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?

International Multifoods several years before the explosion.
DPL Volume 279. 89-002057. International Multifoods during the 1965 flood.
The Quad-City Times, May 24, 1975. Pg. 25. After the explosion.



“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)

This entry was posted in Local History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 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.

    • Ray DeAnda says:

      I had worked their in the summer of 1973 and knew some of the guys who worked their. I believe a young man named Ray Hanks could have been their. Anyone know if he survived?

  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.

    • John says:

      My father was at a bar across the street from the mill when the explosion occurred, likely the same one I remember his telling the story on a couple of occasions and how the police and fire responded pretty quickly.

      A small world.

  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.

  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.

    • Ray DeAnda says:

      Does anyone know all the names of those who died in this accident? I worked with Leon the summer of 1973 as a summer job cleaning out the grain tunnels. What an atrocious job. Smelled worse than hog mud. Eventually moved to work as a grain unloader from the barges. I was firm on returning to college and so the Lord spared my life.

      • SCblogger says:

        Ferrell Cleeton, Leon Richardson, Richard Smock, and Fred Ryherd passed away from the explosion. We found a Larry Hank who worked there in 1973, but by 1975 he was working at a car dealership. We did not come across the name Ray Hanks. We agree that grain elevator work is very difficult and dangerous even today.

  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.

  15. Kathy Brumley Morris says:

    I remember that day well. My Dad used to work for Eagle Signal back when this happened, right across the street from the blast. That was a very scary day, waiting for my Dad to come home from work. I was only 10 years old then, but I’ll never forget that day.

  16. Tony Scott says:

    I was in Mr. Larry Jacobsen’s seventh grade math class at Sudlow Junior High on East Locust Street when the grain elevator exploded. We were in a lower level classroom facing Locust Street. The force of the explosion was absolutely enormous and everyone in the class slumped forward in unison. Almost immediately the various emergency vehicle sirens started and seemed nonstop. Our school principal and associate principal (Mr. Spencer and Mr. Grady) ran past our class room with looks of sheer terror on their faces. We all thought perhaps the boiler room blew up. However, there was no smoke or fire. About fifteen minutes later (while sirens were still wailing) Mr. Spencer got on the school intercom system and explained to us that Robin Hood Flour Mill had blown up. Forty years later next month, this is still a vivid memory to me and so many others.

  17. Pat says:

    I was a maintenance man for the grainrey.

    I participated in getting Fred Ryherd along with the NG helicopter and a a Dvenportfire department LT off the mill top.

    The chopper pilot and crew chief were 2 men I will respect for the rest of my life.

  18. Don P. says:

    I was stationed at Rock Island Arsenal, in the Installations and Services Directorate which was part of the then U.S. Army Armament Command HQ (USARMCOM) on base. I was a 2nd Lieutenant, living in Davenport and driving across the bridge to the arsenal each work day. I was 25. I was in the Mess Hall/cafeteria on the arsenal when I found out the silo had exploded. I never heard or fell it myself.

    My condolences go out to all those impacted by this tragedy. I was watching a 48 hours special tonight on NBC about a girl from the quad cities area who was murdered. I then remembered the flour mill explosion and typed in a search for it.

  19. Jan Williams Rittmer says:

    I actually saw this explosion. I was sitting on the Davenport Sea Wall talking to my then husband, Captain Donn Williams of Williams Marine, and looking directly at the mill when it blew. I will never forget the automobile-sized pieces of concrete that spewed three fourths of the way across the river, and the shower of smaller ones. The delay between what I saw and and the sound of the concussion adds to the the surrealism of my memory. We did not know what help our towboat, I believe it was the JayHawk, could be with rescue, but Donn immediately went to the scene in case people were in the water. We knew men who worked there, especially on the dock and those we talked to by phone, and we worried for every one’s safety. Along with the rest of the community, we grieved for the lost man. All these years I have believed my vantage point for this disaster to be unique, but the memory is one I would gladly have done without.

  20. Rick Greenlee says:

    Jeff Mills and I were in a warehouse about a mile west on 3rd street, building the set for the Miss Iowa Pageant. We heard the explosion, went outside and drove down to the site. Such devastation.

  21. Diane Hilborn says:

    I was having lunch at my desk at Eagle Signal and our office windows faced the mill. We heard a loud explosion and our windows rattled like they would burst. Of course, we did just the opposite of what we should have done and ran to the windows to see what had happened. Some started to open the windows but the chunks of concrete began peppering our building and the cars in the parking lot. We soon realized what had happened and I called 911. My car was in the lot and did have some dents and had to be repainted but many were demolished by huge chunks of concrete. We were afraid of another explosion but were told by the police and fire departments that we were not allowed to leave the building until late afternoon. Of course, we didn’t get a lot of work done but tried to keep track of the activity going on through newscasts, watching the helicopters in rescue mode, etc. We felt as though it was fortunate that the explosion happened during the lunch break or there would have been more loss of life. It was a sad afternoon!

  22. tammy harland says:

    We were little kids, my brother and I, and were on our way home from shopping at the commisary (sp) on the arsenal with my mom (she was driving) we were crossing the arsenal bridge when it blew. We got excited, and loud and my mom didn’t panic (she too was army) but she did settle us down quick and made our way off the bridge. By the time the dust settled we were heading west on 2nd st. We parked for a while. I think my mom was trying to figure out what to do. She didn’t know what happened yet.

  23. Dale Frels says:

    I was an employee of Eagle Signal across the street from the mill. I had an assigned parking space facing the sidewalk along River Drive. Not very often would I be glad to be home with the flu but on the day of the explosion I was trying to shake a really rough case of it. My supervisor had been off site that morning and when he returned, someone had taken his parking space. He knew I was not there so he parked in my space. After a major rain of concrete chunks, his car was seriously damaged on the hood, roof, trunk, fenders, and broken windows. Maybe I was just lucky.

