This blasted husk of a building is our coliseum

Last Sunday, my old neighbor and Hibbing Daily Tribune staff “curmudgeon” (that is his actual byline) penned a wonderful but disturbing column. He reported that the ruins of the old Dupont power house by Carey Lake in Hibbing might have to be demolished, presumably for safety reasons. Lynch also shared a wonderful collection of archived stories about the Dupont Company in Hibbing, its two major explosions and the story of how this site of a deadly industrial accident ended up the abandoned ruin so many who grew up in the area came to know and love.

Some highlights:

James H. Healy, of this city, and Charles Winter, of Columbus, Kansas, were blown to pieces Thursday morning at 10-17 o’clock, when the glazing mill of the DuPont Powder company’s new plant at Wilpin, six miles east of here, exploded. The cause is not now, and will never be known. (Mesabi Ore, Jan. 13, 1912, emphasis mine)

I enjoy this wordplay. Indeed, the cause could have been known. But it was not then known and, indeed, never was. Truly a golden age for industrial apologists.

On Feb. 7, 1918 the Hibbing Tribune reported another explosion at the Dupont facility. Oscar Leti and Palle Jarvinen lost their lives in a blast felt as far away as Chisholm, blowing the windows out of a hotel on Pine Street in old north Hibbing. Another example of the writing style of the times:

The two men were at work in the press-mill when the black powder stored there, “let go.” The two victims were blown into atoms. A flash of flame in the sky followed by an explosion was a signal to the other employes that an accident had occurred. Adjoining powder buildings, all heavily protected, were not damaged.

Blown to Atoms. And again the company’s sure-footed safety practices prevented a worse occurrence.

Despite the two big explosions, the real reason Dupont pulled out of the Wilpen/Carey Lake location was the phasing out of black powder in mining practices. Left behind were the footings for many of the company buildings and, of course, the hulking remains of the old power house. When the entirety of Carey Lake was turned into a city park the ruins became a part of the landscape.

These Dupont ruins outlasted the Monkeys and Vanilla Ice and I don’t see any reason they shouldn’t outlast Justin Bieber. I don’t know the true depth of the threat the building might pose or the seriousness of the call to demolish it, but I would fight to keep the ruin there in at least some form and here’s why.

Years since the explosions, many myths built up around the ruins. Kids hung out there, smoked, drank and necked. I took a date out there in high school once (no necking, only historical discussion). Lots of graffiti. I was out there most recently with some friends geocaching, the game where you track down “caches” of loot on your GPS. Nevertheless, the unspoken truth of the ages endured: this place was the site of a mighty, deadly and forever world-changing industrial upheaval.

The Range has a reputation as an old place, a place with an almost pathological fixation on its history. But the modern history of the place only goes back 120 years or so. Before that you’re talking about thousands of years of Native American history and before that pure geology.

I have often argued that we need economic diversification and a new fixation on the future around here. But a place like this will never escape its past, either. This Dupont ruins tell a story of our past, offer a warning about the risks our ancestors took, and – framed by overburden piles in the distance – remind us of the mighty progress and fierce impermanence of our human existence in this unique place.

At minimum, the facade of the building should be preserved for future generations to wonder about the past while dreaming for the future, two activities that are deeply related.

As always, fine work by Jack Lynch in bringing this to our attention.

Comments

  1. Great article – thanks for helping bring this to people’s attention!

    Erica Larson
    Hibbing Historical Society

  2. I remember the explosion of the last DuPont powder making site, at Carneys Point, New Jersey,in 1978. (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CDEQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww3.gendisasters.com%2Fnew-jersey%2F13001%2Fcarneys-point-nj-gunpowder-house-explosion-apr-1978&ei=MKo1T_7sDsS62wX_94iaAg&usg=AFQjCNFfFH_xiBrgf4vF8RAgGFrU4fUJ0Q) By that time it was smokeless powder, not the old sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter mixture. After that, DuPont gradually got out of the explosives business. Many hundreds of DuPont employees were blown up over the years, including a few members of the family.

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