Friday, July 08, 2011
The Hinckley Fire, 1894
What happened in the lumber town of Hinckley, Minnesota, on September 1, 1894, was beyond horror. Four hundred white men, women, and children died as well as countless Ojibwe, who lived in the pine forests all around. It's probably impossible to know how many human beings died in total, since transient logging camp workers from as far away as Nebraska were simply never accounted for.
Some call what happened a "fire storm," not just a forest fire. That morning, there were fires all around; but to a region accustomed to forest fires, September 1 was no oddity, since, in any dry summer, smoke from a dozen fires might well in the air. No one seemed alarmed. What eye-witness accounts document, however, is that something near to a cyclone or tornado--or even hurricane--was born out of climatic conditions that seemed, in fact, the eye of the perfect storm. First, darkness descended--some thought it was a tornado cloud, some thought it was an eclipse, and some believed it was the end of the world. Lamps were lit and strategies were laid out.
But when the wind rose to gale-force, there wasn't time to think. Some made it to the railroad station, where two trains carried hundreds of people north to places where they could get under enough water to save themselves from the inferno. One of those trains was eventually incinerated. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible. Some cried to get on those trains, but eventually the conductors knew that stopping fore a few more meant imperiling dozens of others. Frantic passengers, their own cars already burning, watched as dozens of others died in a flash of fire as if they were little more than kindling. Hours later, when it was over, the dead bodies lay all over town and into the country. Only smoldering tree stumps were left standing, homes and buildings simply gone.
It was 1894, and discovering identities was almost futile. Whole farm families were sometimes found in gardens or potato patches, having left their pioneer homes for open ground. But there was too much heat. Great fireballs reigned down from the sky.
Mass funerals were held, dozens of totally unrecognizeable bodies thrown into open pits and buried together. No one will ever know.
Pease, Minnesota--church and town--is still composed of families whose ancestors survived the holocaust at Hinckley. Rev. Cornelius Bode, a pioneer CRC pastor known for starting churches among the Minnesota immigrant Dutch and German Reformed, was there and participated in one of those funerals, in which 60-some dead were honored before a mass burial.
An old train station in Hinckley tells the tale well.
The Greeks always thought comedy secondary to tragedy. Ultimately, tragedy touts the potential of humanity, while comedy simply scoffs.
I think the Greeks were right. The Hinckley Fire was a horrifying tragedy, but I spent a great day yesterday reading stories from the survivors. Amazing. Shocking. Frightfully horrible, but still, somehow, encouraging. I'm as great a believer in original sin as I've ever been, but the fact is, people can be saints.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 8:10 AM