The Cloquet/Moose Lake Fires of 1918
Within hours, a region's history is rewritten
On the afternoon of October 10, 1918, a farmer named Steve Koskela and his neighbor, John Sundstrom, were collecting wood near a railroad siding fifteen miles northwest of Cloquet, Minnesota. As a passenger train left the siding, Koskela and Sundstrom saw smoke rising. They soon discovered a fire, about twenty feet across, burning through dry grass and piles of wood near the siding. Though Koskela, his neighbors, and local railroad crews worked through the night and into the following day, they were unable to contain the fire.
By October 12, a series of devastating fires had swept through northern Minnesota. A convergence of conditions--a dry summer, a rapid drop in humidity, high winds, and a lack of firefighting equipment--led to the rapid progression of fires through the wooded areas surrounding Cloquet and the peat bogs to the south, particularly around Moose Lake. Towns and rural areas in southern St. Louis, Pine, and Carlton counties were struck, as well as areas in Aitkin, Itasca, Cass, Crow Wing, and Wadena counties. More than 1,500 square miles of land burned. Cloquet, Brookston, Moose Lake, Automba, Kettle River, and at least 30 other towns were destroyed. More than 450 people died as a result of the fires, and another 106 soon succumbed to the influenza epidemic sweeping the country. More than 11,000 people lost their homes, and 2,100 people were treated for injuries. Property loss was estimated at $73 million, including 4,089 houses, 6,366 barns, 41 school buildings, 54,083 chickens, and 4,295 animals.
Relief organizations, including the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission and the Red Cross, aided 50,000 refugees over the next several years. Eventually homes were rebuilt, businesses were reopened, and new routines were established. In a 1930 speech, Anna Dickie Olesen, a politician who survived the Cloquet fire, said, "I never heard one person during that night of fire, or in the years of misery that followed, ever murmur or complain about this loss. They just went to it to try to start their work again." Olesen supported the fire victims in their lawsuits against the railroad and the federal government, which were ultimately successful with the passage of federal legislation in 1935.
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