Vandals strike Tillotson’s Vinton Street elevator, leaving the owners with an expensive cleanup

644369_10152681898735294_1745767005_nSometime overnight on Wednesday, May 4, vandals struck the Vinton Street elevator, painting “Dump Trump” graffiti on the south annex’s upper run. The message caused a sensation Thursday morning.

Tillotson Construction Company completed the original 382,880-bushel elevator in 1950. Extensive annexes were later added. We don’t know when operations ceased, but for the last eight years the elevator on five acres of land has been co-owned by Ron Safarik and Richard Brock, who attempted to make a climbing facility comparable to those established at old elevators in Bloomington, Ill., and Oklahoma City.

In 2012, the Vinton Street elevator received national attention after the annexes served as the canvas for a public art project; a nonprofit organization commissioned artists to create themed banners that were draped over the silos.

Reached by phone, Safarik said he and Brock have tried to secure the property, but intruders found a way to pry through and gain access to the top. “I would presume they used the internal ladders that still exist,” he said.

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Photos courtesy of SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures. 

Safarik and Brock will now be stuck with the cleanup bill. Since SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures, the partners’ venture, closed in 2013, the elevator has been a burden, he said.

It has been listed for sale since 2014. A post on SILO’s Facebook page says, “The Silos and the 5 acres of industrial land are for sale through Ben Pearson at World Group Commercial Real Estate. Any climbing related buyer will receive the holds, bolts, and supporting gear for starting up a climbing club or business.”

Safarik said the asking price remains $150,000.

Although he said he hadn’t known much of the elevator’s history, he did pass along a story heard from an elderly man named Otto, who lived on Vinton Street and “had intricate knowledge” of events.

According to Otto, the only death that occurred at the elevator happened on a freezing night in an unspecified year. The victim, an elevator employee, locked himself out of the scale house. As he tried to pry back into it, he jammed his arm and couldn’t pull free. Found dead in the morning, he was surrounded by cigarette butts. With his free hand, he had managed to smoke his remaining cigarettes before he froze.

 

 

 

The DeBruce Grain elevator disaster in Wichita reexamined

This photo appeared with Mr. Gustafson's cautions in 1939.

Grain dust has caused fires since elevators were first built.

Story by Kristen Cart

The dangers of storing grain have been well known for decades; however, history tends to repeat itself in spite of previous accidents and loss of life. When an operation falls into shoddy practices, and when safety measures are deemed too troublesome and expensive, the operation may continue for a time without incident.  Eventually, the inevitable happens, and the investigators come in to discover why. The answers seem obvious in retrospect.

The explosion and fire at the gigantic DeBruce Grain facility near Wichita on June 8, 1998, was a perfect example of complacency and its consequences.

The elevator was built in 1954 by Chalmers and Borton of Hutchinson, Kan., for the Garvey Grain Company. It was a terminal elevator with arrays of tangential 30-foot-diameter bins, three abreast, with star shaped bins in the interstices. The bins were built 120 feet high and arranged symmetrically on either side of a 197-foot-tall, 21-story headhouse.

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A typical Chalmers and Borton plaque, installed at their American Falls, Idaho, elevator, dated 1944

In 1955 the elevator was extended on either end, roughly doubling its capacity to nearly 21 million bushels. In total, 246 circular bins and an additional 164 interstice bins (for a total of 310) were available to store grain, in a structure that extended over half a mile. In its heyday it was the largest elevator in the world.

A key factor in the explosion of the facility was the arrangement of the runs atop the bins and the tunnels beneath. These communicated with all of the bins. A run extended in both directions from the headhouse, each containing a conveyor for distributing grain to the bins from the top using a tripper. Under each bank of bins on either side of the headhouse were two tunnels, each with a conveyor supplying the four headhouse legs. The pairs of tunnels on either side of the headhouse each had a connector tunnel between them.

All of the structure was interconnected in such a way that a fire or explosion could propagate throughout the elevator. And in fact, after the accident, that is what investigators found had happened.

