by Kathy Warnes
Engineer James Root pushed his locomotive engine full throttle. The lives of 200 people and his own depended on outrunning the Hinckley forest fire.
Conditions in the Pine, Mille Lacs, and Chisago counties in the Minnesota of the 1890s combined to make a combustible brew waiting for a match. This part of the state consisted of flat terrain swept by strong winds. Occasional drought years provided tinder dry forests for kindling.
Lumbermen contributed to these flash point conditions by carelessly leaving piles of wood waste and stumps to provide ready fuel for the fires. So did the pioneers themselves, who had a casual attitude toward forest fires. After all, the forests would last forever. What did it matter if a few trees burned? The forests were necessary evils to be cleared so they could farm the land. Forest fires helped get rid of the labor intensive trees.
Locomotive Engineer James Root Stops at Hinckley, Minnesota
These fire breeding conditions ignited in the late summer of 1894. Several small fires started in different locations and soon a flood of flame engulfed the countryside, advancing as rapidly as a tidal wave. A cloud of smoke blanketed the area. Some of the citizens became alarmed, but by now the fire crackled and couldn’t be easily extinguished.
On September 1, 1894, a train on the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad chugged its way toward Hinckley, one of the largest towns in the area. It was early afternoon, but engineer James Root had ordered his locomotive headlight lighted because a heavy haze hung in the air. He couldn’t tell whether the burning smell came from his engine or the blazing woods around the train. Engineer Root pulled into Hinckley at four o’clock in the afternoon. A terrified crowd stampeded the station.
Two Hundred People Board the Train as it Catches Fire
As soon as the train pulled in, the people rushed the train. They pushed, pulled, and clawed their way aboard, stuffing themselves into the cars. Soon the seats filled up and people stood in the aisles and even in the spaces between cars. Engineer Root estimated that at least 200 people had jammed themselves aboard and he knew that their lives depended on him. As the train lurched forward, a flame burst out of the cloud of smoke in front of it and ignited the engine cab and baggage car.
James Root thought quickly. He remembered passing a mud hole called Skunk Lake about six miles back. The lake-mud hole stood right beside the railroad track and formed a clearing where perhaps the people would be safe. He reversed the engine and began his race with the flames.
Engineer Root Wins the Race to Skunk Lake
James feared the fire might win the race. The fierce wind blew sparks that ignited the forest on each side of the track, and the trees created a roaring fire. The train rushed through an aisle of flame. At times, fiery tongues shot out from the cloud of smoke that rolled behind the train and it seemed as though they would engulf the train from the railroad bed. Car windows cracked and the woodwork of the train burned. Frantic with terror, passengers leaped from the train. A few people got up and ran down the track, but soon dropped, overcome with smoke and flames.
Engineer Root stood in the cab, flinching from the heat. His foreman stood in the water tank, ducking his head whenever the heat became too intense. Between times he threw water over his brave engineer. The train rushed on toward Skunk Lake, racing with a fiery death.
The Passengers Escape the Forest Fire
Finally, Engineer Root spotted the mud hole through the haze and stopped the train. Within two minutes after he stopped the train, the fire engulfed it. But the passengers who had trusted Engineer Root were safe. Some of them rushed into the lake. Others pulled friends and relatives unconscious from heat into the mud and water. The people in the water had to keep ducking under and those in the mud had to lie flat in order to save themselves as the flames leaped over the lake. No one could stand on the ground until four hours after the fire had swept past.
The St. Paul & Duluth Train and Engineer Root Are Burned
Engineer Root had pulled the lever and sank to the floor of the engine cab, exhausted. His clothing was on fire and his face and hands scorched and bleeding from broken glass. His fireman carried him to the mud and covered him it. The fireman and his helpers had supposed that James Root was dead or dying, but when people finally started leaving the lake, the engineer stood up. He staggered back to what remained of the locomotive, clambered into it, and sank down upon the cab seat. The train had been burned to the tracks. It was a long time before James Root fully recovered from his wounds and his burns.
Engineer James Root Makes a Difference in the Hinckley Fire
Another 130 people from Hinckley were not as fortunate as the ones on the train. They, too, had sought refuge in a swamp. Later, 130 charred and in many cases, unrecognizable bodies were removed from the swamp. One fiery tongue must have overtaken them all, for entire families lay in groups as if they had not had time to move. A few days later, grieving men dug a trench to bury the 130 people. They discovered that the ground was so thoroughly baked that they had to loosen it with picks.
Over 400 people died in the Hinckley fire. The death toll could have been 200 more if it had not been for brave engineer James Root. The Hinckley forest fire had devastated an area 26 miles long and from one to 15 miles wide. It consumed towns and settlements. In the entire fire scourged land, only the section house at a place called Miller remained standing.
Kathleen Duey, Karen A. Bale, Survival! Forest Fire, Minnesota, 1894, Aladdin, 1999.
Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, The Lyons Press, 2006.