Early generations of Minnesotans lived with the ever-present danger of fire. Many city histories tell of blazes that destroyed whole sections of their communities, but in most cases arson was not the cause. The Red Wing Mills complex, however, was almost certainly burned deliberately by an unknown arsonist.
In 1878 the wealthy and ambitious Red Wing grain buyer and banker, Theodore Sheldon, took the lead in establishing Red Wing Mills. It was a flouring operation that combined the 1873 Bluff Mill with the modern Diamond Mill. The earlier mill used a combination of traditional millstones and newer roller technology to grind wheat into flour. Construction of the modern, state-of-the-art Diamond roller mill in 1877-78 made Minnesota milling news.
The completed facility cost $140,000 and was modern in every way. The Diamond stood five stories high, with a barrel room on the second floor and company offices on the third. A brick building housed the mill's steam engines. The Diamond's landmark brick chimney was 136 feet high. A 150,000-barrel warehouse and a sawmill completed the Mississippi River-bordering plant. Red Wing Mills could produce 1,000 barrels of flour per day which could be shipped by adjacent river-side railroads or steamboats. It took 100 workers to operate the facility.
The Diamond Mill featured a modern fire-fighting system. Its engine room contained a pump that provided water to all floors through pipes and attached hoses. Workers placed Babcock fire extinguishers-eight-gallon cylinders of water super-saturated with carbonic acid gas-and barrels of water on each level. A steam line from the main boiler supplied other pipes located on each floor. In case of fire, live steam could be pumped into the mill.
Just past midnight on March 4, 1883, two Milwaukee Road workers saw an unusual light coming from Diamond Mill's fourth floor. As their locomotive moved closer, the men saw fire. They began blowing the train whistle. Inside the plant a night watchman saw the flames and sounded the alarm.
A Diamond Mill engineer reached the building and started the water pump. Another worker arrived and headed to the fourth floor, but smoke forced him back. The city's fire company reached the scene and began pumping water on the inferno-all to no avail. A huge crowd looked on as the fire spread to the warehouse, engine house and Bluff Flour Mill. The entire complex, with the exception of the sawmill, was reduced to a smoldering ruin.
Investigators believed that someone who knew the buildings well had ignited the fire. The arsonist also appeared to time the blaze to begin sometime during the changing of the night watch.
Unfortunately, the devastating mill fire did not come as a surprise to the citizens of Red Wing. The busy river town had experienced a series of five major fires in an eleven month time period, April 1882 to March 1883. Arson had been the cause of at least two blazes, and suspected in others.
On April 9, 1882, a worker in a Red Wing tailor shop saw flames coming from an unused Third Street alley storage shed. The fire leveled Turner Opera House, the town's largest meeting place, before burning out. Another ten business places on Main Street were also gutted.
Two months later a fire broke out at 1:00 A.M. in J.L. Kellogg's Drug Store on Main and Bush streets. It started in the rear of the building and finally broke through the front doors and windows. Other buildings were also damaged, but none destroyed.
In September someone tossed a lighted object through an open window of the Scandinavian House, a local hotel. It landed on a bed and ignited a fire. Workers quickly put it out. An hour later flames were seen in the stable of the same hotel. They spread to the barn behind the National Hotel. The barn, the National, and another building were total losses.
Arson was evident in the September incidents and suspected in the April and June fires.
The Red Wing Mills fire was also set deliberately. Damages from the fire were assessed at $240,000 and the loss was a huge setback for Red Wing's economy. One hundred workers lost their jobs and the complex was not rebuilt.
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On April 9, 1882, flames coming from an unused Third Street alley shed in Red Wing spread rapidly, wiping out businesses and homes. It would prove to be the first in an eleven-month-long series of fires that caused heavy damage to the city.