JULY 2014

JULY  2014
IMMIGRATION DEBATE - 1900 - Nothing has changed

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

HALL OF MIRRORS

I think it profound that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this concept was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark. He realized there was more money to be made in making lenses for telescopes for rich benefactors than in just making portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self images to wealthy clients, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said of this self taught optician that while polishing his lenses, he could feel imperfections in the glass through his thumb. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass is not really a solid but a very, very slowly flowing liquid. So over time all lenses tell lies, even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion without engendering whispers from the neighbors. Although he had always had a love of mathematics, at his father's urging, Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall looking one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars. 
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who first drew detailed maps of the surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and drew even more detailed maps. He saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet, which he described in Italian as “canalii”, a word meaning a channel, or path. It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian. 
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill. Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate water system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.” 
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides “Tarzan” wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was the recognized world expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he found...no canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a bigger newer telescope, to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye. Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival had even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X. But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then, in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark. But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France. Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb, finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence. It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight, just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
- 30 -

Sunday, July 20, 2014

COXEY'S ARMY: BEING HEARD

I imagine that every one of the seven miles from Brightwood Park to the capital were tense for Coxey’s men. The now 500 man Army was swollen by supporters to 4,000, who were hoping, I suspect, to protect the marchers with their bodies, if necessary. They were further supported by 12,000 witnesses, among whom was Mr. L. Frank Baum, who the next year would pen the children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. The crowds lined the route of the Army down 16th Street to Massachusetts Avenue, then across to Mount Vernon Square (to avoid passing the White House), south on 9th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, which they followed directly to the capital building. 
"This is a great comfort," he said. "I have been holding that axe in the air ever since I rusted, and I'm glad to be able to put it down at last. Now, if you will oil the joints of my legs, I shall be all right once more." 
So they oiled his legs until he could move them freely; and he thanked them again and again for his release, for he seemed a very polite creature, and very grateful. "I might have stood there always if you had not come along," he said; "so you have certainly saved my life. How did you happen to be here?" 
"We are on our way to the Emerald City to see the Great Oz," she answered, "and we stopped at your cottage to pass the night." 
"Why do you wish to see Oz?" he asked. 
"I want him to send me back to Kansas, and the Scarecrow wants him to put a few brains into his head," she replied. 
The Tin Woodman appeared to think deeply for a moment. Then he said: "Do you suppose Oz could give me a heart?" 
"Why, I guess so," Dorothy answered. "It would be as easy as to give the Scarecrow brains." 
"True," the Tin Woodman returned. "So, if you will allow me to join your party, I will also go to the Emerald City and ask Oz to help me."
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" 
By this time the crowd was so large, it was being led by 25 mounted Metropolitan Policemen, just to keep the Army moving. Ray Standard Baker, covering the march for the Chicago Record, noted that “Coxey’s carriage (stopped) near the “B” street entrance to the grounds…Rising from his seat, he stooped over and kissed his wife, as if realizing something of the terrible ordeal to follow”.
Jacob Coxey then “leaped nimbly to the ground, and in a moment he and Browne were swallowed up in a wild surging mob of men which lifted them from their feet and bore them bodily across the street to the Capital grounds. More than four hundred mounted policemen…rode into the crowd with the intention of capturing the two…but they might as well have attempted to arrest a cyclone. The mob forced one of them against a stone wall…and threw his horse violently to the ground. Coxey…lost his footing and in a moment he was at the bottom of a pack of writhing, struggling humanity.” 
