Hermantown historians mark Fires of 1918This year marks the 95th anniversary of the Fires of 1918, said to be the greatest natural disaster in Minnesota’s history.
By: Esther Piszczek, For the Budgeteer News
On October 12, 1918, wildfires swept through twenty seven communities destroying 1500 square miles, killing 453 people, and changing the landscape forever. This year marks the 95th anniversary of the Fires of 1918, said to be the greatest natural disaster in Minnesota’s history.
The Hermantown Historical Society, which is just nine years old, has dedicated its annual free event to remembering the people who died and those who survived to rebuild the affected areas.
On October 10, authors Marlene Wisuri and Dr. Francis Carrol will share their knowledge of this devastating event from 6:30-8p.m. at the Hermantown High School, 4335 Hawk Circle Drive.
“We’re trying real hard to share the proud history of our area with the public and free events are an attempt to draw people back and reconnect them with their history.... We feel this is an important community contribution that we can make,” said Bob Swanstrom, co-director of the Hermantown Historical Society and the event’s coordinator.
Many years ago, Wisuri, who was director of the Carlton County Historical Society for 14 years, was asked to design a curriculum for the Cloquet School District regarding the Fires of 1918. Christine Skalko, who worked with Wisuri, began researching the fire’s impact on Cloquet. Wisori decided to expand the breadth of their research to surrounding counties.
“Every time I read over the accounts of the fire, I’m struck by how really devastating it was for people and how frightening it must have been. There were many children who were lost to the fire and it’s heartbreaking to see the losses of homes and schools and barns and so many people were badly burned. Also striking - there was so much cooperation for recovery,” said Wisuri.
Skalko and Wisuri’s completed research was published in 2003 in the book “Firestorm: The great fires of 1918.” The book, $18.00, is available for purchase at the Carlton County Historical Society Museum, 406 Cloquet Avenue, Cloquet, 218-879-1938.
Dr. Francis Carrol is a retired History Professor from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Carrol and Franklin Raiter co-authored the book “Fires of Autumn: The Cloquet-Moose Lake Disaster of 1918,” which was published in 1990.
On October 10, 1918, a burning ember from a passenger train traveling Northwest of Cloquet lit dry timber and began the blaze, which was fueled by wind and moved swiftly. Many lawsuits against the rail companies followed in the aftermath of the fire and testimony from those transcripts were used as the basis for eyewitness accounts related in Carrol’s book.
“Fires of Autumn,” $12.95 is available from the Minnesota Historical Society and can be purchased online, http://www.mnhs.org, or by contacting the Minnesota Historical Society Bookstore, 651-259-3010.
“Through pictures and narration, they (the authors) will describe how in one day’s time this series of fires swept through five counties and changed the history of these areas. It was just a devastating natural disaster,” said Swanstrom.
According to Carrol’s book, “Fires of Autumn,” “[t]he statistics, in their starkness, tell the story: 1,500 square miles destroyed by fire over a region encompassing 8,400 square miles; 453 people killed outright, 85 badly burned, 106 killed by influenza and pneumonia; 11,382 families displaced; and 52,371 people injured, disrupted, or affected to some degree.”
The Armory in Duluth served as a shelter for many who lost their homes and also for those who were badly injured and needed care after being released from the hospital.
“It says a lot about the resolve and resiliency of the people to go back and start over when you’ve lost everything,” commented Swanstrom.
In addition to the presentation, historical displays related to the fires will be available to view, courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society.
This is the first year the Hermantown Historical Society is holding its free event at the high school. Last year’s event about the Titanic filled all 160 seats of the Hermantown Community Building. Swanstrom, who said “the fires of 1918 really resonate in this area,” expects a large crowd and hopes to fill the 260 seat auditorium without having to turn people away.
For additional information on the event contact Bob Swanstrom at 218-729-8058.