October 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the worst natural disaster in Minnesota’s history. Starting as mere sparks in northern Minnesota, the Cloquet-Duluth and Moose Lake Fires of 1918 ultimately killed more than 450 people and caused $25 million in damage — the equivalent of $400 million in 2018 dollars.
Wildfires continue to be a concern for the state today. October 1918 offered a perfect storm of conditions for a disaster. The summer had been the driest in more than 40 years, and the booming lumber industry boasted depots full of drying lumber and leftover wood waste scattered across the countryside.
At the same time, the local railroads often ignored safety practices to keep their engines from spitting out sparks
and hot coals along their routes.
Escaping by train
In early October, trains started small fires along railroad tracks northwest of Cloquet and near Tamarack in Aitkin County. By Oct. 12, a cool front brought a sharp drop in humidity and high winds as well, just the combination to whip those small fires into major blazes.
The Cloquet fire first destroyed the village of Brookston. As it loomed closer to Cloquet, the mayor organized four trains to evacuate people. With winds recorded at more than 60 mph — and the town’s Northern Lumber Company’s 65 million board feet of lumber adding massive fuel to the fire — the danger was real.
Within a short time, Cloquet was totally destroyed. Thanks, however, to the successful evacuation of more than 7,000 inhabitants who escaped on the train to Duluth and Superior, the city suffered only half a dozen fatalities.
The fire went on to reach the northeast edge of Duluth, but the winds mercifully died down before it reached the main part of the city.
Moose Lake devastated
The small towns in the Moose Lake area were hit much harder by fatalities. On the afternoon of Oct. 12, high winds sent fire racing through the lumber town of Automba, killing 25.
Aina Jokimaki, the daughter of Finnish immigrants from a farmstead nearby, remembered: “The fires was spreading so fast…no human could possibly run and hope to escape.”
Her family tried to flee, but only she and her father survived; her mother and six younger siblings were killed. Jokimaki, who was 17 at the time, recalled nearly 60 years later, “It just seemed like in a few minutes, the terrifying inferno was over and above and all around us.”
Throughout the countryside, people barely outran the fire by sheltering in plowed fields, down wells and in bodies of water.
In the town of Moose Lake, a few hundred people managed to escape by train, but most survived by taking refuge in Moosehead Lake, including those who drove their cars into the lake. Others hid in their sod root cellars, which proved deadly as whole families died from exposure to the smoke.
‘Entire county burned’
The town of Kettle River lost as many as 100 citizens, including many who’d tried to escape by automobile. One main culprit was the dirt road outside of town — known as Dead Man’s Curve — which took a sharp turn and became a death trap as vehicles piled up in the thick smoke.
After spending the night in the Kettle River, the mayor of Moose Lake walked six miles to the town of Sturgeon Lake to telegram the governor, writing in all caps with many typos: “We must have food and clothing for 3,000 people and 300 caskets at Moose Lake at once. Entire county burned and people suffering.”
After the fires died down, more than 30 towns were totally or partially destroyed with some 1,500 square miles of northern Minnesota burned.
Recovery — and lawsuits
Help soon arrived for the more than 50,000 people affected by the fire. Red Cross volunteers turned the Duluth Armory into a refugee center, providing clothing, food and shelter. Everywhere schools, churches and private homes became temporary shelters. The National Guard arrived and worked to provide medical care and rescue operations, while also clearing roads and recovering bodies. Local newspapers published lists of survivors and the identified dead so that family and friends could find each other.
As towns began to rebuild, by early 1919, lawsuits had been filed against the railroad companies, alleging they were responsible for starting the fires. A 1920 case ruled that the Great Northern Railway was responsible for the Cloquet fire, but the legal battles dragged on. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally signed
a bill stating the victims should be fully compensated.
Hear more stories of the Moose Lake and Cloquet fires in the new Minnesota Historical Society Press book Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State by Curt Brown. Meet the author during a statewide book tour Oct. 8–17. Learn more at mnhs.org/calendar.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.