“The mounted policemen lost their heads…and began striking everyone within reach. Women and children were ruthlessly ridden down…All this time Coxey had been struggling through the crowd toward the central steps of the capital….Before anyone knew it Coxey was bounding up the East front…He was up to the tenth step before he was recognized. Then the officers closed in on him.”
Holding Coxey’s arm, Captain Garden of the Capital Police demanded, “What do you want here?” Coxey replied, “I want to make an address.” Gardner told him he would not be allowed to do that. “Then can I read a protest?” asked Coxey. The answer again was no. After that, it was all over in less than five confused minutes.
Jacob Coxey was not arrested on the capital steps, no matter what the history books say. He was ushered back to his carriage, and the Army, now under the command of his son Jesse Coxey, marched “like a funeral procession” toward their new camp, at the site of an old dump on M street, which they dubbed “Camp Tyranny”. However Carl Browne and another aide had been arrested in the melee. 
On Wednesday, May 2nd. Jacob Coxey was in court to show support and pay the fines for his two friends. That was when he was arrested. The charges laid against all three men were "carrying banners illegally" and "walking on the grass". They were immediately thrown in jail. One week later, on Tuesday, May 8th, all three were tried in District Court, where it was revealed that the illegal banners they were charged with displaying were the three by two inch cloth lapel pins worn by every member of the Army. Coxey always maintained that he never stepped on the grass. It did not matter. All three men were found guilty, fined five dollars each and sentenced to an additional 20 days in jail.
Coxey’s Army stayed in Camp Tyranny for two weeks, playing baseball, drilling and attending rallies, until the D.C. Board of Health ordered them to move. They then returned to their camp at Hyattsville for another week. Then a hotel in Bladensburg, Maryland provided free rooms for the newly released Coxey and Browne, while the Army cramped in the hotel's back yard. Heavy rains in June drove the marchers to higher ground and this time they moved to Roslyn, Virginia.  Finally, on August 11th,  their numbers had dwindled to the point that the Governor of Maryland dispatched Baltimore Police Officers to sweep in and arrest the remaining 80 men on charges of vagrancy. That whimper was the end of Coxey's Army of 1894.
In the speech Coxey had wanted to deliver from the steps of the capital, was a desperate plea. “We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people,” he had wanted to say. “We…say, help, or we and our loved ones must perish… We come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer, and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.” That was what all he had wanted to say.
In the wake of Coxey’s Army, ex-President William Howard Taft was asked what a man with a family was to do when there were no jobs. The President replied “Lord knows. I do not.” And he didn’t. Neither did he have any idea how to help revive the national economy. Two years later, the Denver News would still note, “There are millions of heads of families partially or wholly out of employment…In the agricultural districts wages have fallen one-half.  In manufacturing…the aggregate of all wages paid is at the starvation point.” The depression would continue for yet another two long years, and during this lost decade, those with little imagination fiercely contended that there was nothing that could be done to mitigate the disaster; so nothing was tried. To the surprise of the wealthy and ruling class, that did not work..
Then, in 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. The nation raised an army and invaded Cuba, and the Philippines. And at that, the six year long depression came to an end. Still, conservative economists argued that the war could not have revived the economy. They insisted the budgets increases were far too small and it was far too short a war. Besides, they insisted, increasing taxes and government investment in infrastructure could not revive a depressed economy. And that may be so. But if it is so, then the war spending and the end of the depression was one heck of a coincidence in 1898, and again in 1942. 
I think the best memorial for those unnamed heroes of the spring of 1894 was provided by a bar fly in New York City,  who was named Feeb.  He composed and preformed songs for his supper. And his favorite that spring of 1894 was, “Come, boys, turn around the beer keg. And listen to my song, Great Coxey is among us, to right each grievous wrong. N'o more shall sorrow grip us, We're on the way to wealth…With a glass in every hand; Sing to Coxey and his army, And free lunch all in the land.”
"…and the Witch said to the Scarecrow, "What will you do when Dorothy has left us?"
"I will return to the Emerald City," he replied, "for Oz has made me its ruler and the people like me. The only thing that worries me is how to cross the hill of the Hammer-Heads." 
"By means of the Golden Cap I shall command the Winged Monkeys to carry you to the gates of the Emerald City," said Glinda, "for it would be a shame to deprive the people of so wonderful a ruler." 
"Am I really wonderful?" asked the Scarecrow. 
"You are unusual," replied Glinda." 
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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Friday, July 18, 2014

