Fire of 1918 still burns bright in memories of many

October 12, 1918, is a date that that still remains embedded not only in the minds of local school children - but in the memories of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

October 12, 1918, is a date that that still remains embedded not only in the minds of local school children - but in the memories of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

The day the Great Fire of 1918 bore down on Cloquet, Moose Lake and surrounding areas was no doubt the single greatest turning point in the history of the county.

Though actual first-hand accounts of that day are becoming fewer and further between, each year residents, old timers and historians unearth new accounts and experiences of that life-changing day - and remember back to the time when "the awfullest fire in Cloquet history" wreaked havoc on the land.

(Editor's note: The following historical account was written by Emmet J. O'Brien of Minneapolis prior to his death in 1977. Just before the outbreak of the Fires of 1918, he had enlisted in military service and found a job in a logging camp in northeastern Minnesota while he was awaiting the call to report to officer's training. On Friday, Oct. 11, 1918, he left Minneaplis by train and arrived in the city of Cloquet the same evening. A relative recently came across this typewritten account of the fire in his memoirs.)

When I arrived in Cloquet on the evening of October 11th, the sky was overcast with smoke from brush fires to the north and west of the city. Brush fires in this part of the country were not unusual, especially in the fall, but what was unusual was the extreme dryness of the country following a prolonged rainless period.


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 f 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 cards of various types came in from the north carrying farmers and townspeople from locations already struck or threatened by fires. 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. But most of the people had to depend on the trains which could be assembled, using locomotives which had been providentially secured earlier in the day.

The railroad area was temporarily out of the path of the fire, and the loading of people into railroad cars began. There were four or five passenger cars including the coaches from the northbound train which had been halted during the afternoon. These heated cars gave protection to as many of the sick, women with children, and the very old, as could be crowed into them; the rest of the people had to find transportation in open gondola type freight cars.

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, led 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.

While this was going on the city was being destroyed. From the burning lumber yards flaming timbers borne by a 65-mile wind were flying through the air like shooting stars setting simultaneous fires in various parts of the city. It was a spectacular if terrible sight, and one not readily forgotten by those who saw it. Soon the lumber yards farther down the river were ablaze adding their pyrotechnics as more flaming timbers flew through the turbulent night air. Total destruction of the business district did not take long, each building exploding or collapsing with a great puff of smoke or gas under the impact of the roaring fire.

The fire eventually reached the railroad tracks and the continued loading of people into freight cars had to be done while the trains were moving slowing away from danger. At about 10:45 p.m. the railroad area provided its own spectacular as oil tanks along the tracks exploded lighting up the night sky with one vast orange flame.

Before midnight all were aboard who could come aboard and the trains began to move out of the city. Faming embers continued to fly through the air, and there were burning cross-ties under the railroad tracks, but the hazard for the people was over as the trains cleared the city and the zone of fire.

For a disaster of this magnitude, and considering the very large number of people who were ill, the loss of life in Cloquet was not great, fewer than 20 names appearing on the list of local fatalities. Property loss was enormous. The business and residential areas were destroyed. The vast stores of lumber were a total loss. Two sawmills, the paper mill, and a woodworking plant, all located in a bend of the river, escaped destruction. The rest of the industrial area was wiped out.

What we didn't know at the time was that fires were general throughout a large section of northeastern Minnesota, and other communities suffered a much larger loss of life, if not of property. The fires which devastated northeastern Minnesota on October 12-13, 1918, have gone into the record books as the Cloquet forest fire, with total loss of life estimated at 400.

The foresight of the people responsible for providing the motive power needed for getting the trains out of danger was a decisive factor in keeping the Cloquet casualty list down.

The refugee trains reached Duluth and Superior and the people in these two cities rose to the occasion in a magnificent manner providing temporary shelter and food to all who needed it.


There isn't much to add to the story. I finally got to work in a logging camp inland from Lake Superior and about 50 miles from Duluth. After only a few days I was called for assignment to an infantry camp to be opened in California. My departure date from Minneapolis was to be November 15th; 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 by fire" was experienced within 200 miles of my home instead of on the battlefields of France.

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