The Planet Mill Explosion ~ Litchfield Illinois

Updated: Nov 27, 2021

The Planet Mill - Morning After
The Planet Mill - Morning After

The Planet Mill, said to be the biggest Steam flour mill in the world, blew up and shattered windows for miles around on March 21, 1893. This picture was taken the next day. The mill was located North of Columbia street between the Illinois Central and Norfolk and Western tracks. Part of the foundation is still visible there. The mill produced 2,000 barrels of flour a day. The explosion is said to have been audible for many miles.

February 1892 Map of Litchfield Illinois showing the location of the Planet Mill.
February 1892 Map of Litchfield Illinois showing the location of the Planet Mill.
Artists rendering showing the mill. Image from: Litchfield Centennial Book,.
Artists rendering showing the mill. Image from: Litchfield Centennial Book,.

Blown To Atoms By Explosion!

The citizens of Hillsboro were aroused last Tuesday morning at 3:30 by what they supposed was an earthquake. Some of them who in their alarm ran out of their houses saw in the direction of Litchfield, flames of fire that lit up the western horizon. By daylight our people were on the streets anxiously awaiting the opening of the Telegraph office to learn the cause, as they knew that a terrible explosion had occurred somewhere. It was soon learned that the famous Planet Mills, at Litchfield, had been blown up and entirely destroyed. A large Number of our citizens boarded the 7:38 train for the scene of the disaster. At Litchfield they found a condition of things that beggars description. The entire inhabitants of the city and thousands from the surrounding county and towns were gathered at the scene and were gazing at the smoking ruins of what was a few hours before the largest steam flouring mill in the West and the largest winter wheat mill in the world. Nothing was left standing but the smokestack and piled around it all of that was left of Litchfield’s greatest enterprise. The houses and buildings in the vicinity where some of them almost entirely demolished. Roofs were crushed in, walls were torn away from the floors, chimneys were blown away, and the window lights and sashes had disappeared. Up in town the destruction was as if an earthquake had visited the place. The immense plate glass fronts on State Street were blowing to atoms, the streets and sidewalks were covered with broken glass, large front doors were blown off their hinges and consternation and desolation seemed for a time to reign supreme. Many of the property owners were anxiously examining their brick walls, for it did not seem possible that so terrific a concussion could occur and not wreck or crack them. The Litchfield Car shops found it impossible to run their machinery as the explosion had thrown their shafts and wheels out of plumb and business generally was at a standstill. The miracle about the unfortunate affair was that but one man was killed. Several were injured but only John cawl, the head millwright lost his life so as far as is known at the present writing.

The Cause

The Planet Mill had been running at night and the premises were being patrolled by night watchman, one of whom first discovered that the mill was on fire in the bran room of the flourmill. The flames were then under such headway that it was impossible to check them. In less time than it takes to write this they had communicated to the “dust room,” and then came the awful explosion. Great balls of fire ranging from the size of a small keg to a hog’s head shot up into the air hundreds of feet and fell back in a shower of sparks. The walls of the great building toppled for an instant and then fell crumbling the bricks almost into powder. Those who saw the explosion say it was the most magnificent exhibition of fireworks they had ever saw. The flames were quickly communicated to the immense elevator standing alongside and it was soon wrapped in flames. It is said to have contained some 250,000 bushels of wheat. The fire company worked hard to save the elevator, but their efforts were unavailing.

The Loss

The mill belonged to the Keblor brothers of Saint Louis and was built by D.L. Wing in 1881. It is said to have cost $400,000.00. Wing failed and it was bought by the Kehler for $185,000.00. Since that time great improvements have been added to it, among which were the warehouses and elevators. More than 200 men were employed to run it. It was well located and prosperous. It had a capacity of 2,000 barrels a day. Some 10 or 12 cars of wheat standing on the track were also burned. The total loss to Mr. Kehler will be in the neighborhood of $500,000.00, but this is covered partly by insurance in some 300 different companies. Just how much the insurance amounts to we are unable to learn, but it is considerable. The damage done to the private property cannot be estimated. Nearly everyone in Litchfield has suffered more for less loss.