CRAZY MAN

I doubt that Charles Addison Boutelle was legally insane, but he was confined to an asylum - and was promptly re-elected to his ninth term as a Republican Congressman. Still, the voters must have suspected that something was not right with the contentious old sailor, since his margin of victory was well below his usual level. But sane or not, his whole life was a testament to the power of one crazy man in a world run by mostly sane people.
The dictatorial speaker of the House, Hoosier Joe Cannon, opined that Charles Boutelle (above), “Could get into more controversies in shorter time than any man I ever knew.” And Boutelle's own daughter, in praising her father, asserted, “He could always command attention. No one ever dozed or attended to their correspondence when he was speaking.”  Between those two quotes lies the shadow of a politician whose mouth (and pen) got him into a lot of trouble. And calling him “The handsomest man in the Congress”, as he was well known, seems the reverse to describing a woman as having a good personality. So, I'm pretty sure that Charlie was indeed was  loony, the kind of guy who drives friends and enemies absolutely nuts.
The young Lt. Boutelle had led the Union naval charge into the Confederate stronghold of Mobile Bay, in August of 1864. He came home to Bangor an official hero. After the war, first as editor and then from 1874 co-owner (along with his brother Edward) of the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, Boutelle's dynamic and hyperbolic editorials made him a Republican power across New England. And his willingness to directly buy votes (there was no secret ballot, yet) built the Republican dominance of Maine over the post war generations.
Boutelle first threw his editorial support behind the ambitious and avaricious James Blaine (above, in shame), known accurately as “the continental liar from the state of Maine”. Mr. Boutelle attended the Republican convention in 1876, and in 1880 he was the national chairman of the Blaine Clubs. Blaine came within a handful of votes of being the Republican Presidential nominee both times. Finally in 1884 Boutelle 's unwavering support paid off. He was named the state Party Chairman, and heading into the Presidential campaign that year, the Bangor editor was considered Blaine's “right hand man...and is even now talked of for a cabinet position”. But the nation was saved this turn of events when Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland by ½ of 1% of the popular vote
In the meantime, the “robustly-conservative” Boutelle had decided to run for congress himself, selling a mix of jingoism and empire building. He lost his first attempt in September of 1880, by 855 votes. I guess he ran out of money. But two years later he threw his growing fortune into his election for Maine's “at-large” seat in Congress, and in September of 1884 he won Maine's 4th district seat, which he was to occupy for most of the rest of his life.
Boutelle was a supporter and friend of the legendary Speaker of the House, “Czar” Thomas Reed (above), also from Maine. Then in 1890, the New York Times observed election day in several small Maine towns, and noted that Reed had influenced the results with cash. “Boodle has elected him, operating directly in the purchase of votes and indirectly by discouraging the Democrats to such an extent as to keep hundreds of them away from the polls.” The story went on to say, “...the richest and most influential man in Wells, sat in the (city hall) with a pile of (dollar) bills in his lap and...in the presence of scores of people, exchanged money for votes for Reed...at least 300 votes (were) purchased in Biddeford”, a small town near the New Hampshire border, at up to $20 a vote. It was a smear, of course. No Republican needed to buy an election  in Maine. But by the following Sunday, preachers in pulpits across Maine were lecturing on the need for a secret ballot, as was used in Australia. When in 1891 the Maine legislature seriously considered the Australia ballot, Reed and Boutelle sent a joint letter, warning that such procedures were too complicated for the average voter. But they were swimming against the tide. Under the new system, in the September 1894 election, Reed won re-election by 17,383 votes. But by September of 1898 his margin of victory had slipped to 12, 380. Change was on the wind
And it shifted most dramatically during the 1896 presidential campaign, when a surrogate speaker for the Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryant (above), visited Maine. He was Alexander Troop, editor of the Democratic leaning New Haven Union newspaper. Well, Boutelle could not resist throwing some mud at his New England rival, running an un-credited story that Troop had once been arrested for indecent exposure. The outraged Troop filed a libel suite, demanding a retraction. As the trial date approached, friends convinced the bull headed Boutelle to leave the negotiations to his friend, Speaker Reed. Finding that Troop would not take a quiet payoff, Reed wrote out a retraction on the spot. Boutelle responded by telegraph that he would be “damned” if he would print anything like that in his paper. Even after Reed explained that without a retraction, it might not remain his paper for long, Boutelle refused to budge. The arguments swung back and forth until Reed threatened to walk away from their friendship. Boutelle ate crow on the front page of his newspaper. But by then the Democrat had been beaten, and both Reed and Boutelle were safely re-elected by the usual wide margins.
