“Red, flaming annihilation.”
That’s what the Duluth News Tribune called the 1918 fires that destroyed entire northern Minnesota towns, burned up thousands of acres and left mass death and devastation in their wake.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of what remains Minnesota’s worst natural disaster.
A series of major fires tore through several counties, including parts of Pine, Carlton and St. Louis counties between Oct. 10-12, 1918, killing 453 people, scorching 1,500 square miles and thousands of properties, and wiping out entire families.
The Oct. 13, 1918, News Tribune reported: “scenes at the police station and at the points where refugees are being cared for are heartbreaking, mothers have lost their children … men went violently insane from their experiences.”
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The fires - sparked in the midst of World War I and a Spanish flu pandemic - followed years of drought, with the summer before the driest on record in nearly 50 years. Fuel for the various blazes was plentiful, coming from lumber yards, and white pine forests and logging remnants found throughout Carlton County. Strong winds and a dearth of firefighting equipment helped create the perfect storm for destruction.
Coal-burning rail cars near Brookston on Oct. 10 sparked the fire that ultimately destroyed much of Cloquet and the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation on Oct. 12. On that day, it raced at 65 mph at times, sweeping into Saginaw, Pike Lake, townships north of Duluth, Duluth’s Woodland, Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods and up the North Shore.
People fled by train, car, horse and buggy and on foot. Some survived by lying in ditches, lakes and other waterways.
According to “Fire Storm: The Great Fires of 1918,” written by Christine Skalko and Marlene Wisuri, Evelyn Erickson’s family escaped on foot to Dunlap Island in Cloquet. Hunkered down, they saw gasoline storage tanks burn and the fire leap from section to section of the town.
“Exclamations could be heard such as: ‘There goes the library.’ ‘That’s the high school going up in smoke.’ Or ‘The city hall has caught now,’” Erickson said.
The towns of Cloquet, Brookston, Moose Lake, Automba and Kettle River were decimated. Cloquet residents had warning, and left town on trains, leaving most homes to burn. More than 100 people died in Pike Lake, but the greatest loss of life was in Moose Lake with over 200 dead, dozens killed while driving away from the fire at a deadly curve in a road obscured by smoke. Many in rural parts burned or suffocated in wells and root cellars. Some who sought refuge in lakes drowned when their vessels were capsized by powerful winds.
Winds off Lake Superior, however, saved much of Duluth. Parts of the city still suffered heavy damages, the Woodland neighborhood among them.
While the Nopeming Sanatorium and the St. James Catholic Orphanage, with more than 100 children inside, escaped unscathed, Homecroft School, Northland Country Club and many farms were destroyed.
People survived through interesting and often heroic means.
A Calvary Cemetery gravedigger escaped death by hiding in a freshly-dug grave. A woman in a township north of Duluth saved 17 neighborhood children when she rounded them up inside her root cellar. In desperation, one woman threw her child into a passing open-topped car jammed with people, en route from rural Hermantown. She was then picked up by another car that came along.
Refugees were brought to the Duluth Armory and hospitals (a situation that eventually worsened the flu epidemic).
The National Guard, the Home Guard and the Red Cross tended to the thousands of refugees following the fire, helping them find lost family members and giving food, medical care and shelter. Residents around the Northland - including those in Duluth, Superior and Proctor - offered services and supplies.
“Fire Storm” also recounts a story from survivor Pearl Drew, who spent a night in the Superior YMCA.
“I went to the Y, where volunteers were making thousands of sandwiches and gallons of coffee,” Drew said. “Mattresses were spread over the large gym floor, each one a haven of a foreign family. They would not be separated for a minute. With their few belongings in a sack, the mother clutched it firmy and would not budge. The family moved as a whole, or not at all.”
In the end, more than 52,000 lives were affected by the fires, with more than 100 dying from the flu and pneumonia in the days that followed. Property damage was estimated at $100 million, according to John Furr, who spoke at the 99th commemoration of the fires in 2017 representing the state Department of Natural Resources’ forestry division. That figure included more than 4,000 houses and 6,300 barns. The fires of 1918, he said, still stand out for the devastation they caused, even compared with recent California wildfires.
After the 1918 fires, many returned to their properties to find very little remaining, or nothing at all.
“We thought we were the only people living because everything was gone,” Jenny Isaacson told Glenn Maxham for his book “Hell Fire and Damnation.”
“We could dig some potatoes. Yes, we got along OK,” Isaacson said. “But you know, when you lost everything you’re a little bit out of your mind.”
Thousands of farm animals and 41 schools were destroyed. Nearly 40 towns, villages and rural communities were damaged or destroyed, with fires ranging from Moose Lake to Chisholm - a difference of 90 miles, according to Maxham.
Two sawmills in Cloquet survived, helping the town rebuild. Others rebuilt, too. As Len Schmidt, past president of the Moose Lake Area Historical Society told the News Tribune in 2003, “The people came back. They never gave up. And they sure could have. … This story shows how people back then were real survivors.”
This article originally ran in our August edition of DNT Extra. Copies of the 43-page magazine recounting the events of the 1918 fires are still available for sale at the Duluth News Tribune office at 424 West First Street. Copies are $4 a piece. Our next edition of DNT Extra "What We Make," featuring area businesses and manufacturers, will be available October 28.