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The Great Hinckley Fire

An Old Highway 61 Blog by Gail Gates

Between three and five o’clock on the afternoon of September 1, 1894, a raging forest fire driven by strong southwest winds swept over the town of Hinckley, killing 248 residents. The conflagration burned over 480 square miles in parts of five counties, also consuming the surrounding towns of Brook Park, Mission Creek, Miller, Partridge, and Sandstone. At least 418 people died in the disaster.

 —Inscription on the Hinckley Fire Marker

The recent wildfires on Maui reminded me how quickly life can change or be lost. And while the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 seems like a long-forgotten historical footnote, vestiges remain. There is a museum, road markers, monuments.


My husband and I were traveling along Old Hwy 61 in August and decided to visit the Hinckley Fire Museum on a whim. Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, and the museum was not open. (It’s always prudent to check the hours beforehand, but as I said, we were navigating by fancy, not plan.)


We looked around the museum outside while trying to imagine what life was like 129 years ago in this small town. Hinckley, now known more for the Grand Casino or Tobie’s Famous Carmel Rolls, must have been far different than in its logging heyday.


The story of what happened on September 1, 1894, is best told by others, and I will include some resource links below. Just trust me when I say the loss of life was fierce, fast, and nearly unbelievable. The intensity of the heat from the wind and the fire incinerated bodies, buildings, and melted metal. It must have felt like the end of the world; in some respects, it was for many. 


The survivors were left to regroup and question how, when, or even if they should start over. But they did. Unidentified bodies were put into mass graves. The towns were rebuilt. The train tracks were replaced. The roots of what could be survived the surface devastation. 


After my husband and I left the museum, we drove a few blocks to the east, where there was a historical marker and statue depicting an area once a pit, or bog, created by the railroad. The “eyesore” saved over 100 human lives (and animals!) as they crouched in the stagnant water on the day of the fire. 


From there, we crossed over 35W to the west of town, where a cemetery hosts a large obelisk monument to the 1894 fire and those who died and endured. Behind the memorial is a large roped-off area, which is the mass grave of those who were so wholly burned they were unrecognizable to the rescuers.


The Hinckley Fire Museum is a place I’ve long intended to visit along Old Hwy 61. And while I still haven’t gotten inside (Note to self…make a plan next time!), I felt emotionally rocked standing at the site of the bog (lives saved) and the mass grave.


As my husband and I went about our day, I looked to the sky and saw puffy summer clouds. It felt peaceful. Safe. And yet there remained that niggling feeling that this should not be taken for granted. A quarter-million acres, including the town of Hinckley, burned in just four hours on September 1, 1894. Life, and death, happen in a moment.

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