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The Alton Flour Mill Part 1

By Ann Davidson, Genealogy & Local History Volunteer

Mill 1


Alton’s Inferno
At 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, 1946, the first of a series of explosions blew the roof off the Stanard-Tilton flour mill in downtown Alton, Illinois. Working on the top floor about 20 feet from the explosion, James Brown was thrown 8 to 10 feet onto his back.1 The building burst into flames, and the fire raged through the five-story brick structure and spread to other parts of the mill. An hour after the first blast, the top three stories of the north wall collapsed onto Broadway, narrowly missing eight firemen below. An avalanche of bricks destroyed the pavement, lowering the street by 1½ feet in places. Most of the east wall fell inward five minutes later. Miraculously, all of the dozen mill employees working in the building escaped without serious injury.

The first responders came from the downtown fire station 1 at 306 State Street, joined by nine other crews, including St. Louis units with an aerial ladder. Volunteers flooded downtown to help fight the fire and serve coffee and sandwiches to the men. Five Alton firemen, including Captain John Hesse, Engineer Jerry Brown, Pipeman Walter Boschert, Captain Charles Gillespie and Driver Pat Collins, collapsed from smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion and were taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital (today St. Clare’s) for treatment.2 Firefighters used more than 3,300,000 gallons of water to extinguish the flames as residents flocked downtown to witness the inferno.3 The explosions and brilliant glow were heard and seen from North Alton.

Mill 2

A brisk wind carried sparks and 6-inch wooden embers onto downtown businesses as well as homes on Summit and Prospect Streets.4 A rain of embers ignited the roof of the Lincoln Hotel, 206 State Street, gutting all five rooms on the top floor. All guests escaped safely. The Mill Café across from the mill building and the apartment above it had some damage, but no other businesses were seriously affected. The house at 418 Prospect was ignited by a spark, but the owner put out the flame. Other homeowners manned garden hoses and held their breath that they would ride out the firestorm safely.
At last the flames were extinguished. Downtown Alton had mostly dodged a bullet.

Mill 3

1. “Loss in Mill Fire Near $1,500,000,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 16, 1946, p. 1.
2. “Firemen Collapse Within a Few Minutes at No. 1 House,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 16, pp. 1, 2.
3. “3,315,000 Gallons of Water Poured on Blaze at Flour Mill,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 19, 1946, p. 1.
4. “Sparks Blown to Roofs on Summit, Prospect Streets,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 16, 1946, p. 1.

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