By Erik Moore
On the afternoon of October 12, 1918 in northeastern Minnesota, several forest fires energized by sustained winds reaching 60 mph banded together and engulfed over 2,000 square miles including forests, homesteads, and townships. The ferocity of the fire resulted from a combination of drought conditions, strong winds, and improper logging and land clearing which left remnant wood material as fuel.
Reports from the time indicate over 450 people were killed and 2,000 more were burned or injured.
The fires devastated several municipalities including Moose Lake, Kettle River, Automba, and Cloquet, and portions of the Fond du Lac Reservation (Nagaajiwanaang). Residents of Cloquet, a city of 8,000 people, were evacuated to Duluth via train and automobile. By early evening, the Minnesota Home Guard arrived and assisted in rescues and firefighting alongside volunteer efforts. The Motor Corps tried to provide rescue services while running the risk of becoming surrounded by the fire. Many individuals drove cars directly into lakes and ponds to avoid the fire. Others were overwhelmed by the fire and smoke.
The University of Minnesota Forest Experiment Station, known today as the Cloquet Forestry Center, survived the fire. The Center’s archival collection contains photographs that document the aftermath of the fires in the region.
—Erik Moore is the University Archivist and Co-Director of the University Digital Conservancy. To learn more about the University of Minnesota Archives, please visit www.lib.umn.edu/uarchives.