Friday, October 09, 2009

The Martin Family and the Great Fire of 1910

In the summer of 1910, nearly all of Northeast Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana was burning.

After a long hard winter with a heavy snow pack, the citizens were looking forward to warm weather, although a wet summer was predicted. However, April, May, and June were unusually dry. By July, three million acres had been burned by hundreds of wildfires. Newspapers to the east in Spokane, Washington reported a constant haze in the air that hung over the city for weeks, causing eye and lung problems; this despite the prevailing winds tend to blow from the southeast to the northwest, from the Spokane area into North Idaho. In some places, the sun could not be seen at noon and people were lighting lamps by four o'clock in the afternoon. An article from Wikipedia quotes, "Smoke from the fire was said to have been seen as far east as Watertown, New York and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, 500 miles out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke."

Spokane employment agencies printed ads seeking firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, but at 25 cents an hour doing filthy, hard, dangerous, and grim work (including recovering burned bodies), many of the unemployed preferred the regular, safer labor jobs offered at the same rate in town. Immigrants were the main recruits, untrained men from Czechoslovakia, Italy, and other Southern European counties, who spoke little English; hard workers who were so inexperienced that they were often of little help to the cause and a danger to themselves. Finally, President Taft ordered thirty companies of Federal troops to the Coeur d'Alene Mountains; troops who had been stationed at Fort Sherman in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, American Lake and Missoula, Montana, and a contingent of African-American soldiers from Fort George Wright in Spokane. Although at one point there were at least 10,000 firefighters on hand, many sections were losing the battle, which had spread into Western Montana.

In many places, farmers, ranchers, and citizens of small communities refused to leave their homes. The wildfires randomly and miraculously spared some of the diehards, while just as randomly and destructively consumed others. Of the stories that remain, irony seems to be the theme: people burying their precious items in locations thought to be safe from fire, sites that ended up being destroyed while their homes remained safe. Some also perished in these attempts, again while their houses sustained little or no damage. Accounts of residents who bravely fought off fires and survived to share their tales paralleled tragedies of homes, fortunes, and lives lost. Those who have read or watched documentaries about wildfires know that they will create their own wind and jump from tree to tree, traveling faster than a man can run, or even a modern automobile can travel. Wind will carry burning branches several miles to land and start further infernos.

When the large mining town of Wallace, Idaho was threatened, relief trains were sent eastward from Spokane and westward from Missoula to rescue women and children. The trains were packed, with men and older boys clinging to the roofs and sides. Families were accidentally separated in the chaos.

Twelve miles to the southeast of Wallace, as the crow flies, is the community of Kyle, accessible through the steep Bitteroot Mountains by a winding 21-mile road. Here 55-year-old John Franklin "Frank" MARTIN, was stationed with the railroad, which quite possibly was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, a.k.a. the Milwaukee Road. Frank and his wife, Angelia Rebecca LUKE, were the parents of 12 children, the youngest of whom was my husband's maternal grandmother, Leona, who would have been only 20 months old at the time. One of Leona's older sisters, Maude, gave an account of the family's adventures, which was published posthumously in an article ("Idaho's Red Monster") by Grace Roffey Pratt in the February-March 1978 edition of Frontier Times:
On or about the 19th of August, Frank Martin was working with a crew and a steam shovel on the railroad at Kyles [sic], a small settlement a few miles from Avery. That evening the men could see the black smoke and red flames in the distance but were not greatly worried for they knew the fire to be several miles away. They had worked hard, they were tired, and after supper and a bit of tongue wagging, they went to bed as usual.

But Martin's [20-year-old] daughter Maud [sic] could not sleep. The wind had risen and it had an ominous sound. About 10 p.m. she noticed the fire had come closer and she rightly guessed that it was no more than half a mile from a powder magazine which held thirty tons of dynamite. She ran to waken her father, who rushed a crew to move the dynamite. They got it out of the magazine and into a safe place just in time.

A few minutes later an engine came through Kyles, and Maud flagged it down and held it there until an order from the dispacher [sic] could be obtained to use it for a relief train.

In the next half-hour the wind rose again and the fire could be seen coming nearer. The roar of the wind and flame was terrifying. Men and women were frightened. Children were crying. The relief train from the west was held back because the telegraph and the telephone poles had burned down and there was no way of communication. Finally Maud Martin got word that a relief train was coming from the east. "We waited," she said, "until the fire was within a few yards of the buildings, scorching our flesh, then we ran for the tunnel that was about half a mile away. We almost suffocated from the smoke." The train did not come for another hour and a half and when it did it had to stay in the tunnel five hours before it was safe to leave. But it did come, and they could get into the cars that shut out some of the smoke and gas. It was a great relief.

