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: 47,592
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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Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Ilovemister More than 1 year ago
Excellent! It was . what these people went through. After I read the book my son and I went to the Hinckley fire museum. It had a lot of things recovered after the fire.. They also had a replica of the houses built for the survivors that the government built for them to live. Please go and see it. Then we went to the cemetery which was the mass grave for the unidentified victims. The book documented all of this. Bravo!!!!
LynnBerk More than 1 year ago
For 40 years, author Daniel James Brown's grandfather had nightmares about a day that began with joy and celebration and ended in ashes and catastrophe in--and around--Hinckley, Minn. in 1894. Brown takes those memories and those nightmares and brings them to horrifying life in "Under a Flaming Sky," a riveting hour-by-hour account of a monstrous firestorm that snaked, spit, and hid in small patches among the flat, drought-stricken woods of northern Minnesota until those patches, pushed by hurricane-force winds, merged and roared out of those woods like a living thing. What makes this book so poignant, what may give you nightmares nearly as vivid as Brown's grandfather, is the fact that these people never saw it coming. They were ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances with no way out. Fires were common in the summer in that area and although the residents of Hinckley, Pokegama and the tiny hamlet of Phillips watched a yellow sun turn red, saw the growing spires of smoke, and heard the low rumbling of a dragon stirring to life, nothing they saw was much different from other summers in these thirsty lumber towns. By the time they glimpsed what lay behind the heated curtain, by the time they actually saw the hundred-foot-high wall of flames, it was far, far too late. The night before, they had gone to bed looking forward to the festivities of the nation's first Labor Day. By Saturday's end, they were decimated. Men, women and children who ran out of their homes to see what was coming were incinerated on the spot, and maybe they were the lucky ones. Others were alive but burned to the bone and still more took in frantic breaths as they tried to outrun the monster, only to have their lungs and throats seared shut. There are many heroes in "Under a Flaming Sky," largely railroad personnel who put their own lives on the line to evacuate as many people as possible, but the real heroes are the simple people residents trying to eke out a living in their new land who who lost their families, their lives, their homes, and their hope--and Brown, for telling their long-forgotten story. By the time you finish reading "Under a Flaming Sky," you'll find yourself checking the clothes dryer, the stove, all appliances, and that heap of brush and wood that is only one fence away, wondering if that really is smoke you smell. "Under e Flaming Sky" is a true story and history books have a long lineage of boring. But "Under a Flaming Sky" reads like the finest novel, drawing you deeply into the lives--and the hideous deaths and wounds--of these simple, anonymous people who did nothing more than go to bed one hot August night and awoke to a nightmare. Brown also wrote the recently released "The Indifferent Stars Above," about a young bride who suffered the tortures of the damned during the ill-fated Donner Party expedition, and it is no less riveting than "Under a Flaming Sky." Next time you're feeling a little sorry for yourself, read either "Under a Flaming Sky" or "The Indifferent Stars Above." Brown takes history and brings it to horrifying life. Your problems will shrink to nothingness when you read what happened to the people of Northern Minnesota in August 1894.--By LYNN BERK
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you enjoyed this title, then "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride", is a MUST-read. Brown's work is so thoroughly researched and his writing so intriguing that I found myself totally emerged in it, unable to put it down.
MKH More than 1 year ago
Author has written a compelling history of this tragedy in Minnesota history. He's done a great job of compiling a large number of individual experiences by the participants in to a logical narrative of what took place in the Hinckley fire. I purchased the book because of my interest in genealogy and Minnesota history and am glad I did.
dgruberg More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. If you enjoy history you will love this book. Brown's in depth research and clearly written scientific explanations provide the background for this fascinating historical novel about the Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota. One does not realize the astounding depth of the author's research until one reads the notes at the back of the book and realizes how expertly Brown weaves his novel from this unique event in American history. Excellent photos of many of the main characters.
YorkistJo More than 1 year ago
As a child, riding in our car on the way to Duluth to visit relatives, I recall my father (born and raised in Iowa) would always mention the firestorm as we drove through the stricken area. As a child I felt somewhat removed from it as children rarely can grasp the enormity of disasters, especially those that have happened in another century. Over the decades of my life, I've grow to greatly appreciate history in all of it's forms and I finally stopped simply driving through Hinkley and stopped at the Fire Museum. There I learned of the book. As other reviewers have stated, it's simply engrossing! We're so used to warnings of approching danger that it's overwhelming when the readers put themselves in the place of those who were involved. The Author did a tremendous job in recreating the disbelief and panic of the subjects, but also captures the desperation and determination of those who chose to endanger their own lives in order to save others. I'm left wondering if we as a society that is highly spoiled and self absorbed,are even capable of this type of sacrifice.