Then, on the afternoon of Thursday, December 21, 1899, Charles Boutelle was entertaining in the electrified Young's Hotel (above), on Court street, in the financial district of Boston. Charles had used the hotel for years as a lay over between his homes in Washington and Maine, and a place to make personal and political deals out of the public eye. But this afternoon, after an otherwise normal morning, Charles collapsed in the 100 foot long dining room. Rather than taking him upstairs to his suite, he was carried unconscious into a parlor. Dr. F.W. Johnson, a well known surgeon, was sent for, but would only tell the press that Boutelle's condition was “serious, but not necessarily fatal”. Some considered that report optimistic. In fact Boutelle was delirious and ranting. Late that night Boutelle's brother Edward arrived from Bangor, and about midnight told the press Charles was suffering from “congestion of the brain, brought on by acute indigestion”, or as his Bangor Whig reported it, “by the strain and overwork in connection with his official duties”.
The next day Charles was carried via a private rail car back to Bangor. But it was quickly realized that he was too violent to be treated at home. The 62 year old was transported back to Boston, and taken to the McLean asylum in Belmont . Seventy years earlier, it was McLean staff member Mary Sawyer, whose relationship with a pet had inspired the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. But it was also the first psychiatric hospital in America which studied the biological causes of mental illness. Just five years earlier, under Superintendent Dr. Edward Cowles, the hospital moved to a new hill top “cottage plan” campus (above), where patents could be treated in a residential environment. At week's end the New York Times reported that although “officials are very reticent in the matter...(Congressman Boutelle was) not considered in any immediate danger.” But other than an occasional day trip, he would never leave the McLean Hospital again. And his medical bills would force his daughters and brother to sell the Whig Courier that March..
It wasn't that Maine was short of loyal Republicans eager to replace the “handsomest man in congress”, nor that Maine voters did not think it important they be represented by a functional congressman. But 1900 would be a Presidential election year, and Speaker  Reed simply had too much else on his plate. So, at the end of December, it was announced that the Navy committee which Boutelle chaired, would return to work in January, with the now hospitalized congressman still officially its chairman. His daughters still collected his salary, and his party still had the use of his patronage. Come September Charles Boutelle won his last election, probably already unaware he had ever held public office. He won it by only 10,000 votes, instead of his usual 18,000. And in November the powers of his office, exercised by his friend Speaker Thomas Reed, were able to help fellow Republican and fellow Maine man, William McKinley, to win the White House, defeating (again) the Democrat Bryant.
As soon as the election was over, Reed moved in the House to have Charles (above) retroactively appointed a retired captain in the U.S. Navy. Considering his Civil War record, and his dedication in creating the “Great White Fleet” which had just won the Spanish American War of 1898, this seemed a reasonable reward to an eight term congressman, who at the time had no other pension. To encourage the Senate to agree, Dr. Cowles down from Boston was authorized to issue a public statement on the first anniversary of Boutelle's admission to McLean's. “At the present time,” said the doctor, “the indications are not so favorable...for a degree of recovery.. .In my own opinion he should never resume the cares of active life or under take any business responsibilities, and he may live but a few years.”
It seems likely Charles had suffered for years from an advanced case of Altzeimers, first identified by Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer. In 1901 “Alois” began working in Frankfurt on the Main, Germany, with a 51 year old woman named Auguste Deter (above), who had suddenly begun screaming in the middle of the night. She was befuddled and had lost increasingly large chunks of her memory. When Dr. Alzheimer questioned her, she would repeat, “Ich hab mich verloren” - “I am lost”.  Her dementia progressed rapidly until her death on April 8, 1906. In a November 1906 speech, after examining slides of her brain tissue using a new staining technique, Dr. Alzheimer identified plaque build-up on the neurons in Auguste's brain as identifying the disease. In effect the disease destroyed her identity from the inside, as it had done five years earlier in America to Charles Boutelle.
On Wednesday, January 16, 1901, Charles' captain's pension went into effect. And on Sunday, March 3rd, Charles (above)  submitted his resignation from congress, the day before the new congress convened. It was a play, of course. By this stage of his disease, it is very unlikely Charles was capable of signing a letter. Still the smooth transition did honor to its probable architect, Speaker James Reed. Call it the last act of friendship for an old argumentative ally. And as if part of the same plan, eleven weeks later, on Tuesday, May 21, 1901, Charles Addison Boutelle died of pneumonia, a build up of fluid in his lungs, caused by his inability to get out of bed.
He remains the only congressman on record, to be re-elected while confined in a mental institution. But the country is young, yet. Given us another 200 years, and I 'm sure we will get at least one more.
- 30 -

