The Forest Fire of 1908

The forest fire of the 20th century occurred just 99 years before our recent Ham Lake Fire.

By early Sept, 1908, rain had not fallen since the 10th of July, some two months previous. The woods were tinder dry. At the height of the fire it extended from Grand Rapids, Minnesota to the north-west and to Thunder Bay. It spread north to Hibbing and on to the border lakes. All of the North Shore was included, and the South Shore to Washburn, Wisconsin. Later reports indicated that the shoreline suffered the most damage.

No roads, except a very primitive wagon road, existed on the North Shore. Transportation was by water. Fire fighting equipment was via "bucket brigade" with only Grand Marais having a volunteer fire department. The fire of 1908 and in the Tofte area in 1910 were the only fires to seriously threaten the Cook County shoreline communities.

Then Governor John A. Johnson telegraphed Captain Jacob Hector of the Booth Steamship America to proceed first to Beaver Bay and then, assumedly, to Grand Marais. On the 8th of September the United States Gunboat, renamed the Gopher, left Duluth for Grand Marais with 50 members of the Naval militia. One report indicated that the Gopher carried 81 fire fighters. Under orders the Gopher remained at Grand Marais until at least the 14th when it was assumed safe enough to return to Duluth. Under orders from Gen. C.G. Andrews, state fire warden, Chief John T. Black of the local (Duluth) fire department sent 40 men to the scene of the worst forest fire above Grand Marais. These men were hired under the state's free employment bureau.

When the Easton arrived at Duluth it brought dire news: "The fire was within two blocks of the village of Grand Marais and in spite of the hard work of the settlers the fire demon was eating its way rapidly into the village. Everyone was out fighting the fire... the boys from the Gopher are working like beavers but it seems the little village is doomed, and the residents are rapidly losing heart. The women are being sent to Duluth, and the men are sticking it out in the hope of a strong wind coming from the south..."

In 1909 the new Superintendent of Schools, J. McGladrey, wrote of his experiences the year before. "About the time the time I arrived at Grand Marais on the steamship America, forest fires were raging to the north and to the east. My family came on the next boat and our household goods were stored on the dock. The first night they were there we moved into the house we were to occupy, and slept on blankets on the floor, as we did not dare to move our household goods up because of the forest fires... About three o'clock in the morning on our first night we were at Grand Marais an imperative knock came on the door and I went to see what was the trouble. The watchman who was on duty called on me and said we must leave immediately, and go aboard the government boat Gopher, as the forest fires were rapidly approaching the town. My family hastily dressed, and we went down to the dock, and they went aboard the Gopher."

The Gopher, 1910
The Gopher, 1910

Fire Dept, c1910
Fire Department, c1910

The next day Mr. McGladrey became involved in fighting the fire in the area of Chippewa City. He notes that a fire break had been previously cut around Grand Marais. C.C. Monker had bought or homesteaded land just north of Chippewa City, just a half mile from Grand Marais. Monker's meadow was some 40 or 50 acres. Apparently the fire came from the north and east into the area of the meadow. McGladrey had worked on prairie fires in Minnesota and Dakota and convinced the lieutenant in command of the Gopher to lend him ten men. Each man was given a pail and a gunny sack. "This line of men went out into the meadow as close to the fire as the heat would permit them. When brands fell from the burning forest and onto the meadow and started fires, these men beat out the incipient fires with wet gunny sacks. In an hour the fire had passed further west and the village of Chippewa City was saved, as well as the home of Mr. Monker." It was the fire break around Grand Marais that saved it and without loss of life. Note: in fact, many houses in Chippewa City did burn. St. Francis Xavier's Church, however, was saved.

The two boats, America and Gopher, were instrumental in fighting these fires and saving lives. The America roamed up and down the shore picking up settlers that had found their way to the lake taking them on to Duluth and returning with supplies. The crew of the Gopher actively fought the fire alongside all available men.

During the height of the fire communication existed through returning boats, the wireless had been shutdown. Sept. 12th, "the fate of Grand Marais, Beaver Bay, and two of those other north shore towns will not be known in Duluth until 12 o'clock tonight, when the America is due from her trip down the shore". One newspaper led that "Grand Marais feared lost". Nothing was known of the settlers inland whose escape path had been cut off. "One woman with a pack on her back and a sick baby in her arms fled three miles from her homestead to the lake and was picked up by boat." The child of Laura Hogeboom of Hovland did not survive. "Three men had actually been driven there to take refuge in the waters of the lake when picked up by a boat from the Gopher. The shore is alive with wild animals driven out of the woods by the flames..."

While the villages were spared, life was lost. McGladrey, "for weeks the smoke pall had hung so heavy over that area that children died from the affects of it. One evening I stood beside the doctor as we looked down at a baby under a year old in the Indian mother's arms, gasping out its little life, and there was nothing we could do." Many other young children also lost their lives due to the smoke.

According to McGladrey, about two days after his Chippewa City experience a heavy night rain fell ending the danger of the forest fires.

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