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Fires of 1918: Natural disaster forgotten in Lake County

The forest along Larsmont Road has largely regenerated itself in the 100 years since the 1918 fires swept through areas south and west of Two Harbors. (Jamey Malcomb/News-Chronicle)

While there has been plenty publicity in Carlton County and Duluth during the 100th year since the 1918 fires — the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history and the second-largest fire disaster in U.S. history, killing at least 450 people — the blazes reached into Lake County as well.

Fires sparked by rail cars near Brookston in Carlton County caused a forest fire that burned vast swaths of northeastern Minnesota reaching from Moose Lake to the Larsmont area of Lake County.

Several farms in the rural part of the county were burned Oct. 12, 1918, according to the Two Harbors Journal-News, a newspaper published at that time.

Three farms near where Waldo Road now exists outside Two Harbors all received significant damage. Henry Passanen's home and barn were both burned and Axel Essen's barn and machine shed burned, but his home was saved when a crew of men arrived to help extinguish the flames.

In her chronicle of the founding of the Larsmont community, "Larsmont Yesterday," author Ingrid Hill Norgard said the fire swept up from the south and forced those living on the hillside in Larsmont to flee and seek shelter in homes on the shore.

Norgard also claimed another resident, Peter Villa, "sat smoking his pipe on a haystack" while he watched his home burn.

Duane Madison, a local amateur historian, said it's hard to ascertain the exact extent of the fire because there were not reliable area maps at the time. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made a rough map in the 1970s with an almost straight line between Island Lake and McQuade Road signifying the the northern reaches of the fire, but Madison has found evidence of it reaching much further, into the Clover Valley region.

"The family on the Culbertson farm (on Stanley Road) watched the fire climb to the top of the hill where the old fire tower was in Clover Valley," Madison said. "That was about midnight, and that was when the wind changed and the fire went out."

Madison said he has heard stories the area was so barren following the fire that there was a view from Clover Valley all the way to Knife River. Vehicles would go off-road and drive across areas that were heavily forested just days earlier.

Yet the fires in Lake County and Duluth Township aren't nearly as well-documented or remembered as those further south.

"The fire hit through this area a lot more than what we really realize," Madison said. "Part of it is it didn't get as much coverage because the nearest death in the fire was over in Lakewood Township. I haven't seen any deaths in Duluth Township or further up the shore."

In its Oct. 17, 1918, report, the Journal-Times wrote the only death connected to Lake County was the father of August Klosowsky.

Klosowsky's father was trying to evacuate his family from Hermantown to Duluth. The horse-drawn carriage toppled over a 50-foot embankment, killing Klosowsky's father and leaving his mother and brother stranded and badly burned. An automobile picked up the remainder of Klosowsky's family and brought them to a Duluth hospital.

Madison is collecting information on the 1918 fires' effect on the North Shore for a presentation Nov. 3 at Duluth Township Hall.

If you go

Who: Local historian Duane Madison

What: Presentation on 1918 fires' impact on North Shore

Where: Duluth Township Town Hall, 6092 Homestead Rd.

When: Nov. 3, 7-9 p.m.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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