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Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (2006)

by Daniel James Brown

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2951169,818 (4.27)51
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.… (more)
  1. 10
    The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (meggyweg)
  2. 00
    John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire by Josephine Nobisso (alco261)
    alco261: Under a Flaming Sky has first person account details of John Blair's efforts that day.
  3. 00
    The Hinckley fire by Antone A. Anderson (alco261)
    alco261: Andersons's book is a collection of first person accounts and Brown's book is a history of the entire event (Anderson's book was also one of the books listed in Brown's bibliography).
  4. 00
    By Permission of Heaven by Adrian Tinniswood (meggyweg)
    meggyweg: The Great Fire of London.
  5. 00
    Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History by Denise Gess (oregonobsessionz)
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This was an well written hard rending account of the Hinckley firestorm of 1894. Each account of heroism and suffering are given respectful attention. It boggles the mind how anything like this tragedy could happen. Highly recommended read. ( )
  Arkrayder | Dec 20, 2018 |
As Robert Frost says, “Some say the world will end in fire; Some say in ice…”. Thus right after The Children’s Blizzard it was appropriate to read Under a Flaming Sky, about the Hinckley, Minnesota, firestorm of 1894. Same general pattern for a disaster story; it’s a little personal this time since the doomed include author Daniel James Brown’s grandfather.

Thus: the victims are mostly Scandinavian immigrants; the guilty parties are the timber companies that cut down the white pine forests and left highly flammable slash in their wake; the science involves a discussion of the mechanics of firestorms; the disaster is the convergence of two forest fires on the town of Hinckley in the abnormally hot summer of 1894; the heroes include railroad engineers who kept their train in the depot until it was actually on fire itself so the maximum number of residents could escape; the aftermath includes the author’s visit to the town to lay flowers on the mass grave that presumably includes his grandfather.

This is a somewhat more satisfying book than The Children’s Blizzard; the author includes more photographs and maps that make it easier to understand exactly what was going on. The big lesson for disaster response is to remember that your life is more important than your possessions. The smoke plumes from the converging forest fires to the south were visible for hours before they reached Hinckley and the other towns; since the wind was also from the south it didn’t take much to figure out that prospects were not good. In fact, a lot of Hinckley residents did decide to flee well in advance, but rather than go on foot or wagon they elected to wait for trains they knew would arrive in the afternoon, and packed belongings in anticipation of orderly loading on the cars. The author’s grandmother tried to drag her prized sewing machine to the depot (but fortunately gave up after only a few feet). The trains did show up; unfortunately at almost the same time as the fire. The Hinckley Fire Department did its best but its hoses burned through behind it and men abandoned their posts to save their families.

It would make a better disaster movie than The Children’s Blizzard, too – there’s more drama in burning alive than freezing to death. A southbound train found itself heading right into the fire; the engineer gambled, opened the throttle, and tried to make it through, figuring if he tried to reverse he might collide with another southbound train that wouldn’t see him in the smoke (as it happened, the other southbound train engineers decided they weren’t going any further and backed up). This “charge” worked, although there was a considerable amount of luck involved; the train eventually derailed as the ties burned beneath it and the rails spread, but it was out of the main fire core by then and the crew and passengers survived by drenching themselves with tender water.

Two more trains had pulled into Hinckley from the north; the engineers realized that things were bad but needed to water before they could leave. One of the two engines dropped its freight cars and coupled to the rear of the other train, and then both headed out of town after picking up as many fleeing citizens as they could. They almost waited too long – the train actually caught fire, and they just made it across a burning bridge before it collapsed. They stopped at two other small towns, but nobody took them seriously and no other passengers boarded. Eventually, surrounded by flames, they stopped next to Skunk Lake and the conductors and porters hurried passengers into the water, where they waited out the fire with no further ill effects.

