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Duluth's worst year: Talk to look back on tragedies of 1918

Refugees of the 1918 fire line up for help in the Duluth Armory. They are wearing facemasks because of the influenza outbreak affecting the city at that time. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at UMD)1 / 4
Refugees from the 1918 fire seek assistance in the Duluth Armory. A talk on Thursday will discuss how 1918 -- with the fire, the flu and the mounting toll of casualties from World War I -- may have been the worst year in Duluth's history. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at UMD)2 / 4
The massive fires of October 1918 destroyed most of Cloquet. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at UMD)3 / 4
The front page of the Oct. 13, 1918 Duluth News Tribune recounted how a "tornado of flame" swept across much of the region the previous day, killing hundreds of people.4 / 4

The mounting toll of World War I, then a deadly flu outbreak, then an apocalyptic firestorm.

1918 was a very bad year in Duluth and the Northland — no more so than in the fall of that year, 97 years ago.

"Leading up to 1918, it's the peak of Duluth's growth. We're soon going to be reaching 100,000 people, everyone thinks the world of Duluth," said Dan Hartman, director of Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. "Everyone thinks everything is going right — and then 1918 happens."

Hartman, who previously worked at the St. Louis County Historical Society and Veterans' Memorial Hall, will give a free talk on "1918: Duluth's Worst Year" at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Green Room at the Duluth Public Library, 520 W. Superior St.

The city and region were riding high in the 1910s, with burgeoning industry and a growing population. But the outbreak of World War I started tempering that growth, as thousands of Northland residents left to serve overseas.

On Memorial Day of 1918, the News Tribune estimated that nearly 5,000 Duluthians were "either on the firing line or in training for the greatest battles of all history" in Europe.

Many of them never returned; the number of Duluthians killed in World War I is second only to World War II, Hartman said. And many of those deaths came not on the battlefield, but because of the 1918 flu pandemic that affected military bases particularly severely.

By the fall of 1918, the epidemic — widely known as the "Spanish flu" — had reached the Northland.

"When the flu comes ashore, everyone is very well aware of what this means" because of its effect on soldiers and Marines, Hartman said. "It immediately has a huge impact on Duluth."

With 27 confirmed cases in the city — and already thousands of deaths reported elsewhere in the country — on Oct. 11, 1918, city commissioners adopted an emergency order closing "all public buildings, churches, schools and theaters ... in an attempt to check the spread of the Spanish influenza in Duluth," the next day's News Tribune reported.

Even public funerals were banned, with only relatives of the deceased allowed to attend. The order carried penalties of fines or jail time.

The very next day, a "tornado of flame" swept across the Northland.

Firestorm

"A second straight summer of scorching heat and little rain made fire a way of life in 1918 in Northeastern Minnesota," the News Tribune's Chuck Frederick wrote in 2003, in an article marking the 85th anniversary of what remains Minnesota's deadliest natural disaster. "Brush fires were so common along railroad tracks, a car with water followed behind to extinguish flames. But the water cars couldn't contain four major fires sparked by coal-burning rail cars on Oct. 12, 1918."

The fires spread, joined together and raced across the tinder-dry Northland at speeds estimated at 65 mph. Cloquet, Moose Lake and nearby communities were obliterated, with entire families caught by the flames. Some who sought refuge in root cellars or wells died from suffocation when the fires consumed all the available oxygen.

Others narrowly escaped by train and automobiles as the flames swept into the townships north of Duluth. Canosia, Rice Lake and the Woodland neighborhood saw major fire damage.

"The fire is so huge that it goes all the way around the city of Duluth and burns down parts of Lakeside, all the way to Lester River," Hartman said. "There are a lot of husbands who go into work for the day, and their families live on the outskirts of town — and they learn that their entire family is gone."

"Red, flaming annihilation threatened Duluth last night and this morning," the News Tribune reported in its Oct. 13, 1918 edition. "Appalling in loss of human life, it is believed that the dead when the final figures are known will be in the hundreds."

The final death toll was set at 453, with thousands more injured or displaced.

"Now all these refugees who had to leave their homes on the outskirts to survive, we didn't have anywhere to put them — so we put all of them mostly in the Armory and in the hospitals," Hartman said. "Everything you just did to try to combat the flu ... you now put everyone together, and so the number of cases of the Spanish flu skyrockets in the city of Duluth. It's just the perfect storm of a bad scenario."

Add to that the absence of many Duluthians serving overseas, who might have been among the most capable first responders to the disaster, and "it's an awful time to be in the city of Duluth," Hartman said.

A few days later, as the fires smoldered all around the city, the News Tribune pointed out the obvious comparison to the battlefields of Europe:

"Suppose a battle-scarred veteran were to come to Duluth today and take a trip into the country. At Moose Lake, Cloquet and north of Lester Park he would be reminded of Belgium," the paper lamented on Oct. 18. "He would see large trench graves filled with 50 to 100 bodies laid to rest in them just as his comrades who were buried in the same way. ... Farm after farm, village after village and city after city is wiped out. For miles around he sees nothing but ruins."

Aftermath

The flu outbreak and the fire recovery continued through the remainder of 1918 and beyond — though there was the notable bright spot of the signing of the armistice ending World War I on Nov. 11.

Duluth schools reopened in late November as the epidemic started to abate at the Head of the Lakes, while it moved into new communities on the Iron Range and elsewhere.

The events of 1918 left Duluth and the surrounding area reeling.

"There's a fairly decent argument that this is a major turning point in the city of Duluth — historically speaking, you can pinpoint a lot of the city's decline" to 1918, Hartman said. The optimism of the first part of the century no longer ran unchecked. The city's economy and population was buoyed by World War II and the Cold War, but eventually slipped in the 1960s and 1970s before stabilizing in more recent years.

Hartman's talk on Thursday will cover the events of 1918, including observations from diaries of the Congdon family who built and lived at Glensheen.

Why host a talk on such terrible times in the city history? Hartman noted that there are few memorials in the city remembering those who died in World War I. There are few if any reminders of the flu victims. And while there are memorials in other Northland communities to the 1918 fire, there's no similar monument in Duluth.

"Each of these things by themselves are a tragic event — but to have all three overlap so terribly ... it's something that really shouldn't be forgotten," he said.

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