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'Baptism of fire'

People prepare the mass grave at Riverside Cemetery in Moose Lake for the victims of the fires of 1918. Photo courtesy of the Moose Lake Historical Society1 / 5
Fire nurses and the National Guard attend to victims in the wake of the 1918 fire. Photo courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society2 / 5
Friday, Oct. 12, marks 100 years since the devastating fires in northeastern Minnesota. Pictured, damage in Cloquet. Photo courtesy of Carlton County Historical Society3 / 5
Cars in the ditch along the side of a road near Cloquet. Many drivers lost their way in the heavy smoke from the fire and drove off the road. Photo courtesy of Carlton County Historical Society4 / 5
A burned telegraph pole hangs from telegraph wires in Cloquet after the 1918 fires. Photo courtesy of Carlton County Historical Society5 / 5

The largest natural disaster in Minnesota history and the country's second-largest fire disaster occurred 100 years ago Friday, Oct. 12.

Often referred to as the "Cloquet fire" — it was actually more than one fire — it encompassed over 1,500 square miles; consumed 4,089 homes and 35 communities; and resulted in at least 450 deaths in five counties, from Pine County to north of Duluth.

The following are abridged, firsthand accounts from survivors of the 1918 fires in Carlton County.


'The Cloquet Forest Fire'

By Jean Tetu


As I was returning home from work on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1918, I noticed that 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 dread 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. ...

The most horrible sights I ever expect to see were all around. 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 and 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 Cloquet river. I then realized the desperate plight I was in and that I would be extremely lucky to get out of the fire alive. ...

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 reason why so many cars were in the ditch was because 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 pick in the car and hurriedly proceeded across the bridge that 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 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 was 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. ...



By Emmet J. O'Brien, prior to his death in 1977


In 1918, I was a clerk in a railroad office in Minneapolis. The Selective Service law as amended that year required the registration of all males from 18-45. I was 19 years old and in sound health, so I was a prime prospect for military service.

During the summer I had made application for appointment to a training camp for officers, and in September, my application was approved. I was told that the camp to which I would be assigned was in construction and I would not be called to service for a number of months.

Three years of desk work had not equipped me for the physical activity of military life, but the waiting time gave me an opportunity to do something about it. I took a military leave of absence from my work, and through an older brother, found a job in a logging camp operated by his company in northeastern Minnesota.

On Friday, Oct. 11, 1918, I left Minneapolis by train and arrived in the city of Cloquet the same evening. Cloquet was then and is now somewhat under 10,000 in population. Known as the "Home of White Pine," it was headquarters for three large lumber producing companies, for a paper mill and for other woodworking plants. Lumber was produced in five mills located along the river, and all five mills were working around the clock in the war year of 1918. ...

When I arrived in Cloquet on the evening of Oct. 11, the sky was overcast with smoke from brush fires to the north and west of the city. ...

On the morning of Saturday the 12th, a strong wind had made the overcast very much worse. The wind continued to increase in velocity throughout the day, and there was a steady stream of reports of fires going out of control north of the city. About four o'clock in the afternoon, a northbound passenger train was held at Cloquet by the railroad agent as uncontrolled fires were now reported along the railroad and within 20 miles of Cloquet.

At about the same time, at the request of the mayor of the city, the railroad company stationed extra locomotives in the local yards, for use in case of a total emergency.

About six o'clock in the evening, a train made up of freight cars of various types came in from the north carrying farmers and townspeople from locations already struck or threatened by fire. These people refused shelter, as they were convinced from what they had seen that the whole area would suffer before the fires had run their course. Their train continued on its way to Duluth.

Directly in the path of the main fire, should it continue its southward course and reach the city, were lumber storage yards containing millions of feet of dry and drying lumber. There was a chance that the high wind would abate or change its course before it reached this critical area on the edge of the city.

But the violence of the wind did not diminish, nor did it change its course, and about nine o'clock in the evening, the fire reached the first of the lumber yards. From that time, there was no chance to save the city, and total evacuation of the population became an urgent necessity.