People unable to make it to the train tried a variety of tactics, with varying success, mostly depending on the vagaries of the fire. A large plowed field saved a number, but another group that took refuge in a swamp found it had dried up and they burned alive from radiant heat. A few bodies of water – a flooded quarry, a pond – saved others, but the Grindstone River was reduced by drought to shallow pools and people trying to seek refuge there died. Some lived by jumping into their wells or their tornado shelters, but others died from oxygen deprivation in the same shelters (18 bodies were removed from one well). Another lucky group took refuge in the Eastern Minnesota RR roundhouse; the author speculates the roundhouse sheet-metal walls reflected enough heat to keep them alive, despite outside temperatures high enough to melt rails and boxcar frames into puddles (apparently Rosie O’Donnell thermal physics were not yet in force).

About 1200 people died altogether, with many bodies unidentifiable and little heaps of calcined bones still turning up in out-of-the-way corners years later. There are some blurry pictures of bodies being gathered on a wagon and interred in a mass grave; I’m glad they aren’t any sharper.

A item relevant to web discussions of colloidal silver as a cure-all comes from Brown’s discussion of burn treatment; methods in use at the time were mostly worse than useless (mud, cow dung, roasted mice, raw eggs, vinegar, pig fat, boiled beans, beeswax, linseed oil, carron oil, carbolic acid, petroleum jelly, honey, and oak leaves are all mentioned; Brown notes that honey and oak leaves might have had a small beneficial effect due to the antiseptic properties of honey and the tanning ability of oak leaves). A little late for Hinckley, Dr. William Halstead of Johns Hopkins introduced powdered silver for burn treatment in 1895 and it actually worked – at least as far as infections were concerned; there were still all the fluid loss and metabolic problems associated with burns but at least opportunistic microbials were reduced.

Hinckley is now a casino town; there’s apparently a pretty good Fire Museum; I’ll have to visit if I ever find myself in that neck of the former woods. ( )
2 vote setnahkt | Jan 1, 2018 |
The story of a tragedy is not necessarily entertaining; I wouldn't describe "Under a Flaming Sky" as such. However, it is inspiring to read of the courage and fortitude of those who fought the flames, rescued the citizens, protected their families, endured and survived the horrors, and even those who cleaned up the carnage and rebuilt their society.

This particular story is personal in that the author's grandfather lived through it.

This book will add to your understanding of human nature, both good and bad. It will remind you that humanity cannot control nature. It will cause you to appreciate the fragility of life. ( )
  LeviDeatrick | Dec 15, 2015 |
Perhaps it was the subject matter, or maybe Brown has improved vastly. After reading (twice!) and loving The Boys in the Boat, I wanted all this author can write. This book was competent, but not nearly as skillful or engaging. I'm glad to have read it, mostly for the historical aspects. There is lots to contemplate in the story. Brown accomplishes a good balancing of on the spot re-creation and background information. But his characters in this book can't compare to Joe Rantz and George Pocock. ( )
  2wonderY | Oct 21, 2015 |
Written as a mix of history and historical novel, "Under a Flaming Sky" tells the story of Hinckley, Minnesota and the surrounding area as it was destroyed by a fire storm on September 1, 1894.

The author of this book did immense research to include details found in many other sources, but brought together in this tome. To keep the story flowing, the author created some dialog but based it on quotations found in other sources. The book ends up feeling like a storytelling mixed with background facts (about what happens to a body that has suffered great burns, about the history of fire fighting, etc.)

I have read this book at least four times. Each time I read it I think I will remember everything, yet the next time I read it I find things I'd forgotten. This is not due to any lack in the writing; rather, it is difficult for one's mind to comprehend the immensity of this tragedy.

I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the history of Minnesota, in the history of fire fighting, and for general factual reading. ( )
1 vote Bandings | Aug 8, 2015 |
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Epigraph
A fact is not a truth until you love it.
-John Keats
Dedication
FOR THOSE WHO WERE THERE
AND THOSE WHO LOVED THEM
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Forty years after the Hinckley firestorm, my grandfather still sometimes awoke in the night, screaming.
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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.

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