DUST TO DUST

I don't blame C.C. (Cadwallader Colden) Washburn for the tragedy of 1878. Forty years earlier, the ambitious 21 year old had arrived in Chicago with just $5 in his pocket. But by 1855 C.C. had passed the bar, had been elected to Congress from Wisconsin, and was worth at least half a million dollars. Not bad for a kid born with epilepsy. It was about then that his older brother Elihu wrote him, “I don't believe you will be happy until you could buy the entire world.” Elihu was teasing, because C.C. didn't actually have half a million dollars. That was how much he owed for the companies he had already bought. And now he was trying to rescue a cousin, Dorolus Morrison, who had invested in a money pit called the The Minneapolis Mill Company. The firm had water rights on the west bank of the Mississippi at St. Anthony Falls (above), and the idea was to lease access to mill owners. Within two years, the Mill Company was broke and going broker.
C.C. immediately saw the problem. There were only 4,000 people in Minneapolis, and space along the the falls was limited. In 1856 C.C. bought a controlling interest in the Mill Company, borrowed more cash to build a dam across the falls, and dig a 50 foot wide 14 food deep canal (above) down the west bank, more than tripling the available access to the power of the falling water. Then he brought in his younger brother William to run the company, while he concentrated on being a congressman. Older brother Elihu was already a congressman from Illinois and baby brother Israel, Jr. had been elected from Maine. They were a very ambitious family.
Within ten years the customers of C.C.'s Minneapolis Mill Company - grist mills, saw mills, cotton mills and woolen mills - were so profitable, that upon his return from service as a Union General in the Civil War, C.C. built his own flour mill. Against the advice of experts, who were predicting a post war recession, it was the largest flour mill in the world. And on William's advice, C.C. hired George Christian to run the Washburn “B” Mill. Quickly the “B” Mill was a success, in part because of Christian's management and in part because there was no recession.
After two more terms in Congress, and a single term as Wisconsin Governor, C.C. returned to his home in La Crosse,.Wisconsin. But he did not retire. On the advice of George Christian, C.C. decided in 1874, to build a second, even larger flour mill in Minneapolis. This one he called the Washburn “A “ Mill.
The “A” mill was 100 feet wide and 147 feet long. Wheat entered on the ground floor and a screw, powered by turbines in the basement, driven by falling water from the canal, lifted the grain seven and one half stories. Here the grain was fed into a container, into which hot air was blown. 
Once dry, the wheat was carried by another screw down to the sixth floor and crushed between the first horizontal millstones, which cracked the hard center and released the bran. 
Floor after floor the bran descended, with each successive grindstone, 24 pairs in all, crushing the wheat ever finer, and shakers (above) repeatedly shifting the flour...
...until it was returned to the ground floor where the employees bagged and loaded it into....
...railroad box cars waiting outside, along the 32 tracks that then carried it to a hungry nation - half a million barrels of flour shipped in 1873, three quarters of a million barrels in 1874, a hundred thousand more in 1875, and one million barrels in 1876 .
Just like every other day for the previous four years, at six in the evening on Thursday, May 2, 1878, 200 workers were released from their 12 hour day shift at the Washburn “A” Mill, leaving behind 14 men to clean up and ready the mill for Friday's shift. 
It is unknown if they faced any difficulties or problems that night, but at approximately 7:20 a man walking across the tenth avenue bridge (above)  reported seeing a flash in the twilight and a “stream of fire” leaping from the basement windows of the Washburn “A”.
He continued, “Then each floor above the basement became brilliantly illuminated, the light appearing simultaneously at the windows as the stories ignited one above the other...Then the windows bust out, the walls cracked between the windows and fell, and the roof was projected into the air to great height, followed by a cloud of black smoke, through which brilliant flashes resembling lightening passing to and fro.” It was later reckoned the massive roof was thrown 500 feet into the air.
