• Part 3 in a series
On the morning of Sept. 1, 1894, Hinckley’s approximate 1,200 residents didn’t pay much attention to the smoke filled skies that morning. Small fires had been burning all summer around Hinckley, so it wasn’t an unusual sight.
The Brennan Lumber Mill whistle blew at 7 a.m. signaling the beginning of the 10-hour day shift which would create another 200,000 board feet of lumber to add to the 28 million feet piled there already. Water barrels had been placed along the rooftops and around the yard; workers thought this was enough precaution in case one of the small fires around got out of control.
Hinckley’s 19-man volunteer fire department led by Fire Chief John Craig, along with villagers, had been fighting back the fires that threatened the town all summer. The department had recently purchased a new fire engine with its own hot water boiler and steam driven pistons which produced a greater pressure than previous models. The town felt as if the fire department would be able to handle any fire that crept close enough to threaten the town.
It was business as usual that fateful day in Hinckley. Stores and shops were open, women at home fired up their wood stoves for baking before it became warmer in the afternoon. The sun in the sky was red and the air was heavy and still with smoke still hanging in the dry hot air.
Around noon, the wind came with fury from the southwest. At the Brennan Mill sparks from burning stumps flew into the wood piles and started them on fire. Those who weren’t out fighting other fires were sent to keep the flames under control and distribute extra water barrels throughout the yard. Some businessmen reported that things looked bad and told their families to pack a few belongings and take the next train to Pine City.
Sometime between noon and 2 p.m. the fire alarm blew. The firemen assembled quickly at the engine house. They fired up the new engine and pulled out the hose cart. Fire Chief Craig sent the men to the southwest end of town where the fires had begun to threaten buildings along the railroad tracks. They attached the hose to the pipe in the underground reservoir and began to fight the fire. They were joined by mill hands and together tried to keep ahead of the flames. Using the new Waterous engine, the firefighters and mill hands worked together fighting the fire, even after firebrands and sparks burned up the hose between the reservoir and the engine. After two hours of battling the flames, Craig determined their efforts were futile and ordered his men to leave the equipment and save their families.
Father E.J. Lawler, priest at the Hinckley Catholic Church, had been with the firemen that afternoon. Lawler ran back to town shouting, “For heaven’s sake, leave all you have! Get to the gravel pit, run to the river. Hinckley will be destroyed!” Hearing this warning, people realized that the situation had become serious and fled to find shelter. Few in town had been preparing shelters for just such a situation; nearly all had water wells going deep underground, few had root cellars, and the new schoolhouse was built of fire-proof brick.
Just after 3 p.m. Thomas Dunn, telegraph operator at the St. Paul - Duluth Depot in Hinckley, received a message that Brook Park had burned and lives had been lost. He feared for the safety of the town and the trains due to arrive in Hinckley that afternoon, one from the south and one from the north. Dunn was holding out hope that he would hear word on the Duluth train which was due to arrive at 4:05 p.m. Someone screamed, “The roof of the depot is on fire!” People fled from the depot onto the street looking for a way to escape, begging Dunn to escape with his life. However, Dunn remained at his post believing that hundreds of lives depended on his actions. Shortly after 4 p.m. the roof of the depot collapsed burying Dunn in fiery debris. The last message he sent was “I’ve stayed too long.”
Those that chose to shelter in their homes often were the subjects of sad tales. Fire and heat washed over them in the spaces that they thought were safe. The fire stole the oxygen from those spaces, along with any hope of survival. A group of 127 tried to seek refuge in a small swamp near the Grindstone River where they crowded together with animals who had run out of the burning forest. Their story did not have a happy ending either, as all of them perished due to suffocation. “Bodies were badly burned and charred, many were frozen in postures of motion, some in prayer, some kneeling, some clasping each other,” wrote Grace Stageberg Swenson in “From the Ashes.” Al Fraser heard their last cries as he and his family were seeking shelter in water barrels nearby. He said, “When the fire wave hit that swamp, there was one piercing cry of mortal anguish: then everything was still except for the howling of the wind.”
In the three feet of water in the gravel pit (a spot considered an eyesore by the community after The Great Northern Company had dug gravel from the area in order to level their road beds) people splashed water on themselves in an attempt to remain safe. They covered their eyes and noses with wet clothing to help them breathe.
People not finding shelter and those not at the pit headed toward the train tracks where trains were expected soon. The first trains to leave Hinckley with survivors were those of Engineers Edward Barry and William Best. The two engineers coupled their trains together and pressed north, lookouts checking each bridge as they came upon them and signaling Barry to cross. The train made a brief stop in Sandstone, where they warned the residents of the impending danger and urged them to leave on the train. Unfortunately, no Sandstone residents chose to leave with them. The train started moving again and up ahead was the Kettle River high bridge sitting 150 feet in the air. The bridge supports were already beginning to burn, but the watchman gave Barry the okay to cross. The trains made their way across the bridge safely just before the bridge succumbed to the fire, and continued on to Duluth and Superior.
Back in Hinckley, Engineer Jim Root and the train that Thomas Dunn had been expecting from the north stopped about a mile north of town. The train was stopped by a group of people running up the tracks pleading for help as they were trying to escape the fire. Root, seeing the advancing flames, remembered a marshy spot near the tracks six miles north of Hinckley. He backed his train up to Skunk Lake. The train caught fire on the trip, Root himself passed out at the throttle only to be revived by his Fireman Jack McGowan. Once they arrived at Skunk Lake the passengers hurried to the water, 18 inches of mud and slime. They stayed there, covering themselves while the fire passed over them.
Residents of Hinckley sought shelter and escape from the burning world around them: 100 people survived in the Pit, approximately 475 made it to Duluth/Superior on the Best/Barry trains and another estimated 300 (including 100-150 passengers already aboard Jim Root’s train) survived in the shallow waters of Skunk Lake. The firestorm claimed the lives of approximately 270 citizens of Hinckley that day … and it wasn’t done.
Watch for next week’s article as we follow the fire north through Miller and Sandstone.