Old image of building
Foote Lake 1885
Old picture of downtown Willmar

Century of Service

Our story, like that of every other electrical generation facility, should begin in 1831, when Michael Faraday produced the world’s first electrical generator.

Actually, since this is a complete utilities system, our story goes back beyond that to the time when people began using the water of what would, centuries later, come to be known as Foot and Willmar Lakes. They were here long before the first white people came to this area. No one knows how many red men availed themselves of their sparkling, clear water.

Berger Thorson, the first permanent resident of what is now the City of Willmar, hauled water from them in buckets to serve his needs, until he was killed by Indians during the Uprising. Erick Nelson, the first post-Uprising resident of this area, relied upon them for his water supply, and when A. S. Lybe, the first storekeeper in what was to become Willmar, moved his stock of goods from New London to set up the Sutler’s Store, which he hoped would serve the needs of the advancing rail road track laying crews, he depended upon them for his water supply, too.

The body of water which we know as Foot and Willmar Lakes has served the people who lived here before there was a town, the residents and some businesses and industries in the growing village and, finally, it has become a part of the City of Willmar’s utility system.

Thorson, Lybe and Nelson all lived very close to the lakes, with Thorson settling in what is now the Oak Lane area on the east side of the big point, Nelson building across the bay and Lybe setting up shop where today’s Ella Avenue crosses the lake, near Seventh Street NW.

All three lived close enough to the lakes to draw water from them easily and to use that water for drinking and other household purposes, because it was clear enough and pure enough to be used safely.

As what was to become today’s Willmar received the first of its permanent settlers in 1869 … Lybe, A. E. Rice, John Paulson, Erick Nelson and the man who built the Herrick House hotel … the lakes became their water supply, too.

Lybe was appointed Willmar’s first postmaster, when a post office was established here in 1869, but discovered that his store was just a few feet outside the village limits, so he had to move the store, which was also the post office, into the new town or give up the job. He moved it about three hundred yards south of its original location, but still built near enough to the lakes to draw water conveniently.

When the railroad’s track-laying crews reached Willmar December 23, 1869, they closed up shop for the winter. This was, literally, the end of the line, even though one train did come this far. That wasn’t intentional. Litchfield was supposed to be the western terminus of the line until the spring of 1870, but one train crew had heard that the track had been laid and went on through to Willmar before the winter really closed in and made the new tracks impassable.

1870 became a very important year for this area and its new towns. Willmar had been chosen as a division point of the rapidly expanding raiI road long before the tracks reached the little skeleton of a town. Later, it was to become the place where the east-west rail line was intersected by another line, which ran from Duluth to Sioux City. The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad built a station here in the spring of 1870, followed shortly by the construction of a railroad-owned grain elevator. These, together with Lybe’s trading post, the Paulson & Rice General Store and the Herrick House, gave the burgeoning town a good start.

There was more to come, however. When this part of the Minnesota Territory was opened to settlement, two counties were organized from land which had been part of Davis and Meeker counties. The northern new county was named Monongalia (derived from Monongahela, a Pennsylvania river area which many of the new county’s residents once called home). The southern county was named Kandiyohi (from the Dakotah name for the lakes it encompassed). That was in 1856. By 1870 the new Monongalia County had a population of about 3,400, while the new Kandiyohi County had only half as many residents.

That small number of people really didn’t need two governments so, as an economy measure, a merger of the two counties was proposed. A referendum was held on the question and the proposition for merger carried handily. The new county was given the name Kandiyohi without opposition, but the matter of a county seat was a different story. Residents of former Monongalia County wanted the county seat in Willmar, since it was already the railroad’s division point, and they believed it would grow more rapidly than any other community in the new county.

The residents of Kandiyohi County, on the other hand, wanted Kandiyohi Station to be the county seat, since it had been serving in that capacity for several years and was, at the time, more developed than Willmar.

