Fires of 1918: Oldest survivors in Cloquet are now buildings
When the last train pulled out of Cloquet just after 10 p.m. Oct. 12, 1918, the people jammed in its boxcars watched the city burn as they left. Passengers recalled watching the Pine Knot newspaper office, the YMCA, the Cloquet hotel, the Methodist Church and the new "fireproof" high school, which had only opened in April 1918, go up in flames.
By 4 a.m., the city of Cloquet was "practically all burned," reported Commissioner Archie Campbell, who traveled back and forth between Carlton and Cloquet three times that dreadful night.
But not everything was destroyed.
Many of the industries were saved thanks to people who remained behind to fight the fires. They saved two lumber companies, the toothpick factory, the box plant, Cloquet Tie and Post Company and the Northwest Paper Company, all in the east end of town
Garfield was the only one of six local schools that remained standing, along with five or six homes in the city and the water tower.
And, while the Duluth and Northeastern Railroad depot and roundhouse burned on the west end of Dunlap Island, most of the hotels, saloons and brothels further east survived.
One of those was the Northeastern Hotel, which looks almost the same today as it did at the time of the devastating fires of 1918.
Authors Francis M. Carroll and Franklin R. Raiter wrote how Minnesota Home Guard and National Guard troops moved into the burned-out cities almost immediately to prevent looting and help restore order:
"Unburned buildings on Dunlap Island in the St. Louis River became the headquarters, and within a matter of days, a barracks for soldiers was built at the corner of Cloquet Avenue and Second Street. Sgt. Gus Apel set up a dispensary in the Northeastern Hotel, where he looked after refugees, ministered first aid and put dressings on burn victims for 36 hours without rest. The National Guard also ran a mess service for several days, serving hot food to refugees returning to Cloquet to inspect their losses," the two Cloquet natives wrote in a Minnesota History magazine article: "At the time of our misfortune, Relief Efforts following the 1918 Fire."
Northeastern Hotel and Saloon owner Bert Whittington confirmed the building was used in several capacities after the fire, including briefly as National Guard headquarters.
According to the application that landed the Northeastern — built in 1904 — on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the Red Cross headquarters after the fire as well as a hospital and the bar became the United States Post Office. It was also used as a temporary shelter for laborers returning to work in the sawmills.
Garfield School also served as a hospital in the weeks after the fire.
"The babies were born at the Northeastern and the flu patients were at Garfield," said local historian Joe Peterson, noting that more people died from the Spanish influenza than the fire in Cloquet.
"I do know — and I actually have collected a few names — of tons of babies who were born at the Northeastern after the fire," Whittington said.
But there are other stories he's not so sure about, like that "all" the fire victims were taken to the Northeastern after the fire.
"I think (the ones who ended up at Dunlap Island) were mostly old people who said: 'I'm not leaving; I'm staying,'" Whittington said. "I think there were four or five who were killed by the fire in Cloquet."
Another question he hears often: "Were people drinking in the bar when the rest of the city was burning down?"
"I don't think there's any historical record of that, but I'm sure somebody stayed on this island. I know a lot of people working at the mills and lumber yards tried to save the horses and pump water on the mill. I've heard that story a million times."
Helen Olson, who grew up on Dunlap Island with her two younger sisters, recalled the day of the fire in a 2010 interview with the Pine Journal.
"My dad (John Mattson) came running right away and told mama he'd put us on the train while he would stay and fight the fire," related Olson, who was 99 at the time and died a few months later. "Mama told him, 'I'm not going, either.' We all went up to the sidewalk in front of the Northeastern. ... We could hear horses screaming on the Cloquet side; there were two big horse barns over there. My dad took the barn that was on fire and got all the horses out, then he went back in to see if there were more. There was only a billy goat — the mascot. Eight times he threw that goat out. Every time, it went back inside."
Since he and his wife, Judy, purchased the historic building in 2000, Whittington has tried to keep the Northeastern as historically intact as possible.
It is close enough to allow visitors to get a feeling for how the bar appeared to residents and others who made their way to Dunlap Island in the days following the fire, albeit with modern amenities like a beer cooler and other items that arrived after 1918. The saloon downstairs still features the original, 30-foot-long, one-piece African mahogany bar along with an almost equally long 1926 hand-painted mirror back bar. The original Koehler & Hendricks safe, candy case, St. Paul penny scale and dining room tin ceiling remain. He also regained a pair of spittoons that were pictured in a photograph of the bar taken in the 1920s.
The former shop teacher, history buff and all-around handyman also spent more than a decade remodeling the hotel rooms upstairs in a historically accurate style. Each one is furnished with original dressers, plus antique beds, and come complete with historical books about the area and/or the 1918 fires.
The downstairs also features many vintage and antique beer signs and clocks, plus Whittington has all kinds of little curios, like old matchbooks and shot glasses, buttons and photographs from years gone by.
One of his most prized possessions is a promotional button with an image of a bald eagle on the front and the words "Northeastern Hotel Bar, Oleson and Elm Props, Cloquet, Minn., Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" written on one end and "Good for 10 cents in trade" on the other other. On the flip side is a mirror. He knows that the button predates the fire because Olsen died at the bar in 1916.
Whittington also has the first liquor license for the bar, issued Jan. 10, 1885, by the village of Cloquet to Louis MCCullough back when it was a wooden building, which burned in 1903.
Whittington figures the Northeastern is the oldest surviving building in Cloquet, as the Foundry Bar next door was built in 1907 and Garfield School was built in 1910.
"The Northeastern looks pretty much the same now as it did back then, although the entrance now faces Highway 33 where it used to face St. Louis Avenue," he said. "And it's always been a hotel, saloon and dining facility. It's not a repurposed building."
Upcoming 1918 Fires events
- Red Cross fire shack — The Moose Lake Area Historical Society will hold a picnic and dedication ceremony at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 1, for the Red Cross fire shack that was moved this spring to the Moose Lake museum site at 900 Folz Blvd.
- Accordion concert — The Carlton County Historical Society will host an accordion concert featuring music from 1918 at 4 p.m. July 4.