With summer, and especially late summer, when things are beginning to dry up, comes an increased danger of wildfires. Add to that, an extremely dry spring and early summer, and you have a recipe for disaster. Such was the case in northwest Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana in 1910. There were a great number of problems that contributed to an over active fire season, and ultimately, the destruction that began on August 20, 1910, quickly became a firestorm that burned about three million acres…a full 4,700 square miles before it was over. The areas burned included parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and Saint Joe National Forests. The extensive burned area was approximately the size of the state of Connecticut. The extreme scorching heat of the sudden blowup can be attributed to the great Western White Pine forests that blanketed Idaho. The hydrocarbons in the resinous sap boiled out and created a cloud of highly flammable gas that blanketed hundreds of square miles, which then spontaneously detonated dozens of times, each time sending tongues of flame thousands of feet into the sky, and creating a rolling wave of fire that destroyed anything and everything in its path.
That summer had been described as “like no others.” The drought resulted in forests that were filled with dry fuel, which had previously grown up on abundant autumn and winter moisture. Fires were set by hot cinders flung from locomotives, sparks, lightning, and backfiring crews, and by mid-August, there were 1,000 to 3,000 fires burning in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia. Then on August 20th, everything blew up into a firestorm. The firestorm burned over two days, August 20 and 21. It killed 87 people, most of them firefighters. The entire 28 man “Lost Crew” was overcome by flames and perished on Setzer Creek in Idaho outside of Avery. The Great Fire of 1910 is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in United States history. It was commonly referred to as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, or the Devil’s Broom fire. Smoke from the fire could be seen as far east as Watertown, New York, and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, five hundred miles out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.
The fire actually started as many small fires. Then, on August 20, a cold front blew in and brought hurricane-force winds. The wind whipped the hundreds of small fires into one or two blazing infernos. The larger fires were impossible to fight. They simply didn’t have the manpower, or the supplies. The United States Forest Service…then called the National Forest Service…was only five years old at the time and unprepared for the possibilities of this dry summer. Later, at the urging of President William Howard Taft, the United States Army, 25th Infantry Regiment…known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was brought in to help fight the blaze. The most famous story of survival was that of Ed Pulaski, a United States Forest Service ranger who led a large group of his men to safety in an abandoned prospect mine outside of Wallace, Idaho, just as they were about to be overtaken by the fire. Pulaski fought off the flames at the mouth of the shaft until he passed out like the other men. Around midnight, one man said that he was getting out of there. Knowing that they would have no chance of survival if they ran, Pulaski drew his pistol. He threatened to shoot the first person who tried to leave. In the end, all but five of the forty or so men survived. Several towns were completely destroyed by the fire. The fire was finally extinguished when another cold front swept in, bringing with it, steady rain. Unfortunately, it was too late for the 87 people who lost their lives in the blaze. Memorials were placed in several of the fire areas.
October 7, 1780, was the beginning of the end of British rule in The Colonies. The Battle of King’s Mountain would be a battle that the British would never forget. Fewer than one thousand American Heroes, used skills and strategies that no one expected them to have to defeat Major Patrick Ferguson, who was the star of the British military might. Benjamin, James, Robert, and Samuel Knox, ancestors of my husband, Bob Schulenberg, were four of those heroes. The Knox brothers walked away from the battle without being wounded. In reality so did most of the 900 Patriots who participated in the battle. In the end, while the number of casualties reported varies from source to source, some of the most commonly reported figures are that 225 Loyalists had been killed, 163 wounded and 716 were captured, while only 28 Patriots were killed, including Colonel James Williams, and 68 wounded. The outcome of this battle was disastrous for the British, and especially for Major Patrick Ferguson, who died there.
Major Patrick Ferguson came to North Carolina in September 1780, and with the plan of recruiting troops to join the Loyalist militia to protect the flank of Lord Cornwallis’ main force. Ferguson issued a ultimatum to the rebel militias to lay down their arms or suffer the consequences. Apparently, he didn’t understand the Patriots at all…not an unusual mistake for the enemies of the United States, even today. That ultimatum led them to react alright, but not in the way Ferguson had expected. The Patriot militia led by Benjamin Cleveland, James Johnston, William Campbell, John Sevier, Joseph McDowell and Isaac Shelby rallied for an attack on Ferguson. Major Ferguson, realizing the seriousness of his error, attempted to retreat to the safety of Lord Cornwallis’ army, but never made it.
