1910 FIRE DEATHS IN MINERAL COUNTY
Excerpts from Mineral County Historical Society 1985 paper:
Folks found the lack of rain not just an inconvenience but a real concern. Although the "fire situation in the Coeur d'Alenes looks better than (it has) for weeks," the paper noted, men were still near Spokane, Avery, Trout Creek and Wallace, to name a few, trying to beat the flames into submission.
New fires were springing up, too. Twenty men were enroute to the norm fork of the Blackfoot. And a camper reported that a fire on the Clearwater forest reserve in Idaho was now 10 miles wide and 30 miles long and spreading. A ranger headed for the Montana state line with 200 men to backfire the flames and prevent it crossing into the west side of the Bitterroots.
Although 400 pack horses and 2,000 men were in the Coeur d'Alenes by that Friday, according to the estimates of Associate District One Forester F.A. Silcox of Missoula; the agency figured the cost of fighting the fires would he made up from the later sales from protected stands of prime timber.
But Silcox admitted the task was overwhelming. When asked by the paper, when he and his crews expected to have the fires threatening western Montana snuffed out, he replied:
"It is absolutely impossible to put out such fires as are raging in the mountains now without the aid of rain. The entire northwest is as dry as tinder and the draft from the fires carries embers and burning branches 'miles away into the woods."
Silcox also noted that, "a new fire broke out at Haugan... which is pretty serious. The fire has been raging for several days on Big Creek, but not until yesterday did it assume ' dangerous, proportions."
The forester had already telegraphed Fort Harrison in Helena for a company of soldiers to patrol the Borax section of the railroad east of Taft. But Silcox received word from the fort that '"no troops could be spared…”
"Telephone messages from Taft at two o'clock this morning stated that the forest fires had crept down upon the town and that the Northern Pacific was taking residents of the famous camp down to Saltese. Two trainloads had left by two o’clock, at which time the fire had become so serious that it was thought that further wire communication would be impossible... The fire was burning close to the tracks and it was feared that traffic might possibly be seriously delayed.
￼ Street scene of Taft
As of three o'clock (a.m.), it continued: "Taft is entirely surrounded by fire which is within 100 yards of the nearest building and advancing rapidly... Wallace has fallen at last, a victim of the forest fires that have hedged it about with fire and smoke for the last week. "There will be 300 refugees from Wallace, Mullan and Taft in Missoula... at seven this morning. They are on a special train that left Saltese at 2:30 this morning. In the number are 30 patients from the Wallace hospitals. The sick people will be taken care of at the Sisters' hospital; Missoula will do all she can for the relief of the others."
"Persons arriving on the last special from St. Regis last night reported the destruction of Wiley's big stock ranch, which was situated about three miles from Haugan's spur. It is understood that his cattle consisting of several hundred head were also killed by the fire.
"At 1:30 this morning Mrs. Dowling, the Bell telephone operator at St. Regis, reported that the wind had gone down and the flames had been checked in their advance on the town. The feeling there this morning, however, is that both old and new St. Regis are doomed."
"The third Northern Pacific train to reach this city from the burning districts toward Wallace arrived at 9:15 p.m. yesterday and had on board about 250 men, women and children. This was the regular Coeur d'Alene train sent out of Missoula at 1 p.m. yesterday but which only got as far as St.Regis. There it picked up families and men who had gotten down from Henderson, Buford and DeBorgia earlier in the day, and upon leaving St. Regis the town was practically deserted. Two coaches and a box car were well packed with the crowd, but there were comparatively few in distressing circumstances."
"Working with fire no farther west than Haugan... the (Milwaukee) handled admirably a situation which at every moment threatened to overcome all human endeavor," the paper noted. "With the outbreak of the fire on the "loop" on the Idaho Side of the divide, last night a train was made up and all of the men who could be located then were hurried on "toward Missoula... at every town all down the road, men, women and children were picked up.
