A phoenix from the ashes

As help poured in from all over the world the rebuilding process began in the fire stricken areas of Pine County.

One of the first things to be rebuilt was the railroad. It was a lifeline to the communities and key to delivery of grain, lumber and other merchandise to areas between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Work crews began making repairs immediately; they worked day and night to get the lines up and running again.

L.J. Miller, assistant general manager of the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad,  said the losses to the fire included: 22 miles of track, 18 miles of fence, 22,000 ties, a 90 foot bridge over the Grindstone River and three culverts and trestles. Also included in the losses were Miller station and of course the Hinckley depot and yards, two section hoses, a water tank and pump house, a coal bin, turntable and engine house. The cars of the Limited No. 4 were a total loss and Engine 69 was damaged, 32 freight cars standing in yards were also destroyed. It was reported the losses totaled $57,000, in today’s dollars that would be equivalent to approximately $1,700,442.56.

Yardmaster Dave Williams and his crew worked from Duluth to Skunk Lake and Transportation Director,  E.L. Brown worked north from Mission Creek. The two teams met on Sept. 3 at approximately 5:25 p.m. The line was declared open at 6 p.m., at 7 p.m. the first train was able to go through Hinckley on its way to Duluth.

The losses on the Eastern Minnesota Railway were much greater. Two days after the fire, the line had been opened between Duluth and Partridge, but the biggest problem area was the section of line between Partridge and Hinckley. This section suffered the most damage, including the Kettle River Bridge.

On Sept. 4, James J. Hill sent a wire to General Manager W.C. Farrington at Duluth. The wire said, “Do not hesitate to put on all the men that can work and get material on the ground from the most convenient places.”

On Sept. 7 the rebuilding process began on the bridge, 300 men worked day and night, using the light from eight locomotives to see. One crew worked from the north and the other from the south. Just after midnight on Sept. 16, only nine days after construction began, the first train since Barry and Best crossed on the day of the fire, traveled across the Kettle River Bridge. The bridge was only out of commission for a total of 15 days. Losses reported for the Eastern line were estimated at $96,000, which calculates to $2,863,903.26 in today’s dollars. James J.  Hill reported the loss to only be $80,000 of which $60,000 was covered by insurance.


Back in Hinckley a tent city had been set up to house men returning to bury the dead and begin rebuilding. A cook shanty was erected and used to feed these men. When the lumber arrived, merchants and businessmen started to rebuild. There was a race among them to see who would be the first to open. The barber shop won the race with the saloon coming in a close second.

It was reported that by Oct. 5, 150 homes were going up and almost 100 more were to be started soon. As the homes were finished, the women and children of Hinckley were allowed to return, giving the town a semblance of normalcy. When enough children had returned to the area a temporary school was set up in one of the relief buildings. Classes were held in two shifts, the younger children attended class with Miss Craig from 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and the older ones from 12:45 - 5:30 p.m. with Professor M.S. Collins.

On Dec. 19, 1894, Editor Angus Hay published the first edition of the Hinckley Enterprise after the fire. The headline read, “15 years work in 15 minutes.” Hay wrote: “The fire did in fifteen minutes what it would have taken the husbandman 15 years to accomplish. All nature is with us; it seemingly knew our needs, and came to clear the land. Come and see; no word can tell the opportunity afforded the farmer here since fire... Hinckley with her enterprise and energy will welcome the industrious home-seeker, but spurns the approach of a drone; industry only may enter here.”

Life in Hinckley was certainly not luxurious the winter after the fire. The relief homes were small and drafty. Each family had been given only a minimum amount of furniture and supplies to tide them over until they could provide for themselves. Groceries were given out three months at a time and consisted of only the basic staples.

On May 1, 1895, the new town hall was dedicated. It was a two story building, with the council chambers on the second floor and the fire department on the ground floor. The Waterous engine, with which Fire Chief Craig and his men had attempted to fight the firestorm, had been rebuilt and was ready to take on any fires that might arise.

These words, spoken by Hay at the dedication seemed to echo the feelings of the citizens:

 “We look with pride upon our village hall, emblem of protection and justice. With justifiable pride we gaze upon it, for, has it not arisen to assert once more man’s superiority to circumstances? To show that come what will, man, if he cannot face the storm, can at least hide till it is over and then appear on the scene, determined to do his part…

Our town will stand though a thousand destructions come upon us, and in its midst our temple which we dedicate tonight to the cause of justice...God made the world, but we built Hinckley.”

Brook Park

After the fire the city of St. Cloud had voted to “adopt” Brook Park. In doing so they donated goods and money directly to the town, bypassing the State Commission. Not all of the former residents of Brook Park wanted to stay and rebuild, but those who did were determined to rebuild the town.


With the reconstruction of the Kettle River Bridge, Sandstone was once again connected to the railroad. While other towns hit by the fire were greatly impacted by the loss of the timber industry, Sandstone had other resources, the quarry.

During the reconstruction of the town James J. Hill and Samuel Hill, his son-in-law, worked to negotiate a deal to secure a large interest in the Sandstone Quarry. While this negotiation impacted the rebuilding of Hinckley, the potential railroad increase and funding for the quarry did not hinder progress in Sandstone. The divide of the Great Northern Railway in 1895 was moved from Hinckley to Sandstone.

A large amount of the timber surrounding Sandstone had already been harvested when the 1894 fire hit. Orders for sandstone were still pouring in from all over the world at the time of the fire and during recovery. There was no question about Sandstone’s recovery.

The townsite was moved north and west of the original for a closer proximity to the Great Northern Railroad tracks. Years after the fire, foundations and cellars of the original town could be seen on the southeast boundary of the village. Over fifty relief houses were built in the fall of 1894. A report to Mark E. Robey from Charles Edstrom said that some of the earliest homes built were those for Jans Kruse, J. F. Flood, Chris Heisler and C. F. Anderson.

By early 1895, there were two hotels, a mercantile, a drug store and seven saloons. All to serve the ever increasing population brought to Sandstone to work in the quarry.

One block of land near the center of town was given by the Townsite Company to Sandstone to construct a one-room frame school house. By the turn of 1895 this school house was complete, as soon as August 1895 the town was holding a special board meeting and a bond issue vote to construct a bigger school. Sandstone had quickly outgrown the one-room school house. December 19, 1895, was the deadline for the new school to be completed, within five years this new school would also prove too small.

Occasionally referred to as the “phoenix” town in newspapers at the time, Sandstone rose out of the ashes of the 1894 fire. Farmers, quarry workers and businessmen continued to arrive in Sandstone long after the 1894 rebuilding process ended. The flurry of construction wouldn’t end for years to come.

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