  24. Steve Darell says:

    I was a junior at St. Ambrose College that year and I was applying at an accounting firm’s offices on the 9th floor of the Davenport Bank & Trust building when the explosion happened. The building shook and we all went to the east side of the floor to see what had happened. I’ll never forget it.

  25. Beverly says:

    I worked at Eagle Signal. It was lunch time, we always went to eat across the street from the mill on payday. I was standing in line, at Al lounge to cash my check. When the windows blew out. If they had blew in, we probably would have really hurt or died. It was horrible, chucks of cement was everywhere. I will never forget it.

  26. Ted Lardner says:

    I was a sophomore in high school. It was late in the school year, and we had art class. The teacher let us go outside to draw. With two classmates I sat on the ground and we began drawing. It was sunny. It was nice out. It was kind of a quiet spring day. All of a sudden we heard and, almost like we could feel it, a tremendous “boom!” The sound was so big, and deep, it felt huge, like a big movie explosion in a small theater, deeper and more powerful than the pop! of artillery test firing on Arsenal Island. The three of us looked at each other. What was that? we wondered. We scanned around the vicinity but everything looked the same; we couldn’t see smoke from a house or anything unusual. It was only later, after we left school that day, that we found out what had happened. The school we went to was Rock Island High School.

  27. Ginger E Carlson says:

    I remember the explosion too. I was eight years old. We were staying with my grandmother on E 11th Street. What I remember the most is all of the windows shook. I was pretty scared, since were on top of the hill from Wonder Bakery.

  28. Anthony J. Pecoraro says:

    That day of the explosion I was working at Hubill Inc., now Hubill Power Systems Inc., an industrial battery sales and service company located at 1025 W. 2nd St. in downtown Davenport, located next door to Davenport’s 2nd St. Post office. I was in the repair shop when all of a sudden a large BOOM was heard at our shop and the windows in the front office shook! Then someone had called the police department to find out what happened and we were told about the Robin Hood Flour Silos exploding! That night on the news it was all explained in detail of what had happened!

  29. Bob D Dunkin says:

    I was a member of the Scott County Civil Defense in 1975 when I received a call to report to the scene. After I arrived I was briefed by the Squad Commander (Jo Doolittle I believe) and appraised of the situation. I was paired up with another team member. Can’t remember his name. Our task was to make sure reporters and on-lookers were kept off the property. There were still un-accounted for employees and the scene was to be kept free of curiosity seekers. On the first night we were doing a perimeter walk when we heard a voice at the top of the mill call out for help on the Top East Side where the Robin Hoot Hat used to be. We immediately went to the HQ Van at the scene and told Jo there was someone yelling inside the mill that needed help. He got on the radio and called it in for a chopper and crew to respond. We then went back to the east side where a defunct parking lot sat with poles on each corner and enlisted the help of everyone at the scene by shining flash lights on the poles for the Chopper to land without incident to pick up a maintenance person familiar with the building. They went up to the top of the mill and climbed through the wreckage and finally brought out a gurney with a person on it (later to be identified as Fred) after what seemed like hours (actually more like 15-20 minutes). Soon there was an ambulance waiting near the parking lot the chopper had just lifted off from by the time it landed a second time the ambulance was ready to get their patient rushed to a hospital. This was to be the one and only time I would work a recovery because soon after I move to Missouri for a couple years.
    My Mother and Father were on their 25th anniversary in Florida, had just checked in at their hotel and turned on the Television in their room, only to see me walking across the Robin Hood Mill lot because it made national news.

  30. Margaret McAndrews says:

    Our 7th grade class (St Paul the Apostle) was having a picnic day. We were all on the front porch of our classmate, Mike Miller. We heard it, but didn’t learn until later that the tragedy happened.

  31. I was in elementary school, my dad worked there he was one of the survivors. William George kratzer. He was burned and never able to work again. He died in 1979, he was never the same. He died at age forty seven on our living room floor, I was fifteen. He is survived by my siblings and many grandkids, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, Rest In Peace dad!

  32. Catherine Wayson says:

    I was at Al’s Lounge eating a wineburger and drinking beer with my coworkers. We were sitting right at the window across from the Robin Hood Plant. There was a huge pressure change, a rumbling sound, and the suspended ceiling rippled and the curtains on each side of the plate glass window blew up and inward. The window didn’t break and neither did any other windows in Al’s. We all just sat there and since the stack that was directly across the street hadn’t exploded we couldn’t see what had happened and had no idea what was going on. It was a long time before the place was enveloped in a cloud of white (flour) and big chunks of metal started falling from the sky. We still didn’t move from the window until a cop came in and told us to move back as the mill could blow again. That was the first we knew of what really happened. We moved to the back and continued eating and drinking still not fully understand what had happened until we crossed the Government Bridge to go back to work and saw what was left of the mill. We had dodged a bullet big time. We felt bad when we heard about the deaths on the news but so grateful that we weren’t listed with them. What a day. I’ll never forget it.

  33. Doug Gray says:

    I was a first year deckhand on the M/V White Knight for Agri-Trans Corp. I was in the lock house at Lock #15 Rock Island waiting to catch my boat. I was sitting on a bench in the lock house when a lock man walked by and shouted Oh my God look at that. I jumped up in time to see a giant red ball on the side of one of the grain silo’s. That is when all heck broke loose and the silo exploded. The scene afterwards was one I will never forget. I was 21 years old at the time and it still bothers me. I have always worked on the river. I worked on line haul boats until 1985 when I started in a harbor in Owensboro, KY. Owensboro Grain is one of our biggest customers and I used to worry quite a bit about something like that happening. Thank God it never has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *