Advertisement

Author details disaster in 1918 Minnesota

|
Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 10:22 AM
A massive fire in Cloquet, Minn., in October 1918 left the town in ruins. Dry conditions and sparks from the railroad caused the fire. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, 1,000 people died and 52,000 people were injured or displaced. The fire wiped out 38 communities, burned 250,000 acres and caused $73 million in property damage.
A massive fire in Cloquet, Minn., on Oct. 12, 1918, left the town in ruins. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, 1,000 people died. Three days later, Minnesota home guardsmen and other volunteers helped dig a mass grave at Moose Lake to accommodate the unidentifiable burned bodies.
A massive fire in Cloquet, Minn., in October 1918 left the town in ruins. Dry conditions and sparks from the railroad caused the fire. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of Minnesota. The Red Cross set up camps throughout northern Minnesota to help fire victims as well as home guardsmen assisting in the efforts.
Brown
Curt Brown of Bayfield will discuss his book, "Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State," on Wednesday at the Pine River Library in Bayfield.

Fires, illness, conflicts in foreign lands, and distrust of immigrants.

Has the United States changed that much between 1918 to 2018?

Not really, asserts Curt Brown, the author of "Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State."

Brown, who lives near Bayfield with his wife, will hold a reading and discussion of his book from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Pine River Library in Bayfield.

Brown is a 2014 transplant from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he was a longtime writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

His newest nonfiction book chronicles the trifecta of disasters when World War I, the flu pandemic and massive forest fires converged on northern Minnesota. Through letters, diaries and accounts passed down from immigrants, Brown tells a story of heartache and resiliency.

Brown said during his talk at the library, he will also draw the links between Minnesota in 1918 and Colorado in 2018. Although the wildfires in Minnesota burned for just a day, they were caused by a combination of drought and sparked by embers from a railroad.

This summer's 416 Fire burned for a month and was much larger, at 55,000 acres, compared to 8,000 acres in Minnesota.

The Minnesota fires were actually a group of smaller blazes in October that grew to combine in force. Unlike in 2018, casualties and damages were massive. Four hundred fifty-three people were burned to death, and another 85 were seriously burned. Another 2,100 received treatment. The toll on farmers also was high, with 4,295 animals burned, along with 54,083 chickens.

As World War I was drawing to its bloody conclusion, mistrust of foreigners - in this case, Germans - also rose to new heights. First-generation Germans in New Ulm and other German communities who asked not to have to fight on the front lines against their cousins and former neighbors were branded as unpatriotic.

Compounding the misery after the fire was the Spanish flu epidemic, which Brown explains was a misnomer because it likely originated in Kansas. As troops were moved around the country, they spread the flu to military bases or brought it to their hometowns. As victims of the fire moved in with relatives or relocated to nearby towns and cities, they were exposed to the virus. At least 106 people died of flu and pneumonia immediately after the fire.

"Not much has really changed," in the past century, Brown said during an interview last week in a Bayfield coffee shop. A flu pandemic is likely to strike again.

Brown does point out that one of the great improvements made since 1918 is how we fight fires. In 1918, it consisted largely of throwing buckets of water on the fire.

Keeping the 416 Fire from crossing U.S. Highway 550, with no houses burned and no casualties, was an impressive feat, he pointed out.

Those in Minnesota were not so lucky. Brown's book includes sad tales of families dying in root cellars and basements, trying to excape the flames. John Arvid Kurttu, the postmaster of Automba, got his family evacuated, then stayed behind to collect paperwork and valuables. The fire closed in, and realizing he couldn't escape, he lay outside and shot himself in the head. His intact body was found the next day - for some reason, the flames never reached his body.

As a historian, Brown has learned that even after a book is completed, "the story doesn't end." He receives more photos and stories after a book is published. He'll discuss five women from 1918 who became his favorite characters. He noted it's easy to write the history of white men, but including the voices of women and other groups is critical.

Incredibly, the members of the nearby Ojibwe Tribe on the Fond du Lac reservation did not suffer any casualties in the blazes, although about 57 homes were burned.

Brown also is the author of "So Terrible a Storm: A Tale of Fury on Lake Superior," which chronicles a massive storm there in 1905. Brown said he tried to balance both books, which detail terrible tragedies, with the resiliency and hope demonstrated by the survivors. After moving with his wife, Adele, to Bayfield, Brown joined the Pine River Valley Heritage Society and and volunteers at the heritage society museum. Copies of "Minnesota 1918" will be available for sale at the book-reading or are available online at www.tinyurl.com/MN1918 or www.tinyurl.com/curt-books

If you go

Curt Brown will hold and discuss his book, 'Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State,' from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the Pine River Library in Bayfield.

Advertisement