“Fire” in Susan’s Own Words

April 6, 2013 § 2 Comments

fireLast week I recounted a story about Susan caught in the great Western forest fire of 1910 (to read, click here). When I discovered this seemingly forgotten incident, I was struck by the drama of the event, Susan’s compassion, and her ability to graphically recount her experience.  Although this letter to Susan’s cousin Flora is a little longer than most of my posts, I want to share this vignette which reveals surprising aspects of a very complex woman in her own words.  Susan wrote:

“I suppose experience is a great educator, and that everything has its value.  This experience, however, has indeed been remarkable.  The last few days have been days of varying emotions and activities. 

We had no occasion for alarm here in Wallace until Saturday, August 20. About 3 o’clock on that day they had all of the fires back on the mountain ranges apparently held in check. Then suddenly there came a fierce wind, and the way it blew was the most diabolical thing I ever saw.  No tornado nor cyclone ever accompanied such a whirlwind of fire and wholesale destruction. As I looked out toward the mountains, I was astonished by the appearance of the heavens which were a brilliant orange color, heavily banked with smoke.  The sun was barely visible.  The burnt pine needles and bits of bark were falling everywhere like rain.

All out-going trains for the day had departed.  The last one to go out was at 8 o’clock, leaving for Spokane.  That evening, shortly after 6 o’clock things were getting worse every moment.  The smoke was then so dense we could hardly see across the street.  I made inquiry whether arrangements had been made for another special train.  They said there were cars on the side tracks, and that they were getting steam up in four engines.

I packed my things hastily and prepared to go to the train.  The flames were then leaping over the hill back of the hotel, and there was a column of fire fifty feet in the air.  They were running down the hill sides like great tongues of molten ore from a colossal smelting furnace.  Such a sound I never heard.  I never want to hear that awful roar again.  It was a veritable flood of furious flames, fanned by the rushing wind.  For miles the mountain as solid flame, the fire leaping higher and higher as we stood in awe and watched.  As at times we saw the fire leap through the tops of the trees for a distance of half a block, the scene was beyond description.  Surely it was the most awful disaster this country has had.

Again as I looked I saw a flying brand hurled by the wind, fall upon the Times newspaper office a block east of the hotel.  Instantly it was a seething mass of flame.  Fortunately for us, the wind was blowing away from the hotel.  The frame hotel on the opposite side of the street was now enveloped in flames.  Seeing that we could not do anything to help anyone at that time, a group of us made for one of the trains.

The run to the train was a lively one.  We could see the flames had crossed to the opposite mountain.  The entire east end of town and the hills on both sides were flaming.  The other trains had pulled out and ours was the last.  The men became frantic, thinking our train would be on fire before they could get it off the siding. I never shall forget that sight as I looked from the train window.  Two mountains of solid fire appeared to be coming together, but in fact they were divided by a narrow canyon.  Fourteen solid blocks of buildings were on fire in the city.  The flames were following our train on each side of the track.

Monday morning when I was again in touch with Wallace, I heard things were improving there and went back to see if I could be of any assistance.  There are so many homeless, and every hour brings dozens of dead and burned from the surrounding country.  The canyons were full of men fighting fire.  Every little while they bring in about a score of bodies.  The injured are being cared for in every conceivable place.  We have offered our services as nurses day or night.  Moaning, heart-broken women walk the streets.  I have sought to console them as best I could.  Such a scene and such an atmosphere.  The smoke lays so thick and dense over the city one cannot tell if it is day at all.  From all sides terrible reports come in.  Whole towns are reported to have been wiped out.”

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§ 2 Responses to “Fire” in Susan’s Own Words

  • Nancy Chapin says:

    I certainly agree with your decision to include the letter. It is a side of Susan Lawrence with which I was not familiar and a most impressive side at that.

    Thanks for your continued efforts.

  • Melinda McDonald says:

    Wow! What an amazing account. As usual, great job sleuthing out this story!

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