The town of Hinckley, Minnesota, is destroyed by a forest fire on this day in 1894. A total of 440 people died in the area.
The upper Midwest was particularly vulnerable to devastating fires at the end of the 19th century as European settlers cleared the land for agriculture and timber and new railroad lines were built through heavily wooded areas. Hinckley was a new lumber and rail town built along the Grindstone River in Minnesota near the Wisconsin border. The town’s settlers felled trees for lumber using slash cutting techniques that left behind large amounts of wood debris—excellent fire fuel. Further, they set up lumber yards very close to the rail lines. This proved a dangerous combination when sparks from trains set the wood debris ablaze.
In the summer of 1894, drought conditions in the Upper Midwest made a deadly fire even more likely. On the afternoon of September 1, fires near two rail lines south of Hinckley broke out and spread north. As the raging fire reached the town’s train depot, 350 of the townspeople got on a train to escape. The train had to pass right through flames, but reached safety in West Superior, Wisconsin.
Other Hinckley residents sought refuge in the swamps near town, but many in this group were killed, some from drowning. About 100 other residents fled to a gravel pit fill with water; most managed to survive. A train that was entering Hinckley from the north reversed direction to avoid the blaze, but still caught fire. The only survivors were those who managed to jump from the train into a lake.
In all, 300,000 acres of town and forest burned in the fire, causing about $25 million in damages. In Hinckley, 228 people died. More than 200 others in the surrounding areas also perished, including 23 Ojibwa natives.