Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894

Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894

by Daniel James Brown


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On September 1, 1894 two forest fires converged on the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, trapping over 2,000 people. Daniel J. Brown recounts the events surrounding the fire in the first and only book on to chronicle the dramatic story that unfolded. Whereas Oregon's famous "Biscuit" fire in 2002 burned 350,000 acres in one week, the Hinckley fire did the same damage in five hours. The fire created its own weather, including hurricane-strength winds, bubbles of plasma-like glowing gas, and 200-foot-tall flames. In some instances, "fire whirls," or tornadoes of fire, danced out from the main body of the fire to knock down buildings and carry flaming debris into the sky. Temperatures reached 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit—the melting point of steel. As the fire surrounded the town, two railroads became the only means of escape. Two trains ran the gauntlet of fire. One train caught on fire from one end to the other. The heroic young African-American porter ran up and down the length of the train, reassuring the passengers even as the flames tore at their clothes. On the other train, the engineer refused to back his locomotive out of town until the last possible minute of escape. In all, more than 400 people died, leading to a revolution in forestry management practices and federal agencies that monitor and fight wildfires today.Author Daniel Brown has woven together numerous survivors' stories, historical sources, and interviews with forest fire experts in a gripping narrative that tells the fascinating story of one of North America's most devastating fires and how it changed the nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781493022007
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 71,394
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Daniel James Brown wrote the New York Times #1 bestseller The Boys in the Boat. He grew up with stories of the Hinckley firestorm ringing in his ears. His great-grandfather died in the fire, while his grandfather and great-grandmother escaped on a burning train. Brown retired from Microsoft Corporation. Before working at Microsoft, he taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford University, and is the coauthor of two textbooks on writing. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Under a Flaming Sky
The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894

Chapter One

Night Music

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion, swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

—George Meredith,
"Lucifer in Starlight"

September 1, 1894 | 12:30 A.M.

Lying alone on his cot in the darkness, nine-year-old Bill Grissinger wondered what it was that woke him. Then it happened again—the house shuddered, the windows rattled, and the hall door creaked open. This time he heard his mother, Kate, getting up to close the door, and he went out into the hall to meet her. Together, they stood silently by the west-facing window of their small frame house, peering out into the dark streets of Hinckley.

On the northwest side of town, recently installed electric carbon lights illuminated the sprawling yards of the Brennan Lumber Company. The mill was quiet. The night shift was taking its midnight lunch break. But what Bill Grissinger would remember nearly seven decades later was the odd color of the mill's lights that night. Usually intensely white, they had a strange reddish tinge he had not seen before.

The house shuddered again as another gust of wind slammed into it and his mother led him back to his room. He crawled back into bed and waited. Finally he heard the familiar sounds of the mill coming back to life—the rumbling of the carriages carrying huge pine logs into the teeth of the blades,the chomping of the gang saws biting into the wood, the whining of the edgers trimming the boards. He felt comforted by the sounds, but he could not get back to sleep easily. His father was away on a two-day trip, picking cranberries out across the Kettle River, and the house seemed forlorn without him. From time to time, another gust of wind struck the house. Down the hall he could hear his mother singing softly to his younger sister, Callie, trying to lull her back to sleep.

Across town, at about the same time, Clara Anderson was saying good-night to her school friends at Belle Barden's house. The girls whispered in the darkness on the front porch, talking about the school year that would begin on Monday. A cluster of boys stood in the front yard talking softly and jostling one another. It had been a long, boisterous evening of games and dancing and flirting. Earlier, they had rolled up the dining-room carpet to provide a dance floor. Someone had taken out a fiddle, someone else a harmonica, and they'd reeled off song after song as the young people had formed into two squares and flung themselves from partner to partner, clapping and shouting, promenading and do-si-do'ing, stomping wildly on the bare wood floors. Finally, worn out, they had turned down the oil lamps and, sitting on the floor in a circle, Belle and her guests had played Postman, a kissing game. Later, Belle's mother had laid out a late dinner on the sideboard: cold fried chicken, fresh-baked bread, raisin pie, and cold milk.

Now, well past midnight, each girl with a boy to show her home, Belle's guests began disappearing down the dark, dusty street, the boys singing school songs and whooping to one another, the girls shushing them. Clara Anderson told Belle she'd see her at school on Monday. Then she watched as Belle ran back into the house, where Belle's father, Jake, was already putting out the last of the lamps.

At a little before 3:00 A.M., Emil Anderson sat on a bench at Hinckley's Saint Paul and Duluth railway depot, waiting for a train north. A strikingly handsome young man with a boyish face and dark, penetrating eyes, he wore a neatly trimmed, somewhat sparse mustache. He also wore the white, upturned shirt collar of a clergyman. Sitting in a yellow pool of light cast by an oil lamp above him, he pondered why he was waiting there on a railroad platform in the middle of the night. The guest sermon he had delivered that day in Hinckley had gone well enough, but he was nervous about the farewell address that he planned to deliver tomorrow afternoon to his own congregation up in Sandstone. He'd worked intermittently on the address for two weeks now, but he was distinctly unhappy with the results so far. Within a week he planned to be back in Chicago starting his final year at a theological seminary, and he knew that after graduation, he might never again see any of his parishioners. But for now he felt strangely and urgently compelled to be back near them as soon as possible, and so, unable to sleep, he'd decided to start for home now rather than wait for morning. He figured one sleepless night wouldn't do him any harm, and he'd work more on the address as soon as he got home.

At 3:00 A.M., the train pulled into the station and Anderson climbed aboard one of the chair cars. Settling into one of the upholstered seats, he watched the lights of the lumber mill slip by on his left as the train pulled out of town. About four minutes later, the train slowed as it passed through a small brush fire burning on both sides of the track, but it was nothing more than one of many nuisance fires that had been smoldering in the wooded swamps and peat bogs around Hinckley for weeks now. Since early July, fires like these—set by homesteaders clearing land or touched off by sparks from passing trains—had been flaring up and dying down all over Pine County. The train picked up speed, and Anderson sat back in his seat humming Swedish hymns, trying them out for tomorrow. Within another fifteen minutes he was climbing down from the chair car at an unlit crossing called Sandstone Junction. From here it was a three-mile walk to the town of Sandstone and home. Slinging his rucksack over his shoulder, he set off into the dark woods alone.

Under a Flaming Sky
The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894
. Copyright © by Daniel Brown. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Night Music
Chapter Two: Morning
Chapter Three: Home Sweet Home
Chapter Four: Something Wicked
Chapter Five: The Cauldron
Chapter Six: Ragnarok
Chapter Seven: Under the Stone
Chapter Eight: Into the Ring
Chapter Nine: Out of the Ashes
Chapter Ten: The Broken Season

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