The engineering behind elevator construction began with retaining walls

 

Before electronic scales weighed the grain, weights and a fulcrum did the trick.

Story by Kristen Cart

Nothing is quite so revealing as a vintage book. Ronald Ahrens alerted me to his discovery of an engineering textbook, written by Milo S. Ketchum, about retaining walls and elevator bins. Prof. Ketchum was the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado (my alma mater) when he wrote The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators. First published in 1907 by the Engineering News Publishing Company, of New York, it boasted a second edition in 1911.

From the first few paragraphs, revelations abound. Most eye-opening is the historical context of its publication.

In 1907, surviving Civil War veterans were well-established in their old age. No one yet considered the possibility of the worldwide conflagrations to come. Comanche wars in Texas were still an ugly living memory, more recent to people than the Vietnam War is to us. Grandmothers shared their memories of living in sod houses on the Great Plains. Movies were not yet a national pastime. Airplanes and automobiles were on the drawing board–the Ford Model T would begin production the following year.

When grain was delivered to elevators, it came by barge, rail, or wagon. The business model that drove the elevator boom was in its infancy. Engineers had just begun working with reinforced concrete for bridges, dams, and skyscrapers, but much remained to be done.

Grain transport by truck was a later innovation.

In the introduction, the book gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem it purports to solve.

A special subset of engineering concerns granular fluids. Grain acts both as a solid and as a fluid–it can be piled in a conical pile because of internal friction which is absent in liquids, but it can flow very much like water. Containing such a fluid requires an understanding of internal pressures–both vertical and outward–that are exerted on a container. All of these considerations boil down to a mathematical model that accurately describes the materials, structures, and shapes required.

The book first examines retaining walls, the simplest structure for containing granular fluids, and proceeds to bins and elevators from there.

Failure to heed safe engineering principles bore disastrous results in Fargo, North Dakota.

Thus we have a textbook that gets into the weeds of that math and physics, ultimately used to teach future designers how to do grain bins. The young men schooled in the years following 1907 would be the builders, engineers, superintendents, and architects who started the concrete elevator building boom.

Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

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By Ronald Ahrens

“Silent crowd watches through the long night hours as workers search mill ruins for more missing bodies,” the Buffalo Times blared in 1913.

As an early leader in grain storage and milling, Buffalo, N.Y., was also a test site (of sorts) for elevator mishaps.

This report, culled from a firefighting blog, shows how the explosion even hit a passing train: 

An explosion devastated a grain elevator, killing at least 17 men and injuring 60 more. The elevator, located at the Husted Milling and Elevating Co. at Elk and Peabody streets, was left in flames after the dust explosion. The engineer of a passing train was killed by the blast that shattered windows, injuring many passengers. A dozen boxcars loaded with grain were also destroyed. Every ambulance in the city responded, but there were so many injuries that the flatbed section of the damaged train was used to transport many of the wounded grain elevator workers. Firemen poured tons of water on the volatile remains all day and into the night, hoping to cool things enough to allow a complete search. Losses were estimated at a half-million dollars.

Grain dust is explosive. After the electrification of elevator mechanisms in the late-1890s, it took a while to figure out that electric motors should be shielded to suppress sparks.

Static electricity can build up around conveyor belts.

Machinery can overheat.

And of course, there’s a reason “No Smoking” warnings are now everywhere in an elevator.

Tillotson Construction Company’s first reinforced concrete elevator, which was built in 1939 at Goltry, Okla., had a dust collection system. Notes in the company records say, “3 H.P. fan, 42″ collector dust bin.”

We lack any more details but are striving to increase our knowledge of dust collection inside elevators.

 

 

 

 

Around 1900, electricity and concrete were advances for Buffalo’s elevators

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By Ronald Ahrens

Yesterday we looked at the rise of Buffalo, N.Y., as a grain storage and processing center, one that developed after the the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Buffalo was the port where grain was unloaded from lake boats to canal boats. A bevy of steam-powered bucket elevators sprang up.

Today we consider the advances made in Buffalo after the introduction of electricity and electric motors to replace coal and steam engines. We also look at the rise of slipformed concrete to replace wooden elevator houses.

In his essay on the history of Buffalo’s elevators, Henry H. Baxter notes that inexpensive electric power permitted the electrification of elevators. It also encouraged grain processing: the milling of cereal, flour, and animal feed.

Buffalo 05The first electric elevator–a retrofitting, we assume–was soon after a large-capacity generating station started up in 1895. Two years later, the Electric and  Great Northern elevators were built solely around compact electric motors.

“In this way they eliminated steam boilers, engines, chimneys, numerous workers, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator or mill site,” Baxter explains.

Nevertheless, grain scoopers were still needed, and the Irish from South Buffalo dominated the International Longshoremen’s Association Grain Shovelers Union Local 109 as late as 1940. During Buffalo’s heyday as many as 3,000 men were employed scooping grain from the holds of lake carriers. By 1996, the Buffalo News reported only 80 scoopers remained, the last of their kind in the United States.

A Facebook page offers revealing photos of scoopers at work.

The corresponding advance was the use of reinforced concrete. Baxter explains: “At first, bins were built of wood and usually lined with iron. After 1890 steel bins were built in a number of different arrangements. Since that time reinforced concrete has been used.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

To get up to the headhouse, workers used a man lift. “This is an endless moving belt stretching from basement to the top with 12-inch square platforms attached every 25 feet or so. To go up or down a worker has only to step on a wooden platform going in his direction and hold on.”

Baxter does not specify what a worker might hold for security. Of course, a worker could  fall–that’s why enclosed cages replaced the more primitive method.

A reinforced-concrete elevator was built at Buffalo in 1907. Baxter’s understated description of the method is worth quoting at length:

At the beginning, a form usually four feet high was built on the foundation slab. Screw jacks placed at intervals of about seven feet were used to raise the form. Workers operated the jacks at a rate calculated to raise the form about six inches an hour. This rate gave concrete time to set at the bottom before being exposed by the slowly rising form.

Using this method it took about ten days for the Standard Elevator to reach the height of 125 feet. This was the average height of the bins. After completion of the bins, the workhouse was slipformed up until the structure reached a height of about 200 feet.

The top or deck of a grain elevator under construction was an extremely busy place. Placement of steel rods, pouring of concrete, and jacking of the form were continuous processes. Generally, each jack man had twelve jacks to tend to. A whistle sounded as a signal for each man to make one turn on each jack. Raising the form six inches required 24 whistle signals each hour. During that time a jack man would make 288 turns–almost five a minute–on his jack. Understandably a jack man occasionally got tired enough to miss a few turns. This caused his section of the form to be lower than the rest, resulting in a considerable stress on the form. Such an imbalance brought distress to the job superintendent.

 

Tillotson’s Bushland, Tex., elevator was the scene of a scary, non-fatal fall in 1950

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Besides yesterday’s story about getting off-level when building the Bushland, Tex., elevator in 1950, the late Niel Lieb supplied another one that illustrates how dangerous elevator construction could be. 

Texas-Okla Logo 04I recalled it during my road trip when approaching the 252,000-bushel Bushland elevator that gleamed in the midmorning Monday sun. A second one on the site looked a little tattered in comparison to the classic Tillotson with its fine curved headhouse.

Lettering on the east side’s upper-middle part proclaimed, “Welcome to Bushland, Home of the Falcons.” The Class of 2010 was responsible.

IMG_8923But the drama of the elevator’s construction might have eluded the Class of 2010.

“Every job had a peculiarity,” Lieb said.

“The guy in Bushland jumped off the top. He started to fall, so he jumped. He jumped out far enough to land on the sand pile. We were probably 40 to 50 feet [above ground on the slipform]. He landed on the side of the sand pile and slid to the bottom.

We said, “How you doing?”

He said, “Oh, I’m fine. I’ll be a little stiff and sore.”

“There were seven guys that I worked with. Baker was one and Bill Russell. All of ’em fell or got killed somewhere along the line.

“When you’re working in the air, you become careless because it’s like walking on the ground, but you’re not walking on the ground.”

IMG_8911Indeed, we can hardly count the human cost to building an elevator, or any tall structure, in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

Sometime afterward, we figured out more specifics about safety procedures and equipment.

