Living Memory History: The Robin Hood Flour Mill Explosion

History is full of landmark events—world, national, local— which bring people together to compare notes:

Did you see it?  Did you hear it? What were you doing?  Were you there?

Those in downtown Davenport experienced their own landmark event around noon on May 23, 1975, when a massive explosion on the riverfront shook the city.

Doors flew open from the percussion and windows shattered, throwing jagged spears of glass to the sidewalks.  People ran outside to find out what had happened—most thought it was an earthquake, some thought it was a bomb.  Others worried that the Rock Island Arsenal was the source of the blast.

Sirens filled the air and a helicopter flew in and stopped near the Mississippi River.  The curious ran in that direction or headed for high vantage points—the upper floors of the Blackhawk Hotel or the Kahl Building—to get a better view of East River Drive.

And what a view there was.

Half of the International Multifoods complex seemed to have lifted up and collapsed onto the other half.  The large profile of Robin Hood on one of the riverside buildings—which had given the place its local nickname, the “Robin Hood Flour Mill”—appeared to have launched itself into the Mississippi.  Pieces of reinforced concrete had been thrown at least a hundred feet in every direction.  A grain barge near the edge of the river had sunk under the debris.

But what could have caused such destruction?

Such a simple thing:  a spark had ignited the dust inside a grain silo—one of the big ones, with a capacity of 1.8 million pounds of wheat —which had exploded with devastating force.

Seven people were trapped on the remaining roofs of the complex and the firefighter’s ladders couldn’t reach two of them—one was in an area that was at risk for a second explosion.  A military helicopter came to assist.   Five ambulances, plus one from Arsenal Island, took the seriously injured away to the disaster stations, where all area doctors had been told to report.  Five employees were in critical condition and were later moved to burn centers.

One body had already been found in the wreckage:  Ferrell Cleeton of Davenport. By the time the Quad-City Times came out that evening, his was the only confirmed death, though three people were still reported missing.  It was thought that one man had been blown into the river.

By May 26, cranes were clearing the rubble and an auger was expected to soon clear the still-smoldering grain from the bottom of the silo.  Only one worker was still unaccounted for:  Leon Robinson of Milan, Illinois—the man who had been seen in a control tower on the levee barely a minute before the blast.  His fellow workers protested the machinery, wanting to hand-search the wreckage in case their friend was still alive.

But time was passing, and the next day, a barge from the U.S. Corps of Engineers carried a crane from LeClaire to help lift debris from the sunken barge.  On May 29, the bucket of the crane pulled Mr. Robinson’s body from where it had been trapped underneath the wreckage.  The Scott County medical examiner reported that he had died before he and his tower had hit the water, though this was scant consolation for his family and friends.

Total damages to the complex were estimated to be three to five million dollars.  Although a new grain elevator would take almost a year to build, flour mill operations resumed the week after the disaster, as that part of the complex had been the least damaged.   The plant was able to keep a large number of its employees occupied with cleaning and salvaging work—over 400,000 bushels of grain needed to be removed from the undamaged silos.  Soon, the only evidence of the disaster was the absence of the familiar logo, which was not replaced.

So, where were you when Robin Hood Flour blew up?

    

Views of International Multifoods several years before the explosion.  The barges were tied to the levy for loading.

____

Sources:

“Explosion at Mill!” Quad-City Times, May 23, 1975, p.1

McGrevey, Michael.  “‘No Dust Peril at Mill.’”  Quad-City Times, May 27, 1975, p.1.

McGrevey, Michael.  “Part of Workforce Back on Job at Mill.”  Quad-City Times, May 30, 1975, p.17.

McGrevey, Michael.  “Relatives Keep Riverside Vigil.”  Quad-City Times, May 29,1975, p.1.

Vogel, David M.  “Cranes Clear Wreckage at Mill.”  Quad-City Times, May 26, 1975, p.1.

Wundram, Bill.  “‘Thought it was an Earthquake.’”  Quad-City Times, May 23, 1975, p. 14.

(Posted by Sarah)

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15 Responses to Living Memory History: The Robin Hood Flour Mill Explosion

  1. Amy D. says:

    I remember being taken to see the buildings after the explosion. Probably one of my earliest memories. My dad, by chance, saw it happen while standing in an Arsenal parking lot after a lunch meeting.

