If Tombstones Could Talk

The Horrific Deaths at Rahr Brewery: 1887

Posted August 4, 2020

An aging obelisk, with names and dates fading, stands near the old red chapel at Allouez cemetery. Buried within the obelisk’s shadow are five men killed by an explosion at the Rahr brewery located at the time on Main Street.

Those men were August Delforge, age 45, and sons Frank, age 20, and Joseph, age 14, John Heibe, age 32, and John Biemeret, age 34. Another victim, George Huber, age 21 lies buried in his family’s plot at Allouez.

The full details of the scalding deaths were published in the August 11, 1887 Green Bay Advocate, a week after the horrific deaths. According to the Advocate, Mr. Rahr had been putting in a new steam boiler and the brewery had been closed. The changes were nearly completed with the new boiler having been tested to 150 hydrostatic pressure. The men were making changes in the evening of August 3, with plans to reopen the brewery on August 4.

The quarter inch copper kettle, with a capacity of 100 barrels, contained 70 barrels of water at the time of the explosion. The kettle had been in use several years without incident.

Suddenly, at about 8 o’clock, the kettle exploded and fell over on it’s side on the stone floor of the room, filling the room with hot, scalding water and intense steam. Mr. Delforge was struck on the head by a falling timber and pinned to the floor where he lay bleeding in the scalding water. The others were scalded or burned and died from their injuries within a few hours.

The day of the funeral flags on all public buildings were placed at half mast and there was a tolling of many bells. Five of the men were members of St. John’s church where the services consisted of requiem high mass. Then the caskets were removed to the hearses and the procession proceeded to the Catholic cemetery.

The explosion, heavy as it was, did no damage whatever to the building. Mr. Rahr considered his loss a mere trifle and would rather have seen his whole brewery swept away than to have had this shocking loss of life. He was greatly distressed over this tragedy and did all in his power for the relief of the unfortunate families.