For an explosion to begin, five factors must exist: fuel, oxidizer, containment, dispersion, and ignition. All of these factors are momentarily present in the controlled environment of a piston or turbine engine. In a grain elevator, the fuel is grain dust, the oxidizer is the oxygen in the air, the containment is the elevator structure, the dispersion is the suspension of dust in the air (stirred by operation of elevator components), and the ignition is the accidental trigger (a worn component, an electrical spark, or negligent smoking, for instance).

All these factors must be controlled to keep a grain elevator operation safe.

The DeBruce Grain elevator fire started with a seized bearing on an operating conveyor in one of the tunnels. The roller with the failed bearing stopped turning while the belt continued to run over it, causing excessive wear and heat. Dust grains in contact with the roller ignited. The fire touched off an explosive mix of suspended grain dust and air stirred up by conveyor operation. Very quickly, the entire elevator was involved in the disaster.

The concussion of the first explosion suspended more grain dust, causing a chain reaction. In a series of explosions, the fire propagated through that tunnel and through the crossover to the other tunnel on that side of the headhouse, running from end to end, then to the headhouse from below, and up and back into the run on top of the bins on that side, where it flamed out in an area that had been cleaned of dust. Only that run failed to explode. From the headhouse, the explosions propagated into the run, bins, and tunnels on the opposite side, until all of the explosive fuel was consumed.

The initial and follow-on blasts caused massive destruction. The headhouse sustained multiple explosions as the concussion reflected back in that direction at multiple points of entry. It was pulverized. Workers were trapped in the headhouse on floors above the worst of the destruction. On one side of the elevator, most of the bins blew their tops, utterly destroying the run above. The tunnels filled with grain that spilled from the bottoms of the wrecked bins, greatly complicating rescue and recovery efforts.

Seven employees and contractors died on the site–four in or near the tunnel adjacent to the ignition point, one in and one near the headhouse, and another blown clear of the elevator. Another ten were injured. Three of the hurt were trapped in the headhouse and another made his way out onto a bin roof. Some were outside of the elevator when they were injured by the blast.

A fascinating account of the rescue is included in the accident report. Eventually, a construction crane deposited rescuers and retrieved survivors. A helicopter from Fort Riley also plucked survivors from the top of the structure.

This was a textbook case of negligence, according to investigators. The dust was allowed to build up well beyond safe levels, and installed dust control systems were allowed to fill up and clog and become inoperable. Limited cleaning was done by employees by hand. The faulty bearing had ignited before, just days before the explosion, but it was not repaired.

The accident prompted interested parties to initiate an investigation, which was later sponsored by OSHA. The report is published on the OSHA site. The Grain Elevator Explosion Investigation Team (GEEIT) report is the source for the details presented here.

For those interested in learning more about the accident, an excellent article detailing the aftermath can be found at grainnet.com.

The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator remains a lovely monument to Tillotson ingenuity

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Tillotson elevator at Pocahontas, Iowa, first came 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 wooden walkway, according to fellow workers. He wore brand new work boots and some speculated that they contributed to the accident. The young hoist operator was twenty years old when he fell 130 feet to his death from the top of the nearly completed annex in 1954.

I finally had the opportunity to see the site for myself this past summer. We took a wide detour north of our regular route from Nebraska to Illinois–it added a good four hours driving time, not counting the stops. My young cheering section (the kids) were not cheering about the extra road time.

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Upon our arrival in Pocahontas, a town along Lizard Creek in north central Iowa miles away from any major state thoroughfares, we immediately noticed the Tillotson elevator and its trademark rounded headhouse. The annex stood beside the original elevator, rising higher (by 10 feet) than its 120 foot companion, and gleaming with clean whitewashed concrete. It showed no sign of its sorrowful beginnings.

Later additions, including an elevator with headhouse, a flat storage shed, old steel hoppers, and modern steel bins with external legs, surrounded the two concrete structures.

The Tillotson elevator and annex were flanked on one side by a quiet street with an old church and ancient maple trees. The bustle of grain trucks was absent on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, and the co-op office was closed. Only the elevator exhaust fans pierced the silence.

We circled the complex, taking a number of photographic views, before going on our way.

We have the specifications for both the 1949 elevator and its 1954 annex. The annex construction record is detailed here.

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The Pocahontas annex was built with six 18-foot diameter, 10-foot spread by 130-foot high bins; with a basement; the bins were flat bottomed, built with 30-inch belt conveyors and tripper.

Planned capacity (with pack) was 222,440 bushels; translating to 1,863 bushels of capacity per foot of height. The total reinforced concrete, per plans, was 1,366 cubic yards. Plain concrete for hoppers, per plans, was 9.5 cubic yards, and reinforcing steel used, including jack rods, was 69.59 tons.

The design specified the average quantity of reinforcing steel used for the whole annex, which was 101.89 pounds per cubic yard of concrete.  Actual planned amounts were then itemized for various components of the structure:

Main slab: 27,017 lbs. steel/219 c.y. concrete

Drawform walls: 30,708 lbs. steel/990 c.y. concrete

Overhead bin bottoms: 9,957 lbs. steel/70.5 c.y. concrete

Bin roof and extension roofs: 6,740 lbs. steel/44 c.y. concrete

Cupola walls: 3,747 lbs. steel/33 c.y. concrete

Cupola roof: included in walls

Bridge/Tunnel: 1,020 lbs. steel/9.5 c.y. concrete

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Dimensions and weight of the annex and its components were laid out also. The main slab was 52′ x 60′, for an actual outside area on the ground of 2,946 square feet.

The weight of reinforced concrete, calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard of concrete plus steel, was 2,801 tons. The plain concrete was also calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard and totaled 19 tons. The weight of the hopper fill sand was 177 tons.

When the weight of grain was added to the specifications, at 60 pounds per bushel (for Pocahontas, the grain load would total 6,660 tons), the planned gross weight of the annex could be predicted. Twelve tons of steel and machinery were added to the total, for a planned gross weight, loaded, of 9,669 tons.

From these figures, bearing pressure was calculated to be 3.28 tons per square foot.

To handle all of that pressure, the main slab was made 24 inches thick. It was built with #8 steel, placed at 6″ c.c. spacing. Tank steel and bottoms (for round tanks) used #4 steel at 9″ c.c. spacing.

The drawform walls, with extension, measured 411 linear feet, and 130 feet in height. Cupola dimensions were 16′ x 56′ x 8 1/3′.

Since this was an annex, distribution of grain was accomplished through the main elevator leg and thence by belt conveyors and a tripper. Many of the items expected for elevator specifications were absent for an annex. For machinery, the annex had top and bottom belts, rated at 600’/min or 3,000 bushels per hour. 7 1/2 horsepower drives were used for a total load rate of 9,000 bushels per hour.

Loading rates are key for grain storage operations, since they determine how quickly trucks or rail cars can unload and be on their way. Slow elevators become obsolete. The Pocahontas operation was at the leading edge of technology with its shiny new 1954 annex, and to this day it provides quick, efficient service.

 

 

A long-time elevator man sends greetings from Hardy, Iowa, and shares some lore

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Story and photos by Larry Larsen

In response to a recent post about Odebolt, Iowa, we heard from Larry Larsen, who works for Gold Eagle Cooperative’s facility in Hardy, Iowa. Larry says Tillotson Construction Company’s elevator, built there in 1956, is “still operating and used daily!”

GilmoreCity08Larry graduated from high school in Gilmore City, Iowa. His father managed an elevator from 1958 to 2008, and Larry remembers high school summers spent cleaning out and painting silos.

After getting in touch with us, Larry took an excursion and delivered some photos of the Gilmore City elevator. It was built in 1949, a year when Tillotson also built elevators in Dalhart, Tex., Hooker, Okla., Hordville, Neb., West Bend, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn., among other places.

Larry, who served 25 years in the United States Army, shared these additional reminiscences:

“I know a lot of the facilities in my old stomping grounds are [built by] Todd & Sargent. The facilities built in the 1980s and 1990s were done by Lambert & Hamlin.

“Interesting thing–I found out through my dad in early 2000s that Lambert & Hamlin built or started to build two concrete tanks in the town of Rutland, Iowa, and about halfway into that project they went bankrupt, causing Pro Cooperative to find a contractor mid-pour to finish the project.

GilmoreCity06“Pro Cooperative then became receiver of Lambert & Hamlin’s property in Sioux City.

“A lot of interesting history in many of the small towns all around the Midwest with the construction of elevators. Some communities had their population double when crews came to town.

“Reading the blogs, there was also a lot of tragedy involved, with people falling off the partially completed structures. I remember, in the early ’80s, Lambert & Hamlin was doing a slip in the tiny town of Pioneer, Iowa.

“They had a laborer who was smoking pot as he was tying rebar on the night shift. Said individual stopped tying rebar to light a joint, lost his balance, and fell 80 or so feet to his death.

“Slipping never paused for that.”

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The Tillotson elevator in Hinton, Iowa, is fully upgraded to fulfill today’s mission

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Hinton, Iowa, grain elevator, anchoring the eastern verge of town along U.S. 75 in western Iowa, looks very little like it did when it first rose in a continuous pour over the flat surrounding farmland. Conveyors and legs and platforms stick out at odd angles from the headhouse–distribution central for the sprawling complex of elevator, drier, and annexes. The long row of grain storage bins and equipment deeply overshadows the eastern side of the highway, which zips past the center of town without a nod to the businesses along the main streets to its west.

An elevated conveyor crows in red lettering, “Floyd Valley Grain, L.L.C.,” where it may be easily read from the road. To drive the point home, two dedicated locomotives parked upon the nearby rails are painted bright red in the company colors and sport the company name. This cooperative, the advertising seems to say, is the true center of town.

DSC_6412Innovation and modernization bristle from every side of the old Tillotson elevator. The externally installed legs (the parts of an elevator that lift the grain during the loading process) are a later modification taken to prevent grain dust fires: the moving parts that may heat up, such as bearings and motors, are no longer confined in an enclosed space with combustible grain dust. The various conveyors connect to newer annexes that were built when the storage demand outgrew the original elevator. The entire complex has become a far greater enterprise than our grandfathers, builders of the original structures, ever envisioned.

I paged through the Tillotson Construction Company records, preserved in handwritten and carefully photocopied pages, looking for the building specifications for the original Hinton elevator. Unfortunately they were not preserved with the rest. But we know it is a Tillotson elevator from a news item about an accident at the construction site where a man fell to his death in 1954. Perhaps records pertaining to the subject of a potential lawsuit were not with the rest of the file.

The elevator follows a well-tested design, and like the majority of the later Tillotson elevators we have studied, it still serves. It is a fitting testament to the engineering pioneer that was Tillotson Construction Company.

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A low-wing airplane sped up business for Tillotson Construction Company

Navion

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. Here, Uncle Tim recalls flying with Tillotson Construction Company’s pilot Ted Morris.

I remember taking a few trips in that Navion with him. It was one of the last planes Dad bought, the only one with a low wing. That Navion was fast, too, a faster plane. I remember being with him somewhere–where the hell were we?–trying to find a spot to land and picked a spot that looked absolutely wonderful from up there. We didn’t realize till we were almost on the ground that the spot had three-foot-tall grass. We went plowing through that grass and also an electric fence that was in the middle. We had to plow our way out.  

Dad [Reginald “Mike” Tillotson] could never get a license because he had double hernia and all that. Ted was our pilot and we also had Marvin Melia, he flew dad, too. Marvin was giving me flyin’ instructions. We’d go out there to the airport, North Omaha. Marvin’s the one that flew Dad around. They didn’t fly every day, or every week necessarily. He’d been flying Dad two years before. 

Ted came back from KS one time in that Navion, and he said something about, “Let’s go home fast.”

So he’s flying like 200 feet off the ground, really a lot of fun. He radioed in to get clearance for landing, and the communication that came back said, “Where the hell are you? We cant pick you up on the radar!”

Ted said, “I guess we better get up off the deck so they can see it.” 

Neglecting to lag an elevator’s head pulley led to disaster in Bellwood, Neb.

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. He tells of a grain elevator repair job undertaken for Ted Morris, who by 1959 was a former employee of Tillotson Construction Company.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

Ted Morris was the pilot. He worked in the office with Wayne doing the drawing and getting the specs together. He flew Dad when Dad would go out to the jobs. Ted used to take me flying out to the job. He was a fun guy, good natured. He tried going into business himself. Matter of fact, when Mart and I got married, we went out to York, Nebraska, to do a repair job that he had a contract on, in the dead of the winter. That was in ’59. It was Bellwood–the one that had the explosion. It blew the damn headhouse apart. Mart and I were married in November ’59 and we went out.

