‘Walking the plank’ on the new Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator in 1954


By Charles J. Tillotson

Safety and the preservation of life have become much more important in today’s world of construction. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the urgent need to build grain storage coupled with the fact that most elevators were built in very rural areas meant that safety was secondary to getting the job done.

A case in point was a personal experience I had while working in Pocahontas, Iowa.

As with most small towns, the labor pool was rather limited to itinerant farmhands and workmen passing through town. Scaffolding and access walkways were pieced together in a very haphazard way–the means to an end.

One day I was working “up top” of the newly built grain tanks and needed to cross over from the new tanks to the deck of the existing elevator. The distance between the two structures was probably eight feet. To span the gap, two 2×12 planks were placed down between the two structures.

As I began my “walk the planks,” I stubbed my toe on the butt end of one of them. Accordingly, I stumbled forward–but was fortunate enough to regain my footing and continued on across to the other structure.

I realized then how easy it would be to make a misstep and end up at the bottom of the chasm.

Map of Iowa highlighting Pocahontas County

Map of Iowa highlighting Pocahontas County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While working in Pocahontas I met a young man, a few years older than I, who had been passing through town on his way back to his home in Hinton, Iowa. His name was Marv, and he had signed on as a carpenter. It was refreshing to me when I met Marv, as he seemed to be a person who was not only a good worker but an intelligent one as well.

When the summer came to an end I had to return to school, and so I said my good-byes to Marv and all the crew on the job. Later that year I learned that Marvin Richards had fallen to his death on the Hinton job (Tillotson-built) while attempting to cross over between two structures.

Hearing the news of his death, I assumed he was the same person I had encountered.

That same summer, Larry Ryan, the hoist operator working for Tillotson Construction Company on the Pocahontas job, had a similar mishap. During Larry’s break from the hoist, he decided to go up through the existing elevator terminal and cross over to the new construction to deliver a piece of angle iron needed by someone up top.

Again, somehow he lost his balance on the planking, and he, too, fell to his death.

It was eerie to think about how, more than once, I had come so close to doing the same thing and just how dangerous an act this was. On the other hand, the concept was fairly simple and straightforward: two 2×12 planks, side by side, laid down between two structures and spanning a distance of only six or eight feet. Not much to it – but only if you don’t slip, stumble, or in some way lose your balance!

At minimum, there should have been a safety railing on one or both sides of the planking.

But, back then, there just wasn’t enough attention given to safety and the value of human life.

Of course, I learned a valuable lesson in precaution and safety from these incidents, which I carried with me throughout my construction career.

5 comments on “‘Walking the plank’ on the new Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator in 1954

  1. […] ‘Walking the plank’ on the new Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator in 1954 (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

  2. […] ‘Walking the plank’ on the new Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator in 1954 (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

  3. […] the company records for subsequent projects at West Bend and Pocahontas, Iowa, both built using the Dike plan, the quantities of concrete and steel and the machinery details […]

  4. […] to our attention as the site of a tragic accident where a young construction worker lost his life. Larry Ryan fell to his death because he tripped while crossing from the elevator to the annex on a makeshift […]

  5. […] elevator, with 252,000-bushel capacity, was built at Randall, Iowa (1949); West Bend, Iowa (1949); Pocahontas, Iowa (1949); Bushland, Tex. (1950); Pond Creek, Okla. (1950); Seibert, Colo. (1950); and Flagler, Colo. (1950). […]

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