Hinckley Fire Museum (Hinckley, Minnesota)
A Comtesse Travelogue!
Hinckley Fire Museum
July 21, 2002
On September 1, 1894 a fire raged through the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. A combination of intense drought, high winds, and dry kindling left behind by sloppy loggers resulted in an enormous firestorm that literally engulfed the town. The cyclone shot flames miles into the air and temperatures reached 1000 degrees (F). Survival was haphazard: over 100 people safely rode out the storm in a soggy gravel pit in the middle of town, while 127 people died seeking refuge in a swamp. In four hours the fire burned out 400 square miles and killed more than 400 people.Local landmark Tobie’s Restaurant has an excellent description of the mesmerizing power of the fire on its website:
“The fierce flaming heat became so intense in certain localities, it created what seemed to be a vacuum. The vacuum would then quickly fill with violent and explosive gases; yet at times appear entirely at rest in spite of the brisk south wind. With a river so near, there would have been time to seek safety in flight and even to have removed goods if no greater danger menaced the townspeople than an ordinary forest fire. But when the fire burst over the town it came in fierce explosions and in streaks, with suffocating choking gases that paralyzed the victims even before the burning.
“In one instance a man was stricken down, but not burned enough to destroy his clothes, yet in one of his pockets was found a small leather purse in which were four silver dollars welded together in one solid piece. In another case two horses were badly burned, but the wagonload of hay they were pulling was unharmed. It was no ordinary fire. It came too quickly for analysis. It baffled science. It could not be accounted for. It was a phenomenon that defies all description. It did not crawl or creep but burst and exploded. It roared, seethed and boiled. On the ground it swept forward in walls and cylinders of flame; in the air it soared in massive balls of fire and gas. Its heat was intense and searing and it devoured kingly pines in minutes, yet spared fragile saplings close by.”
Although other communities, such as Mission Creek and Brook Park, were also destroyed by the fire, Hinckley suffered the greatest number of fatalities and feature the most interesting tales of heroism and rescue, especially regarding the trains that ferried townspeople to safety amid the flames. One of the trains in particular – that of Jim Root – was involved in a dramatic race against the flames with over a hundred townspeople aboard. Although the train and the tracks were ablaze, Root managed to maneuver the train to a shallow lake, where the majority of those aboard were able to find refuge from the firestorm.
Given the trainbound drama, it seems entirely suitable that the Hinckley Fire Museum is housed in the train depot which was rebuilt in 1894 after the fire destroyed the original.
So, on a stormy summer day, I set out to visit Hinckley, which lies about 80 miles north of Minneapolis. And this is what I learned about that tragic September day all those years ago…
Alongside the parking area of the museum is this beautiful mural. A nearby sign explains it as follows:
A STORY OF HEROISM AND FRIENDSHIP
The mural, painted by artist and Mille Lacs Band member Steven Premo depicts the story of an unselfish and brave Ojibwe woman who saved the Non-Indian Patrick family from the Great Hinckley Fire.
Mah-kah-day-gwon (Blackfeather) heard the cries of Mary Ellen Patrick and her two children, Frank and Roy, who had sought refuge from the Fire on a boat on Grindstone Lake. When the boat was blown across the lake, frightening the Patrick family, Mah-kah-day-gwon and her two small children, Be Shew (Jessie) and Saung way way gah bow eke (Maggie) paddled out in their canoe to meet them and bring them back to the shoreline for safety.
The Ojibwe woman offered them food and shelter in her unburned cabin for the night and even made a pair of moccassins for Roy who had lost his shoes while escaping the Fire.
Mah-kah-day-gwon spent her life helping people after relocating with her husband Alexander McDonnell to the White Earth Indian Reservation in 1905 where she acted as doctor and mid-wife in the area, delivering over 300 babies. She was affectionately known as Granma McDonnell to children and adults as well.
The Patrick family returned to Hinckley after the Fire helping the town rebuild. They remain a prominent family in the town to this day. Frank, who was two years old at the time of the Fire was a wonderful storyteller and relayed his rescue story to many museum visitors and school children before his death in the 1980’s.
In the end, it is a heart warming story of heroism and friendship that has survived over one hundred years.