For this very reason, I had my 13 yr.old son read it as well. This book is an educational tool. Socially, scientifically and spiritually.
I'll be buying more copies as gifts!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this up from the library, mostly because of the topic to see if it would be an interesting purchase for my dad for father's day. My dad's father was born and raised in Hinckley and I'd heard the stories about the fire growing up (my great-grandfather moved there shortly after the fire). I expected just to skim it and return it to the library--non-fiction is not my favorite genre. I ended up sitting and reading this all in one day--I couldn't put it down! Mr. Brown does an excellect job of explaining the science of what happened, while still maintaining the suspense and drive of the story. It is an extremely compelling read!!! So I'm here at bn.com ordering a few copies for gifts...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I got this book last week and since I had to fly cross-country, I figured it would help me pass the time during my flight. Not only could I not put it down, but I my husband (who rarely reads) and I fought over it all weekend when he decided he wanted to read it too! I had to physically force myself to stop reading at 2:00 am early one morning because I had to get some sleep! Mr. Brown writes such compelling prose that, at times, it¿s easy to forget that this book is a work of non-fiction that this terrible fire swept through Minnesota, leaving destroyed towns and families in its wake. It¿s hard to comprehend trying to escape a fire of this magnitude, only to survive and discover that your family, house, land and everything you own is gone. Mr. Brown¿s minute by minute account of the Hinckley fire of 1894, interspersed with details regarding the evolution of the fire from a few burning embers to total firestorm, weather science, burn and infection treatments of the late 1800s, make this book both an engrossing and educational find.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Considering that this is a disaster book, it is a surprisingly entertaining read. The author set out to research the events surrounding the death of his great-grandfather who perished in the Hinckley firestorm of 1894, perhaps the worst forest fire in American history. In five hours the inferno destroyed most of a county, killed almost 500 people, and left behind a nearly sterile soil that would never again sustain a forest. Hinckley, Minnesota, never recovered from the event. Alternating story and necessary background information, Brown weaves a gripping narrative (I read it in two sittings). Like the best nonfiction writing (John McPhee¿s work comes to mind), ¿Under a Flaming Sky¿ is ultimately about the people, mostly immigrants who had come to America hoping for a better life and found themselves in Dante¿s Inferno. Brown acquaints us with many of the victims, revealing their pasts and their dreams, and then follows them through the catastrophe that enveloped them. The suspense never relents as we wait to see who will survive and who not. This story is interesting in its own right but it also speaks to modern readers who, thanks to United Flight 93 and Hurricane Katrina, no longer feel so safe. One chilling lesson of ¿Under a Flaming Sky¿ is that courage and resourcefulness often have nothing to do with survival. It is primarily a matter of where you just happen to find yourself when the events unfold. Some of the best and bravest perish and while others wonder around dazed only to be rescued by calmer neighbors. If Oprah doesn¿t choose this book, she is missing a bet.
wholewatermelon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was amazing to me that these events really happened. This fire terrorized so many people, and their stories are amazing. It was written so well, and will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.
Schmerguls on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author's great-grandfather died in the horrendous fire which devastated Pine County, Minnesota on Sep 1, 1894. The book tells the story of the ordeal very well, and even though it is gruesome to read about the fire and the things that the persons caught in it went through I thought the book well done and well worth reading. In the Epilogue the author tells of his 2004 visit to Hinckley--and this brought the book to an inspiring end. Over 436 people died in the fire--and in that day the effort to get help to them and the survivors was so crude compared to the present time that one feels really frustrated as one reads the book.
stezton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be a really good read. Even though he's recounting history it doesn't drag in any way. There is plenty of dialog which leaves me wondering how much is accurate, but it does help keep it interesting. To help the reader get a sense of the intensity and scope of the fire the author spends a page or two at various points explaining what was taking place scientifically. These passages are not too hard to grasp for the layman and help the reader understand better.In all, I recommend this book to anyone that finds the description appealing. I definitely found it to be well-written and entertaining.
jtlauderdale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There are several accounts of this tragedy available but this is the most readable I've come across. The author's personal connection to the disaster (his grandfather survived it) allows him to bring the story home to the modern reader. I liked how he brought current-day Hinckley into the story. There is a good index. Don't miss the P. S. section at the end of the paperback version; it's easy to overlook.
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