The suffering and the heroism of those who lived and died on Sept. 1, 1894 are marked in the pages of Alaina Lyseth’s “Images of America: Hinckley and the Fire of 1894.”
“It was a record drought that year with record high temperatures all summer long,” Lyseth said. “Everything was hot and dry. The loggers had been through and left all their slash behind, all this readily-available fuel on the ground more or less ready to explode.”
Lyseth said that the citizens in the area had been fighting small fires all summer long, and had gotten used to the haze and smell of smoke in the air.
“So on the day of the fire, when people woke up that morning and it was smoky out, nobody thought anything of it,” she said. “And that’s why a lot of people died, because by the time they realized there was this horrific fire bearing down on them there wasn’t enough time to escape.”
Lyseth said that the Great Hinckley Fire was actually two two fires coming together, one from Brook Park and the other from down by Mission Creek.
“And when they combined, that’s when it turned into this massive firestorm that had all this energy and power,” she said.
That firestorm lasted four hours and covered nearly 500 square miles.
“Over 400 lives were lost,” she said. “It destroyed everything in its path and the people that did survive came back home and there was nothing there. A lot of them, they lost everything they had plus maybe they lost family members.”
Lyseth, who has lived in Hinckley since 1985, spent countless hours digging through the archives of the Hinckley Fire Museum for previously unpublished photos – the book contains 200 vintage images – and finding relatives of survivors willing to share their stories.
“What I wanted to do is to match up the fire stories with vintage photos to help put a face on the stories,” she said. “It was kind of a puzzle to recognize the name and then put it with the right story. It was kind of like a treasure hunt.”
She also learned a great deal about the fire itself, and the ferocity of the blaze.
“I guess the thing that amazed me most was the capriciousness of the fire – the fact that two objects could be 10 feet apart, one would burn up, and one wouldn’t,” she said. “One person would die and one wouldn’t. That’s why they compare it to a tornado, because the same things happen with tornadoes.”
Lyseth found many Pine City connections – and one particularly remarkable survival story.
“Pine City played a big part in the rescue efforts,” Lyseth said. “One of the amazing things was how fast the rescue effort was mounted. The fire went through in the afternoon and by late that night, even with the railroad track and the telegraph wires burnt out, word had gotten out.”
One of those who stepped in to help was Dr. E. E. Barnum, who had just arrived in Pine City the previous year. And at the time he was trying to help the survivors, he didn’t know if his own daughter was alive or dead.
“He had sent his daughter Kate up to Hinckley that day on the train to go school shopping,” Lyseth explained. “She was a teenager and they had sent her on the train for the first time by herself.”
Lyseth said Barnum gave his daughter strict instructions on how to get to Hinckley and the timetable for the return trip to Pine City. And she was all by herself as disaster swept in on the town.
“So she’s up there shopping, and once the fire started roaring through Hinckley ... all she could think was, ‘My mom and dad told me I had to get on the Pine City train south to go home.’ Well, there was no train going south because of the fire.”
Lyseth said a minister in the crowd came to the young woman’s aid.
“He kind of took her under his wing and finally convinced her to get on a train to go north to Duluth,” she said.
Back in Pine City, Barnum was helping get aid stations ready for the victims of the fire, not knowing if his own daughter would be among them. A number of Pine City residents climbed on railroad handcars and traveled north as far as they could until they reached the burned-out section of track. Then they set out on foot.
“They kept on through the night until they reached Hinckley,” Lyseth said.
But though they helped the survivors, they didn’t find Barnum’s daughter – at least not right away. And in the chaos following the fire, it took what must have seemed like a lifetime for Barnum to find out what had happened.
“I think it was two or three days later that he finally found out she was alive – that she was up in Duluth,” Lyseth said.
Lyseth will be signing “Images of America: Hinckley and the Fire of 1894” on Dec. 6 at the Pine County History Museum in Askov from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The book is available on amazon.com. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.