Fire events

• Aug. 1, 6 p.m. — Carlton County Historical Society Director Rachael Martin will present her living history program about Anna Dickie Olesen at the Douglas County Historical Society.

• Aug. 11-12, 1 p.m. — "A Time to Remember," a re-enactment of the 1918 fires experience in Kettle River will be performed during the community's Ma & Pa Kettle Days.

• Aug 25, 1 p.m. — Tom Shandel of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum will present on the role of railroads in the 1918 fires at the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet.