The Limited No. 4 train steamed out of Duluth about 2 p.m. that Saturday, Sept. 1, 1894 — meaning porter John Wesley Blair should have made it home in time for dinner in St. Paul with his wife, Emma, and their two preteen sons.
First, he made the 125 passengers comfortable as the locomotive pulled seven cars south toward Hinckley. Unbeknown to Blair and the others, two forest fires were merging into a deadly firestorm down the tracks.
“An affable, round-faced young man with a pencil-thin mustache, Blair was probably the only African-American on the train,” according to Daniel Brown’s 2006 book, “Under a Flaming Sky.”
Born in 1853 in Arkansas, possibly into slavery, Blair spent the next seven hours calmly handing out wet towels so passengers and fleeing survivors could cover their faces as the train cars became engulfed in flames. His hands swollen and blistered, Blair sprayed down passengers with fire extinguishers as they climbed out of the burning train at Skunk Lake — a marshy, mucky swamp 18 inches deep where 300 people survived a few miles north of Hinckley.
“Splashing water onto children too frightened to move,” Brown details how Blair led those still alive to the muddy water to bathe their eyes and burns before dragging them back near the burning coal car for warmth when the fire finally gave way to a chilly night.
At least 418 people died 125 years ago during the Hinckley fire, which scorched more than 300,000 acres and consumed the nearby lumber communities of Sandstone, Mission Creek, Miller, Partridge and Pokegama. The death toll, far greater than the Chicago fire 23 years earlier, would have been even worse without Blair’s calm heroics.
“The train’s porter, John Blair, was the one who first mentioned the water’s nearness and pointed out that we should get down in” Skunk Lake, one passenger said in an 1894 account translated from Swedish.
Another passenger, quoted in an 1895 publication, said Blair “stood at his post in the burning car passing water as coolly and collectedly as if he were on a summer excursion. He stood there … until the last passenger was safe.”
Asked later how he stayed calm while all hell and panic erupted around him, Blair said: “I just resolved I would not lose my head, and if I had to die, I would do it without making a fool of myself …
“All I can say is that on that awful night I did what I thought to be my duty.”
While the New York Times failed to mention the portly porter’s actions in more than a dozen stories, the black community in St. Paul raised money and honored him a few weeks later with a gold badge. The St. Paul and Duluth Railway Co. gave him a gold watch, engraved with the words: “For gallant and faithful discharge of duty.”
At that ceremony, a judge named C.D. O’Brien, who was riding the No. 4 Limited, walked across the stage to shake Blair’s hand after saying:
“I am proud to be alive to take him by the hand and thank him for his humanity …
“We stood in flame that is indescribable. John Blair might have sought his own safety but he was too much a man for that. He stood there, a willing sacrifice, ready to lay down his life for those in his charge, following the dictates of a heart as pure and noble as any that ever beat in a human breast, never forgetting those who are helpless and who needed his assistance.”
Brown earned literary praise for his 2013 book “The Boys in the Boat” about the U.S. rowing team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-led Germany. His Hinckley fire book came out seven years earlier and had a personal connection for the author — his grandfather was among the Hinckley survivors.
Blair emerges as one of the characters who stick with you after reading Brown’s book. As he describes Blair distributing wet towels as flames consume the train, Brown writes:
“It must have been a sudden and unexpected role reversal for Blair, a man who had had to be deferential to his mostly white passengers throughout his lifetime, and who now found himself more or less in command of the situation. And it must have been no less of a reversal for the passengers to find themselves looking now to this quiet, unassuming porter with his sweet, boyish face for strength and reassurance in the midst of the crisis of their lives.”
Brown points out Blair’s heroics came the same day as five African-Americans in Missouri — accused of arson but never tried — were bound and shot in the back of a wagon.
John Wesley Blair died at 68 in 1922 and is buried at St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery — just off Case Avenue, where he lived in 1894 and where that Saturday night dinner awaited him.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.