Elevator work included a quick and painful education in the use of a chain fall


Story by Charles J. Tillotson

Grain elevator construction brought with it the need for hoists that placed and set mechanical equipment for the grain-moving distribution systems. Most of headhouse mechanicals had to be placed via the use of manual chain hoists, in those days called chain falls.

ScanThese hoists consisted of a series of pulley wheels and chains that used leverage for moving heavy equipment up and down in precise increments. The hoist system was often used in conjunction with an overhead track so equipment could be adjusted horizontally as well.

The headhouse mechanicals were first lifted more than 100 feet to the top of the grain tanks using the main construction hoist. Once the equipment reached the top deck, a dolly cart moved each piece to the place of use. Most big pieces were mounted on preset anchor bolts. In order to hoist the equipment over the bolts and into horizontal position, the chain fall was rigged.

My lesson in using the manual chain hoist came one day in 1947 when I was working with an experienced workman named Fred on the Vinton Street job in Omaha. As a twelve- or thirteen-year old carpenter’s apprentice and hod carrier, I had never even been near a chain fall system, but this day I was assigned to help set a grain dryer.

After the rigging was finished, Fred had me guiding the dryer for alignment with the anchor bolts while he yanked the leverage end of the chain fall.

Scan 4While he operated the vertical location, I nudged the dryer ever so slightly back and forth as it swung above the anchor bolts. To accomplish this feat, I pushed on the chains with my hands placed right above the pulley wheel. When the dryer reached its spot, I hollered to Fred to lower it over the bolts.

Concentrating so much on the dryer’s placement, I neglected to release at the key moment. Consequently, my hand followed the chain into the sheave as Fred lowered the dryer, and my fingers slipped between the chain and wheel.

I yanked my hand back–but not before the tips of my index and middle fingers were crushed, skin and fingernails pulled off, leaving me with bloody stumps. As I was about to collapse from shock, Fred grabbed me, guided me to the man lift, and lowered me to the ground. My destination was the Super’s office, which was previously built for the grain company.

The Super, a rough dude from the old school, took one look at my bleeding fingers and told me to sit down on a chair next to his reference table, which was covered with plans and paperwork. He asked for a minute to get some first aid treatment and then told me to turn my head and look out the office window. I heard him pouring something into a little bowl on the table. He took my hand, saying he would dip my fingers and it might hurt a little.

Scan 2Well, after he scraped me off of the ceiling, controlled my sobbing, and began resuscitation, I was hurting more than ever. My fingertips felt like they had been burned off! As an antiseptic he had used Merthiolate, administered in those days to treat abrasions and cuts.

Next he wrapped my fingers in gauze and tape. “Keep the bandages on for a few days, and you’ll be as good as new,” he said. It turned out more like six months before my skin and nails miraculously healed to their original appearance.

Of course, through this experience, I gained a valuable lesson in the use of chain falls. Even though such systems today have better safety shields and braking devices, I still shudder when I see a chain fall system being used.

I have related this experience to many people over the years and learned I was fortunate to survive the ordeal–not only the accident, but also the first aid.

Merthiolate, the marketing name coined by Eli Lilly and Company for the antiseptic Thimerosal, is compounded of fifty percent mercury and the caustic chemicals alcohol and benzalkonium chloride.

Because of Thimerosal’s toxicity, Merthiolate was essentially banned from general usage as a topical treatment by the 1990s.

Looking back to those days of such primitive medicine, I often reflect on why we lived through such treatments. I guess one of the main reasons is, we didn’t have crowded doctor’s offices and hospitals, which today bring along their own set of detrimental toxic bacteria and contamination to contend with.

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

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Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality

By Charles J. Tillotson

Editor’s note: Uncle Chuck here recalls one of the more harrowing experiences of his young life, when he was building grain elevators for Tillotson Construction Company. It occurred on what is called a wrecking scaffold–or to be more precise, during the scramble off one heading into the void.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

When the slip-form process reached the intended height of construction, all wood form-work and other equipment and devices were removed from the structure via an external hoist.

The final portion of the demolition process, the removal of the wood forms, involved the most difficult and dangerous part of the operation, that being the “wrecking out” of the wood forms and decking material that is, by design, trapped inside each of the grain tanks.

All of this wooden material must be removed, and it must be done from the inside.

This is accomplished by utilizing a temporary platform, or wrecking-out scaffold, suspended within each tank.

Elevator design preconceived the need for a ‘wrecking-out’ platform

In preparation for the building of a temporary platform, cutout sleeves and manhole forms are strategically placed to allow cable and scaffold planking to be inserted into the tanks after the concrete roof deck has been poured. The cutouts, usually four round holes per tank, are each large enough in diameter for insertion of a cable with a preconstructed loop end.

Via the manhole, planks are slid through to a workman who is suspended on a rope with a bosun’s chair, allowing him to have a hands-free position.

He takes the planking being passed down to him and extends the two major beam planks through the hanging cable loops.

After the beam planks are in place, scaffold planking is installed perpendicular to the beams in such a way as to create a solid plank platform.

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

The noon whistle as harbinger of doom

This description of building the wrecking-out scaffold sets the stage on another personal experience with the perils of constructing grain elevators.

It took place when I was assigned duty on the wrecking-out scaffold. The morning of labor with two other workmen had passed without incident, and when the town’s noon whistle blew, we three stopped for lunch.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction's job in Flagler, Colo.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction’s job in Flagler, Colo.

Typically, rather than have the wrecking crew go through the process of crawling or being lifted back up through the manholes and then go in reverse to gain access to the platform again, the workmen just brought their lunches down to the platform and ate them there.

As we sat on the planking in this semi-dark and dank grain tank, eating our lunches and telling war stories, I heard a plunking noise that sounded like someone had dropped a rock onto the scaffold. It seemed to come from the corner behind me. I didn’t pay much attention and soon rejoined the important conversation taking place.

About five minutes later, I noticed another similar sound and asked the other two workmen if they had heard it, too. Neither of them had. They went back to talking. But within minutes another “rock” hit the scaffold and simultaneously one corner tilted down.

A precarious situation soon becomes a mortal threat

We suddenly realized the nut fasteners of the cable clamps–which were U-shaped and bolted around the main cable drop and the end of the cable loop–had somehow unwound. (Two cable clamps were used per loop, each clamp having two fastener nuts turned sufficiently tight to form a bond on the loop.)

So only one nut remained on the cable clamp to hold the loop and that corner of the scaffold.

To save ourselves from this sinking ship, we quickly helped one another by doing a foot-up maneuver, with the first man out through the manhole above. Once he crawled to safety on the deck, he reached down for the next one and yanked him through.

I had been sitting the furthest away from the manhole, so I was the last man out.

Again, as with my previously described narrow escape (see the link below), God was watching after me.

Just as I punched through to safety on the roof, I heard the cable loop fail and the scaffolding crash into the tank’s deep dark recesses.

Why worker safety was a secondary consideration

In those days, there were many similar incidents that occurred during the construction process.

Contributing to the lack of safety precautions was the use of unskilled labor. Most of it came from the surrounding farm community, and these men had no background in construction.

Lives were lost, and assumptions were made that this would occur, as the ultimate goal was building grain storage as quickly as possible. Safeguarding life and limb took a secondary position to that effort.

At Tillotson’s Albert City, Iowa, job, a deckhand’s pendulous moments

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, in 1945.

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, when Tillotson Construction Co. built there in 1945.

Story by Charles J. Tillotson

Reinforced-concrete grain elevators used the slip-form method of construction, whereby a wooden form system was built on the ground, having the footprint required to configure the grain-storage tanks.

Once the forms were in place and the vertical lifting and jacking system assembled, laborers began installing rebar and pouring cement into these forms.

When the forms were filled to the top–about four feet–the lifting and slipping commenced by turning screw jacks placed strategically throughout the formwork. After this procedure of vertical form lifting and rebar setting and cement pouring began, it never stopped until the structure reached its intended height, usually between 100 and 120 feet.

thThis process was the intended norm but was oftentimes interrupted by a myriad of problems, which caused the form-slipping to come to a halt. One of these instances occurred one night when I was eighteen or nineteen, working as a deckhand in Albert City, Iowa, for the family’s construction company.

The structure had reached about eighty feet in height when the electrical power supplying the lighting system and other machinery was cut off by a huge summer storm distributing lots of rain and wind throughout the area.

All personnel, including myself, were stranded on the stationary deck with little else to do but wait out the storm and the return of power.

A few hours of waiting produced a carload of my friends that had arrived on the surface. They were yelling for me to come down and join them. The only possible way to get off the tower was the vertical “ship’s ladder” that was installed in sections on the side of the rising structure.

Access to this emergency ladder was gained by going over the side of the formwork to the finishing scaffold below. Here, a rope was suspended down to the uppermost section of the ship’s ladder. The length of the rope was normally long enough so that a person could slide down it and gain hold of the ladder’s top rung.

I say normally the rope was long enough, based on the fact that the ladder sections were routinely placed sufficient to keep pace with the ever-vertical movement of the concrete structure.

However, as I soon discovered on this particular stormy night, the norm didn’t prevail. I hopped over the side of the formwork and reached for the rope hanging from the finishing scaffold’s frames. It was pitch black, and the wind was blowing to go along with heavy rain, but I was able to find the rope and swing off the side.

The first thing I discovered was that the wind was so strong, it blew me sideways and shoved me around the bin tank.

When the gusting stopped, I was able to line up vertically above the supposed location of the ship’s ladder.

So, undeterred, I slid down the rope—but not very far before another gust of wind blew. I had to stop sliding down and let it subside.

This process went on for a number of iterations, and as I slowly went down the rope, I began to wonder where the top of the ladder was exactly.

I was running out of rope.

With about three feet left, I really started sweating–I still couldn’t see the top of the ladder.

Because I had become somewhat exhausted while sliding down, swinging back and forth like a teabag, I knew I couldn’t crawl back up to the scaffold.

Now I reached the very end of the rope, and a big blast of wind blew me away and around the tank. When that gust stopped, I flew back around and by sheer luck found purchase with my foot on the top rung of the ladder. Another blast hit me, but with my foot hooked under the top rung, I stabilized myself.

With my strength ebbing, if I was going to survive, I had to make an attempt to release the rope, drop down along the ladder, and catch a rung. (Any rung would do.) So, with trepid emotions, I let go of the rope and dropped.

The testimony of my luck (and strength and skill of course) is that I am able today to relate this harrowing story.

As I released the rope I yelled up to the top of the tower to alert other personnel that they shouldn’t attempt to do what I had done. I’m sure I saved someone else’s life besides my own that night.

But the message of this story is that constructing grain elevators in the early days was filled with these types of unsafe conditions where protection of life was not as important and took a back seat to getting the job done.

There was grain being harvested in the fields, and it needed a place to be stored. The nation was on the upswing, growing by leaps and bounds, and in need of being fed.