Remembering the fires of 1918

In the words of survivors 105 years later


October 13, 2023

On Saturday, the Fires of 1918 Museum and Depot in Moose Lake will commemorate the 105th anniversary of the fires that devastated the region on Oct. 12, 1918. A documentary will be shown at 2 p.m. in the Soo Line Event Center and memory candles will be available. There will be coffee and conversation afterward.

On this date, Oct. 13, in 1918, the world was catching wind of the fires that consumed northeastern Minnesota the day before. Fires wiped out the cities of Moose Lake, Cloquet and other towns, along with rural areas all the way up to Duluth. More than 450 people were killed and 52,000 injured or displaced in the region.

The Pine Knot has a cache of firsthand accounts of the fire written years ago. Some are shared here, with editing for clarity and length.

From Jean Tetu, writing from the Dube Hotel in Cloquet, date unknown.

As I was returning from work on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 12, 1918, I noticed that the sun was blood-red and the smell of smoke in the air was getting stronger and stronger. I was informed that the reason was that the town of Brookston was burning.

At about 6:30, the dread cry "Fire. Fire. The fire is coming" was heard in the streets. The alarm increased and fear for the safety of the town was felt. The tornadic wind was driving fire closer and closer to town. Boxcars, gondolas and any other form of train cars were pressed into service to take people out of town.

I took my car from the garage and took our family down to the depot, then returning, I helped transport all the people I could find, who with all their worldly goods they could possibly carry with them, were making their way hastily to the depot. As I was bringing the last load of passengers down, I noticed a horse and buggy arriving at the depot. The driver proceeded to tie his horse to the nearest telephone pole, got on the train and left the horse to die with no possible way of escape.

Everything was hustle and bustle. Everyone had seemed to lose all sense of reason and it was a miracle that more people were not hurt or burned while trying to board the trains and leave town. The last trains that left town had to uncouple some of the rear cars because they were already on fire.

[Jean and a friend then prepared to leave town in the car, driving down Cloquet Avenue and looking out for any more people.]

The most horrible sights I expect to ever see were all around. Pigs, cows and horses were to be seen running wild, partially burned. Cats were to be seen running with most of the fur burned off and chickens with all their feathers missing. I then proceeded to try to get out of town before it was too late.

I first tried the north road but the bridge had already burned over the Cloquet river. I then realized the desperate plight I was in and that I would be extremely lucky to get out of the fire alive. I next tried the old Carlton road but it was of no use, the flames were there ahead of me. I then tried the Scanlon road. The fire was rapidly drawing nearer and I realized I would have to get out soon or it would be too late.

My friend Bob had to lie on the running board and direct me by using a pocket flashlight and yelling to go left or right. ...

We finally arrived at the Scanlon bridge, and it was already burning on the other side, but we knew this was our last avenue of escape and we had to pass over it. As we approached the bridge, we looked down and to our dismay we saw several cars in the ditch at the head of the bridge.

The reason why so many cars were in the ditch was because the first car that came along had gone into the ditch with the tail light burning and the other cars as they approached perceived the tail light burning and naturally thought that they were following the right way and proceeded to go right into the ditch with the first car.

We took all the ladies and children we could possibly pack in the car and hurriedly proceeded across the bridge that was already burning. We were extremely fortunate to get across because just after we crossed, the bridge went down with a shower of sparks and flames. There were many poles and trees to go over, but we finally sighted the city of Duluth from the big hill and we knew our fight was won.

In the meantime, my family was not faring so well in the coal cars they had been placed in. My youngest sister, Bernice, had a weak heart and she had fainted. My mother was beside herself with fear. ...

The next morning, Sunday, Oct. 13, I returned to Cloquet or what was left of it. It was a sight to make the most courageous downhearted. The town was leveled off as if some giant hand had passed over it and brushed the houses off. The only things left standing in the city proper was the Cloquet mill and Johnson mill, the waterpower plant, and the Garfield school, which were saved by some freak twist of the wind.

Only part of one brick wall of the high school was left. The damage amounted to many millions of dollars. Soldiers were stationed at every block and no one was allowed to take anything off of their property without first establishing their identity and their property.

Lilly (Carlson) Torma was a longtime correspondent for the Carlton County Vidette and then reported the Perch Lake Township news in the Pine Knot. She died in 2005 at age 94.

I was 7 at the time of the fire. I was living at home, on my parents' farm. The Victor Carlsons had seven children. The farm was located about 8 miles west of Cloquet, one mile off Big Lake road.

I was at home with my brothers Oscar, who was 11, Earl, and Arnold, and an uncle from Duluth, who with Dad had been threshing grain.

A large pile of straw lay up against the barn. Flying embers and burning pieces of timber and board ignited the straw several times, with the men putting the fire out each time.

The straw pile remained the next morning, as did other buildings on the farm. Our home did not burn. We didn't know this because we left the farm in confusion and panic as fire neared. Dad and Mother took all the furniture out of the house, along with our piano and sewing machine, both of which are still in the family and in working condition.

The team of horses was hitched to a wagon and along with other small items and personal belongings, were stored in a nearby plowed field of our neighbor, John Hoglund. By this time, the fierce flames were traveling through the air, the wind carrying burning boards like flaming arrows in the sky. These ignited wagons and contents, but with everyone carrying water from the well, they managed to save everything.

Even though it was still daylight, the smoke was so thick you could hardly see any of our companions. During the night, a mattress was laid on the ground and Oscar and I slept through all the worst times. We were overjoyed the next morning to find everyone safe.

Leonard Berglund's father had taken the train to Brookston on Oct. 12, and returned to warn his family of the coming fire at the homestead northwest of Cloquet. Berglund was 14 at the time. The family escaped, but the farm was destroyed. Four families ended up sharing space in a nearby schoolhouse.

The country sure was terrible looking and it smelled worse. The burned-out stumps and logs were still smoldering and so was the peat in the bog. Some cattle had also burned and were giving off a bad odor. This kept on until the snow fell.

We received a cook stove, some bedding and food, and later some food for the animals. My father managed to get a team of horses.

My baby brother Philip passed away that fall from the effects of smoke inhalation. Mr. Demoe made a little coffin out of some lumber and the baby was buried in the cemetery a few miles south of the school. Mr. Defoe was a rough sort of guy, but he said a few kind words at the grave. I suppose he felt it was his duty since there was no minister around. I think my mother felt more relieved than sad about the whole thing. Our neighbor's baby also died from smoke.

We got some lumber from the Red Cross and built a little barn for the cattle and horses and started to live like people again. Our little log house was crowded, it was only 12x16 feet, but it was snug and warm. Most of all, it was home. ...

We made regular trips to Brookston for whatever commodities the Red Cross would give us. Donations of clothing of all kinds were arriving at Red Cross stations from kind-hearted people from all parts of the state and country. The only drawback was the war was going on, and sugar and flour were awfully scarce. ...

On Nov. 11, the armistice was signed, ending the war that had lasted 17 months. Everyone was very happy. The engineer on the passenger train blew the whistle all the way from Cloquet to Brookston, and probably even farther. The newspaper headlines seemed a foot high on the front page. A perfect ending to a hectic year with war, fire and flu. ...

We lived through the winter fairly well. The next summer we started building a bigger house and barn. As time went on, the memories of that terrible fire became dimmer and all but forgotten. Any happenings talked about were referred to as "before the fire" or "after the fire."


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