The battle took place 9 miles south of the present day town of Kings Mountain, North Carolina in rural Cherokee County, South Carolina. Because the arrival of the Patriots was almost a complete surprise, the Loyalists suffered heavy casualties. The battle lasted just one hour, after which Major Patrick Ferguson lay dead, and his men, either dead, wounded, and/or captured, but not a single one of Fergusons men had escaped. The Patriots did have to retreat quickly, so they would not be there in the event of a counterattack from Lord Cornwallis’ army, but they left Kings Mountain completely victorious. It was the beginning of the end for British rule in the United States. No longer would The Colonies be looked at as simply fledglings in need of guidance, nor would they be looked at as a small insignificant army, but rather they would be respected as a worthy opponent.
Historians agree that the Battle of Kings Mountain was the “beginning of the end” of British rule in its former colonies. In less than one hour of battle, The Overmountain Men, as they were called, not only won the day, but also undermined the British strategy for keeping America under its control. Such a defeat, as that suffered by Major Patrick Ferguson, is rare in any war. Ferguson thought that his position on Kings Mountain was one that would make an attack nearly impossible, without advance warning. The plateau of the mountain was just large enough to serve as a battleground for his command and to provide space for his camp and wagon train. There was water nearby. The slopes of the mountain would hinder the advance of the attackers. When attacked he expected that any retreat would be rendered impossible by flanking or encircling detachments, a condition he desired, because he would see to it that his men stood and fought, rather than run away. From Patrick Ferguson’s point of view, there was no better position than the one he had found. How very wrong he was.
The Knox family went on to play an illustrious and important role in American history. They were descendants of Charlemagne and the British House of Plantagenet, established by Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, whose exploits were told in the movie, The Lion in Winter. They were of the same family as Richard, the Lionhearted, King John who was forced to sign the Magna Carta, and John Knox, the famous Scottish reformer, who railed against the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. This family produced the man who would become the eleventh President of the United States of America: James Knox Polk. They were a family that my husband’s family has long been proud to be a part of.
After writing about the worst winter ever, I began to look into other severe weather that made a big impact on a lot of lives, and might possibly have had an impact on my own family. I came across a tornado on this day, March 18, 1925 that was and still is the deadliest tornado in history. This tornado touched down at 1:00pm near Ellington, Missouri, and over the next 3 1/2 hours it tore across 3 states and 219 miles, finally ending up in Outsville, Indiana at 4:30 pm, where it hit one house and then dissipated. A tornado traveling this distance is virtually unheard of, but as we all know from this even…not impossible. This tornado was an F5 on the Fujita Scale. In all, the Tri-State Tornado, as it has since been called, hit more that 19 communities in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, while making an almost straight path across the 3 states.
I don’t know if any of the 695 people who perished in the most deadly tornado in history, were related to me or not, but in studying my family history, I can say the I had family in those areas. In all likelihood, one or more of them were related, and when I think of the horror of their last moments, whether they were related or not…well, it is beyond horrible. In Missouri, 13 people lost their lives. In Illinois, 541 people lost their lives, with 234 in Murphysboro alone, which is a record for a single community, and there were 33 deaths at the De Soto school, which was a record for such a storm, and with only bombs and explosions taking higher school tolls. In Indiana 76 people lost their lives. The numbers are not exact. Some accounts say 630 and others say 689, while still others say 695. I find that in itself sad. It is always sad when lives lost go unaccounted for. In all, there were 2,027 injuries and 15,000 homes destroyed. I have been looking over the victims lists, and some of the last names are familiar to me, but I can’t say that these people were or were not related to me. Also, the lists that I found, were not complete lists. It may take a bit of research to know for sure.
It doesn’t really matter whether I am related to any of the victims or not, the reality of this kind of devastation is beyond horrible. Of the 19+ communities, 5 were virtually destroyed along with more than 85 farms. I did find out that at the time of the Tri-State Tornado, my great great grandmother was living just 36 miles north of its path. One of the names might have been a cousin or nephew. Even knowing there is a possibility makes me sad. It is very hard to think about the family members of the victims who are left behind.