Disaster

October 8 was the anniversary of three terrible fires in 1871-The Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire, and the Port Huron Fire.  There were other, smaller fires  in the region that raged the same day as well.  It was dry in the Wisconsin/Michigan lumber regions, and the conditions were just right for a perfect storm of fires.  Thousands of people died. Some posit that meteorites from a passing comet may have started the fires, but that seems unlikely.  Small fires used to clear land, as well as very dry conditions and a very windy cold front that blew through, are probably the causes.

Once, out here on Halloween about 15 years ago we had a terrible range fire in the two counties just north of us. Warm and drought conditions during the fall had left the pastures very dry. On Halloween, a very windy cold front came through and, somehow a fire started and hundreds of acres and cattle were lost.  It was terrible, but not as terrible as the fires of 1871.  I can hardly imagine what it must have been like.

A friend of mine is obsessed with the Titanic Disaster.  She even went on the 100th anniversary commemorative cruise out of England and had period costumes sewn for the occasion. She knows everything there is to know about the Titanic.  I only like hearing about disasters if there is a happy ending to the story, which there rarely is, although I must admit I spent a good chunk of my adolescence reading about the Black Death.

What disasters have you experienced. Which famous disasters fascinate you?

27 thoughts on “Disaster”

    1. Personally I believe it’s more or less solved. But the rest of the world isn’t on board yet. So I’m hoping TIGHAR will find a really substantial non-arguable piece of proof on the island or offshore.

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    1. None at all. I was shocked by your reference to it. Three reasons I’ve not heard about it: it was a long time ago, other fires that happened at the same time were more notorious and folks aren’t eager to talk about local disasters. There is no historical marker commemorating the fire.

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  1. Well, there are the Norwegian relatives who were in Chicago in 1870 and then showed up in Owatonna, MN in early 1872 and gave a county historian false and misleading information about where they had been and when they had immigrated. I’d like to know their story and why they neglected to mention Chicago.

    I wouldn’t have thought I had any particular interest in disaster stories but on reflection I realize I’ve read the Erik Larson books about the Lusitania and the Galveston Flood, the Simon Winchester books about the San Francisco Earthquake and about the eruption of Krakatoa, about John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage and various books about the plague. There must be some attraction to the subject of disasters for me.

    Disaster etymologically means “ill-favored star” or “bad star.” The Millerites, who thought the world was going to end in 1843 took as a sign the great meteor shower of 1833 and the 1843 great comet. In anticipation of the end times, some of them gave away their belongings and left their farms. That turned out to be a disaster for them.

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    1. Bill, I’m not sure we’ve read exactly the same books but I have also read books on some of those topics but I wouldn’t count them as personal fascinations. But you remind me that I am currently reading a book recommended by someone on the trail (I believe it was Steve) about Ada Blackjack who was on one of the disastrous Arctic expeditions and I’ve also read quite a bit about Ernest Shackleton.

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  2. The Peshtigo fire was the worst fire disaster in the country, and I think it might rank as the most lethal single disaster of any type.

    Bill’s comment leads me to mention several books.

    Norman Maclean, who wrote the lyrical A River Runs Through It, also wrote a curious book about the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in August of 1949. I say “curious” because Maclean seems obsessed with the event. Morning Show fans will remember the haunting song by James Kellaghan, Cold Missouri Waters. That’s the best historical folk song I’ve ever heard.

    There is a good (but gruesome) book about the Great Hinckley Fire: Under a Flaming Sky. That fire was in 1894. The book seems to be modeled on the hit book A Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.

    Yesterday’s discussion about building codes reminded me of a strange book that appeared in 1973 and became a cult hit. Wisconsin Death Trip is a collection of photos and newspaper clippings from the Black River Falls area between 1890 and 1910. Author Michael Lesy argues that a society essentially went mad in that time. The photos and stories make the book compelling to read and impossible to forget. Until I read it I didn’t have a clue about what a deadly and common threat house fires once were.

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    1. I knew a guy who lived up the shore of Superior northwest of Duluth. He watched the Fitzgerald as it left Duluth and headed up the shore before turning east to get to the shelter it never quite reached. My friend says the practice in those days (the 1970s) was to sail no matter what the weather reports were. The primary concern was moving cargo, even when things were risky. After the Fitz went down the shipping industry totally changed priorities, with new regard for human life.

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    2. I didn’t have any disaster stories I could think of until you mentioned the Fitzgerald.
      Having seen and done the play ‘Ten November’, It is something I have followed and learned a bit about.

