WINONA Minn. – On July 28, 1911, just after the night shift had just signed on at the Bay State Milling plant, foreman J.K. Howie spotted smoke from an engine room. Several men rushed to smother the fire with sand. Too late. Flour dust exploded with a deafening roar. The whole six-story mill soon was an inferno. Incredibly no one died. It was Winona’s worst fire since a paid fire department had been established in 1889. Fifteen-thousand barrels of flour and 400,000 bushels of grain were burned. The loss was pegged at $600,000 — $20 million in today’s currency.
Fire-fighting all night
Firefighters rushed horse-drawn steam engines to pump water onto the fire. When city wells were nearly drained and lost pressure, a direct connection was opened to the nearby Mississippi River. On the mill’s railroad spur, a switch engine pulled several loaded boxcars away and came back for more, but 12 other boxcars, all aflame, blocked the track. The fire burned through the night, until about 4 a.m. Firefighters continued four streams on the ruins another 24 hours. Meanwhile, La Crosse had sent a hose company 30 miles upriver to respond to other calls. There was an irony in that a new sprinkling system was being installed in an adjoining Bay State warehouse at the time, but the fire was too intense to do any good and the system too was consumed in the fire.
A crowd spectacle
The fire was a spectacle from the moment a huge plume of smoke rose in the evening sun. Like a drawn by a magnet, people thronged to the mill site, perhaps a thousand of them. For sure they kept a distance. The chatter included recollections of two former grain mill fires – at the Winona Milling Company and the L.C. Porter Milling Company. Everyone was mindful too of the 1878 Washburn Mill tragedy at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis that claimed 18 lives.
Earlier: Fire crews intercept explosive dust at Bay State