If any good came from the devastation the fire brought, it was in the compassion and generosity people from neighboring towns, across the state, nation and even other countries showed the residents of the affected areas.
Pine City was one of the first towns to offer their assistance. Mayor A.G. Perkins held a meeting with all the Pine City residents in an effort to organize a relief effort immediately. John Hurley was named as chairman of the newly organized committee. Each member of the committee was assigned a job and two hours later the town and their plans were organized. Buildings throughout town had been put to use. The skating rink became a hospital, the town hall a clothing headquarters, others served meals or were used as a place for the refugees to stay.
In Duluth much of the same was happening. Those that arrived by trains were met at the station by people wanting to help. The Armory was the center of the relief effort in Duluth. It was here the refugees found shelter, food and clothing. Churches, hospitals and many of Duluth’s citizens opened their doors and helped take care of the nearly 1,200 refugees that had fled to their city.
Help started coming just hours after the fire. Men volunteered to help search for the missing and dead, women stepped up to feed, clothe and nurse the wounded. However, the number of wounded was more than could be handled by the small neighboring communities alone. On Sept. 5, 1894, Minnesota Governor Knute Nelson issued a “Relief Proclamation.” Charles Pillsbury was elected as chairman of the State Relief Commission. Pillsbury was in charge of receiving and distributing funds and supplies received from all over.
A system of distributing clothes, meals, supplies and transportation was developed by the State Relief Commission. The system included meal tickets, requisitions for clothing and registration of refugees. This system of registration was the work of appointed local agents that recorded personal information on each individual or family seeking temporary aid and would later become the foundation for requests for more permanent relief efforts.
Several days after the fire, tent cities and temporary structures such as cook houses and relief headquarters were constructed at each of the cities impacted by the fire. The process of registering and providing permanent relief was put on hold in Hinckley and Sandstone by a business idea and negotiations being conducted by the Hill family.
Under question was the location of the Eastern Railway Depot. At this time a Building Association was in place in Hinckley as they prepared a system to rebuild the town, their first goal was to determine where the railroad depots would be located to help determine the locations of future homes and businesses. A standstill over the location of the Great Northern and Eastern Railway Depots took place. Eastern Railway owner, James J. Hill, and his manager and son-in-law, Samuel Hill, were in the midst of plans to move the depot, not to a new location in Hinckley, but to the neighboring town of Sandstone.
This deal would not work out for another few months, as the Pine County Courier would later report on the purchase of the Sandstone Quarry by Hill in their Dec. 27, 1894, issue. Despite this delay, and the movement of the Eastern Railway Depot closer to the roundhouse, building continued. By October, Hinckley reported that 150 homes were in some stage of construction with 100 more planned to begin.
The system devised to provide relief for those trying to rebuild was a complicated one. Local agents gathered the following information in order to begin the process of administration: name, birth place, members of family, residence, occupation, losses and property salvaged, status of property ownership, insurance and assets, references, needs and future plans. Difficulty arose when determining land ownership, so R. C. Saunders of Hinckley, a Pine County attorney was appointed to research land titles. Of particular concern was the building of relief homes on property that was heavily mortgaged so that others would benefit from state aid. Saunders’ goal was to secure for each registered person a small parcel of land with a clear title, if this was not possible Saunders would work to find a free or cheap piece of land where they could build.
Prior to starting any investigations of land ownership or administering permanent relief the State Relief Commission determined that they would need a set of guidelines. The following eight policies were put in place to assist the commission on their complex task:
• Local agents would be appointed and given exclusive power to make decisions on individual cases except when the help of the entire committee was needed.
• Relief was not to be considered as fire insurance to reimburse individuals or families to the extent of their losses, nor was anyone to be better off after the fire than before as a result of state relief.
• Local agents should give out aid in a friendly, supportive manner so as not to undermine the self-respect and initiative of fire sufferers.
• All possible assistance and incentives should be given fire sufferers to become self-supporting and independent as soon as possible.
• Fire sufferers should be given employment whenever possible in rebuilding and carrying on relief measures.
• Local agents should adopt a policy of generous aid to hasten the rehabilitation of individuals and families before the approach of winter.
• Fire sufferers should be urged to return to their former locations, but if they want to go elsewhere, they should be given from $20 to $25 for each family member. Single men should be given the same amount and outfitted with a suit of clothes.
• Those who held fire insurance on their property should receive no state relief unless the insurance was far less than the relief they were entitled to receive.
Relief was administered by providing a particular set of goods to each applicant based on their registration information. A basic plan for a 16 x 24 foot house was adopted, each of these cost between $95 and $150 to construct. All of this was dependent on the size of the family, additions or lean-tos were built for large families. Generally no homes for single men were built and those having small or “shack” homes prior to the fire were given $40 to $100 worth of lumber to build with. Carpentry costs to build one of these homes was $35, if families were able to build their own home they were given that amount in cash.
When completed, these homes were equipped with basic furnishings and a three-month supply of food. Household utensils, dishes, bedding, linens, tools and hardware were also provided. Some families with many children were given a cow and some intending to farm were given a team of horses. The Commission also needed to provide the families given livestock enough feed for the animals to get through the winter. An attempt was made to purchase sewing machines, but the relief money would not extend that far.
In total, the amount of state aid that is estimated to have been disbursed, including money, donated materials and free transportation was $184,744. A total of 2,636 people were reported as having been given aid. Of this $184,744, $96,458.69 was in cash contributions $70,147.50 came from Minnesota, $14,711.19 came from other states and $11,600 came from other countries. The efforts to rebuild Pine County were international, the news of the Great Fire spread far and wide and the impact of the inferno was felt long after the flames were gone.