September 1, 2019, will mark the 125th anniversary of the Great Hinckley Fire. In remembrance of this day that scorched the communities we live in, we are writing a series of articles detailing the events of that day. Each will be from either a different perspective or location. All can be read separately, but together it is our goal to create a complete picture of the events that took place 125 years ago.
The Barry-Best train pushed on north after their narrow escape crossing the Kettle River Bridge. A firestorm was still licking at their heels and both engineers knew that stopping for any length of time this close to where they had escaped would be a mistake. Through the flame riddled woods they continued on their journey north to Duluth and rescue.
Along their way, in the woods of northern Pine County, they passed through several smaller hamlets. The first of these after Sandstone and their heroic trudge across that burning gulf was Partridge, now known as Askov.
At the time, in 1894, Partridge consisted of a few lumber companies, several homes, a hotel, two stores, a freight and passenger depot with a telegraph station, a section house and water tank. The town was made up of five families with the population totaling approximately 50 residents.
According to Grace Stageberg Swenson’s book, “From the Ashes,” the telegraph station was managed by 28-year-old Mary Boyington whose husband ran the hotel. Boyington noted that the southbound train of William Best was on schedule despite the murky blackness of the sky, the train went through Partridge at exactly 2:56 p.m. Two hours later, the train returned loaded with survivors from Hinckley.
Once again, as was the case in Sandstone, the residents of Partridge refused to get on the Barry-Best train despite the warnings from those on board. After a brief stop, the train moved on and the residents of Partridge were left behind.
Twenty minutes later, according to eyewitness accounts, the fire approached. Residents of Partridge then decided to load up in several trollycars and hurry north to a burned clearing three miles away to the remnants of an old logging camp. This burned out clearing saved the residents of Partridge. Flames swirled around them, but all of the inhabitants except one are said to have survived the firestorm in this clearing. The one casualty, Robert Burns, died on the way to this safe haven. From their refuge they saw their homes turned to ash as the great fire swept past them. In this clearing they remained until a relief train from the north came and took them to West Superior.
One survivor described the scene. “The smoke had gathered again and thickened into a grayish black mass...We had barely reached our place of refuge when the great wall of smoke behind us split, or rather was flung asunder and a blood-red flame of fire shot out like a flash of lightning...We saw a sea of fire as far as the eye could scan. A short time before a mighty green forest had stood there, proudly waving its crowns. To our inexpressible joy we saw that our place of refuge offered a safe harbor, as the fire billowed on both sides but was unable to reach or harm us and at the edge of the clearing to the south, the waves of fire fell powerless.” They had survived. They stayed there until 1 a.m. when they heard the whistle of a freight train which had come from West Superior.
North of Sandstone there were small farms deep in the woods, these farm families did not have the benefit of a warning from the Barry-Best train pulling into the station or a railroad to escape north on. They had to do what they could with the little warning they had.
In the woods around Finlayson
East of Partridge and north of Sandstone was Finlayson. Accounts of the fire touching the town vary, one newspaper account of a much later historical marker ceremony said that all buildings within the town were spared and no fire touched them. When the fire reached this point it curved and headed to the west. Within the woods surrounding Finlayson there are several stories of survivors.
Mrs. A. G. Crocker is credited with saving many people both during and after the fire. Her home was one of the only left standing in the area and she opened it up to those left homeless after the destruction had passed. As the fire approached the Crocker home many people from surrounding homes used the pond on the Crocker property for shelter from the coming inferno. Mrs. Crocker compelled all the grown men, boys and many of the women in the pond to help put out the blaze that had started on her home. Afterwards the resourceful Mrs. Crocker gathered up all the food to be had in her home and set about sharing it with all there.
Her home was the only one within the area said to have survived the fire. Weary and exhausted Mrs. Crocker and the refuge seekers at her home headed south along the tracks. After boarding a relief train in Hinckley bound for Duluth, Mrs. Crocker insisted on returning home as soon as possible so that she could start administering aid to her neighbors in need.
The firestorm continued past the border of Minnesota to the east, into neighboring counties to the west, along with places that continued to have trees smolder and burn for days. Several towns in Wisconsin were destroyed by the same firestorm that hit Pine County. These towns, like those in Minnesota, were lumbering towns, but unlike Pokegama, Mission Creek, Hinckley, Sandstone, Miller, Partridge, Kerrick and Finlayson these towns were small settlements that were less than ten years old. For days after the Sept. 1 incidents in Minnesota the fires continued to appear in Wisconsin. Towns that were affected in Wisconsin were Barronette, Shell Lake, Comstock, Cable, Mason, Peck, Benoit Station, Ashland, Washburn, Brule, Granite Lake and it continued on into Michigan. After five days, rain began to calm what some had begun to call the “red dragon.”