Most said they heard three distinct, massive explosions. Reported the Minneapolis Tribune, “...in a twinkling of an eye...the largest, the highest, and probably the heaviest stone structure in Minneapolis, the great Washburn mill...was leveled to the ground....Soon the burning buildings sent their messengers of flame on the wings of the merciless north wind on to other fields of destruction. ... the wonder is that the whole lower portion of the city escaped the fate with which it was threatened.” Great limestone corner stones landed in the back yards of homes eight blocks from the milling district.
The volunteer fire department reported all their alarms went off at the same instant, but if that was because some one near the “A” mill hit the alarm just after the first explosion, or if the blast short circuited the line, will never be known. Ten miles away, the explosions broke windows on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, whose Globe newspaper issued a special edition, saying, “"There is an 'earthquake’ was the expression and thought of hundreds ... and the word went from lip to lip, almost with the rapidity of lightning, that the Washburn mill, which has long and justly been the pride of Minneapolis, had exploded and was destroyed … It was a night of horror in Minneapolis.”
The 130 volunteers of the fire department dispatched every man, rig and horse they had, and quickly found an explanation to the three great crashes which had reverberated across the city. The exploding Washburn “A” mill had set off identical if smaller explosions in the adjacent Diamond and Humbolt mills. The horse drawn steam pumps of the fire department ran for ten hours, pumping over six million gallons of Mississippi River water on the smoldering wreckage of six flour mills, a cooper shop, a lumber yard, a grain elevator, a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, a planing mill and dozens of railroad cars. The entire fourteen man night shift at the Washburn “A” mill was killed, as well as four men at adjacent mills. Said the Tribune the next day, “Minneapolis has met with a calamity, the suddenness and horror of which it is difficult for the mind to comprehend.”
C.C. arrived by train the next day, and immediately announced he would rebuild. That calmed the bankers and citizens in a city which had just had the majority of its industrial base blown sky high. But massive explosions still had to be explained. Those who favored conspiracies suggested a railroad car loaded with nitroglycerin had been parked next to the Washburn “A” mill, but that was quickly dismissed because even that much nitro would not have produced a big enough blast. A Mill owner from Indiana suggested the spinning turbines had spun so fast they had separated the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water, leading to a hydrogen buildup in the mill. But George Christian, respected operator of both Washburn mills, scoffed at the idea. The cause, he explained, was simple flour dust.
The flour dust did not explode, Christian explained, it just burned very, very quickly. And Professors Peckman and Peck, from the University of Minnesota confirmed this, by experiment. They also suggested the initial spark had come during the night shift's clean up. It was likely a worker was running two millstones in the basement without flour between them, as a shortcut to remove any residue. And like most shortcuts, this one eventually blew up in their faces. Stone sparking against stone had ignited the flour dust raised by the cleaning crew. That is what killed eighteen men.
C.C. made sure his workers were kept on the payroll, by finding them jobs in the old “B” mill. And he did rebuild. But he did not do so by himself. He brought in new money, John Crosby, and as a silent partner added the technocrat William Dunwoody, who went to Europe as an industrial spy, and stole the best new ideas for milling, like getting rid of the horizontal grindings stones and using steel rollers instead. They gave off fewer sparks, lasted far longer, and by operating in sequence would allow the grain to be ground continuously. The bigger new “A” mill opened in 1879, under the name “Washburn Crosby “A” Mill”. With new dust scrubbers cleaning the air, it would run safely until 1965. under the company's new name, General Mills. And what is left of the building is today the “Mill City Museum.”
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