The St. Paul Daily Globe’s headline from May 3, 1878 announced the explosion at the Washburn “A” Mill in Minneapolis that sent debris flying 300 feet into the air. The largest flour mill in the United States at the time, second largest in the world, lay in smoldering ruins. Huge blocks of masonry dissolved into sand and left railroad ties twisted and contorted.

twisted metal

During the night, flour dust in the air ignited and the mill exploded with terrific force. The blast blew the roof off the A mill, leveled five other mills and engulfed several city blocks in flames. One survivor described the scene like this:

“Flame and smoke in dense volumes leaped hundreds of feet heavenward, 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.”
– St. Paul Globe – May 4, 1878.

For fifty years from 1880-1930, Minneapolis was the leading producer of flour in the country, earning it the nickname “Mill City”. Utilizing an advantageous geographical location near St. Anthony Falls, the only true waterfall on the Mississippi River, the city of Minneapolis grew due to its prominence as the center of the country’s milling industry. The Mississippi River supplied the fertile soil to grow copious amounts of wheat, provided the energy to mill the raw material into flour and the transportation to ship the flour around the world. This interesting video on the explosion includes more information and period photos.

mill city ruins
Today, the ruins of the Washburn “A” Mill still stand along the Mississippi River. It feels like a place in ancient Rome where the remaining pieces of buildings are immortalized, where the presence of those that came before us can be felt and you can run your fingers over history. Explore the remnants of the tunnels below the mill in this video.

In 2003, the building was re-opened, this time as the Mill City Museum. The Museum offer tours of the mill, demonstrations on the flammability of flour dust as well as unique works by local and regional artists.

Let history come alive for you and visit the River’s historical locations in your neighborhood.





– Annette Gomberg, 1 Mississippi Outreach Coordinator





The answer to this months newsletter riddle:

What can run but never walks,
Has a mouth but never talks,
Has a bed but never sleeps,
Has a head but never weeps.

Answer: A River, of course! (pun intended)