At last I drove onto the grounds. The elevator was open. Chalk up another score for me–the second elevator in a row I could enter and inspect. No one seemed to notice me even though the Ag Producers Co-op office was just to the north.

Admitting myself, I went in and out through open doorways and up and down stairs. Not only was the elevator well painted outside, but it was meticulously clean inside.

Sports arenas and shopping centers go up with much acclaim but sometimes are torn down before 68 years go by. But the Tillotson elevator in Bushland was fit and trim.

As the grandson of builder Reginald Tillotson, I felt pride in his work and gratitude to the owners who have kept it so well.

Tomorrow, a meeting with a co-op executive.

 

Home-built travel trailers and the demise of a tricked-out ’53 Ford in Iowa

HomemadeThe topic of staying in a travel trailer while working at grain elevator construction sites has prompted Charles J. Tillotson (“Uncle Chuck”) to do some reminiscing and dig through his archive of photos.

He writes:

The first one is a photo of the last trailer Dad built in 1937, which was an upgrade to the one that your mom and I are standing in the doorway of. He had covered the exterior of this trailer with some kind of protective fabric, which doesn’t seem to be attached very well.

The previous trailer had an exposed plywood exterior that was either stained or painted and it evidently didn’t hold up. The focus should be on the small size of the trailers which were probably about 15 feet long, much like the size of the early camper trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. If you allow room for the stove, toilet, closet and even a fold-down tabletop with a little settee, where did we all sleep?

The photo [below] was taken in late summer in Albert City, Iowa, and shows my Dad and me standing along side of my 1953 Ford with another older gentleman who I assume was the Albert City superintendent packing something into the trunk. We had finished up our work on Albert City, and Dad had assigned the three of us to travel across the state to a job he was starting in Clinton, Iowa.

Reg&Chas

Soon after the photo was taken we three boys [Chuck, Tim, and Mike] left Albert City and took along with us a couple of men who wanted to continue working for Tillotson Co. We took off in my beautiful ’53 Ford, which I had modified with a two-tone paint job, a Continental fake-spare-tire kit (remember those?) and lowering blocks among other things. I was driving very fast and in a pattern learned from my Dad, taking short cuts via the old one-mile graveled country roads through the tall cornfields. Zooming along and approaching an intersection ahead I spotted a dust trail from a vehicle approaching the same intersection on my right. With the road being gravel I decided that rather than stop for the oncoming vehicle (that had the right of way) to instead outrun it.

I had almost made it through the intersection when the oncoming vehicle clipped my rear bumper and put me into a sideways spin. I countered the spin by yanking the wheel in the opposite direction which brought me out of the spin, but the action was so fast it put me into another spin in the opposite direction. We zigzagged back and forth for a bit and eventually headed into a huge irrigation ditch, which we entered, rolled over, and flipped upside down. I remember my bro Mike standing up in the back seat hollering at me to ‘straighten out the car’ but to no avail. I think there were five of us in the car including my bros, none of which had seat belts fastened but by some miraculous ending, we were all able to crawl out of the car without a scratch.

The farmer who hit me was a local fellow, and he rounded up a tractor with an operator and the car was pulled back upright and out of the ditch, whereby it was towed off to a local mechanic’s shop.

I don’t remember who came to rescue us, but somehow we continued on to the Clinton job where we put in some closing days of the summer, laboring there. 

Ford&trailer

When it came time to go home, my bro Tim and I went and picked up the Ford which still was operable (a testimonial to Ford), but the vehicle had multiple dents and bruises including missing a windshield which had been knocked out in the crash.

Tim and I bought a pair of goggles and proceeded to hit the trail (in a light drizzle) to Omaha with the wind and rain in our hair and elsewhere. My Dad knew of the accident but he had never seen the car until we got home whereby he came out of the house and I’m sure almost had a heart attack when he viewed the pile of junk that once was my beautiful ’53 Ford. As I recall, he had the car towed away to the junk yard.

It’s funny how viewing old photos can bring back memories of both the exciting and dull days gone by. It’s too bad the photographs taken today are no longer hard-copied by most people and their memories no longer documented to tell the stories of days gone by for both their own revisitation as well as their offspring.

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.