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1918 Fire stories: Fire rains death, devastation on southern Carlton County

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Cloquet may have suffered the greatest financial losses in the Fires of 1918, but Moose Lake and the surrounding small towns in southern Carlton County paid a much dearer cost — in lives lost.

Only five people died as a result of the fire that destroyed nearly all of Cloquet. However, the Minnesota Forest Fires Commission estimated that at least half of the 453 people killed in all of the fires on that terrible day died in the Moose Lake and Kettle River region.

Between 75-100 died at a 90-degree "curve" on what is now Highway 73 between the two towns that became known as "Dead Man's Curve" after that horrible day. The dangers of the already narrow dirt road were compounded by the large numbers of people trying to escape in automobiles — packed into cars and even riding on the running boards — and the dark and heavy smoke that made it almost impossible to see the road.

In the book "The Fires of Autumn," Celia Kowalski described seeing an automobile loaded with a family of children crash.

"They hit the curve, careen off the road into the rocks and burning stumps and overturned," she said. "I will never forget the terrible screaming of those poor souls slowly burning to death."

Another 60-some people died within 2 miles of "Eckman's Corner," 3 miles from Moose Lake — some in the old West Side Church and the Eckman School.

Farm families, loggers and others who could flee into water did so, covering themselves with wet clothes or blankets that they had to repeatedly douse with water, as the fire dried them out almost instantly. Some took shelter in creeks and rivers, others in the lakes that dot the area.

In the city of Moose Lake, residents and animals headed for Moose Head Lake.

Martin Cheslak piled all the doors from his house in a wagon with his family and headed for the lake, where the doors made splendid rafts for the family.

"Animals of all kinds, including bear, horses, deer and even a moose tried to climb aboard and had to be fought off," Mary Zenkowski told in the "1918 Fire Stories" book published by the Moose Lake Area Historical Society in 2003.

Among the humans in the lake were Dr. Walters and family, his nurse and the patient upon who they had just performed an operation. Walters drove the car right into the lake.

According to his nurse, Minnie Carlson, although the doctor told her to swim farther out into the lake, she chose to remain with their patient, just like she had when they saw the fire descending on the city through the windows of the hospital.

Carlson told her story to the St. Paul Dispatch and it was reprinted in the Star Gazette and in the "1918 Fire Stories" book:

"There in the car with its top burned off, they sat, the surgeon with his wife and four small children, the nurse, and the still unconscious patient. The heat was so intense it seared their flesh. Only by drenching blankets in the water and covering their faces with them could they breathe the scorching air at all. But they lived, and finally the flames subsided and they went ashore."

The Moose Lake Historical Society houses a permanent exhibit on the 1918 Fires, which features a car similar to the one Walters drove into the lake. Nearby sits a coffin, one of 300 sent to the Northland at the request of Moose Lake Mayor Richard Hart after the fire.

On a nearby wall there are 383 names of fire victims.

"I know there were bodies that weren't identified, a lot of transients like loggers that came and went," said Natalie Frohrip, MLAHS board member and history buff. "Many of the deaths were out in the country, where people took refuge in rivers and creeks and some in the middle of a plowed field. There just wasn't much of a place to get away, and the fire came so quickly, there wasn't much of a way to escape."

Her mother-in-law, Sigrid (Hultberg) Frohrip was a fire survivor, and her story is also featured in the "1918 Fire Stories" book. She told how the family of nine children set off in a wagon pulled by horses for Moose Lake, 2.5 miles away from their farm. Sigrid, her mother and the four younger children eventually got a ride into town and to Moose Head Lake from a neighbor with a Model T car.

"When we got down to the Soo Line tracks, the air was full of sparks and I, who went to Sunday School, had learned when the world came to an end, the stars would fall from the heavens," Sigrid recalled. "I really thought this was it; however, I said nothing to my mom about it. We had to fight the sparks off so our clothing wouldn't catch fire."

Sixteen people, most of them children, died in one root cellar in Silver Township. Mrs. Erik (Ida) Niemi, her daughter, Clara, and nephew were there along with seven of Nick and Hulda Koivisto's eight children (one son had gone with his grandfather, who burned to death but the boys survived). All night, John Niemi (Erik's son) and Nick and Hulda Koivisto stayed outside of the root cellar, throwing water on the door to keep it from burning, fighting a constant battle with the wind, dust, fire and smoke. Later, when they called down the air vent and see how people were doing, they got no answer. When they opened the door, all 16 were dead, suffocated from lack of oxygen.

"We ... arranged the bodies of our seven children in a long line outside and Pa and I placed our arms across the bodies of our seven children, hoping and praying for some sign of life, with no success," Hulta told writer Ed Manni many years later. "We remained with them all night until Sunday afternoon."

She refused to let the National Guard bury her children in the mass grave at Moose Lake, insisting that they be buried in the family lot in St. Peter's Cemetery. The Red Cross furnished the coffins.

Frohrip indicates a quilt folded up in the corner of a display case, topped with two shiny glass dishes that look brand new.

"Those were donated by the Niemi family," she said. "They were found in that root cellar."

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Upcoming events

1918 fire archaeology

Archaeologist Steve Blondo will present on 1918 fire archaeology at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Moose Lake Area Historical Society, 900 Folz Blvd., Moose Lake.

1918 fires mural unveiled

Join the Moose Lake Area Historical Society at the celebration of the unveiling of the recently commissioned mural by area artist Brian Olson at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 21. The mural, spanning the width of the museum, depicts images from the historic fires of 1918. Free admission. Optional catered dinner for $10.

1918 Fires documentary

There will be a public screening of the WDSE-WRPT Public Television Fires of 1918 documentary film at Cloquet Premiere Theatres 6 at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19. The showing is a fundraiser for the Carlton County Historical Society. A $5 donation is recommended. There will be free pop and popcorn, courtesy of Premiere Theatres. Call CCHS at 218-879-1938 for more.