August 19, 2010 in Idaho, Region

Stories of survival: Families and the 1910 fire

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Picture story: Stories from the burn
Courtesy photo photo

Henry Kottkey, second from left in the front row, survived the Big Blowup by taking refuge in a railroad culvert. His wife, Bertha Kottkey, seated to his left, gave birth to their son, Hank Kottkey, center, back row, on Aug. 19, 1910. This portrait is from the 1930s.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

About this series
A century ago, what’s still known as the largest forest fire in U.S. history burned 3 million acres in the Inland Northwest, leveling entire towns and killing at least 85 people. Through Sunday in print and online, The Spokesman-Review examines the fires and their legacy. Read our complete coverage.

Song

Listen to “Business Just the Same: The fire of 1910,” a song by Spokane musician Bill Kostelec.

When fire breached the hill behind her family’s cabin, Lily Cunningham turned back to watch the brilliant orange glow against the night sky.

“She looked up at her mother and saw that her mother was crying. Lily didn’t remember feeling frightened. It was really quite beautiful,” said her niece, Dorris Cameron.

Cunningham, who died in January, was the last known survivor of the 1910 Fire. She was a 3-year-old when the fire burned the family’s homestead on Little Beaver Creek near Thompson Falls, Mont.

Her father, John Cunningham, had already left in the wagon with her older brother. They were on their way to help save a neighbor’s house. Lily Cunningham, her mother and older sister followed, covering the short distance on foot.

Before they left, the family turned their livestock loose and packed their household goods into the root cellar.

At the neighbor’s house, Lily was put to bed with the smaller children. She watched out the window as the older kids used buckets to extinguish small fires caused by flying embers.

Her 6-year-old sister, Helen, was part of that effort. “She told us that the whole sky was lit up and that whole trees were illuminated,” said Cameron, Helen Cunningham’s daughter.

The men and boys built a fire line and doused the house and barn with water, which kept the buildings from igniting.

The neighbor was Sheriff Joe Hartman. He’d promised John Cunningham that he would help him build a new house if he helped save the Hartman homestead. The Cunninghams lived in a small cabin at that time, but had plans for a larger residence.

The fire burned the lumber for the new house, so the Cunningham family spent the winter in a hastily built, two-bedroom log cabin. But the next spring, they got their two-story farmhouse.

All but one of the family’s cows survived the fire. So did a rocking chair, family photos and other items stored in the root cellar.

Lily Cunningham spent most of her adult life working as a waitress at the Davenport Hotel and other Spokane restaurants. Last year, the Sanders County Historical Society started planning an exhibit on her.

“She really didn’t understand why they were making such a big fuss over her,” Cameron said. “She said, ‘It was just a fire.’”

Letter seeking repayment among family’s keepsakes

With wildfires advancing toward the town of Falcon, Henry Kottkey sent an urgent dispatch to his supervisors.

“The fire’s blowing up. I’m worried about my crews and about my family,” the ranger reportedly told Forest Service officials.

Kottkey was in charge of fire crews near Loop Creek, a remote tributary of the St. Joe River. His wife, Bertha, was at Providence Hospital in Wallace, awaiting the birth of the couple’s third child.

The baby, Hank, was born on Aug. 19, 1910 – the day before the Big Blowup. Bertha Kottkey and her day-old son were evacuated from Wallace by train to Missoula.

“All of the patients were crowded into the caboose,” said Bob Kottkey, the couple’s grandson.

It was a treacherous trip. A burning trestle collapsed after the train sped over it, but the patients and hospital staff arrived safely in St. Regis, where they caught another train to Missoula.

Henry Kottkey and his crew survived the fire by taking shelter in a large railroad culvert. The circulation of cool air kept them alive, but Falcon was completely destroyed. The couple lost their house and all their possessions.

After the fire, Henry Kottkey and his family left North Idaho to grow tomatoes in Florida. He later returned to the area, where he and his wife raised eight children. His son, Hank – Bob Kottkey’s father – became a Forest Service employee.

Among the family’s keepsakes are letters that Henry Kottkey wrote to the U.S. government, seeking payment for a horse and two saddles destroyed during the 1910 fire. A government packer had been using them to supply the fire camps.

“It took him over a year to get reimbursed,” Bob Kottkey said.

His cousin, Karen Kottkey Chamberlain, remembers her grandfather as a handsome but stern man, with steely blue eyes. Her grandmother was more playful.

“We’re lamenting the fact that our grandparents didn’t talk much about the fire,” Chamberlain said. “I’m wondering if everyone was too busy surviving to tell stories. They were very closemouthed. It was a different time.”


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