Hmmmm… why is it that I don’t find the story nearly so heartwarming… considering that the Native American woman gave so much to so many people… yet she was still stuck living on a reservation?
Inside the museum they have a large collection of photographs taken both before and after the fire. These images show the lumber community of Hinckley prior to the fire. (It was a very dark day and there was no flash photography allowed in the museum, so these pictures are blurry. High quality versions of the images are available on various websites – see links below – or in the excellent book “From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894“.)
Here’s a good view of the interior of the museum. The far wall is dominated by a very cool mural of the fire.
These photographs showcase James Root and his rescue train which caught on fire trying to flee the inferno and barely made it to Skunk Lake where over 100 refugees took cover from the searing flames in the muck.
My favorite displays in the museum were, of course, the mementos of the fire themselves. Unsurprisingly, with such an intense inferno, there were few objects that survived, but the ones that did were very interesting. The description of the satchel states, “Severt Haglin was the St. Paul & Duluth section foreman at Groningen in 1894. On duty the day of the Fire, the gathering darkness forced him to light the switch lamps. Hurrying home, he collected the family papers and a few clothes into this satchel. The family then fled to a cut in the high bank where they saved themselves.”
The melted piece of metal beside the satchel has the following description: “Several train cars burned up on the tracks where they stood. This hinge was among the few remains of one of those cars.”
This is another interesting relic from the fire: “Although James Root’s train was destroyed this tinderbox was salvaged and is the last known part of the train in existence today. Engine #69 was put to use and remained for many years on the Iron Range until the 1960’s when it was destroyed.” Jeez – all those years of service and that’s the thanks it gets??? Typical…
Some change purses that survived the fire.
Isn’t this mural (by Cliff Letty) depecting various scenes from the fire absolutely wonderful? I wouldn’t mind having this on a wall in The Castle DeSpair.
These are probably the most famous mementos on display, though they aren’t that mesmerizing for us morbid types:
SAVED IN A POTATO PATCH
Mission Creek, a small saw mill town was one of the first villages south of Hinckley to be razed by the Fire. All its residents survived that day by taking shelter in an open potato field.
One of them was young Jenny Johnson, who was placed in the adjacent rocker by her parents. Well protected by wet blankets, she gripped her china doll seen here and sat out the Firestorm in the open vegetable plot.
Now, for us morbid types, this next one is a much more interesting memento since it was plucked off a casualty of the fire, not a survivor:
This snuff box belonged to fire victim Henry Hanson and was all that was left of his that was identifiable. Henry was one of the volunteer firemen who died in the fire. He left behind his wife Emma and six young children.
Emma returned to Hinckley where a relief home was built for her and her children. She took in boarders to make a living, something she had no experience in prior to losing her husband. Emma’s story is typical of many who lost their spouses and exemplifies the courage and fortitude of those who came back to this blackened land to start all over again.
More morbid debris from the fire!
The purse on the left of the top picture (and in the middle picture) has the following description: “Mrs. John McNamara and family escaped on Root’s train to Skunk Lake. Getting off the flaming train, she and her two oldest songs ran down the tracks in fright and perished. Beneath her charred body this purse was later found. In it was $3,500 which she had saved to send her sons to college.”
The doll in the middle of the top picture (and in the bottom picture) has the following description: “This little china doll belonged to eight year old Mary Tew. Clinging to her doll throughout the tragic ordeal, Mary escaped, only to die a year later from the effects of the Fire as many people did.”
The pitcher on the right has the following description: “This cream pitcher survived the Fire by being buried along with other family treasures. Those who lived northeast of Partridge had time to save more belongings by doing so.”
Here are a couple of macabre mementos associated with telegraph operator Tommy Dunn, who died when he stayed at his post too long attempting to make contact with the railroad to determine when a rescue train would be arriving:
After the fire, the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad wanted to recognize telegraph operator Tommy Dunn for his heroism during the fire even though he was one of the fire victims. They took his silver railroad watch, had it gold plated and inscribed it:
“Thomas Dunn, Operator, St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, met his death while on duty at Hinckley, Minn, during the Great Fire, September 1, 1894.”
When the body of Tommy Dunn was found, the family kept the ring he was wearing when he perished, even though the stone that was once in the ring had completely burned.
Notice the ring on the doily beside the clock. What a silly thing to say though, huh? “They kept the ring despite the fact that the stone was burned” – as if they kept the ring for the value of the ring, and not for the fact that it was on his hand as he burned to death. Ah well, I suppose you have to think of SOMETHING to put on these placards, eh?
They also have a very well-done recreation of the telegraph office with a likeness of Dunn faithfully remaining at his post despite the approaching flames. The last message he sent was the prophetic, “I have stayed too long”. Indeed.
There is a film that you can watch in the old freight room, as well as a recreation of Dr. E.L. Stephan’s office. “Doc” Stephan was a prominent citizen and doctor in the town of Hinckley who played an important role in the rebuilding of the town.
On the second floor of the museum is a 1890’s era recreation of the apartment where the depot agent and his family lived.
After purchasing a book (From the Ashes) from the gift shop, I walked outside and took this shot of the Hinckley water tower. You can see it was quite a dismal day. Of course, I was most pleased.
After the museum, I drove to the nearby gravel pit, where so many Hinckley residents successfully took refuge from the inferno. Although the pit has been filled in over the years, the remnants have been made into a lovely little park filled with statues depicting a couple of the residents. A placard in the area says the following:
THE HISTORIC PIT
During the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894, this site, then known as the Gravel Pit, proved to be a God-send to those people who were not able to escape the Fire by train. It was on this railroad track that two trains, one passenger and one freight, coupled together to take over 400 people from the burning town and deliver them safely to Duluth. This pit, considered an eyesore to the people of Hinckley in 1894 was dug by the Eastern Minnesota Railroad to be used in making the roadbed for the train track. But, it was where about 100 people, along with many domestic and wild animals, found shelter from the Fire. The pit at that time was a three acre excavation, about thirty feet deep, with a spring that kept water in the depression. Because 1894 was a very dry year, there was only about three feet of water in the depression. Everyone who took shelter from the Fire here, however, was saved, except for one man who was overcome from heat and smoke. He fainted and was stepped on by a cow and died. The frightened people stayed in the water for about three hours and when they crawled out to see what was left of the town they were horrified to see the total devastation. Where once stood a busy and prosperous town was now just a pile of smoking ashes. The only buildings remaining were the Round House and the Water Tank on the south end of town where the railroad tracks intersect. Here the fire victims found shelter where they stayed until they could be rescued by train. Over the years, the pit has been filled in. At one time it was common to see boaters in the pit and also a foot bridge was built to connect one side of the pit to the other.
My final stop was the cemetery, where a large monument was erected in memory of the victims of the fire, over 200 of whom are buried in a collective grave. It was difficult to get in and out of the cemetery since there is an Indian Casino just down the street, and it obviously is the big draw for the non-morbid public. (You might notice the line of cars in the background of the pictures. I wasn’t very pleased that my moment of solitude with the Hinckley dead was sullied by the presence of so many gamblers.)
The monument, which was dedicated in 1900, is near the street and easily identified. Upon the monument are several inscriptions, the most poignant of which are the following two:
SEPTEMBER 1st, A.D. 1894
On the first day of September, A.D. 1894, between the hours of three and five o’clock in the afternoon a forest fire swept over Central Pine County devastating four hundred square miles of country, consuming the villages of Hinckley, Sandstone, Mission Creek and Brook Park, and destroying more than four hundred and eighteen human lives.
In the four trenches north of this monument lie the remains of two hundred and forty eight men, women and children, residents of Hinckley, who perished in the fire which this monument was erected to commemorate.
And with this last somber moment, my trip to Hinckley had come to an end. In a much more agreeable manner than it came to an end for 418 unfortunate souls on September 1, 1894.
