By Ben Welter
October 1918 must have felt apocalyptic to many Minnesotans. Lists of servicemen killed in the bloody Great War filled a column a day in the local papers. The deadly Spanish flu was filling hospitals and emptying churches, theaters and dance halls. Then, on Oct. 12 and 13, huge fires exploded in the forests of central Minnesota and swept east toward Lake Superior, incinerating everything in their path.
Survivors received rations at Moose Lake. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
The final toll: 453 people killed, 85 seriously burned, 1,500 square miles blackened, 11,382 families displaced and 10 towns destroyed, including Cloquet, Kettle River and Moose Lake.
Railroads were credited with saving thousands of lives in a massive evacuation. But courts eventually held railroads responsible for the tragedy: Sparks from trains ignited dry grass and piles of wood along the tracks.
Here’s the first report on the fire in the Morning Tribune:
Flames Death Toll 1,000 in Northern Minnesota;
Moose Lake, Cloquet and 8 Other Towns Destroyed
Territory 21 Miles Wide Swept;
Property Loss Up in Millions
Survivors Relate Graphic Tales of
Many Refugees Stricken as
They Seek Safety
Nearly 1,000 persons are now believed to have lost their lives in the blasts of flame that drove Saturday and yesterday over Northern Minnesota forests in an area that spreads from Duluth to Brainerd, Bemidji, Aitkin, Cloquet and Moose Lake.
Property worth millions of dollars was destroyed, ten villages were obliterated, 15,000 persons were made homeless, many of them penniless. Duluth, itself heavily damaged by the flames, was last night a city of thousands of refugees, a dwelling-place of stricken people who had lost kinfolk, friends, neighbors in the flames.
Over all the countryside, on highways and by-paths, near farmhouse ruins and beside railway tracks, lay blackened corpses.
|The charred ruins of a small town in northeastern Minnesota, most likely Cloquet. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
100 Bodies Brought in From Countryside.
Cloquet, city of 9,000 population and long a lumber center of the North Country, is all but wiped out. Moose Lake, village of 1,000 souls, is a waste of ashes, a relief-party headquarters which last night held more than 100 bodies brought in from the countryside which held none knew how many other victims stricken as they fled.
Brookston, Brevator, Corona, Adolph, Thompson, Arnold, Wright and Kettle River are in ashes – blackened, smoking wastes hardly distinguishable from the blackened fields that surround them. And all about, the forests of Northern Minnesota stand a great field of burned pine trees—blackened of trunk, ghosts of the great forest.
|Terrified motorists tried to find refuge in the chilly waters of Moose Lake. It’s unknown whether the occupants of these cars survived. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
300 Dead at Moose Lake, Officials Estimate.
Rescue parties arriving on the scene late last night, appalled at the completeness of the devastation wrought by the flames, hesitated, in view of their fragmentary knowledge of the actual scope of the disaster, to estimate the number of dead. In a temporary morgue at Moose Lake there were at midnight 103 bodies. Officials there say the total will exceed 300.
At a late hour last night 196 bodies had been borne to Duluth morgues. In other districts, it was reported that several hundred more may be added. And in addition to these, remains the work of searching among the ruins of burned homes and along the sideroads, where hundreds more may be found, military authorities said.
The fire started near Bemidji, where fire has been smouldering for weeks. Fanned by a high wind, the flames swept across the state toward Duluth, cutting a swath 50 miles wide through cutover lands bounded on both sides by a chain of lakes.
At Moose Lake the havoc wrought by the blaze was most complete, although the loss of life in the town itself was low, because the inhabitants, warned of the approach of the fire, took refuge in the icy waters of the lake.
Brainerd, Bemidji and Aitkin escaped destruction partly because the wind died down and in part through heroic work of volunteer fire fighters.
Duluth and Superior, although suburbs were burned, were untouched by the flames and today are serving as a place of refuge for a large number of the 15,000 homeless ones.
The heaviest loss of life was at Moose Lake and vicinity. Adjutant General Rhinow estimating that more than 300 persons died there. Duluth morgues have approximately 200 bodies and officials estimate that several hundred more dead men, women and children are scattered throughout the fire region.
|Many fire victims were buried in mass graves. This grave was dug near Moose Lake. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
Hibbing Ringed by Fire.
Hibbing, although ringed about fire, was unharmed. Citizens of the Iron range were last night hurrying for shelter at Carlton, and fires were blazing at the Morton location, Keewatin and other towns. Grand Rapids was reported on fire.
Five mills are all that is left today in Cloquet of what was yesterday a city of 9,000 persons with varied business interests and many beautiful homes. The homes are a smouldering ruin, every residence being burned, but warning of the approaching fire came in time to allow the people of the town to depart.
Twelve trains of the Northern Pacific railroad were made up at Carlton when it became known that there was no chance to save the town. The trains were of a nondescript nature, some passenger coaches, some box cars and flat cards, onto which the townspeople were loaded bound for Duluth.
State authorities, headed by Governor Burnquist, who joined the third relief expedition which departed last night for Moose Lake, and commanded on the field by Adjutant General Rhinow, are taking relief to the stricken districts and their people.
The Red Cross responded by dispatching a special train with doctors and nurses and the motor corps of the whole power of the state.
Adjutant General Rhinow and his staff, first of the rescue parties to reach Moose Lake, arrived there yesterday at 5:30 p.m. Their first work was to establish a temporary morgue in a building that partially escaped the flames. At midnight it held 102 bodies. The injured had been sent by special train to Duluth, 30 miles away.
Rescue work was halted at midnight, to be resumed again at daybreak today. The task of probing into the ruins of homes in search of bodies, and of looking beneath the charred remains of automobiles, which are scattered along every roadside, will engage the time of the Home Guards and the members of the motor corps for several days, it is expected.
|The ruins of a bank in Cloquet. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
Motor Corps on Ground.
Colonel Stevens, in command of the motor corps, arrived at Moose Lake, which is relief headquarters, shortly after 6 o’clock. The 33 cars under his command arrived within a short time. Members of the motor corps and Adjustant General Rhinow’s staff were the only Minneapolis Home Guards on the scene. Other guards were there from Hinckley, North Branch, Iron City and Rock creek. These men will today help to man the ambulance cars, which are part of the motor corps equipment.
First estimates from an official source of the loss of life in the forest fires placed the total deaths in the Moose Lake region alone at more than 200.
Adjutant General Rhinow, who spent last night in the stricken village, telephoned this figure to the capitol early today.
Adjutant General Rhinow, who has charge of law and order and the direction of relief work in the devastated zone, said that at midnight the fire was fairly under control. He characterized the relief work as well organized and said that all immediate wants were supplied.
|National Guard giving out clothing to refugees after the fire at Moose Lake. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
Morgues Filled with Bodies.
Three improvised morgues in Moose Lake Buildings which escaped the flames hold the bodies of 80 victims – burned beyond recognition.
Many persons who suffered burns in fleeing from the fires are being cared for by Major F.J. Plondke, St. Paul, and his medical staff and an adequate corps of nurses.
Bodies of 17 men, women and children, literally baked to death in a root cellar on a farm about four miles west of Moose Lake, were among the horrifying finds reported last night.