"The train, made up of box cars, reached Missoula at 8:30 after a run through fire and smoke... When the 200 dusty, smoky tired passengers on board fifed from their grimy cars under the glare of electric lights of the bridge they were indeed a sorry- looking sight "Great, strong men wearied by a long night of continual mental and physical strain, staggered up the steps to the bridge in pitiful weakness. Women, on whom the terror of a fire-filled night rested heavily, fairly crept along the sidewalk, their haggard faces and sunken eyes telling better than their few incoherent words of their fearful experience...
"The trainload was made up principally of fire-fighters from along the "loop"... All of them carried rolls of blankets and some held in addition few belongings snatched as the rush for the train began. One man held in his arms a little Mack mongrel that whined pitifully with fright, and licked his mater's hands as he was carried out to the street.
"All of the arrivals had stories of terrible experiences... they were dazed with fright and weary from overexertion and mumbled their stories with a peculiar monotone as though there were nothing to be surprised at or to wonder over...
"...Mrs. J.J. Dowling gave constant attention to her (telephone) line and grasps of the fire situation.... she remained at her post from early morning and was the last to leave at night. Through her reports of fire which started between St. Regis and Henderson, the railway company was enabled to get word to their train crew in time to have them turn their train and get back to St. Regis before having been cut off from escape..."
Missoulian correspondent W.G. Ferguson telephoned the newspaper with his eye witness report of the fire fighters in Saltese and other west end towns. He said: "After hours of the finest fire fighting I ever saw, Saltese is safe. Superintendent Fowler and his Northern Pacific men... did so well that there were no property losses in the little mountain town except the railway stockyards and six residences on the west end of the flat."
The NP relief train started enroute to Mullan despite reports that there were "advancing walls of flame on the divide," he said. "It was a doubtful situation, but after looking it over. Fowler decided to push on as far as he could...
"Up the steep mountain grade west of Saltese we went through an increasing volume of smoke and the air became laden with ashes and embers. At times the flames were so close as to seem dangerous, but the train pushed on and would have crossed the divide down to Mullan had it not been for a burned bridge... encountered at Borax. Further progress was impossible... so we dropped back down the mountain (where) we found Saltese in dire danger... The main canyon of the St. Regis (River) was aflame on both sides; it was stifling hot.. down Silver Creek to the south, and Packer Creek to the north, two other fires were coming at the rate of four miles an hour.
"Packer brigades were formed; men were sent out with shovels; the officers in command had their, men lined up with precision...
"In a few minutes the flames closed in; there was a roar as of a thousand cyclones... the crackling of flames... the dread glare... it was met by determined men... and the men won."
Ferguson said they stayed the night on guard for new outbreaks and the next morning (August 23) he and seven men headed toward St. Regis on a handcar taking turns at pumping the handles. He described the 26-mile trip as being "like a moving picture show only more realistic... with the exception of Saltese and Henderson, nothing... escaped the flames between the summit of the divide and Buford.
"Everywhere there has been fire... Eyes are red and weeping, hands are blistered and clothing is burned full of holes by, the flying embers. In Taft, we are told, there are two buildings standing... In DeBorgia there are left standing the Schoolhouse, the 'A.L." saloon and a toolhouse. At Bryson everything is gone. Haugan is destroyed entirely. East Portal at the Milwaukee tunnel is all gone. All of the falsework on the Milwaukee's big bridge over Dominion Creek on the west side is burned out.
"Two men remained in Taft when the people fled," Ferguson continued, "They were to watch some property which had been buried. The fire came upon Taft when they were in their shack. Just as they rushed from the door, the rear of the building caught fire. The sheet of flame from the timber enveloped William McKay, who was behind his companion, and burned him from head to foot. His comrade returned, himself uninjured, and dragged McKay to safety. As soon as possible, medical aid was brought from Saltese and McKay's awful burns were dressed. He was left in charge of a friend who got drunk and dropped a match upon McKay's bandages which caught fire at once aggravating the previous Injuries so that the man died shortly after being brought to Saltese.