      Just speaking of ‘old events’ and not knowing about things, I am learning so much about American government in my history class. This chapter is just after the Revolutionary War and the Second Continental Congress has just convened.
      Amazing how things came about. Everything from slavery being partially caused by the large plantations in the south (vs the smaller farms in the north) to PA going Unicameral and the definition of a ‘Republic’ in the colonies and not yet a ‘Democratic’ republic.
      It’s really amazing the United States survived in the first place.

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  3. Carlton County is commemorating the 100 years since the Fires of 1918 that killed at least 500 people in the Moose Lake-Kettle River area, destroyed all but a couple buildings in Cloquet with no lives lost, also burned parts of southern St. Louis County. Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard are performing a concert of 1918 songs on Sunday in Moose Lake.

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  4. Last fall folks were invited to write a fire story from 1918 and it was then published into a little book called “Fire Speaks Our Words.” I interviewed a couple in Mahtowa for a story. 500 words…here it is:

    From Hjalmer Swanson’s A History of Mahtowa:

    “Carried by a 70-mile-an-hour gale, burning embers were carried long distances to light new fires in the combustible material in the dry forest. Several fires were thus lit that day around Mahtowa. A considerable area on the north side of Park Lake was burned, as well as a stretch on the south side, where some of us now have our summer homes. Igniting embers were evidently carried across the lake…A most uncomfortable thing about this catastrophic fire was that, not having radios in those days, the people could not tell in the density of the smoke where or how near the fire was. Every able-bodied man in Mahtowa was out that day as a volunteer fire fighter.”

    Burton Peterson doesn’t remember the fire. He was born in 1930. But he remembers his mother’s story.
    Agnes Eleanor Lindblom Peterson was 22 in 1918. She was born in 1896 in Minnesota. Her father came from the Åland Islands, east of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. In 1914 at age 18 Agnes married 28 year-old Swedish immigrant Ernest Godtfrid Peterson. Her groom was 15 when he came from Blekinge County to America. Shortly thereafter the newlyweds moved to a farm in Atkinson Township north of Mahtowa, about half a mile from the Blekinge Road*.
    On Oct. 12, 1918, Godtfrid was off fighting the fires, as were many of the area men. Agnes was home alone with her young sons – Ivar 4, Rudolph 2, and baby Melvin. She could see the fire’s glow on the northwest horizon growing larger and closer. The fires were spreading swiftly ahead of the wind, skipping and crowning from tree to tree, sending embers over Park Lake to the south shore and heading in her direction less than two miles away. Agnes, growing more and more agitated and frightened, quickly harnessed her buckskin bronco and hitched him to the buggy, lifted the boys into it, climbed in beside them and gathered up the reins. As she hurried the horse toward the winding Blekinge Road on her way to Mahtowa, the wind suddenly shifted and blew the dense smoke and fires away from her, the boys and the farm. They were all safe. Agnes and her sons headed back home. But the smoke lingered for days, so heavy and low that they had to crawl on their hands and knees to the barn to tend to their animals.

    Burton remembers his father often commenting how beautiful the forest was, with majestic white pines everywhere. This was before loggers came through, using crude slash methods in the thick forests and leaving behind dry scraps that were perfect kindling for wildfires. When he was married and moved to his own Mahtowa farm 40-some years after the fire, Burton found charred stumps from the fire still dotted the fields.
    Sources: A History of Mahtowa by S. Hjalmer Swanson, printed circa 1968, reprinted 2005 by Carlton County Historical Society. Burton and Glenndora Peterson, 2017.

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  5. Prudence (Born and Raised in Moose Lake) Johnson &
    Dan Chouinard: Remembering the Fires of 1918
    Sunday, October 14, 2018 at 4 PM – 5:30 PM CDT
    Moose Lake Community School Auditorium

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  6. I too was very moved by seeing Ten November, about the Edmund Fitzgerald crew.

    I haven’t experienced any disasters personally, but people close to me have. My hometown Marshalltown IA was hit hard by a tornado this past spring. Last Wednesday we drove out of Clearwater, FL. I am now crossing my fingers that this latest hurricane Michael doesn’t do too much damage to my friend’s home and environs. Yikes!

    Step-son Mario lives in Redwood Valley, CA, the epicenter of one of last fall’s huge California wildfires. Homes a block away from his were burned to the ground. Then this year the massive double fire came relatively close to them again, but is finally under control.

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  7. Hurricane Katrina was sort of fascinating to watch unfold. I was rather astounded by how long for the whole debacle to unfold. Everyone could see it was coming, but no one seemed to have any idea what to do about it.

    The 35W bridge collapse was the opposite. No one saw it coming.

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