My daughters stared at the china doll in the glass case and then the fragile child’s rocker next to it. On a September afternoon in 1894 a little girl had sat in that chair and clutched her doll – safe in the middle of a potato patch – while a raging forest fire burned around her. She survived the ordeal, but hundreds of residents of Hinckley, Minnesota, and surrounding communities were not so fortunate. Their horrific tales, as well as the stories of those who managed to escape are told in Minnesota’s most poignant museum – the Hinckley Fire Museum.
“Most poignant” is a personal reflection, of course, but I’m getting knots in my stomach just writing this blog post. The museum itself is relatively small – a collection of exhibits, a film and some period-furnished rooms all housed in the train depot built to replace the original lost in the fire. But the subject material sticks with you. Especially if you delve deeper into the disaster and purchase one of the books on sale in the gift shop.
This was our introduction to the author Daniel James Brown whose riveting first book made us instant fans. I have never read a book with so much dread. Freak forces of nature, terrible deaths, harrowing escapes, heroic rescues – it’s all there. Perhaps not appropriate reading material for children, but we took ours through the museum and then toured some of the sites around the town of Hinckley that played an important role during the firestorm.
For instance, we found “The Pit” in the middle of town where many people took refuge in a few feet of water while the fire roared overhead. We paid a visit to the cemetery where an obelisk marks a mass grave of hundreds of fire victims. We took to the Willard Munger Trail – the segment originating out of Hinckley follows the route many survivors took out of the burning town aboard trains to Duluth.
Many people will blow by the town of Hinckley on their way to the North Shore or exit the interstate and take a right towards the casino. Many of them have never heard of the conflagration that reduced the thriving town to ashes. It’s a haunting tale worth hearing.
The Hinckley Fire Museum opens annually for the season in early May. Admission rates and hours can be found here. Tourist information about the city of Hinckley and surrounding attractions is available in the museum.