The Great Hinckley Fire By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
June 27, 2014
The Great Hinckley Fire started near Hinckley, Minnesota on September 1, 1894, killing hundreds and burning between 200,000-250,000 acres. The minimum estimate of dead was 418, but some scholars believed the actual number was closer to 800. It began after a two month drought, combined with high temperatures. Several small fires started in the forests of Pine County, MN. The fires spread due to the common method of lumber harvesting in which trees were stripped of their branches, which littered the ground with flammable debris. A temperature inversion trapped the gasses from the fires, which united into a firestorm. (An inversion acts like a lid, allowing the gasses to build up) and the temperature increases with altitude rather than decreases. The temperature in the firestorm rose to at least 2,000 degrees. Barrels of nails melted into one mass. Wheels of railroad cars fused with the rails. In the case of the Hinckley fire, two fires managed to join together to make one large fire. The flames licked through the inversion to the cool air above, and that air came rushing down into the fires to create a tornado of flames, which began to move quickly and grew larger and larger, turning into a fierce firestorm. The fire destroyed the towns of Brook Park and Mission Creek before coming to the town of Hinckley. All three were completely burned along with three others. Four hundred square miles lay black and smoldering. Some residents were able to escape the fire by climbing into wells. Others managed to clamber aboard two crowded trains that were able to leave the threatened town before the flames took everything. Nearly 300 people were rescued by a train that backed up nearly five miles to Skunk Lake, where the passengers were able to board and escape the fire. Thomas P. (Boston) Corbett, the Union soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth after Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln is presumed to have been one of the victims in in the fire at Hinckley. His last known address was a forest settlement near Hinckley, and a “Thomas Corbett” is listed as one of the fire victims.
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