Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

When I began reading Minnesota 1918: When Flue, Fire, and War Ravaged the State I thought it would be merely an interesting historical account of events. Early into the book I realized how closely tied to city planning the historical account was. The effects of the fall 1918 fires devastated the northeast portion of the state. Entire towns were leveled, while others were spared. This meant cities had to make decisions on how and where they would rebuild. The Spanish flu pandemic that was raging around the world, was especially detrimental to the Minnesota residents left homeless, forced to live in small, crowded quarters. Again, this had a drastic effect on cities with daily life and the need to build more hospitals to accommodate the sick.

Not only did the fires destroy cities, but they took out entire farm operations. The need to rebuild quickly was of upmost importance, not only to start earning a living again, but because winter was beginning to set in. Two sizes of wood shacks were built and delivered to families. Some lived in these crude shelters for over six years while they slowly rebuilt.

Co-op stores and farm societies sprang up after the fires among the old world Finnish population. Immigrants relied on their culture of cooperation to rebuild their homes and lifestyles. The largest co-op was located in Cloquet, MN. Federal funding also helped farmers by replacing their livestock and equipment and providing grain to feed their herds. The funding shortfalls were much the same as they are after a natural disaster today. Fire victims were waiting until 1935 for the full sum to be paid out which totaled $23.5 million.

The funds paid to the fire victims largely came from a lawsuit against the railroad companies. They were accused of indirectly starting the fires which may seem incredulous at first. Upon investigation however, the blame was well laid. The fires appear to have started from sparks from a train passing near Moose Lake. The railroad companies did not like to use the wire mesh covers over their flue's that kept large pieces of coal from blowing out and igniting dry grasses or timber piles. This is precisely what happened one dry and windy day in October 1918 along the railroad siding. The drought conditions make it nearly impossible to stop the spread of flames and within days over 8,000 acres of land were destroyed.

What is interesting is the dual role the railroads played in this event. They may have started the fire, but they also rescued hundreds of people caught in the path. Vehicles on the other hand appeared only to cause more tragedy. Cars coming around one particular corner, Dead Man's Curve, began piling up as their drivers missed the turn in the smoke. Cars caught in the fires began to heat up and burn their passengers. Most of the trains however made it out unscathed, carrying far more people than each vehicle could.

The fires of 1918 are some of the deadliest in history. While it has been almost 100 years since those fateful days, memories of fire are still fresh for others around the country. Residents in California are starting to see that poor development practices leave communities open to disasters like uncontrollable fires. Dry conditions, deforestation, and sprawling developments can leave a community vulnerable to this kind of devastation. While the fires of 1918 were in farming communities, it does remind us of the tragedy that can result from such a disaster and to caution us to better prepare and plan for the future.