In response to your request of morbid places to visit in Minnesota, I would like to suggest, Hinckley Minn. My Great-Grandfather worked for the railroad at the time of the Great Hinckley Fire. My brother recently came across some old journals of our grandfathers’, and he wrote of his father Wilbur’s experience, when the railroad company sent him to Hinckley Minnesota to restart the railway system. Apparently on 12-7-1894 [9-1-1894 actually – Comtesse], a fire started in a non-combustible area. Eye witnesses insisted the fire came from the sky. My great-grandfather, Wilbur, was one of the first to arrive to help out. What he saw was, and I will quote from a letter he wrote to his wife, “I will not attempt to tell you of the horrible scenes.” But he later told my grandfather (his son) the rest of the story. Witnesses said, a fire started in the sky, like a huge ball of flames. The townspeople were so terrified, they crowded onto the only transportation out of town at that time, the train. Hundreds scrambled to get in, and on top of the train. They hung from windows, anywhere that they could hold on, to get out as fast as possible. Then, the ball of fire in the air swooped down on the train before it could leave, burning their bodies to a crisp. Hundreds perished. They never got out of town. The town as well burnt to the ground. A Norwegian house in the poor section of town was the only building left standing. An article in Argosy Magazine, back in the 1970’s, tells of the Depot Agents story and says a UFO may have been involved. Some try to say it was just a bad forest fire, but my Great-grandfather spoke to the frightened survivors in person, and they all said the fire came from the sky. Some said great balls of fire were burning in the air, and there was no forest nearby. And they were puzzled as to why the fire ball of all places, descended on the train. Hundreds of burnt and unrecognizable corpses were the first thing to greet my Great-Grandfather on his arrival to Hinckley. There are supposed to be 100’s of the victims graves, and maybe you can locate it and take a look. All I can tell you is what we have found written in my grandfathers journal. Thought I would suggest it to you. Just the thought of hundreds of peoples burnt bodies melted onto that train, seems pretty morbid to me. Have a safe trip, and keep the stories coming.
An anonymous individual writes:
I live in Hinckley, on the edge of the gravel pit where those people and livestock crouched to wait out the firestorm. I have to say that I was curious when directed to your site; I wasn’t sure what approach you would take to the fire and the aftermath. Someone who apparently is also a fan of the morbid has stolen one of the statues on the edge of the pit commemorating the events of that day. I’m afraid I can’t offer you much in the way of morbidity, but I can offer you this. If you are a believer in ghosts, come back to Hinckley. In the pit there are strange lights at night, and sometimes there are more dead people on the street than live ones. While I am a transplant to this town, I have come to appreciate it’s history, and I am proud to tell of it to anyone who will listen.
Recently Debbers sent me the following update:
Hello, I found out that my great-great-grandparents were one of the Russian families living in Hinckley. My great-great-grandma took her two boys to that gravel pit. But, my family states the two year old died there. He drowned. My great-grandpa was four; he lived, but his legs were badly burned.
Additionally, Chris Reinhold sent me the following:
Hi, I saw your page devoted to the Great Hinckley Fire.
I’m the step grandson of Frank Patrick, a renowned survivor of the fire. My family has very strong ties to that town My grandfather Frank Reinhold was a lawyer and ran the Lamson and Reinhold law firm there. My grandmother Arloine Patrick was an elementary school teacher there, after my grandfather passed away she re-married to Frank Patrick the Hinckley Fire survivor and they spent the rest of their lives together. My father, Frank Reinhold (Jr.) grew up in Hinckley and was a sports star at Hinckley High School before joining the service.
“Pat” was the only grandfather I ever knew.
I found the annonymous contribution in the replies interesting because my grandparent’s house was on the [lot] near where “The Pit” is.
Hinckley is a quiet and peaceful town with great people, I wouldn’t mind moving back there one day.
My step-brothers were adopted by Harold and Margaret Underhill who lived on on Grindstone Lake in Sandstone. Grindstone Lake is where my grandfather and his family were rescued by a Native American woman. The blanket he was rescued in is on display at the Hinckley Fire museum. I guess an artist made a mural of the rescue that hangs on the Hinckley Town Hall. He gave lectures about the fire at the museum and in front of the Hinckley Fire Monument in the cemetery for years. Pat was a great guy, a real character. = )
Anyone have any additional tidbits or photos to add?
If so, by all means, write me!
For more information on the Hinckley Fire, also see:
From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894
Minnesota Historical Society