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. Yet. That was how much he had borrowed to buy 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 nearly 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 post war 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 driven by the power of the falling water in the canal, a screw, powered by turbines in the basement 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, with shakers (above) repeatedly shifting the flour...
...until it was returned to the ground floor where the employees bagged the flour and loaded it into....
...railroad box cars waiting 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, 2 May, 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 onto 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 blast that big. 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 he 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 that building is today the “Mill City Museum.”
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