The particles filled the air, tiny and white, millions of them floating as dust inside the largest flour mill in the world, which was seven stories high and made of stone. It was 1878, before electricity became crucial to manufacturing, and water was the power source. The mighty Mississippi delivered that power to the structure, with its dark blue water turning to foam as it cascaded down an overflow spillway from the Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
There were more than 200 people who worked in the Washburn A Mill, making it one of the largest employers in Minneapolis at the time. The mill could grind more than 100 boxcars of wheat into almost 2 million pounds of flour per day.
The workers there faced numerous hazards, including conveyor belts that could break, whipping workers in the face or slicing them across their bodies. Limbs, hands or feet could be caught in exposed machinery that ground, chopped, and stirred inside the bustling and busy facility. If an injury happened, a worker’s ability to keep the job was extremely jeopardized.
Another danger lurked in the day to day operations: the flour dust itself. Over time, the dust turned to dough inside the workers’ lungs, giving them something they
called “Baker’s Disease,” which led to terrible coughing, pains and difficulty breathing. In the short-term, the dust posed another, more immediate danger — it was flammable. The whole mill was a powder keg. A simple spark could ignite an explosion unlike anything most people at the time could have dreamed possible.
The day shift ended at six o’clock p.m. on May 2, 1878, allowing most of the people who worked at the mill to go home. The night crew employees, 14 men, were in the facility an hour later — when disaster struck.
A spark, perhaps from two millstones running dry, ignited the dust. In three concussive booms, the mill exploded. The series of explosions rocked the city, raining chunks of stone onto neighborhoods. People ten miles away reported hearing the tremendous blast. The local newspaper described it like an earthquake. It reported in the next edition, “The heaviest stone structure in Minneapolis, the great Washburn Mill, which has been the pride and boast of our flourishing city, was leveled to the ground.”
“Each floor above the basement became brilliantly illuminated, the light appearing simultaneously at the windows as the stories ignited one above the other,” said one unidentified witness. “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.”
The 14 workers inside were killed; probably instantly. The fire spread to two adjacent mills, costing the lives of four more workers. In all, six mills were destroyed, reducing the entire Minneapolis flour mill industry by more than 30 percent.
It was known as “The Great Mill Disaster.” Newspapers all over the country made it front page news. Lawmakers called for reforms in the milling industry. Ventilation systems were added and other precautionary measures to avoid dust buildup were taken to improve safety in mills across the United States.
The Washburn mill was rebuilt by 1880. It included the best machinery of the day, automatic steel rollers instead of traditional millstones, in order to improve safety and prevent another dust explosion.
Eventually, time caught up with the mill. In 1965, the mill had become obsolete and closed. By 1991, homeless people often used the vacant building for shelter. On a cold night in February, a fire started and spread throughout the structure, destroying it. The official cause was never determined.
As part of the 2015 NAGLO Conference, labor leaders from across the country toured Mill City Museum, which is built around the ruins of the flour mill. The city of Minneapolis cleaned up the debris from the 1991 fire and built a museum and education center within the fortified ruins. The result is both beautiful and historic, and it’s an especially appropriate place for people who make it their job to protect the rights of workers.