26 February 2016

A railroad hero for African American History month: John W Blair

John Blair stands 2nd from right
Scanning through titles of train books for children the other day, I came across this title: John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire by Josephine Nobisso. At first glance does not appear to have anything do with a train. But then a 2nd glace- John Blair? John Insley Blair was a railroad magnate who at one time owned the largest rail mileage in the world. Then a 3rd look and check of Wikipedia proved that this book does not tell the story of the railroad developer but of an African American Porter on the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad. Silly me.
Hinckley after the 1894 blaze tore through town
September 1st 1894 John Blair's train came into Hinckley, MN just as a massive conflagration came busting into town. And this was no ordinary fire. Some have described it like a tornado of flames four and half miles high.
Probably over 200 passengers pressed into the train with hopes for survival in the hands of the train crew. Engineer James Root made the decision to put his engine in reverse and race the cloying inferno to a water hole he recalled seeing approximately 6 miles away. His plan worked but not without much struggle and hardship. The train started aflame during the trip and Root was badly hurt.
John Blair's role in this race with the deadly firestorm is difficult to find primary sources on the internet. The Minnesota History Center has the Charles W Blair papers in their collection and it contains his account of the Great Fire and his actions.
As Porter he no doubt aided all the individuals aboard the train during the terrible ride. I found a few accounts of him helping passengers including children escape the burning coaches and rush to the water hole known as Skunk Lake. Elsewhere there is a statement that he was final one to exit the train before it totally burned up. He did survive as can ascertained from the existence of his account. I suspect I need to read the book since author Nobisso has stated elsewhere on the 'net that researchers were employed in gathering data about Blair.
So there you have a real hero and hopefully I have brought a little more attention to him. Blair is honored at the Hinckley Fire Museum among other railroaders who did their part to help the citizens during this great catastrophe. And that link is the only place on the internet I could find a close up portrait of him.

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