While working at Minneapolis's Washburn mills in the late 1870s, William de la Barre became an internationally known hydroelectricity expert and a key player in the development of water power at St. Anthony Falls.
William de la Barre was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 15, 1849, and studied mechanical engineering at Vienna Polytechnic Institute. After his family immigrated to the United States in 1866, he continued his studies at Polytechnic College in Philadelphia. In the 1870s, De la Barre became a US citizen and began his career in gas engineering with Pascal Iron Works and Morris, Tasker and Company. He married Louise Merian, and they had three children, one of whom died in childhood. In 1876, De la Barre was in charge of all gas, water, and sewer piping laid for the Philadelphia Exposition.
The Washburn A Mill explosion on May 2, 1878, put De la Barre on a new path. He came to Minneapolis for the first time about a month later as a representative of Brehmer Brothers Company. Brehmer Brothers had the US license for a new system designed by Gustav Behrns to eliminate flour dust in mills. Cadwallader Colden (C.C.) Washburn was interested in the Behrns devices as a way to prevent future explosions in his mills.
Washburn asked De la Barre to install three of the devices in his B Mill on a trial basis, and De la Barre did so at his own expense. Washburn was so impressed with the Behrns devices that he ordered many more. He also paid De la Barre for his expenses plus a commission and offered him a job with his C.C. Washburn Mill Company. De la Barre accepted the position and moved his family from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.
One of De la Barre's first jobs for Washburn was to rebuild the A Mill, which was operational again by 1880. Later that year, De la Barre traveled to Europe on Washburn's dime to study milling methods there. In Budapest, Hungary, he resorted to industrial espionage to learn the secrets of the "new process," which involved the use of rollers rather than millstones to break down wheat kernels. Some of the new technologies De la Barre observed in Europe were implemented in the Washburn mills with great success.
In 1881, De la Barre was named a director of Minneapolis Mill Company. He assumed responsibility for all of the water power generated at St. Anthony Falls after Minneapolis Mill Company merged with St. Anthony Water Power Company during the creation of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company in 1889.
Even before 1889, De la Barre had begun improvements on the west side of St. Anthony Falls, supervising the creation of a new canal and headraces that greatly increased the power available to nearby mills. In the 1890s, he made improvements on the east side of the falls, updating an existing sluiceway and building a new one to protect the fragile waterfall.
De la Barre's greatest achievement came in 1896 and 1897, when he built the Lower Dam and Lower Dam Hydro Plant below St. Anthony Falls. Charles Alfred Pillsbury, general manager of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company, funded the project. It was dubbed "De la Barre's Folly" for its million-dollar price tag, but the dam added 10,000 horsepower to the existing power available at the falls and the hydro plant was leased immediately by Thomas Lowry's Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which used the plant's power to run its electric streetcar system. Later, De la Barre built another hydro plant on Hennepin Island and it also was leased by the transit company.
De la Barre was well liked and respected by his contemporaries, many of whom attended a dinner in his honor at the Minneapolis Club on January 28, 1924. He joined the leadership group of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company in 1899 and continued to manage all water power at the falls until 1923, when water rights went to what would later become Northern States Power Company.
De la Barre's opinion was sought on many projects relating to St. Anthony Falls, such as new bridges. He consulted on water power projects in Georgia and Montana, and he was asked to help develop hydroelectricity in Japan in 1908 but decided to stay in Minneapolis. He died at his home at 2525 Park Avenue on March 24, 1936, at age eighty-six.
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In 1878, William de la Barre meets Cadwallader Colden (C.C.) Washburn, who would later hire him and set him on a path to influence the development of water power at St. Anthony Falls.