  2. Kay says:

    I was working in downtown Davenport and the building shook. My sister worked for another grain company in the area, but knew some of the people who were injured and died.

  3. Nancy says:

    I was working for Mast-Keystone in East Village. I was sitting on table in front of a window when the table and window shook.

  4. Bob Shear says:

    I was playing “foosball” in a bar & grill across the street from the mill when it exploded. We heard a boom and then the sound of concrete raining outside in the parking lot. A lot of damage to parked cars in the adjacent Eagle Signal lot. It was definitely one of those experiences you never forget.

  5. Alan Booker says:

    Not only my first visit to Davenport but, my first day in the USA. On hearing the explosion, the hotel staff told me it was a firing exercise at the arsenal. “Cool”, I thought, grabbed an Arsenal tour brochure and set off.
    As I passed the smoking ruin of the mill, I realised that this appeared to be a real disaster and my interest in the arsenal suddenly evaporated. I had been hoping to see big guns beeing tested but suddenly, I was faced with the reality that people must have died in that tragic blast. A very sobering introduction to a country I have come to adore.
    OK. It’s not so much the country as the fabulous QC friendships that have endured since that time.
    I live in a nice English market town but, given the choice, erm, well I don’t have a green card so I don’t actually have that choice, so I guess I have to stay over here.

  6. Jo says:

    I was home from school for lunch (in Bettendorf). We were used to the arsenal testing howitzers. Our house had so many cracks in the plaster that we gave up patching them. This explosion was different in a couple of ways.

    First, it was louder and much more intense that the guns, even though they were closer to us. Second, when we found out what had blown up, my whole family breathed a HUGE sigh of relief. It hadn’t been that long before that my dad was working on the roof of the bins, sealing them again the elements. We knew there was a risk to his working so high up, but we weren’t aware that he could have been blown to kingdom come at any moment. As Mom used to say, thank goodness for small favors!

  7. Wendy says:

    I was gazing out the window of my biology class at Central High School, towards the plant when the explosion occured. I saw a huge flash of light immeadiatly followed by a billowing cloud of black smoke. I heard constant sirens and helicopters after that. I heard when I got home from school that it was the Robin Hood flour plant.

  8. Jon k says:

    I was eating lunch at my desk at Eagle Signal, across the street from the mill. The blast actually made our building jump! Like everyone else, my first thought was the arsenal, but we quickly saw it was the mill.

    Several of us headed to the mill to see what was going on. A crowd began to gather. I remember a fire captain arriving at the scene and taking charge pretty quickly. He yelled at the cops to set up road blocks on River Drive, and then yelling at a couple of us to “get these people out of here! It could explode again!”. That got our attention and we did what we were told, urging folks away from the site. The firemen stayed to do their jobs, of course, which gave me for the first time a realization of dangerous their job could be.

  9. jeff gruber says:

    I have film of the damaged mill right after it happend

  10. Ross says:

    I am the grandson of the helicopter pilot during this incident. He is still doing well. If there is any video footage it would be great to get an email of it. Thanks.

    • SCblogger says:

      We’re glad to hear of your grandfather’s health!

      Unfortunately, if there is video footage from this disaster, it isn’t in our library collections. But the Putnam Museum might be able to assist you.

  11. Debbie Smith says:

    I was camping at Lake Memphramagog near the Vermont/Canada border. Dad received word that he needed to call his sister in Southern Illinois…..Leon was his brother. Of course we packed up and went home (living in VT at the time), packed for our trip and set out for Illinois. We were almost to IL when we got word that Leon had been found. Dad and their sisters have since passed, I live in Southern Illinois now and visited their graves yesterday, at County Line Cemetery.

  12. Bryan Robinson says:

    R.I.P. To my great Uncle Leon Robinson.

  13. M Lorraine Dunn says:

    A day that will live in my life forever. I lost my stepfather from this accident and it left a lasting scar on my family from that day on. RIP Richard C. Smock and all those that lost their lives. God bless those that survived and their families.

  14. Janet Howard says:

    My husband was attending Palmer College. We lived at 1124 Spring Street in Davenport at that time, not very far away at all, just up the hill. I was laying on the couch when the explosion happened. I fell off the couch! I too thought it was an earth quake. God bless everyone that was lost or hurt that day. I’ll never forget it.

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