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The worst natural disaster in Minnesota history was a forest fire

The Cloquet and Moose Lake fires left over 450 dead, fifteen hundred square miles consumed, towns and villages burned flat.

People and ruins after the fire, 1918.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The worst natural disaster in Minnesota history — over 450 dead, fifteen hundred square miles consumed, towns and villages burned flat — unfolded at a frightening pace, lasting less than fifteen hours from beginning to end. The fire began around midday on Saturday, October 12, 1918. By 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, all was over but the smoldering, the suffering, and the recovery.

What is often called simply the Cloquet Fire was really a host of fires, fifty or more, that combined in a single event. It had two major theaters, one called the Cloquet–Duluth Fire and the other the Moose Lake Fire.

Conditions for both had been building for months. Lumbering, the region’s main industry, created giant depots of cut, dry lumber and left the countryside littered with wood waste. Farmers routinely burned fields and brush. Locomotives, contrary to law, spewed sparks and embers. The summer and fall of 1918 had been extremely dry.

The Cloquet–Duluth Fire began before noon on October 10 when a Great Northern locomotive set a small fire at Milepost 62 northwest of Cloquet. It smoldered for two days, then came alive when a cold front brought stiff winds and a steep drop in humidity. At about 1:30 p.m. this fire began to move and join with others.

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It moved on two axes: east toward Duluth and southeast toward Cloquet. Around 2:00 p.m. the Cloquet-bound fire destroyed the village of Brookston. Moving slowly at first, it reached the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation around 7:15 and the city of Cloquet around 8:00.

Winds had by then risen to sixty miles per hour. Later, survivors described phenomena of terror: walls of flame hundreds of feet tall, houses exploding from heat, bolts of flaming wood propelled through the air, the sun turned red, and a roar louder than thunder.

The people of Cloquet got just enough warning. Factory whistles blew, the fire department sent runners, telephone operators called every number, and the mayor organized four evacuation trains. The city, full of frame houses and tons of dry lumber at three sawmills, burned almost flat. But only five people died there; over seven thousand got out by train.

The Duluth-bound fire crept west from Milepost 62, joined with another fire around 2:00 p.m., and then began to dash. Winds rose to hurricane force, pushing forward the fire’s front, ten miles wide, at up to twenty miles per hour. The world’s fastest sprinter, given a one-hundred-yard head start, would have been in flames within thirty seconds. For people caught in the inferno’s path, survival often depended on luck.

The fire reached the northeastern corner of Duluth around 7:00 p.m. It burned a country club and train depot but never descended into the main part of the city. Winds began to fall around 9:00 p.m. By 3:00 a.m. the fire had reached its limit at Lake Superior; around eight hundred square miles had been charred.

The Moose Lake fire — at least five fires combined — had begun October 4 along railroad tracks near Tamarack in Aitkin County, then lain low until the winds and humidity drop of October 12 whipped it into motion at about 1:00 p.m. that day. It drove southeast toward the towns of Kettle River and Moose Lake, combining with other fires along the way. Twenty-five people in the village of Automba were killed when the flames raced through, destroying it completely.

The fire reached Kettle River around 6:45. Seventy-five to one hundred people, some of them fleeing by car, were killed by fire and an accident at a sharp highway turn south of town called Dead Man’s Curve. People could not outrun the racing flames. They saved themselves in streams, ditches, and open fields, or died, many in root cellars by suffocation.

As the blaze neared Moose Lake around 7:30, relief trains rescued a few hundred. Most who survived, however, did so by taking refuge in Moose Head Lake. Some simply drove their cars in and waited. By 10:00 p.m. the fire had passed. The Moose Lake Fire consumed over four hundred square miles and caused more than half of that day’s deaths. Other fires added to the destruction and tally of victims.

A statewide relief effort, assisted in part by the Minnesota Home Guard, began October 13. Rebuilding followed soon thereafter.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.