Owing to its state slogan “land of 10,000 lakes”, I never thought of Minneapolis as a river city. It always seemed like a lake kind of town.
But, born, as it was, on both banks of the Mississippi, a river city it is, and I love the history of American river cities, possibly because I grew up in one.
So, when our informal tour guide, Deanna, mentioned the Great Flour Mill Explosion of 1878, I was all ears.
According to a story that cited the Minneapolis Post May 2, 1878 edition, the Washburn Flour Mill blew up suddenly as the evening shift filed in.
“In a matter of seconds, a series of thunderous explosions—heard ten miles away in St. Paul—destroyed what had been Minneapolis’ largest industrial building, and the largest mill in the world, along with several adjacent flour mills. It was the worst disaster of its type in the city’s history, prompting major safety upgrades in future mill developments.”
As the fires continued to burn into the next day, the Minneapolis Tribune reported in its May 3, 1878 edition, “Minneapolis has met with a calamity, the suddenness and horror of which it is difficult for the mind to comprehend.”
Two mill stones had run dry, causing a spark that ignited the highly flammable flour dust. The fire, which killed 18 workers, wiped out nearly half of the city’s milling capacity. The Washburn Mill had employed 200 people.
The disaster might have decimated the young city, but Cadwallader Washburn, the building’s owner, who was at his home in Wisconsin when word of the fire reached him, rushed back to Minneapolis and vowed to rebuild. Two years later, a new, safer and more technologically advanced Washburn Mill opened and Minneapolis held its place as one of the top flour milling producers in the world.
Today, the whole flour district has been redeveloped and the area continues to thrive.
Hints of the city’s flour power remain. At Saturday’s Farmer’s Market, which takes place on the site of the Washburn Mill, I bought a delicious loaf of strawberry rhubarb bread from Heritage Breads, a chef-owned bakery that locally sources its flour from Sunrise Flour Mill.
Next time you’re in Minneapolis, take a peek at the historic Mill District, best on a Saturday morning in July when the Farmer’s Market is in full bloom.