The people in the southern half of the new county backed a senator from Hutchinson who promised to keep the county seat in Kandiyohi Station, while residents of the former Monongalia County elected Andrew Railson to the legislature as a representative, pledged to move the county seat to Willmar. The senator blocked all of Railson’s attempts at legislating the change until the day he fell ill, and Railson got his bill passed in the House and then in the Senate and then signed by the Governor, all in one day! That was when Willmar became the county seat, which increased, even more, its opportunities for rapid growth.

Major Improvements To Municipal Utilities System

1891Construction and operation of municipal water system begun.
1895First light plant built on Block 42 Original Town (present First American Bank parking lot).
1901Light plant rebuilt following explosion.
1914District heating system formed in downtown area.
1925New electrical generating equipment installed at present power plant site (Block 20).
1934Elevated water tank built near downtown.
1949Major addition made to the power plant.
1956Construction on 3,000,000 gallon water reservoir and 300,000 gallon elevated storage tank (on Willmar Avenue) completed. Purchase and development of Southwest Wellfield (Swansson Field) was made.
1957Municipal Utilities office constructed at present site. Also, another addition made to the power plant.
1961New steam boiler installed at the power plant.
1970New turbine generator unit installed at the power plant.
1975South substation placed in service on 19th Ave. SW.
1982Downtown Redevelopment Project. Constructed first modern hot water district heating system in the United States. Also rebuilt entire electric system in downtown area.
1984Willmar Municipal Utilities Service Center is purchased from MnDot and renovated.
1985Willmar first enters transmission line ownership by purchasing a 230,000 volt line in order to eliminate wheeling charges on incoming electric power. (Other transmission line projects occurred in 1984, 1987, 1989 and 1991 in order to complete a “loop” of the city and thereby improve system reliability).
1990A historic agreement is reached with the Kandiyohi Electric Coop on electric service territory.
Addition of a steam boiler at the power plant to provide energy to the district heating system.
1991Municipal Utilities Commission approves plan to construct a Water Purification Plant in Willmar.
Picture of Power-Plant
Power Plant after Explosion

City Plant in Ruins

The Water & Light Board seems to have enjoyed a Period of relatively serene operations, with no major problems raising their ugly heads from Christmas 1899 until September 22, 1901 when the roof fell in, literally! That was the morning the municipal power plant exploded. Here’s how it was reported in the next Wednesday’s issue of The Willmar Tribune: Boiler at the City Power House Explodes and Wrecks the Light Plant.

The City in Darkness

Nils Bredeson, the Engineer, Escaped Death Miraculously, Exact Cause of Explosion is Not Known, Dynamos and Engines Buried Under Tons of Brick and Mortar, City has $10,000 Insurance, Which Will Not Nearly Cover the Loss, Power Was Supplied for Pumping Water in Fifteen Hours After Explosion

Many of the people of Willmar were rudely awakened from their slumbers at ten minutes past two o’clock last Sunday morning by a sudden shock or jar. Most of them, hearing nothing more, went to sleep again. Those who got up and went out to investigate found the city in total darkness, and realizing that something had happened to the electric light plant, rushed there to see what was the matter. They found the building a mass of ruins, and the cause was soon ascertained.

One of the smaller boilers in the plant had exploded, and it had wrought fearful havoc. The roof was blown off and most of it splintered to kindling wood. The brick walls, except in the pump room, were razed to the ground. The latter walls were still standing, but in such dilapidated condition that they must be razed too. The boiler was rent wide open and torn into many fragments. The other small boiler was knocked down and dented so as to be beyond repairs. The dynamos were buried under the debris and presumably destroyed. The electric switch-board was totally destroyed. In fact, it looks as if everything in the plant was destroyed.

