The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894

A catastrophic firestorm tore through several small Minnesota towns in 1894, but three quick-thinking train engineers saved hundreds of lives.

Hinckley Fire
(Public Domain)

“Hinckley was a typical place,” wrote an 1895 report on Minnesota forest fires that had occurred across the state the previous year. The modest midwestern settlement was like many that dotted the Midwest at the end of the 19th century. It boasted a handful of churches, hotels, and stores, as well as a town hall, a restaurant, two railway depots, and a public school with four teachers. The economy of Hinckley, Minnesota revolved around the town sawmill, owned by the Brennan Lumber Company, which employed 300 people and cut 200,000 feet of lumber per day.

This 1895 photo depicts the hauling of cut logs, one step in the onerous logging process. (Public Domain)

The lucrative Brennan Lumber Company had another reason to be proud: They had just received brand new firefighting equipment, a necessary precaution in timber country. But the perfect storm of weather conditions that soon led to one of the worst fires in American history was no match for any amount of preparation.

A tornado of flame

The summer of 1894 brought little rain. It was the culmination of an ongoing drought that had depleted the soil of moisture for three years. On Sept. 1, 1894, the temperature climbed to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and strong winds picked up.

Under normal weather conditions, hot air rises and cool air circulates beneath it. But the wind inverted the normal air column, trapping the hot air below a cushion of colder air. Hinckley’s more than 1,000 residents looked out from their wooden-framed houses, surrounded by islands of logs in an ocean of stumps. Their town was a matchbox.

That afternoon, two separate fires sparked and converged into one large fire. The flames reached high enough to pierce the inversion, and strong winds propelled cool air down into the flames, creating a firestorm. Flames reached higher than 200 feet. The winds rose to a tornado-force gale, spreading the fire faster than people could flee: faster than horses, faster even than escaping trains. Huge bubbles of gas—composition unknown—floated over the town, igniting over people’s heads. The temperatures in the fire’s core were over 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt steel.

When the fire reached the sawmill, the unimaginable happened. At 4:15 p.m., 28 million feet of stacked lumber ignited, causing an enormous explosion. In the words of historian Daniel James Brown, “a blast of superheated air rushed laterally away from the center of the fire, much like the thermal pulse from a small nuclear detonation.”

Heroes roll in

Even more extraordinary than the fire itself were the heroes who saved hundreds of residents’ lives. Many who climbed into wells or root cellars died from suffocation or burns. Around 70 people huddled in a gravel pit containing three feet of water, covering their faces with wet clothing to help them breathe.

Most of the townsfolk who survived, however, were indebted to the engineers of three trains that had unwittingly chugged into chaos.

James Root pulled out of Union Station, Duluth, Minnesota, at 1:55 p.m., heading for Hinckley. Root, a big man with a big mustache, was an experienced railroad engineer who had run William Tecumseh Sherman’s advance train during the Civil War. Nine miles from Hinckley, cinders began falling that a passenger observed looked “like black snowflakes.”

Five miles to the east, William Bennett Best, a failed goldminer-turned engineer, was pulling another locomotive with 100 passengers. A third train manned by Edward Barry was also approaching with a freight of 40 boxcars, 30 of them empty. Like Root and Best, Barry’s train started running into heavy smoke, alarming the crew.

As the first train, manned by Root, approached the firestorm, Hinckley’s residents started jumping onboard. Unable to turn around, he ran his train in reverse through walls of flame and smoke. When the lumber from the sawmill detonated a quarter mile away, the blast nearly blew the coaches off their tracks, shattering the windshield of the cab and slicing Root’s face and neck with shards of glass. He fainted, the flaming train slowed to a crawl, and the passengers began to panic.

Luckily the fireman, Jack McGowan, dripped water on Root’s bloody face. Root revived and gripped the hot metal throttle that blistered his hands, but threw it open to pick up momentum. He reached Skunk Lake, six miles north of Hinckley. Stopping the train, the crew helped over 300 refugees take refuge in the water, mud, and marsh.

Best and Barry team up

Ed Barry rolled into Hinckley at 2:40 p.m. and saw that the entire town was on fire. He knew that Best’s train was scheduled to arrive 40 minutes later on the same track behind his own, so he opted to sit and wait rather than leave on a collision course. When Best arrived, they hooked their two trains together and set out in reverse at 4 p.m., with three empty boxcars to hold residents running towards them. Best bravely kept applying the brakes to allow more people on, despite Barry’s resistance. While hundreds of townsfolk were able to climb aboard, not everyone made it: As passengers reached out to grab a man riding a horse alongside the train, the horse pulled away at the last moment, disappearing into the flames.

At 4:30 p.m. they stopped briefly in the town of Sandstone, Minnesota to warn people of the danger. But the townsfolk at the depot refused to board after seeing the blackened coaches and terrified passengers. Despite Best’s valiant efforts to convince them, they believed the flames would not reach them and chose to stay. Best reluctantly released the brakes, leaving them to their tragic fate.

Continuing their journey, Best and Barry approached the Kettle River high bridge, which spanned a 150-foot gorge.  It had just caught fire. They crossed it slowly, unsure if it would hold, and reached the other side just before it collapsed.

The Kettle River trestle bridge was rebuilt out of metal after the 1894 fire. (Flickr Upload Bot/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The trains of Best and Barry eventually reached the safety of Duluth and Superior, Michigan, with 475 souls aboard. In a span of just four hours, a quarter million acres had burned. The official death toll was 418, although the actual toll was probably significantly higher.

Rising from the ashes

Those who lived through the incident never forgot it. Author Daniel James Brown opens his history of the event by describing how, 40 years afterwards, his grandfather “still sometimes awoke in the night, screaming.”

Ed Hanson was only 9 years old when he watched his father disappear into the flames. He escaped with his mother and three sisters on the train manned by James Root. Though scarred by the incident, Ed found success in life, rising to an executive position at the Crown Zellerbach paper company and eventually living to see one of his grandchildren tell his story.

These Fire Relief Houses were built to house the now-homeless victims of the Hinckley Fire. (McGhiever/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A year after the fire, in 1895, the Minnesota State Legislature passed the first laws aimed at preventing forest fires, creating a system of fire wardens and naming General C.C. Andrews as their chief. In 1899, a monument was erected on the site where many of the Hinckley fire’s victims had been buried in mass graves. These mounds are still visible today. Although the loss was catastrophic, it would have been much higher were it not for three heroic engineers of the Eastern Minnesota Railway.

This article was originally published at The Epoch Times.


Andrew Benson Brown | The Epoch Times