At Wallace, one man speaking of it afterwards said, "the sky turned a ghastly yellow shade; by four o-clock it was dark ahead of the advancing flames. the air was filled with electricity as if the whole word was about to blow up in spontaneous combustion."

At the end of August, rain finally came to the forests and snow to the mountains. Residents either returned to their homes--if they remained, began to rebuild their houses and lives, or moved away to start over. Eighty-five souls officially lost their lives, but privately many thought the death count was higher. Numerous immigrants were believed to not have registered when they were hired to fight fires, and with no families in the area to report them missing, surely some would have been overlooked, especially since it could not be certain that all bodies were recovered. Three billion board feet of timber went up in smoke; in some places the earth was so deeply scorched that by 1978 no seedlings had yet come up. Countless elk, deer, bear, cougar, and other wildlife perished. Crops and livestock were destroyed. The Great Fire of 1910 is believed to be the largest fire reported in America, and perhaps the world.

It greatly impacted my husband's family and lingers on in their history. At his grandmother's funeral in 1993, one of his cousins, the daughter of his grandmother's twin brother, brought up the story, which was when I first heard it. Recently, another cousin mentioned how fearful their grandmother had always been of fire. It is not impossible to believe that even at 20 months of age, the incident could have been imprinted on Leona's memory; at the age of two I witnessed the village school burning down in Metlakatla, Alaska and remember the absolute terror I felt even though I was watching from the safety of my mother's arms in our home several blocks away. To have endured such a close encounter with a holocaust as the Martin family did would definitely cause strong emotional reactions in the future to the possibility of the threat of conflagration.



Google Earth. June 16, 2004 - March 5, 2005. Europa Technologies, (accessed October 9, 2009).

Pratt, Grace Roffey, "Idaho's Red Monster." Frontier Times (February-March 1978): 6-9, 50-53.

Wikipedia contributors, "Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,,_Milwaukee,_St._Paul_and_Pacific_Railroad&oldid=316074069 (accessed October 9, 2009).

Wikipedia contributors, "Great Fire of 1910," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 9, 2009).


Idaho Forest Fire Stories - The Great Fire of 1910:

Historic Photos - go to Google Images and run the following searches: "great fire of 1910" idaho and "great fire of 1910" wallace


Claudia said...

GREAT POST....I had never heard of this fire, but the telling was chilling.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you for your kind words, Claudia.

Charles said...

Miriam You were correct about the Milwaukee Railroad, the Northern Pacific and Great Northern both were a lot north of the Kellogg and Wallace area. The Milwaukee was just finished through north Idaho in 1909 and they came across central Montana and down through the Silver Valley then to Spokane and the coast. (You can ride the old railroad grade called the Route of the Hiawatha today on bicycles).
My dad came to north Idaho in the early 1920s and worked in the logging camps and he said you could see the remains if the 1910 fire even then, and even up until the 1950s you could still see some burnt stumps.

Sheri Fenley said...

Now this is a family history story! You have such a way with words, I feel like I am there in person as it is happening!

Miriam Robbins said...

Charles, thanks for the confirmation on the railroad info. When I looked at Kyle on Google Earth, I could see they had a Milwaukee Road Rail Trail, which is what led me to believe it was that particular railroad my husband's great-grandfather worked for. The article on Wikipedia about the Milwaukee Road mentioned certain Washington communities it came through, communities I know the Martin family resided in. I don't get a chance to write about genealogy in the context of local geography and history very often because all my ancestors were from Michigan and further east. It's nice to be able to write about my husband's ancestors and know the locations that are mentioned.

Sheri, thank you for your kind words. My husband and I have actually traveled in this area, although we didn't know we were in his ancestral locations. We'll have to do it again sometime and maybe find the tunnel where the Martins hid from the fire!

Kate said...

This was a great post -- great family story and history. I agree you do have a way with words.
A fellow Michigander, Kathy

Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you, Kate, for reading, and for your kind words.

Tracy said...

Miriam, what a fantastic post. I attended college in Moscow and have spent a lot of time traveling in northern Idaho. I spent a week working in Wallace about 10 years ago and had no idea the town was destroyed like it was. More recent history of the 1972 Sunshine Mine fire seems to have dominated the stories of tragedies in Shoshone County. I can't even fathom how smoky the air must have been in that narrow valley and how limited the transportation options would have been to get out of it. Thank you for sharing this fascinating story.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thanks, Tracy. Actually, only a third of Wallace burned, but still, it had a devastating effect on the community!

Thanks for stopping by to read and leave your kind words.