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The Alton Flour Mill Part 2

By Ann Davidson, Genealogy & Local History Volunteer

Mill Glenn Moore

Photo by Glenn Moore, 1950s

The Morning After

According to mill manager James Mulroy, the cause of the fire was a dust explosion that occurs when the air becomes saturated with tiny particles that combust easily with a spark. Damages were estimated at $1,500,000 ($19,500,000 in 2016 dollars). The Stanard-Tilton unit was owned by Russell Miller Milling Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. James Mulroy was the son of M. F. Mulroy, executive vice-president at Russell Miller Co. Insurance covered the damages.

A week after the fire, the St. Louis fire department sent a bill to Alton for $2,706.06 (about $35,000 in 2016 dollars) to pay for wages, gasoline, and equipment damaged in the flames.5 Some in the city balked at paying the bill. Mayor Harold Wadlow, father of Alton’s 8' 11" citizen Robert Wadlow, suggested the downtown businesses foot the bill, since they could have been so badly affected by the fire. Curiously, there is no mention of Russell Miller picking up the tab. A Telegraph editorial suggested the city pay the bill with sincere thanks for the help. The city of Alton did pay the bill. Interestingly, just before the fire, a citizen’s purchasing committee had been working to acquire an aerial ladder. The aerial ladder truck arrived shortly after the fire.6

Check Mate

Although some parts of the mill survived the fire, Russell Miller estimated costs of rebuilding to reach $2,000,000 ($26,000,000 in 2016 dollars).7 Executives debated whether or not to rebuild on the site.8 Within a month, Russell Miller decided they would rebuild in Alton if they could expand into a much larger facility.9

At the time of the fire, State Street ran south one more block all the way to the river, affording a beautiful view of the water. A number of businesses, including Lyons Fish Market and Hornsey Moving and Storage Company, operated on that block or the bank of the river. The Russell Miller Co. wanted that block to expand their new facility. The city had to decide whether or not to sell the last block of State Street with its river view to Russell Miller Milling Co.

On April 17, just a month after the fire, the city council called a special meeting of the city council to read proposed Ordinance 2188.10 Ordinance 2188 would sell State Street south of Broadway to the river to Russell Miller for $2,500 ($32,500 in 2016 dollars). Alton law required an ordinance to be read twice before a vote to allow for thoughtful consideration and discussion. There was no discussion on the ordinance that night, and it was tabled until the regular city council meeting the following week on April 24.

Mill 4

Photo – Alton Evening Telegraph, April 25, 1946, p. 2

Some 110 people showed up for the meeting.11 Mayor Wadlow presided at the meeting. At the beginning of the discussion, six letters were read, one in favor, one neutral, and four opposed.

W. O. Hayes of the Alton Building and Construction Trades Council supported the proposal. The Alton Water Company did not object to it. Letters in opposition were read from one anonymous writer, Wyman Lyons, “vigorously opposing” it, from Mrs. Bertha Lyons (related to Lyons Fish Market) offering to buy State Street from Broadway to the river, and from Mrs. Sophia Ryrie (George M. Ryrie Wholesale Grocery Co., located near the Russell Miller site) through her son Mr. John Ryrie.

Seven speakers addressed the council, five in favor and two requesting a delay of the vote to a later date.12 Those in favor of the ordinance included J. F. Schlafly (lawyer for the Russell Miller Co.), Harold Olsby (general agent for Russell Miller Co.), Edward E. Powers (mill employee who would succeed James Mulroy as mill manager in 1954), Joseph Elfgen, and Thomas Butler (representative for the Manufacturers Association).

Mrs. Lyons requested a lay-over of the vote, since the ordinance would block access to Lyons Fish Market. Scott Spencer, representing the Downtown Business Men’s Association, asked that the matter be tabled for two weeks, since the association had not had sufficient time to study the proposal and thus were not in a position to endorse or oppose the ordinance. Alderman Leland Kennedy, ordinance committee, then asked him, “Would the association be willing to be responsible for the mill to move from Alton?” Mr. Spencer replied that he was not able to answer that question at the time. The council rejected the requests for delay.

Representing the Russell Miller Co., J. F. Schlafly stated that the expansion required the block of State Street. This would lead to the doubling of the current 250 employees and payroll. He said that the deal could not be deferred. It was not possible to put a tunnel or aisle from Broadway to the river. He also stated the Russell Miller Co. did not think the site was ideal because of river flooding and the fact that the mill could not land barges at the site due to a law prohibiting such landing within 1,200 feet upstream from the dam. And Russell Miller had received offers of free sites from Galesburg, Peoria, and St. Louis.

Next, Schlafly elaborated on the benefits to the city. The mill would once again employ 250 workers with a weekly payroll of $25,000 ($325,000 in 2016 dollars) with the goal of one day employing “500 or 600 or 700.” The mill paid $300,000 (nearly $4,000,000 in 2016 dollars) to farmers in the area for grain. Then he read a letter from the U.S. Employment Office to mill manager Mulroy stating that there were 3,000 unemployed workers in the area, one-third of them war veterans.

Finally, the Telegraph reported, “Directors of the company, Schlafly said, were in session in Minneapolis, awaiting the council’s decision, and during the afternoon had authorized him to present its offer of a $10,000 fee to the city for the vacation [i.e., sale of the property] contingent on the ordinance’s being immediately enacted. From his pocket, he [Schlafly] then took a check for $7,500 [in addition to the $2,500 already proffered] . . . ready to tender it if the ordinance were accepted.”

It was all or nothing, now or never.

The council took a 10-minute recess. Upon their return, Alderman Kennedy moved that the ordinance be amended to increase the payment from $2,500 to $10,000 ($130,000 in 2016 dollars), the price of a new fire truck. The motion was passed. A vote was then taken on the revised ordinance. Voting unanimously 13‒0, Aldermen Bowers, Wetstein, Watson, Dooley, Morrison, Meyers, Roberts, Dietz, Holmes, Schaefer, Watsker, Lammers, and Kennedy sold State Street south of Broadway to the Russell Miller Company. The next morning Mayor Wadlow signed the ordinance.

Mill 6

Photo – Alton Evening Telegraph, April 25, 1946, p. 2

Just 40 days after the embers cooled, Alton sold the last block of State Street to Russell Miller. And that is how the citizens of Alton surrendered their State Street view of the mighty Mississippi.

 

6. “Aerial Ladder Truck Makes Trial Fire Run,” Alton Evening Telegraph, April 6, 1946, p. 1.

7. “Mill to Spend 2 Million for Rebuilding,” Alton Evening Telegraph, May 1, 1946, p. 1.

8. “Milling Firm Undecided on Building Plans,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 23, 1946, p. 1.

9. “Says Firm Wants to Rebuild Mill Here,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 25, 1946, p. 1.

10. “Council Hears Ordinance for Vacating Block,” Alton Evening Telegraph, April 18, 1946, p. 1.

11. “City Vacates Mill Site on State for $10,000,” Alton Evening Telegraph, April 25, 1946, pp. 1‒2.

12. “Proceedings of the City Council of The City of Alton, Illinois. Official Report,” Alton Evening Telegraph, April 20, 1946, p. 10.

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