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The Alton Flour Mill Part 3

By Ann Davidson, Genealogy & Local History Volunteer

Mill 7

Flour Power
Construction of the new mill began with a reopening target set for March 1948, two years after the fire. J. J. Wuellner and Son were the contractors. Safety improvements were part of the plan.

Milling is one of the oldest industries in Alton, beginning on the downtown site in 1857. Under previous owners, the mill had had major fires in 1901 and 1913.13 The new mill would be constructed of fireproof concrete and steel. (In the first half of the 20th century, the mill was averaging a catastrophic fire about every 15 years, at a similar rate of serious Mississippi floods.)

The Telegraph noted that the mill had been coughing “huge quantities of heavy black smoke” on Alton day and night for eight decades.14 Summit Street citizens and downtown businessmen were relieved to learn that the new mill would be run by electrical power, greatly reducing the amount of emissions.

In May 1946 Russell Miller Co. revealed they wanted to build a 125-foot “modern American” nine-story mill instead of the European five-story variety.15 The five-story mill that had burned down already dwarfed the mostly two- and three-story buildings around it. The tallest building downtown had been the 100-foot First National Bank building.

By the time the mill was completed, the height of the new mill grew to 150 feet on a 140 x 100-foot base. In order to get a building permit to proceed with the 150-foot building as planned, they needed a variance on a zoning ordinance that required a setback on a building over five stories. In January 1947, the city council reviewed the request and voted unanimously to grant it with only a single reading (instead of the usual two readings, which gave people time to consider the proposal more closely).16

The mill went into partial production in November 1947 with 150 workers.17 Full production began in February 1948 with “approximately 250” workers, just shy of two years since the inferno.18

And that’s the story of how Russell Miller Milling Co. constructed a 150-foot mill on Alton’s riverfront in front of its main business district and some of its most desirable addresses.

The only mention of a realization of the great aesthetic loss to the city was in a caption for a Telegraph staff photograph (shown below) of State Street from across Broadway to the river.19 It reads,

SIGN TELLS STORY – This section of State Street, one of two West End approaches to the Mississippi, now is the property of Russell Miller Milling Company, as the sign plainly tells. What once was a street will be part of the site for the new mill to be erected by the Miller firm, to replace the one wrecked by fire. Take a long look at Ol’ Man River from this point, because the time is not far distant when the majestic water will be blotted from view—and progress dressed in the raiment of a flour mill will supersede sentiment and—for those who love the river—beauty.

Mill 8

2016 Update

Seventy years have passed since the 1946 fire. The mill has added to the economy of the area. Annual property tax paid in 2014 to the city of Alton was $136,424. Alton’s current budget is $30,000,000. Did the mill ever employ 500 or 600 or 700 workers as forecast by the mill in 1946? In 1948 the mill employed 250 workers. In 1980 more than 400 workers were on the payroll. In 2016 the work force is 90 people, a 64 percent decrease from the 1948 level.

For safety, the mill has a ventilation system to expel dust from the building to try to prevent dust explosions. It has a stand pipe system entailing a 4-inch water pipe that runs to the top of the mill so firefighters can get water throughout the building. The Alton Fire Department possesses a 100-foot ladder truck. Fires still occur from time to time, but none have been catastrophic since the 1946 fire.

Alton is fortunate in its abundance of natural beauty. Although the mill blocks the downtown entertainment district view of the river, we are lucky to have the Great River Road providing easy access to the stunning scenery of the river and bluffs.

One wonders how Alton will look in 2086, seven decades from now. Hopefully we can learn from our past how to proceed in the future in a way that provides the best quality of life for all our citizens, taking time to carefully weigh natural and historic preservation with economic development.

Sources

13. “Fire Was Third of Costly Nature at Same Location,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 16, 1946, p. 1.

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

15. “Russell Miller Building to Be Alton’s Tallest,” Alton Evening Telegraph, June 13, 1946, p. 1.

16. “Council Votes Zone Variation for Mill Plans,” Alton Evening Telegraph, January 23, 1947, p. 1‒2.

17. “Production at New Mill Will Begin Monday,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 19, 1947, p. 1.

18. “Flour-Making in New Mill at Full Capacity,” Alton Evening Telegraph, February 9, 1948, p. 1.

19. “Signs Tell Story,” Alton Evening Telegraph, July 20, 1946, p. 5.

And to calculate inflation: http://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/