The Big Burn

So there are many stories in my family, like all families I am sure.  But one of the stories that looms large is that my great-grandfather Morton Stone was in the Big Burn.  He was working for the railroad in Idaho when the fire roared.  He left quickly, leaving behind some coins in a tobacco tin.  When he came back, the only thing of his that was left was the coins melted into the tin.  And here is a photo of those coins.

melted coins

My grandfather (his son) took a couple of trips to the area in 1994 and 1995 and then wrote about his experiences for the The Milwaukee Railroader magazine in 1997.  Here are scans of that article:






So I have a certain fascination with The Big Burn.  And when Timothy Egan’s book on it came out in 2009, I purchased it right away.  And I loved it.  It is a fascinating tale with lasting consequences through my life.  It is one of my favorite books of all time.

So then I found out the author was going to be in the area.  I was going to go last evening but was too tired from work so opted to go to the event this morning.

But that meant that last evening I felt like I needed to buff up on my family’s history with the fire.  I got the scanned photos of the article and read it.  And then I did some quick googling into Grand Forks, Idaho where my great grandfather’s coins melted.  Here is a photo of it from before the fire from this great article in the Spokesman-Review.


In the article, they described the harrowing rescue of 168 souls by the train engineer, John Macedon.  “He pulled his terrified passengers a mile up the tracks over burning wooden trestles and bridges to the 470-foot Tunnel No. 27 where they huddled with other refugees – a total of 168 souls – while the fire burned the forests around them, destroying their homesteads, railroad buildings, a nearby forest guard station and the town of Grand Forks.”

So we are guessing that my great-grandfather was one of those souls.  It is interesting that he did not talk much about this major event to his son, my grandfather.  I am not sure why, but I do wish we had some more details about it.  But thankfully he left behind the coins and the picture postcards to help us out.

There is an account of the Grand Forks rescue in the August 26, 1910 Los Angeles Times.  “MISSOULA, Mont., Aug. 25.—Among the few stories of personal experiences that have reached here Is that of C. H. Marshall, superintendent of the Puget Sound railway, in which a train carrying 167 persons took refuge ln tunnel No. 27 between Falcon and Kyle last Saturday. Mr. Marshall was engaged in checking fire along the track when he received word that a fire was approaching. Mr. Marshall at once loaded his fire fighters and started for the tunnel, picking up a few people on the way. Both sides of the track were on fire, and the passengers had to lie down on the floor of the cars. Marshall was badly blistered. The train barely reached the tunnel, where it remained until Sunday morning.”

In another article for the Spokesman-Review there is another description of the rescue with a little more detail. “Tunnel No. 27 at Clear Creek, 2.5 miles below Adair, although only 470 feet long, saved 168 people. On the night of Aug. 20, engineer John Mackedon arrived at Falcon siding about a mile down the tracks. It was on fire and men, women and children were gathered on the depot’s platform. The moment he stopped everyone tried to get on the engine. Realizing there wasn’t room he hooked onto flat cars at an adjacent siding and loaded them all.

After reaching the tunnel they discovered that Superintendent C.H. Marshall had been left behind. The engineer and a conductor returned to Falcon, found Marshall, and returned to the tunnel.

They later described their trip: The huge timbers of bridges were burning beneath them, but they kept on until they rescued the official. Their return trip to the tunnel was terrible. After crossing burning bridges they had to stop to extinguish the flames that threatened to destroy the caboose. According to engineer Mackedon, also cited by Egan, “Why, all you could see was a wall of flame, but we crossed it. I hooked her up, threw her wide open, and then we lay down on the deck to protect ourselves from the heat. We expected that every minute would be our last on Earth.”

The people remained in the tunnel eight days until the bridges were rebuilt.”

This article describes how to use the Hiawatha trail on the old railroad grade to view these sights.  And here is a map at the official site for the trail. I am definitely going to go as soon as I can find the time!

There is also a paper with a nice history and excavation description of Grand Forks, but it does not have my great grandfather’s postcard photo of the town after the fire in its known photos of the town.

So with all of this information, I felt somewhat prepared to speak intelligently about my great-grandfather’s experience in case I got to meet Mr. Egan.

What I was not quite as prepared for was that it snowed another 2 inches last night.  The event was in Deming, and I had to take a winding road with compact snow and ice with my little front wheel drive car.

Plus it started to snow heavily as I headed north.  And I-5 was shut down completely at Lake Samish due to an overturned semi.  So they were a lot of semi’s coming south on Highway 9 (which I was on heading north).  The road did not feel wide enough.  But I made it finally to Mount Baker High School.

And I got a front row seat to his talk.  It was an inspiring talk, and it was so nice that the junior high and high school students got to hear him.  He has an amazing way of bringing history to life with the stories in his books, and you could tell this by the talk he gave.

Afterward, he signed my book ,and I did get to tell him about my great grandfather and the melted coins.  He seemed genuinely thrilled to hear the story and the fact that we kept these coins all these years.  He relayed that he has a melted door handle from the fire at Wallace that was given to him.


After the signing, I went outside and it was sunny.  It had warmed to 36 degrees, and the roads were bare again.

So I had an amazing day, and I got to meet one of my heroes.  I own, have read and thoroughly enjoyed The Good Rain, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, and obviously The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.  I also own Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis but have not found time to read it yet. The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero is on my Amazon and Powell’s wish lists. (Hint: my birthday is coming up soon!).  It is so nice to have someone in the world who is preserving the stories from the history of our country and retelling them in a wonderfully entertaining way to keep them alive.

PS. Whatcom reads stated that they video taped last night’s talk and will post a link to it.  When I have that, I will post it here as well.


Update:  Here is the link to the video from that talk.

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7 Responses to The Big Burn

  1. Jeanne says:

    Well! That’s quite a story!! It’s great that your family still has the melted tin of coins!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Mom says:

    Great research, first time I have seen a picture of Grand Forks before the fire. I would like to ride the Hiawatha Trail too, and try to find tunnels 25 and 27.

    • Donna says:

      You and I need to do this Mom! It looks like form the map that the trail goes right through those tunnels. Just need to find the time, especially this summer. It is pretty busy. Do we know if grampa went on the Hiawatha Trail after it was opened?

  3. Mom says:

    Next year might work out better. I think Dad did do part of the Hiawatha Trail, Jim would know.

  4. Pingback: The Hiawatha Trail or Where my Great-Grandfather Survived the Big Burn | Schoonover Farm Blog

  5. Pingback: Morton Reigart Stone | Schoonover Farm Blog

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