Local residents remember stories from the 1918 fire
“It was beautiful weather. I remember I was in father's lap and mother had washed clothes that morning. There was a tub of water and clean clothes waiting to be rinsed,” Bertha Chapin said.
Chapin, who is 99 years old now, was 2 ½ years old when the Cloquet Fire of 1918 devastated the town.
Chapin grew up on a 40-acre farm west of Cloquet, down the road from School 56, which also survived the fire.
“I remember when we went to Cloquet with the horses and took the train to Superior,” Chapin said.
An estimated 8,000 people were evacuated on four trains in Cloquet and the surrounding areas on that day in 1918, according to the book “The Fires of Autumn.”
“A lot of people went to the schoolhouse to save themselves. The schoolhouse didn't burn,” Chapin said. “A lot of people dug holes in the ground and others went to the lake. Most of the people who went to the lake were saved, but some died in the lake from the smoke.”
Hazel Molis, who turned 98 years old Tuesday, remembers her mother talking about the day the fire just missed their farm outside of Sturgeon Lake. The fire reached the Moose Lake and Sturgeon Lake area around 7:30 or 8 p.m. on the fateful Saturday evening.
Her mother had received a phone call to evacuate as the fire sped towards the family farm.
“My mother took a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, but we never did go because the wind changed. All I know is what my mother told me,” Molis said.
Next-door neighbor Willy Larson had a Model T and was picking up his neighbors on the 1.5-mile road and bringing them to nearby Denham.
Before the Molis family could leave, they received a message telling them the wind had switched and they were not in danger from the fire anymore.
Molis remembers a neighbor woman was in the Moose Lake Hospital giving birth to a baby girl when the fire descended on the town. The patients were hurried into boats and rowed to the middle of Moose Head Lake to wait out the fire with several hundred others seeking refuge.
“Years later Tillie (Westman) recalled, ‘It seemed like every soul from Moose lake was there, in or near the water. Soon the cottages at the resort started burning, and we actually saw the flames leap over the lake and ignite buildings on the opposite side. The entire heavens were a huge ball of flame and within minutes, the entire city was blazing.’” (The Fires of Autumn.)
Willy Larson’s house was less than a mile from Molis home and, like many others, it burned to the ground.
“The next day after the fire, they went to the neighbor’s house that had burned and their Bible ended up on the ground, but it looked fine,” Molis said.
Moose Lake and Kettle River reported the most deaths in the 1918 fire. Several of the deaths were from people hiding in their root cellars and suffocating when the fire sucked the oxygen out. Almost 100 who tried to escape by vehicle were believed to have died on a sharp corner, subsequently known as “dead man’s curve,” when the thick smoke prevented them from seeing the turn. About 200 people were buried in a mass grave in Moose Lake a few days later.
Eino Lahti, 99, does not remember the fire, but he does know his parents and three older brothers took the train to Superior and stayed with a family for a week until they could return to the area.
Fires were a common occurrence in the fall at the time, either from sparks from a train or farmers.
“The farmers were always burning brush,” Lahti said, with a hint of a Finnish accent.
The Lahti family, like everyone else, had to leave town fast and didn't think to take important papers like birth certificates with them.
The surviving mills started up as quickly as they could so the men could get back to work.
Mostly Lahti remembers ash piles all over town and that the local lumber mills gave residents wood to build temporary shacks to live in to get through the Minnesota winter.
“Where USG is now, that was the Northern Lumber mill. My dad worked there and I used to bring him lunch every once in awhile,” Lahti said.
Lahti remembered that every house had an outhouse after the fire because the sewers were not working right away.
The Red Cross and other agencies came to the aid of the displaced residents, providing food, clothes and a temporary shelter while shacks were quickly built.
“The shacks were built strong. Later we used them for a garage for our car,” Lahti said.
They used blankets as room dividers and a kerosene lantern hung from the wall for light.
“We had a kerosene lantern on the wall and a mirror or a globe behind it ... I always liked that little lantern,” Lahti said, adding the observation that “there were a lot more blueberries after the fire.”
Lahti and his friends spent many hours playing in the burned-out basements that dotted the town for several years. While exploring one day he found a pile of pennies that had been melted together into a solid lump.
“It was fun playing because there were all of those empty basements,” Lahti said.
Then the pool halls started going up.
“We used to go behind them to look for money after they swept,” Lahti said.
According to the “Fires of Autumn”: 1,500 square miles were destroyed by fire over a region encompassing 8,400 square miles; 453 people were killed outright, 85 were badly burned and 106 were killed by influenza and pneumonia that followed on the heels of the fire; 11,382 families were displaced; and 52,371 people were injured, disrupted, or affected to some degree.
“These figures, taken from the ‘Final Report’ of the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission, are probably conservative; they are well below the inflated newspaper estimates,” the book reveals.
At least 4,089 houses were destroyed, as well as 6,366 barns, 41 school buildings (including the brand-new “fireproof” high school building in Cloquet), and 4,295 farm animals and 54,083 chickens perished.
“It was awful,” Chapin said.
Lahti used to work at the Pop Shoppe, and when he was about 12 years old a lumber mill near the river caught on fire. Lahti went on top of the building and watched the scene unfold in front of him. He could see a group of his friends standing on the railroad tracks watching the building burn.
As he watched, the boiler blew up and sent a large piece sailing towards the boys, hitting Charlie Randelin on the head and killed him instantly.
“I will never forget that,” Lahti said, pausing for a moment.
The Lahtis did not have a phone or a refrigerator until he was a teenager, when an older brother got a job.
Lahti remembers his brother’s wood-carving skill with making realistic wooden guns and ships.
His brother Bruno died of pneumonia when Lahti was about 14 years old.
Lahti and his friends spent their free time wandering around and exploring their world. They enjoyed hunting, fishing and swimming at the local swimming hole above the dam.
“When we saw the girls walk over the dam, we showed the girls ‘the moon,’” Lahti said, laughing.
- Lahti bought his first car, a Ford Model T, for $25.