Lost City

Minneapolis's riverside milling district is about to become a condo tract and history park. But there are plenty of stories the commemorative plaques won't tell

At the foot of Portland Avenue, on the banks of the Mississippi, a massive crane sketches the contours of the latest riverfront development as it hoists steel I-beams into place on the wreck of the old Washburn Crosby A mill. For 30 years the abandoned A mill and a handful of empty buildings around it have been home to squatters and pigeons, ravaged by relentless freeze-thaw cycles and fires.

All that is about to change. As evidenced by the construction crane, the city of Minneapolis is embarking on a multimillion dollar historic preservation journey billed in a brochure designed to lure private investors as "A New Kind of Community Built on the Power of the Past." This community will contain shops and condos, but its centerpiece will be the Mill Ruins Park--a memorial to Minneapolis's industrial past, and one of the largest ruin preservation efforts in the country. The park, set near St. Anthony Falls, will be a step forward for a city that likes to bury its history under parking lots. But amid the high-end condos and froufrou boutiques that will make up this nascent upscale district, it remains to be seen whose story gets told at Mill Ruins Park.

Construction began, coincidentally, just days before the anniversary of the Minneapolis Mill Disaster. On May 2, 1878, a spark ignited a flour-dust explosion in the main building of the Washburn Crosby milling complex. The blast in the A mill leveled half the city's industrial district and shattered plate-glass windows as far away as St. Paul's Summit Avenue, causing damages of more than $1 million in 1878 dollars. Eighteen men burned to death in an instant.

"The roof of the Washburn A mill rose hundreds of feet into the air, followed instantly by a sheet of flame," reported William C. Edgar, editor of the trade journal the Northwestern Miller and author of The Medal of Gold, a corporate biography of the Washburn Crosby Company. "Other explosions occurred in quick succession. The ground shook and rocked. Then came the crash of falling stones and timbers and the terrible roar of the spreading flames. In the moments after the first alarm it seemed the entire west side milling district was doomed to total destruction."

One eyewitness reported a hurricane of roofing shingles blown at gale force from the district. "A short while after the rain of shingles came a deluge of firebrands. Although our end of town was a mile from the explosion, it was in the path of the wind. The sky was filled with flying brands and sparks. This continued until darkness fell. For fully three hours, burning material swept over our section of town."

The scale of this industrial accident would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier; the pace of industrial growth around St. Anthony Falls was mind-boggling. The first commercial flour mill was built there in 1853. Twenty years later, the Washburn A mill, one of the largest flour mills in the world when it exploded, shared water power with a dozen flour, lumber, and textile mills. By the turn of the century, Minneapolis was the setting for the biggest conglomeration of industrial works this side of the rust belt.

You'd never guess it from wandering through the glass and steel streetscape of Minneapolis, 1997, but at the turn of the century this city, like Pittsburgh, New York, and Detroit, was an important staging ground of the Industrial Revolution. The shape of modern labor and commerce first took form in the muddy shadows of the milling district at St. Anthony Falls. It is a history largely forgotten today, especially when it comes to the lives and deaths of the men and women who worked in the mills.

ON ANY GIVEN day you'll find dozens of joggers in Spandex puffing along the trails by the Mississippi River where it snakes through downtown Minneapolis. A few of the old factories and mills along the river still stand, converted and remodeled: the Whitney Hotel and the Ceresota office complex on the west side, the architectural muddle of St. Anthony Main and Riverplace on the east, the Nicollet Island Inn between the two. But most of the old industrial district lies beneath the black-top sea of parking lots northeast of Washington Avenue and the jogging paths along the river.

A century ago, the scene couldn't have been more different. "Looking out of the car window," Edgar wrote of his arrival by train in 1882, "I found we were in the very heart of the milling district, with huge gray stone buildings towering above us. It was a lovely, calm, summer morning, with a cloudless sky overhead. As the mills were then operated almost exclusively by water power, there was no smoke nor grime to be seen, the splendid, substantial plants looked clean and new, and there was a feeling of exhilaration, an indescribable impulse toward enthusiastic effort, in the atmosphere of the district which appealed strongly to my imagination."

Perhaps his reminiscence was colored by the time when he was recalling the scene, some 40 years later. In any case, there's little evidence to support Edgar's pastoral nostalgia. Water powered the mills, true, but it could be a fickle source of power. During the summer months when water levels dropped, and in winter when ice occasionally locked the head-races, smoky coal-fired steam engines ran the works. The railroad engines belched soot as they crisscrossed a dozen spurs loaded with flour and wheat.

Next Page »