“It was beautiful weather. I remember I was in Father’s lap, and Mother had washed clothes that morning. There was a tub of water and clean clothes waiting to be rinsed,” Bertha Chapin recalled.

Chapin, who is 99 years old, was 2½ when the massive Cloquet Fire of 1918 devastated the town and much of the surrounding area. She’s among the last living survivors of that tragic event 97 years ago.

Chapin grew up on a 40-acre farm west of Cloquet, down the road from School 56, which survived the fire.

“I remember when we went to Cloquet with the horses and took the train to Superior,” Chapin said. 

An estimated 8,000 people were evacuated on four trains from Cloquet and the surrounding areas as the fires swept through in October 1918, according to the book “The Fires of Autumn” by Francis M. Carroll and Franklin R. Raiter.

“A lot of people went to the schoolhouse to save themselves. The schoolhouse didn’t burn,” Chapin said. “A lot of people dug holes in the ground, and others went to the lake. Most of the people who went to the lake were saved, but some died in the lake from the smoke.”

The flames raced across the Northland at speeds estimated at up to 65 mph. From Cloquet and Moose Lake the fires spread north and east, burning townships surrounding Duluth and making some inroads into the city, including in the Woodland neighborhood. 

The final death toll was 453, with thousands more injured or displaced. Thousands of homes and other buildings were destroyed.

Hazel Molis, who turned 98 last week, remembers her mother talking about the day the fire just missed their farm outside of Sturgeon Lake. The fire reached the Moose Lake and Sturgeon Lake area about 7:30 or 8 p.m. on the fateful Saturday evening - Oct. 12, 1918.

Her mother had received a phone call to evacuate as the fire sped towards the family farm. 

Next-door neighbor Willy Larson had a Model T and was picking up his neighbors on the 1.5-mile road and bringing them to nearby Denham.

But before the Molis family could leave, they received a message telling them the wind had switched and they were not in danger from the fire anymore.

Larson’s house, however, was less than a mile from Molis home, and, like many others, it burned to the ground. 

Molis remembers the story of a neighbor woman who was at the Moose Lake Hospital giving birth to a baby girl when the fire descended on the town. The patients were hurried into boats and rowed to the middle of Moosehead Lake to wait out the fire with several hundred others seeking refuge.

Moose Lake and Kettle River reported the most deaths; some people hid in their root cellars and suffocated when the fire sucked out the oxygen. Almost 100 people who tried to escape by vehicle were believed to have died on a sharp corner, subsequently known as “dead man’s curve,” when the thick smoke prevented them from seeing the turn. About 200 fire victims were buried in a mass grave in Moose Lake.

Eino Lahti, 99, does not remember the fire, but he does know his parents and three older brothers took the train to Superior and stayed with a family for a week until they could return to the area.

Fires were a common occurrence in the fall at the time, either from sparks from a train or farmers.

“The farmers were always burning brush,” Lahti said, with a hint of a Finnish accent.

The Lahti family, like everyone else, had to leave Cloquet fast and didn’t think to take important papers such as birth certificates with them.

The surviving mills started up as quickly as they could so the men could get back to work.

Lahti remembers ash piles all over town and that the local lumber mills gave residents wood to build temporary shacks to live in to get through the Minnesota winter.

“Where USG is now, that was the Northern Lumber mill. My dad worked there, and I used to bring him lunch every once in a while,” Lahti said.

Lahti remembers that every house had an outhouse after the fire because the sewers were not working right away.

The Red Cross and other agencies came to the aid of the displaced residents, providing food, clothes and a temporary shelter while shacks were quickly built.

“The shacks were built strong. Later we used them for a garage for our car,” Lahti said.

They used blankets as room dividers, and a kerosene lantern hung from the wall for light. 

Lahti and his friends spent many hours playing in the burned-out basements that dotted the town for several years. While exploring one day, he found a pile of pennies that had been melted together into a solid lump.

“It was fun playing because there were all of those empty basements,” Lahti said.

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