A story of fire and survival still being told

The devestation of the fire caused tremendous harm, but also taught valuable lessons for Minnesota’s future.

While the forests of Pine County were scorching and burning on Sept. 1, 1894, no one could have predicted the impact the Great Hinckley Fire had on the future of Pine County and the world.

The State Relief Commission ended their duties in Hinckley in May of 1895. Five local men were left in charge of the funds to rebuild the roads and bridges in the area. Settlers opened up new territory by purchasing land at prices ranging from $3-$10 per acre.

As the weather warmed, after a long hard winter, farmers began clearing the land and planting fields. The state approved money for seeds and provided free potato, vegetable and flower seeds for anyone who wished to plant a garden. Villagers were encouraged to beautify the town by painting their homes, planting trees and flowers and building fences.

The crops produced in the area the summer of 1895 were bountiful. The harvests were so plentiful they ran out of room to store the grain and root vegetables. Record crops were reported all over the area.

Angus Hay, editor of the Hinckley Enterprise, wrote of the town’s renewed grandeur in an October issue: “Hinckley is a queen. Without any pomp or parade, she is steadily growing more majestic. She has passed through the fever of fire. Her future is as bright as the jewels in her crown. No tarnish on the band of gold, no wrinkle on her brow. Her subjects are as true, as brave and as loving as ever wore a subject’s charm. Supreme, grand, but modest, she is still a queen upon her throne.”

Relief was quick to come for the survivors of the fire; aid poured in from all around the world, and media coverage from all over the United States showed up in what had once been the logging capital of Minnesota’s white pine forests.

For the environment, recovery and help was not as fast.

During the fire, animals were stopped in their tracks by flames, trees burned to cinders in minutes and as far as the eye could see, black ash covered everything. The fire was so hot that the very air was pulled from small spaces and flames were four miles high. Anything that could fuel the flames was at risk, including the very earth. A family living on a hill between Finlayson and Sandstone during the fire reported that the very air seemed to be burning.

Forestry practice of the time was a process focusing on speed. Timber was in high demand, so the faster it could be harvested, cut and sold, the faster more could be moved to markets. The practice at the time was a precarious one. Trees were felled, branches were trimmed, and logs were marked with a sledge hammer bearing the markings of the timber cutter or logging company. Slash, the branches cut from the tree trunks after they were felled, was left where it was cut. The profit brought by the logs was of more importance.

Timber thievery was also a reality during that time. Loggers not affiliated with a company would enter an area owned by someone else, fell trees, trim the branches and mark the logs. Sometimes they would try to cover their tracks of stumps and slash by setting it aflame. This is one of the suspected causes of the Great Hinckley Fire.

The piles of slash combined with the dry conditions clearly had disastrous results for the area. A white pine forest, like the one that was being so successfully harvested in Minnesota at the time, will not immediately return when burned. Pine and most coniferous trees reproduce through seeds. Fires like the Hinckley Fire burn long and hot enough to destroy not only the trees, but also the seeds and sometimes even the soil itself.

Environmental Changes

Nutrients that were abundant in the soil before the fire were lost due to the intensity of the fire. According to Jeff Tyson, an interpretive naturalist at St. Croix State Park, scheduled, low intensity fires are beneficial for the environment. However, permanent alterations to the soil happen at 400 degrees Celsius. The Hinckley Fire rose to about 1,100 degrees Celsius. “The clay and sand particles are fused, making the soil more coarse and more susceptible to erosion,” said Tyson.  

A forest recovery takes time; the initial stages of regrowth are comprised of ground cover. This stage allows nutrients that had been removed by the intense heat to return while also preventing more soil erosion from wind and water. Eventually larger plants and grasses return to the area. Finally, after a very long wait, trees return. Although it is very unlikely that the same types of trees will be the first to regrow.

“The Hinckley Fire was a catalyst for change in forest management in Minnesota. Our logging practices have changed a lot since the Hinckley Fire,” said Tyson. “Our capacity to detect and fight fires in their early stages is vastly improved. We now know that fire suppression is a poor land management practice. With prescribed burns we can manage the fuel load of dead branches on the ground. These changes make another fire on the scale of the Hinckley Fire unlikely,” he concluded.

