In Northern Minnesota, out on the Iron Range, out of the Twin Cities, there's a very different kind of landscape from the rest of the state. The rolling fields give way to crags of rock; the stone gives way to veins of iron oxide, and the towns give way to villages, to townships, to bedraggled trailers and the rusting posts of abandoned gas stations. The ghosts of towers and pit mines litter the landscape in between: the land has been pulled up to extract the blood of the earth, and the earth has given mightily.
The crags and rolling landscape, the seemingly endless forest gives way to old logging camps and towns, most of them abandoned, and some few still thriving. One of these, Hinckley, off Exit 183 on I-35, is the epicenter of what was one of the worst fires in United States history.
Hinckley was founded as a logging town in 1860 as part of an expansion project for railroads that carried precious ore on and off of the Range. It was known as "The Town Made of Wood", and, thanks to the practice of stripping bark from the trees logged in the area, became the town that very nearly went up in smoke.
In 1894, it was a hot, dry summer in Minnesota. Forest fires started by passing steam trains were frequent, starting little brush fires all over the state along the train tracks. On September 1st, two of these fires met south of Hinckley and combined into a maelstrom: a wall of fire thousands of feet high. The firestorm was swift-moving and had easy access to fuel from the surrounding forest.
In the next several hours and the following week, the blaze spread 400 miles, stretching well into Wisconsin and Canada. The fire destroyed dozens of towns and several trains. The death toll was estimated at 700; thousands more locals were displaced and injured, including several of the local Chippewa tribes living in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The effects on the region were striking. The logging industry was all but entirely wiped out. Local industry turned once more to iron mining and to the maintenance of the railroads crossing through Minnesota and into the Dakotas. For years afterwards, Hinckley remained a ghost of itself, subsisting as only one of several towns off of I-35. Only in recent years, with the opening of a casino, has the city begun to recover from an almost century long shadow cast by the Great Fire.