"The most serious loss of life yet reported here is at the Bullion Mine above Borax. There were 25 men employed there and when the fire came... the miners sought safety in the workings of the mine. Ten of them ventured out too soon. The heat and poisonous air overcame them at once and they (died)."
All saloons in St. Regis had been closed when word of the fire came to the town. But Taft, he reported, had been the scene of debauchery when "a gang of men... rolled whisky barrels from the saloons into the streets and had a carousal-which lasted until they fled down the mountain to Saltese."'
The fire came over the mountains from Idaho and into Cedar Creek basin, the paper reported. It continued: "The fire is coming down Cedar gulch and is reinforced by a huge blaze from Oregon gulch. "The Cedar... fire has already destroyed the Amador mining property and the Kansas City Commercial company's dredging plant with the exception of the dredge itself. Two charred bodies were found on the summit by fire, fighters returning to Iron Mountain from Oregon gulch. "If a heavy wind should arise in the direction of Iron Mountain, the fire from Cedar... may become... bad... It has reduced the Amador mine to a smoldering heap and consumed... the Big Flat Mining company's plant in Oregon gulch..."
W.S. Clifford and Joe Shinnick had passed through the firey Cedar area and shared their experiences with the newspaper: "They were members of a pack outfit which was composed of eight men and 27 horses. They went through Oregon gulch on their way into Idaho and at the summit met a courier who warned them back.
"The fires came quickly. Before the party could get out, the horses had been lost in the fire and the two boys cut off from their comrades. They don't know what became of the six men who were with them. Clifford and Shinnick got out through Oregon gulch into Cedar. There they stayed at the Kansas City Commercial company plant until they were routed out to help fight fire there.
"When the fire had passed, they came down the creek to Iron Mountain..."
In another article about the Cedar fire, the paper noted that "... the Amador and Kansas City companies used electric speeders (on the Amador track) as an avenue for escape...
"Joe Gareau and William Lacombe escaped from death by a small margin and arrived in Iron Mountain yesterday with four horses remaining out of a total of 50 which they were packing into the Clearwater."
"We had about 50 people in Haugan," said the last man to leave town, "and everyone got out. The fire struck at two o'clock in the afternoon and swept through by five."
Russell B. Jones, laborer on bridge work gang for the Milwaukee, "was unable to take the first train out from East Portal where he was working, and was penned in by the terrible fire... He took refuge in a "coyote" hole on the hillside and from that vantage point lay half-suffocated until the fire swept past.
"The wind was blowing a fearful gate," he said. "The fire swept along the mountain with a roar... from where I lay I could see nothing but a solid wall of flame as much as 50 feet in height... embers and burning bits of wood... flew like driving snow... Near me 12 tons of dynamite which we had buried on the hill went off. The fire burned within ten feet where I lay and the glare and heat were almost too great to describe. Finally the fire passed and with some other men I made my way to the railroad and safety."
Trout Creek did not escape the flames, either, according to Frank D. Brown, a well-known pioneer who worked a claim in Windfall gulch, a tributary of Trout.
He rode into Missoula with a tale he feared no one' would believe. He said: "I tell you the absolute truth, gentlemen, when I say that I have never in all my 45 years in Montana, seen anything to approach it.
"Last Saturday, in company of A.M. Stevens... I set out for the Cedar Creek region. From Quartz, a little railway station, we took the Windfall trail, which lies along the north fork (of the Clearwater) range, where most of the gulches head on a north and south line 30 miles long.
"The trail from Cedar intersects all these gulches... the only one known to be open is Windfall... The Cedar Creekfire had already cut off the Trout Creek trail...
“Windfall is about 11 miles from Quartz. When we crossed the Sunrise divide about 4 o'clock- Saturday afternoon I realized the fire might become serious for us...