Nils Bredeson, one of the men on the night force was the only one in the building at the time of the explosion. It seems a miracle that he could be in that awful wreck and escape with his life. He had gone on duty at twelve o’clock, relieving Joseph Williams. At that time everything seemed in perfect order. Mr. Bredeson made the following statement to a TRIBUNE reporter:

About five or six minutes before the explosion I had looked at the boiler. The steam gauge showed 90 pounds of pressure. There was not quite half a glass of water. There were four or five sticks of wood in the firebox and just enough fire to keep it alive. The boiler was not at the time connected to anything. I was just getting it ready to use, as I wanted to cool down the big boiler for cleaning it I then went over to the big boiler and heard a crash and it flashed through my mind that the tank was falling. The next moment I was so dazed that I don’t know just what happened to me. The first thing I knew someone was calling my name. I was then in the pump pit and trying to get out.

I have no idea what caused the explosion. The boiler had been cleaned about a month ago, but had not been used over forty hours in all since that time. It was used only for a few hours every Saturday night, while we cleaned the big boiler. The boiler was never quite satisfactory, as it would foam whenever the steam went down to 90 pounds when carrying a full load. The safety valve was set to 105 pounds, and we had to keep the steam between those points.

John Quam and Henry Traue were the first ones on the grounds after the accident. They helped Bredeson out of the pit. Although stunned, he was able to walk to the Frost hospital. An examination revealed the fact that he had sustained no serious injuries. He had scorched one hand by grabbing hold of some hot pipes while groping around in the pit. The left wrist was scalded; there was a flesh wound in the right arm, and some scalp wounds in the head. Although weakened by the terrible shock he has been able to be around.

There was only one place in the building where a man had any chance of escaping with his life, and it was Bredeson’s good fortune to be in that particular place. The two boilers between him and the exploding boiler acted as shields from the flying fragments of the boiler and pipes as well as the scalding water, and it happened that no parts of the roof or walls fell just there. But his good fortune did not leave him there. When he fell into the pit he might have been killed by striking the pumps or the fragments thrown in there by the explosion. When Henry Traue and John Quam reached the scene Bredeson had hold of the railing and was trying to climb out, but lost his hold and fell back a second time before they could reach him. He got up once more and Traue pulled him out. Few men have passed through such experiences and lived to tell the story.

When morning dawned it appeared as if everything was ruined. But when things had been cleared away somewhat it was found that the damage was not by far as serious as it might have been. The two smaller boilers were destroyed as well as the smaller dynamo, but the water works were in good shape, the large boiler had lost only the safety valve, the big dynamo and the engines seemed to need only slight repairs.

The building and contents were insured for $10,000 in the Hartford Steam Inspection and Insurance Co. This company inspects the boilers twice a year. The last report of Inspector Murphy regarding the exploded boiler gives its condition as follows: ‘Internally: shells, heads and tubes in good condition; incrustation light; no corrosion; bracings sound; openings to attachments clear. Externally: shells and heads in good order; sheets straight; seams and tubes tight; no corrosion; settings in good shape; steam gauges correct.

As soon as possible after the catastrophe the council placed themselves in communication with the company’s representative in Minneapolis and obtained permission to clear away the debris, after taking photographs to show the exact conditions. A crew of men were put to work at once under the direction of Marshal Sorenson to clear away the debris in the pump pit and around the large boiler remaining practically intact. Every effort was made to restore the waterworks as quickly as possible, and by suppertime the large boiler had been overhauled and steam connections made. In another hour the pumps were going, fifteen hours after the explosion. In the meantime the fire engine had been steamed up and was forcing water into the mains to supply immediate wants.

The agent for the Hartford Insurance Company, Mr. Collins, was here Monday but he could do nothing in the way of adjustment The adjuster will be here in a few days, and meanwhile an inventory will be taken to show what was lost. There is hardly any doubt that the village will recover the entire amount of insurance. It is diffIcult at this time to estimate the loss, but it will certainly go far above the $10,000 mark.