New industries

With the loss of its towering white pine forests to the fire, a way was cleared for farmers, quarrymen and turpentine.

While devastating, the Hinckley Fire had a diversifying impact on the industries of Pine County. Logging no longer reigned supreme and other professions brought new workers to the area. Even though the fire was 125 years ago, we still see the smoky impressions of what changes were made after all was lost to the flames. We see the change in the area farms and the Sandstone Quarry.

What is now known as Cloverdale was in 1894 called Turpville. It was named this because of the Standard Turpentine plant which was owned and operated by the Copilovich brothers. The fire left thousands of burned out stumps and timber. Local settlers would extract pine tar and oil of tar from the burned out stumps and bring it to the plant where the turpentine was made. The industry lasted for several years until the near supply of stumps became exhausted.

Changing laws

In 1895 General Christopher Columbus Andrews used the Great Hinckley Fire as an example and appealed for the public control of forests, for better fire protection and for restoration of the forests by careful use. A bill, which was the work of Andrews, was introduced and provided for the creation of a forest commission.

The legislature, in an effort to be “economical”, assigned the State Auditor the job of Forest Commissioner with no increase in salary. The Auditor was authorized to appoint a Chief Fire Warden who would have the authority to enforce the laws they passed for the preservation of forests of this state and for the prevention and suppression of forest and prairie fires.”

Andrews was appointed Chief Fire Warden. His primary duties were to entrust new fire wardens with their duties and to receive their reports. He was given a salary of $1,200 per year and given the authority to prevent and extinguish fires. His budget was only $6,000 per year, with an additional $5,000 for fire emergencies. This was not adequate to cover the 20 million acres of forest land in Minnesota.   

In 1897 some officials made an attempt to repeal the law of 1895, with no success other than the budget being cut down to $5,000. In 1899 the legislature appointed a State Forestry Board to manage state timber land. At times Andrews struggled in his position, sometimes to even keep the legislature from abolishing the position all together. He tried to get laws in place that would require logging companies to remove their slashings which were potential fuel for a fire. Andrews could not get this law passed.

On Oct. 7, 1910, the towns of Baudette and Spooner were struck by wildfire whose source was slash fires that had been left smoldering. The fire burned more than 30,000 acres of land and killed 42 people.

This fire helped the government realize the need to manage forest practices in Minnesota. In 1911, funds were approved by the legislature to create the Minnesota Forestry Service, which is what we know today as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Forestry. In addition to wildfire prevention, the newly created service was put in charge of forest conservation. It began setting aside land for state forests and planting trees to replace those cut down by loggers. In 1924, the Minnesota State Legislature also passed a constitutional amendment to encourage reforestation.

When Andrews left office he said, “Work to prevent fire is but one part of forestry. One of my duties was to bring the cause of forestry in all its phases before the public.”

There is little better illustration for the loss and gain in Pine County than a quote by Angus Hay: “When we again hear the song of birds in the summer, and the golden grain is being gathered in autumn from the fertile soil around Hinckley, the tale of the great Hinckley fire will be still being told.”

Editor’s note: This will be the final installment of our series on the Hinckley Fire of 1894. During our time writing and researching our stories, we relied on a list of resources that we want to share with you. Our resources in text came from: From the Ashes: the Story of the Hinckley Fire by Grace Stageberg Swenson, Burning of an Empire by Stewart H. Holbrook, Wall of Flames by Lawrence H. Larsen, Sandstone: The Quarry City by Muriel Langseth, Hinckley and the Fire of 1894 by Alaina Wolter Lyseth, The Hinckley Fire by Antone A. Anderson and Clara Anderson McDermott, Eld-Cyklonen or Hinckley Fire, The New York Times Archives, Minnesota Historical Society Newspaper Archives, The Hinckley Fire Museum Archives and Early Sandstone and Its Schools by Ellen Walker.

Special thanks go to the Hinckley Fire Museum for their help, willingness to give us unlimited access to their resources and unending support. Also, thanks go to you, our readers who have taken the time to read this series and to let us know how much you, as well as us, have learned from it and how much you have appreciated it. Your comments have meant the world to us.

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