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On This Day in Rotten History: September 1

In 1894 – (124 years ago) – more than four hundred people were killed in a firestorm that resulted when two separate forest fires merged in the lumber country around Hinckley, Minnesota, at the end of an unusually hot and dry summer. In those days it was common for loggers to strip trees of their branches before cutting them down. That practice covered the forest floor with chunks of dead wood and flammable tinder in areas where steam locomotives regularly passed through, spewing red-hot coal cinders from their smokestacks. In the Hinckley firestorm, powerful convection currents sucked up so much oxygen that many victims died by suffocation. In just four hours, some 300,000 acres of pine forest were destroyed. A few hundred people managed to survive the blaze by taking shelter in a gravel pit and a muddy lake. But their livelihood, the local lumber industry, was completely wiped out. And though an effort was made to rebuild the town of Hinckley, it would never regain its former economic importance.

In 1914 – (104 years ago) — the world’s last known passenger pigeon was found dead on the floor of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Known by the name “Martha,” she was about twenty-nine years old, the last survivor of years of failed breeding attempts by ornithologists in Cincinnati and at the University of Chicago. She had never in her life laid a fertile egg, and the last male passenger pigeon had died four years earlier. For thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, passenger pigeons had been the most abundant bird species in North America and perhaps the world, numbering some three to five billion at their peak. In 1813 the naturalist John James Audubon described seeing migrating flocks that numbered in the millions, so vast that they blackened the sky and took hours or even days to pass overhead. Frontier settlers found they could easily bring the pigeons down by shooting into the sky without bothering to aim, or by using torches to smoke them out of the trees where they nested. Some used the birds as a source of cheap food, while others killed them for fun, leaving them on the ground to rot. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, passenger pigeons were the target of uncontrolled commercial hunting that drastically reduced their numbers. Meanwhile, the timber industry decimated the forests of the eastern United States, depriving the pigeons of their favored breeding habitat. By the time their population decline became obvious, it was too late to save the species — and after Martha’s death, the passenger pigeon was declared extinct. In more recent years, the Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson has estimated that humans are driving some thirty thousand species to extinction every year.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi

Rotten History


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