Until the adjustment is made there will be no definite plans made for rebuilding. It seems to be the general opinion of the aldermen that the two destroyed boilers will be replaced by one boiler of the same size as the one left. This will give more power and ought to be sufficient for many years to come. The most of the wreckage had been cleared away last night. A temporary building will be erected over the remaining engine and dynamo to protect them until a permanent structure can be erected. Alderman Williams is confident that the dynamo can be started by tomorrow evening.

Large crowds viewed the scene of the explosion all day Sunday.

President Tyler and Alderman Williams have been on the ground almost continuously personally directing the work.

Henry Traue says that when he heard the concussion he thought some robbers had blown up one of the banks. But the rush of escaping steam immediately told him what had happened.

A large section of the firebox was blown over the residences of Dr. Ilstrup and A. N. Lewis, landing by the sidewalk north of the courthouse. The piece weighs about 300 pounds and, had it gone a little lower, would have wrought fearful havoc on the houses in its way.

One brick was thrown clear over to the Osmundson store and crashed through the tin roof and the ceiling, cutting the laths without splintering. It must have been thrown to a great height to get such a momentum in its fall.

The large woodpile undoubtedly saved Dr. Ilstrup’s house from a brick bombardment. Very few landed in his yard, while A. N. Lewis received several cart loads of brick that he had no use for. A window sill was splintered by one of them.

The 75-foot brick chimney was knocked down. The base of it appears to have been blown south, while the top part fell on the dynamo room. Our magnificent city hall got a little whack from it, smashing a cornice and a small part of the roof.

The waterworks portion of the plant was erected in 1886, including the large brick chimney that was destroyed by the explosion. The electric addition was built in 1895. The estimated cost of the building destroyed is $3,200. The loss to the village, that is not covered by insurance, was believed yesterday will reach $10,000.

President Tyler had been entertaining a company of friends at his house. When they were going home it was very dark, and he went down to the station to ask Bredeson to turn on the western circuit for a few minutes. Everything appeared alright at that time. When he came home he sat down to read. He heard the report and the lights went out at the same instant. He rushed down there and came on the scene just as Bredeson had been helped out of the pit.

J. M. Spicer was sleeping upstairs in his cottage at Green Lake. He was awakened by a sudden jar, and got up to see what was the matter. He happened to look at his watch and found it was a few minutes past two. He is certain it was the jar from the explosion that he felt.

In the aftermath of the explosion things moved along smoothly and the October 2, 1901 issue of the Tribune had this to say:

The village authorities kept their word and had the electric light plant running by Thursday evening. It took some tall hustling to accomplish this result. The debris had to be cleared away; the main shaft of the large engine had to be taken out and straightened, a pulley was sent for and came by express and some repairs had to be made about the dynamo. A shed was built over the dynamo and engine, another over the big boiler and one over the pumps. The prompt work was greatly appreciated by all.

Adjuster Blakely, of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co., is here now to estimate the loss and settle for it. Nothing has been done so far.

A sketch has been prepared for a new power house 58 x 62 feet, and as soon as the insurance matter is disposed of, arrangements will be made to build at once.

The day after the explosion the Village Council authorized the building of the temporary sheds mentioned in that story, for the boilers, pumps and dynamos. Ten days later it authorized the Electric Light Commission to procure plans and specifications for a new building, as was also mentioned in the follow-up story. Two weeks and a day after the explosion it accepted a bid, in the amount of $2,825.00 for the construction of a new power house. The building was only a part of the expense of rebuilding. There was the matter of a new boiler, which cost $1,120.00, and a used alternator, procured from a North Dakota city for $500, plus a variety of other expenses necessary to get Willmar’s utilities operating again. Insurance covered $6,764.00 of the total expense.

With the power plant rebuilt and all utilities functioning as they were intended to do, the Water & Light Board became the Water & light Commission when Willmar was incorporated as a city under a charter adopted by a special election held November 17, 1901. The proposition carried by a vote of 270 for the charter and 88 against.

On April 28, 1902, the Water & Light Board was directed to take inventory before turning the affairs of the utilities over to the new Water & light Commission, which was established May 1, 1902.