Last week, teaching artist Emily Sohn offered a class called Adventures in Writing. One of the highlights of the trip was a walking trip to Mill City Museum, where the group watched a simulated explosion like the one that destroyed the mill in 1878.
The students had an assignment to write a story about the explosion as if they were there the night of the explosion. Omer U. and Rosa K-D were kind enough to share.
This story is by Omer U.:
May 2nd, 1878 – It was just another quiet night for watchman Jason Brown. At 7:00 p.m., he was guarding the galaxy mill across from the Washburn mill. He noticed something, down at Washburn’s mill. The loaders left early, but Brown didn’t dwell on it.
Just then he heard a shout, then “BOOM!” Stunned, the watchman looked up. The mill was blown sky high, hundreds of feet in the air. The giant flames shot up along with 150-pound chunks of wall flaming as they came down. Brown didn’t know but this would change mills forever. He said, “I saw Washburn’s mill rise off the ground and it hung twixt heaven and earth.”
The Washburn mill was the biggest mill in the world at the time. The mills were important to the city, for the economy and of course, flour. Most mill-working ran in the family. One member would work in this mill, his brother in another, and so on. Also, there were many mills and they were common. Mills also provided jobs, including loaders and watchmen.
The watchman was too stunned to react and the explosion set other mills on fire, including his. He glanced at the other mill and saw the other watchman trying to put out the fire. Brown was choking in the smoke but forced out a shout. “The fire’s too big!”
He saw the other watchman get engulfed by flames and was horrified. Brown looked for an exit and saw the window. He broke it and jumped into the river. For the next 30 days, men from the city tried to put out the fire. On the 30th day, the flames went out. The watchman looked at it and saw blackened walls, bent steel frames, glass shattered, and huge pieces of wall blown off.
After this, all mills including the new Washburn mill got dust collectors to minimize the chance for an explosion. That’s because the flour dust was the fuel for the explosion. The new mill also got a new mixer, which made finer flour. Their “superlative flour” won the gold medal, so they renamed it “Gold Medal Flour,” and that’s how the explosion changed mills forever.
This one is by Rosa K-D:
May 3rd, 1878- Grace Henderson was setting the table for supper when she felt the ground shake. Plates and glasses rattled on the table. Was it an earthquake? Henderson looked out the window and had to blink to assure herself of what she saw. Two miles away over the city, the 31-year-old woman saw Washburn mill glow before exploding, sending the roof 100 feet in the air. Pieces of the wall flew up to a mile over the river. “I immediately feared the worst,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s husband was one of the 18 men killed as a result of the Washburn mill explosion last night at 7:10 p.m.. When the rumbles stopped, it was clear that Henderson’s life was forever changed. As she tries to figure out what to do next, Mr. Washburn, the mill’s owner, has proposed an orphanage to help similar families.
Grace and Abe Henderson were much like other families with employees at the mill. They lived in Minneapolis for the 10 years they were married and had three children in that time: Anne, 9, and twins Michel and John, both 6. Abe made a steady income of $15 a week for his family at the mill. He worked on the grinding floor, one of the first to explode. “Abe was happy with his job,” said Henderson. “The work was hard, but it paid off.”
Now, the families of all mill workers who were killed are trying to figure out their futures. The widows could find work as maids or doing laundry, but it wouldn’t earn much money and they wouldn’t be able to spend any time caring for their children. Many are thinking about sending the children to relatives around the country. With that plan, they might see their children only once a year.
To make families’ lives easier, Washburn announced plans for an orphanage. The building would be placed at the end of the streetcar line, giving an easy route to and from the city. With this orphanage, widows could work during the week while their children are cared for. At the end of the week, they could go spend a day with the children. Eventually, the mothers can build up enough savings to have the children live with them again. Of course, families would still be broken up, but at least they could come back together more often.
The plan isn’t perfect, but Henderson believes it could work. “I’ll never forget Abe,” she said, “but with this new orphanage, it might be a little easier to live without him. I just hope the children will understand.”