The Hinckley Fire and Very Small History
Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894
Giant red blobs of gas floated, jellyfish-like, over the town and exploded. Railroad tracks were warped by the enormous heat. People sought inadequate shelter in the low water of the foul green millpond. Arguably Minnesota’s most famous fire, the Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, killed about 500 people and changed the course of the lumber and shipping industries in Minnesota. If you’ve ever been to Hinckley, right off I-35 halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, you’ll notice that almost everything in town is named after the fire. There’s a fire museum (which I hope to visit soon), the bar is called the Firehouse–more than a century later, the town is still grappling with the fire’s effects. Daniel Brown’s recent book on the fire is a fascinating journalistic account of the events of late summer 1894 from the grandson of a survivor.
Brown’s book is totally gripping, particularly the parts where he focuses on particular individuals and families caught in the firestorm, and their horrific or heroic stories of escape, survival and tragedy. The book reads like an ensemble disaster movie, with, for instance, the story of a wedding party interrupted by the fire who took refuge in the root cellar, dousing themselves in milk to stay alive. However, Brown occasionally stops and changes gears, as if, during this disaster movie, an announcer broke the fourth wall and stepped on stage to give you a lecture on Minnesota weather or train construction or a particular firefight in California in 1973. These intrusions are informative, certainly, but take the reader out of the story and out of 1894. I was also drawn to the story of John Blair, a porter on one of the rescue trains and basically the only black person in the story, whose heroism in getting folks off the burning train and into Skunk Lake and tending to the wounded is unimaginably amazing. (I was pleased to find that there’s a children’s book about him!)
Under a Flaming Sky and its detailed recounting of the progress of the fire and the rescues reminded me of this recent post on Digital History Hacks, which discusses how, enabled by cached data, we can tell very detailed stories of very small units of time.
Now suppose you wanted to write the history of a very brief interval, say a few hours, minutes or even seconds. In the past, this kind of history–I’m not sure what to call it–would only have been possible for an event like 9/11, the JFK assassination or D-Day. But with access to Google’s cache data and some sophisticated data mining tools, it becomes possible to imagine creating rich snapshots of web activity over very short intervals. And to the extent that web activity tracks real world activity and can be used to make inferences about it, it becomes possible to imagine writing the history of one second on earth, or one millisecond, or one microsecond.
Beyond microhistory, Turkel declines to name this kind of focused story, but I’d like to call it nanohistory, which both indicates the difference of magnitude from microhistory but also includes a trendy prefix. Anyway, Turkel suggests that the web makes nanohistory, very small history, possible, because we only have this kind of record for a few Big Historic Events. I immediately and perversely starting thinking of any other short periods of time for which we have such detailed chronologic data. (This is in fact why I finally got around to reading the Hinckley book.) For the Hinckley fire, we have at least minute-by-minute information, particularly based on the accounts of the railwaymen and telegraph operators. Brown was thus able to reconstruct a minute-by-minute portrait of the spread of the fire, the trains’ arrival into town, the time when Sandstone was destroyed, what time his grandfather got on the train to Duluth, etc. Other local disasters also have developed equally detailed timestamp data (though you certainly need the web to get to the microsecond level). The kinds of events we have more knowledge about than any others, though, are meetings. Local historical societies have meeting minutes from all sorts of community meetings in their localities. It may not be quite so stirring as a firestorm, but who said what to whom can help uncover the texture of the past, and people sitting together in a room is a core human experience. Let’s train our eyes deeper into the details.