"About five the wind began to blow and it was so strong that night that no one could sleep... the next morning Stevens told the miners that they had better get the women and children out of there. He added that the men could escape, when they got ready, but... I did not see any place that I could go if the situation became dangerous.
"The smoke grew thicker hour by hour-.. you couldn't see 100 feet from you, yet we saw no flames. By Sunday night... the wind was blowing a gale... In the camp were two old men, two women and two children and a half dozen or more young fellows...
One of the men warned by Wence was Joe Mayo whose father ran a hotel in the lumbering town. Mayo recalled the fire in "Notes by Joseph A. Mayo," which he wrote more than 50 years after the fire. He wrote:
"The morning of August 21 I was awakened by a loud banging at the front door of the Hotel at DeBorgia. I hurried to the door and Mr. Fred Wence... was very excited and said, 'Joe, the whole country is afire.' The ranger had telephoned to the section house to alert everybody in town and for someone to go to Bill Magee's ranch and tell him to ride up Big Creek and warn a crew of 200 men who had a camp in there fighting fire as he thought (they) might get caught and not be able to get out safely.
"Dave Cromie had a bicycle that he loaned to John Gates to ride back and forth to Henderson where he worked. I took the bicycle and rode it to Magee's place... and told him of (ranger Frank) Haun's message.
"He disliked to ride in but finally said he would go if I would help him catch a horse. We went to the pasture but could see no horses on account of smoke but by walking around finally heard a horse moving and managed to catch one. We saddled one and he took off."
Mayo said the camp was just stirring when Cromie rode in and warned them. The men went down to the Milwaukee tracks and caught the last train out of the fire zone.
"The second train from St. Regis arrived and started to toot its whistle continually and everybody went down to the train. We were informed that the train had to pull out at once as there was fire down the canyon and the track was burning so most of the men left...
"On arriving at St. Regis we took on a lot more people and the train was routed by Paradise over Evero hill as they were afraid to use the route from St.Regis to Missoula. In a few days we returned to DeBorgia (where) 68 buildings (were lost)... and four spared on account of freakest winds."
The group of lumberjacks from Henderson who rode the Mann Lumber Company's logging train to safety at St Regis through the inferno, came through with singed whiskers and eyebrows and scorched faces and hands, Mayo said.
By Thursday, August 25, a fellow stranded at Saltese during the fire stopped at the paper office on his way home to Butte with the following news of the campers' fate: "The party, with Mrs. Anno and son Dave Bobart, George Brusack and the Protestant Kid, spent two days and one night in the Bryan tunnel about five miles from Saltese...They had to beat the door down to get to the tunnel, and keep the fire out by the means of buckets. A water pipe delivered water at a convenient place for them. They took some supplies with them and the women made coffee while the men kept back the flames..."
Several Haugan men survived the fire's onslaught by lying in the St. Regis River for 18 hours, the paper reported. The Tarbox Mining Company plant was completely destroyed at a loss of $6,000 and the Polleys Lumber Company near Saltese suffered some damage but all the men and horses survived.
West of St. Regis, it continued, three burned human bodies and 14 dead horses were.discovered. It speculated that the men were Italian laborers.
Four days after the blowup heavy rains began, according to reports the Northern Pacific received from its St. Regis operator. And to the mountains snow was falling onto the scorched earth and forests.
Within a week of the fire, the hundreds of evacuees returned to their homes or began rebuilding.
Taft saloonist Roy Nuras also registered a complaint with the paper. He said the report of a "debauch" taking place in the town as the flames approached was incorrect.
"After the crowd left," he explained, "the six of us who stayed were busy. My saloon was wide open and nobody entered it. The barrel that was rolled to the street was a barrel of paint and not whiskey."
In all six people died in the flames within what became the borders of Mineral County during the 1910 fire. Haugan was completely destroyed as was most of DeBorgia. Saltese and Taft had some buildings at the edge of their towns burned, but Henderson and the Mann Lumber escaped completely unscathed as did St. Regis.