The Injured

The only man killed, as stated above was John Cawl, head millwright who attempted to get his tools out of the burning building but was caught by the explosion and burned to a crisp. His body was recovered about 8 o’clock. He has family in Waterloo Illinois. Mrs. E. Kichelroth, Thomas Danaver, Mrs. Henry Stiegel, Mrs. Levi Hussey, D.B. Greenwald and Andrew Duncan suffered injuries, some slight and some quite serious.

The mysterious part of the affair is the force of the explosion. Millmen say that such an explosion from the “dust room” was impossible. It was heard and aroused the people at Decatur, Ramsey, Pana, an other places within a radius of 75 to 100 miles, where it was at first supposed to be an earthquake. This makes six mills Mr. Keblor has lost by fire, one at Venice Illinois; one at Waterloo Illinois; one at Edwardsville Illinois; two at Saint Louis and the Planet Mills.

Source: The Montgomery News March 24, 1893


Explosion of Mill Dust

The Shock Felt Twenty-five Miles Distant

The Planet Mill, said to be the biggest Steam flour mill in the world
The Planet Mill, said to be the biggest Steam flour mill in the world

The Great Planet Flouring Mill At Litchfield, IL., With Its Elevators, Destroyed-One Burned To Death and Several Injured-Loss Over A Million.

Litchfield, Ill., March 21.-An explosion, with the power of an earthquake, which destroyed a million dollars' worth of property, occurred here this morning. The loss of one life and the injury of a number of people resulted from the catastrophe.

Killed: John Carve

Injured: Mrs. E. R. Richelroth Sr. Mrs. P. Lynch John Donohue Joseph Nuther John Kaveney Thomas Donohue Mrs. Henry Steigle Mrs. Levi Hussey D. P. Greenwald Andrew Duncan Mrs. H. V. Hoffman

Several business structures were wrecked and scores of dwellings were rendered uninhabitable. Panic reigned for a few hours.

At 3:15 a.m. an alarm of fire was turned in. The Planet Flouring Mill, situated in the southwest part of the city, and said to be one of the largest, single flour making establishment in the world, was in flames.

The fire was discovered by the night watchman in the bran room. He ran to a hydrant, but the water pipes did not work properly, and in an instant the flames spread to adjoining rooms. In less than two minutes the flames reached the flour rolling room, and an explosion of flour dust followed. The night watchman was hurled through a window and was badly injured.

The immense building tottered for a second, and fell in a heap of blazing timbers. The flames leaped across a small passageway and ignited two large grain elevators. In these were stored 20,000 barrels of flour and 200,000 bushels of wheat.

The head millwright, John Carve, in an effort to secure his tools from the burning building, was pinned against a smokestack and burned to death.

The firemen were driven back by the intense heat, and in less than half an hour the elevators and their contents were a total loss. Several small buildings adjacent to the elevators were burned.

The shock of the explosion was heard twenty-five miles away, and window glass was broken and chimneys blown down many miles distant. All the plate glass in the stores on Main and State Streets was blown out. About forty small dwellings were wrecked and many others slightly damaged.

The mill was the property of Kehlor Brothers of St. Louis. The capacity was 2,000 barrels of flour daily. It employed 150 men.

General Manager Smith say that the insurance carried on the mill, elevator and contents was about $350,000, while the loss will be almost $1,000,000.

Among the outside losses are: A. Neuber, grocery, saloon, and residence completely wrecked, $3,000; the V. Hoffman estate, $2,200; Jacob Krans, grocery and residence, $3,100; Bendorf Brothers, machinists, $6,000; Litchfield Hotel, $1,200. It is estimated that $5,000 worth of glass was destroyed in the town.

"I know nothing about the particulars," said Alexander H. Smith, when interviewed in St. Louis, "but I am certain that flour dust was not the cause. There have been many disastrous explosions of this character, but they are no longer possible. In the old days the dust was blown about the mill in a very finely-disseminated condition, and the air was filled with minute particles.

"The smallest shock, such as striking a match, was likely to cause an explosion. Just why the dust should explode was not known-probably today it would be said it was due to electricity-but since the invention of the dust machine by George T. Smith no such explosions are possible, as all mills are provided with them and there is no dust in the air. This was in all likelihood a boiler explosion; it was certainly not due to dust."

Source: The New York Times - March 22, 1893

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Jeff Dunn

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