Those who had automobiles fled to safety in them. ...

The railroad area was temporarily out of the path of the fire, and the loading of people into railroad cars began. ...

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.

The high sides of the gondola cars presented difficulties to those of us who were helping people into them. We could do nothing more than get each person above our shoulders in some manner and heave him or her over the side, hoping that the people already in the car would provide a safe landing to the new arrival.

Horses for hauling lumber in and out of the yards were stabled in two barns at widely separated points, both adjacent to lumber yards. One barn containing 94 horses was in direct line of fire as it roared southward.

Two men, both officials of the lumber producing companies, reached this barn ahead of the fire. They hoped that they would have time to release all of the horses before the fire arrived, 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, let them out of the barn, 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. All of the horses in the other barn perished in the fire. ...

After only a few days, I was called for assignment to an infantry camp to be opened in California. My departure from Minneapolis was to be Nov. 15; the armistice was signed on the 11th; the camp was not opened, and I was back at my desk before Christmas helping to keep the trains moving.

My "baptism of fire" was experienced within 200 miles of my home instead of on the battlefields of France.


'My experience in the Cloquet fire of 1918'

By Elise Cook Wenzel

Klamath Falls, Ore.

I was a very busy lady the afternoon of Oct. 12, 1918, getting in the few rows of potatoes that had not been dug and put in the basement.

The wind began to blow quite badly and was gradually getting worse and it looked very smoky towards the west. ...

In the early evening, I went down to a nearby grocery store and bought a few supplies, and among them was a beef roast. I told the storekeeper, in a laughing way, that there wasn't any use for him to charge me for the things, as they were all going to be burned anyway. Of course, neither one of us thought it would be that bad, but I heard afterward that when he left the city to flee from the flames, he didn't even lock up his store. There was no use to.

When I got home, they had heard that the west end of town was burning, and it wasn't long after that when a man came by in a car and shouted out for everybody to go to the railroad tracks, where they had trains to take people out of town. Well, my husband said he wasn't going, but would stay there and try and save our little home, so then we stayed also.

About this time, our eldest boy, who had been scouting around downtown seeing just how bad the fire was, came home and told us he thought the whole city was going, by the looks of things. So we began filling up wash tubs and boiler, and every other thing we could get our hands on, with water. I went in the basement and brought up a few cans of fruit and put them in the boiler of water.

My boy dug a few trenches in the back yard, and put in some dishes, guns and some other small articles, also a deer head we had mounted. He didn't get this covered good enough, though, for when he dug it out next day, there was a fringe of hair burned around it, and one prong was brittle and broke. We still have that deer head, and I often tell folks out here how it got that way. ...

Earlier in the evening, I had thought of the baby pictures of my two boys, so when I saved those, I also got other pictures out that I thought the world of. We also saved a Kodak with which we took some pictures in the morning. ...

After it got daylight, the few people that were left in the fields went back to where their homes had been the night before. It was a gray-looking sight, ashes wherever one looked, and the trees were all bent in the positions the wind had blown them, and of course, were all burned, too. We took a picture of our stone foundation, where our home had stood, and later on, my boys went into the basement, after the ashes had cooled, and held up the wheel and frame of my grandmother's old Domestic Sewing Machine, and we took a picture of them, also. ...

Soon, the Red Cross got busy, and furnished each family with enough lumber for a small shack, a cook stove, table, chairs, bedding, cooking utensils, etc. I haven't forgotten what the Red Cross did for us, and whenever possible, I join, and get my button.

In less than a month we had our shack built, so we could move in it, and then I got the "flu," which nearly everyone had at that time. I was feeling blue anyway, having received news of my brother's death of flu in the service, and it just seemed as if nothing mattered much. ...

I will always think of my brother on Armistice Day, as his body was shipped back home, and he was buried on this day. I heard the whistles blowing while in the cemetery and didn't, at that time, know what it was all about. ...