Weather Forecast


Area observes 95th anniversary of Fire of 1918

Photos courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society1 / 4
2 / 4
3 / 4
Photos courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society4 / 4

When most people think of Oct. 12, they think of Columbus Day. If you ask an old-timer about Oct. 12, memories of the 1918 Fire still leap to mind.

It started as a beautiful fall day with clear, crisp October bright blue skies stretching from horizon to horizon. It was extremely dry. No rain had fallen for weeks and small fires burned sporadically throughout St. Louis and Carlton counties. Rural families busy with the fall harvest noticed smoke filling the air and the sky reddening. A strong wind whipped the flames higher and faster into a cyclone force.

Cloquet burned completely. Only a school, the paper mill and a few houses survived. The town had to be completely rebuilt. My mother's hometown of Wright had two trains at the station, one facing each way, ready to evacuate the town at a moment's notice. The sky was dark as night.

Unaware of the approaching fire, people in Twig, Pike Lake, Munger and other communities outside Duluth were startled when strangers knocked on their doors to warn them about what was coming. Many families took to the highway in automobiles, trucks, farm wagons, and on foot. Vehicles picked up so many passengers it was hardly safe to move. The air filled with smoke making visibility difficult, and chunks of burning trees fell onto the roadway, blocking their progress. Near Pike Lake many vehicles ran off the road at a difficult turn in the highway. It was later called "Dead Man's Curve."

At Pike Lake, people took boats into the water only to have falling trees set their boats on fire. Other boats capsized with the strong winds. Many drowned who tried to escape into the water.

On farms many families stayed home trying to save their buildings and livestock. Some hid in root cellars only to be suffocated. One family in Kettle River survived the fire in their root cellar, but it got so hot that all the jars of freshly canned blueberries burst, covering them in glass and blue sauce.

Local histories tell how other farmers pumped their arms sore getting pail after pail full of water to soak their homes and barns. People wrapped wet blankets around themselves to keep from getting burned. Letting their livestock out of the barns, some families observed how the animals put their heads under the plowed soil. This kept them from inhaling the thick smoke and hot air. People did the same. Wrapped in wet blankets with their heads in the soil, many people and animals survived the fire.

As vehicles approached Duluth on the highway, so did the flames of the fire. Gnesen Township was hard hit. I heard the story of a Polish family forced to run through the burning underbrush with their valued heirlooms in hand, throwing away clocks and photo albums on the way.

The fire went through the Duluth neighborhood of Woodland, burning Cobb Elementary School to the ground. Growing up in Woodland myself, I could see evidence of the 1918 Fire in virtually every block in the community. Sidewalks and cement stairs leading to nowhere, lilacs and peonies blooming in empty lots, and neighbors' stories of how things were before the fire painted a picture of widespread destruction.

As the fire approached Hunter's Park, residents flocked to save Washburn Elementary School. With a fire hose aimed at the wooden roof, a bucket brigade below, and seemingly every blanket in Hunter's Park soaked and thrown on the roof, they saved the school from burning. It is still in use as a private school today. Then the fire went over the hill into Lakeside. In its path sat Northland Country Club.

A few years ago I visited with John Peyton, now deceased, who was from an old established Duluth family. He was a boy during the 1918 Fire. On Oct. 12, 1918, he was home alone with his chauffeur. The chauffeur, fearing the boy's safety, suggested they "go for a drive." John remembered driving along Skyline Parkway, where the fire appeared to fizzle out, sparing the city of Duluth below. As they drove further east on the parkway, they saw the fire cross the road ahead of them, leap across the grounds of Northland Country Club and burn the clubhouse to the ground. The fire continued down the hill in Lakeside, stopping at Lake Superior.

The fire continued to burn for almost a week until rain put it out. Duluth and Superior hospitals filled to capacity as fire victims plus the 1918 flu epidemic victims filled all the available beds. The overflow was housed in the new Duluth Armory built in 1915. Cots lined the floors and volunteers served as nurses.

The toll of the 1918 Fire exceeded 400 local deaths, 600 throughout the area. More than 50,000 people were affected, 2,100 injured and 11,000 families registered for help. Damages ran into millions of dollars as 4,000 private homes and 41 schools burned. During the four most devastating days, five major fires burned 1,500 square miles of land. At the time, the 1918 Fire was the costliest natural

disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Later ships on the Atlantic reported smelling smoke from the Minnesota fire. My mother recalled that sugar, coffee and flour tasted like smoke for a year after. It was a Columbus Day to


This column originally appeared in the Senior Reporter and was republished with the editor's permission.

Moose Lake commemorates 95th anniversary of 1918 Fire

The Moose Lake Area Historical Society will offer several activities Oct. 11-13 commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Fires of 1918.

On Friday, Oct. 11, "Fire Among the Stones," a one-act play written by Dan Reed, will be performed at 7 p.m. at the Fires of 1918 Museum, 900 Folz Blvd., Moose Lake. Admission is $10 for adults and $7 for students. At dusk, a ceremonial Lighting of the Luminaries will take place, and refreshments will be served. Luminaries are available for $5.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, a narrated historic bus tour will begin at 10 a.m. from the Fires of 1918 Museum, highlighting important fire properties. The tour will include visits to Split Rock, Automba, Kalevala, Kettle River and Silver townships, returning to Moose Lake Park and the Fire Monument at Riverside Cemetery in Moose Lake. There will be a brief rest stop at the Suomalainen Kirkko in Kalevala with refreshments served. Reservations are required and the tour must be pre-paid. There will be a bag lunch at the museum upon return. Cost is $18 for the tour and lunch.

A Program of Remembrance will be held at 1:30 p.m. at the museum, featuring Cathy Wurzer of Minnesota Public Radio and music by Tony Tracy, with excerpts of fire stories and other remembrances. Refreshments will be served.

On Sunday, Oct. 13, an ecumenical prayer service will be held at 1 p.m. in the Moose Lake City Park, at the lakeshore, followed by coffee and doughnuts. Survivors of the 1918 Fire held a prayer service on the shores of the lake the morning after the fire.

At 3 p.m., the Fires of 1918 Film Festival will take place in Lake Theater, Moose Lake, featuring a variety of videos about the fire. A free-will offering will be accepted.

For more information, visit or call 218-485-4145.

1918 Fire Program at CCHS

The Carlton County Historical Society commemorates the 95th Anniversary of the 1918 Fire with a program by author Francis Carroll on Sunday, Oct. 13, at 1 p.m. at the CCHS museum in Cloquet.

Carroll, author of "Fires of Autumn" and other books on Carlton County history, grew up in Cloquet and worked at Wood Conversion Company and Northwest Paper Company. He received his Ph.D. from Trinity College in Dublin and became Professor of History at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Carroll's power point program will be shown in the "Fires of 1918" exhibit area and will include many more photos of the Cloquet portion of the fire. After the program Carroll will autograph books he has written for the CCHS and refreshments will be served.

Also on view is the museum's newest exhibit "Home for the Holidays," which includes the museum's entire collection of World War II uniforms. The exhibit's theme shows how important it is for service men and women to come home for the holidays.

Regular admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children under 12 and no charge for children under 5 and CCHS members. For more information, call 218-879-1938.