This Day In History: October 12

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A massive forest fire rages through Minnesota on October 12, 1918, killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands homeless. The fire burned at least 1,500 square miles.

The fire, known as the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire because that is where the damage was worst, began at rail lines near Sturgeon Lake. This region of Minnesota, southwest of Duluth in the eastern part of the state, was ripe for a major disaster of this sort. The area’s timber industry used crude slash methods in the thick forests, leaving behind dry scraps that were perfect kindling for wildfires. They also tended to leave these scraps lying around the rail lines that carried wood from the lumber mills. Since train engines of the time often gave off sparks, fires were nearly inevitable.

Making matters even worse, the months leading up to October 1918 were very hot and dry. When the fire began on October 12, it spread quickly due to high winds. In the Moose Lake area, more than 200 people died when the fire came up quickly on the community. Many local residents attempted to flee the raging flames by driving down Highway 73, south of the Kettle River. A sharp curve in the road proved to be too difficult to maneuver for drivers speeding from the flames surrounding them and at least 15 vehicles went off the road, resulting in 25 deaths.

In all, 38 towns and villages were destroyed by the fire. Four hundred and fifty three deaths were reported and another 85 people were seriously burned. Four thousand houses, 6,000 barns and 40 schools all went up in flames. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals also perished in the fire—a huge loss for area farmers. In all, the region suffered close to $100 million in damages.