They were dumping grain in the drive pits to feed it up to the tanks. It was cold and also windy, I believe. When they rolled the damn overhead doors down to shut off the wind tunnel through the drive, the dust built up and that was also a job … I don’t know who decided not to lag the head pulley; it’s like putting a tire on a steel wheel. I don’t know what the hell was supposed to be such a big savings. I don’t know we were the only ones that did it, the other grain elevator contractors did, too, they quit lagging the head pulley. That big pulley would slip for a little bit till it got some speed up. Eventually, they found out the hard way, it was taking the facing off the back of the belt and exposing the fiber web in it. The damn web spots would get hot and start on fire.

Conveyor_head_pulley_lagging_for_V_shaped[1]They called it lagging because they’d fasten or wrap a lag of grain elevator belt around real tight like a rubber tire to give it grip.

When I say we would lag the pulley, we didn’t do it. Where we purchased the pulley, they did it before they shipped. There was supposed to be some kind of cost savings. When you’re trying to pull 110, 120 foot of belt, with grain, it takes quite a bit to get thing rolling.

I guess because of the wind, they closed the overhead doors. The dust built up from the trucks just dumpin’ that grain, you can imagine, and it built up, The fire actually started in the boot pit. They were running that grain up, and I think they stopped the belt for a little bit because somebody went down into the pit to grease the bearing, and there was a fire and it exploded. It slammed him into the little steel ladder. The fire went right up the leg well, which was full of dust, and it just blew out in the headhouse.

The distributor floor was quite a height off the roof deck in the headhouse, and of course it was up overhead. You had to have some heights for the spider legs that went out to the tubes. That’s where it did its big explosion. It had enough force to actually bulge the headhouse walls. The distributor floor was concrete but held in place by a key way in the headhouse wall. They call it a key way when you slip the headhouse walls at a certain level. You put tapered two-by-four blocks in the forms that you could peel out later like teeth, so when you poured the floor it went into the keyways and that’s what held the distributor floor walls up. The explosion bulged the headhouse walls out so that they turned loose that distributor floor, which left it standing on the feed pipes that went into the tanks.

I’m trying to remember if Bellwood was the one with the galley out to the annex blowing the windows out of it, and it knocked the tripper–a little feeder that went out across the annex building and would fill whatever tanks you wanted–off its tracks.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers' elevator fire in 1902.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers elevator fire in 1902. It was the third elevator that had burned “inside of a year,” and as the town was gaining such notoriety, the Gazette was considering becoming a daily paper.

They were doing the repair on it. I think we pulled off because the temperature was so damn low you couldn’t put your bare hand on a piece of metal; it would stick. I remember we come back into Omaha and wasn’t out there that long. Mart and I came back to Omaha, stayed at my Uncle Ralph (Hassman’s) house, Johnny’s dad, before we got that apartment on the second floor of an old house that was turned into an apartment on Izard Street. That’s when I went to work for Leo A. Daly, the architects, in Omaha, for $300 a month. I went to work for them on the drawing table.

We were actually in York. It might have been a different repair job. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure it was one of Dad’s elevators. We were married on Armistice Day of ’59. We had to be out there in December. I was working for Daly maybe a week when Dad passed on January 5, 1960.

The York job was a repair, and it was a repair from an explosion but nothing compared to Bellwood. I remember we were up in the headhouse when were there. The one asshole I didn’t know, and either did the other guy. He loaded, like, a shoebox on the floor with acetylene ’cause it’s a heavy gas, and it laid down in that box, and he turned around and threw a match over there and that that box blew up. I damn near ran off the frigging roof to get out of that headhouse. He thought that was so damn funny. I was about ready to bust him. I don’t like his sense of humor.  

Ted wasn’t doing well at the business. I remember a time or two he called Mother. He was distraught, he wasn’t making it. I don’t remember what happened to Ted.