Trouble had been smoldering for weeks that summer of 1910. There had been early season rains; then droughts. The forests grew close in all settled areas. Transportation was either by boat or by train. An occasional trail would through the woods from one homestead to the other.
The towns of Baudette and Spooner across the Baudette River from each other were busy sawmill communities of about 2,200 people. Shevlin-Mathieu mill in Spooner, the Engler mill located on the Rainy River down stream from Baudette, the Rat Portage mill on the Canadian side near the railroad bridge and the Shevlin-Clark mill on the river bank east of Rainy River furnished employment for many people. There was also a typhoid epidemic.
In late September, there were fire west of Baudette. By October 4 they reached Graceton burning the town and many settlers’ homes about the countryside. The entire country between Baudette and Graceton was a furnace of flames being driven back and forth by shifting winds. Early in the day of October 7, Pitt was reduced to ashes except for the depot. Refugees from Graceton and Pitt were brought to Baudette by a relief train. The towns on the Rainy River were considered safe; they had what was considered adequate fire protection.
By the time school was out, the sky had taken on an ominous reddish hue and pupils hurried home. At supper time there was little threat of calamity through stifling smoke pervaded the air. By 7 p.m., people were beginning to gather at the depot and message was wired to Rainy River to have relief trains ready if necessary. A half hour later there was a cry from watchers perched on top of a building opposite the depot. “It’s coming, heading straight this way. Quick, give the fire alarm”. The whistle shrieked; people came running to the depot in Baudette and to the Shevlin mill in Spooner. Some who had been sick in bed came in their night clothes. Typhoid patients covered with blankets were carried to stretchers, and kept on the river bank. In what seemed an eternity, but was really only a few minutes, an engine pulled across the bridge but alas it pulled only one coach. There was some panic when people realized the could not all board the one coach. Who knew whether the train could reach safety, for the woods along the track were afire by then and burning embers had blown across the river to set fires there also. Soon another train of box cars was made up in the Rainy River rail yard and came to take more to the Canadian side. Others elected to remain in the depot. Some sought shelter on the river banks and were ready to take to their boats on the storm lashed waves.
Of that night W. T. Noonan, late editor of the Baudette Region, wrote in early history of the Country, “Soon both towns (Baudette and Spooner) were ablaze; the very heavens were opening with a cloudburst of fire. Burning brands were blown across the river to set the Rat Portage mill afire and in several places on the Canadian side. Then the wind shifted, the inferno turned to glowing embers. There was nothing left to burn.”
At dawn people crept silently from their places of refuge to look. Their shock grew as they surveyed to devastation. “Old Town”, that part of Baudette was a remnant of the earliest settlement on the banks of the Rainy River, still stood. The depot still stood. As for the rest of the town, there was a brick chimney standing here and there. Miraculously there was no loss of life in Baudette and only one in Spooner, but as search parties spread into the countryside, they found the dead. Members of the American Legion who recently did research on the death toll have a record of forty deaths due to the fire.
The late Mrs. Robert Sinclair who lived in Rainy River in 1910 with her family said that the shift of the wind saved most of this town before the fire had gotten too strong of a start. Before the ashes had even stopped smoking, Mrs. Sinclair said that men with evil intent had moved into the area. Finding little left to loot on the American side, they crossed the river to Rainy River. There the men of the town quickly organized to patrol the town. On patrolman was found shot in the back behind the jewelry store; his murderer was never found.
William Coutts, an early resident of Baudette, who later built a camp at Nester Falls, Ontario, father of Mrs. A. A. Brink, Mrs. Jack Dodds and Mrs. Ralph Brodin, had some vivid memories of the fire as he was the last man to leave the streets of Baudette on that night of horror. he had a small launch and took some of the people to Rainy River where they were taken to private homes and hotels.
Besides the destruction and deaths on the American side at least one birth was recorded in Rainy River. A son, Armand Peter, was born to Joe and Victoria Bernier on that tragic day.
According to Mrs. Mary Rose (Bernier) Hamilton, who was six years old at the time, her parents lived in a house on Fourth Street which burned down in 1911. During the day of October 7, mother and baby were taken to the river bank near the government dock at the foot of Fourth Street. They were put into a Mr. Cayo’s boat until the danger was over. After their home burned in 1911 Joe Bernier, who was the drayman in the town, rebuilt their home on the foundation of the old one. This home still remains and is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Don Budreau.
The Rat Portage mill was never rebuilt although cement foundations still remain down near Cliff Jenson’s home and machine shop near the C.N. Bridge.