Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

Evevator test003

A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

Evevator test004

Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.

An old wooden elevator comes down at Halsey, Oregon, and shares its secrets

dsc_0317

Halsey, Ore., in early 2012.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Elevators such as this one in Halsey, Ore., have elicited interest from photographers and curious travellers for as long as they have existed, especially since they are on the verge of extinction. Technology passed them by back in the early 1940s when most of the new construction in the United States went to slip-formed concrete.

dsc_0924

The remnants of the Halsey elevator, Feb. 2013, in a downpour.

Canada held out, building wooden elevators well into the 1970s, with a minority of them still in service today, and many more long since demolished, abandoned, or burned.

The end has come for the Halsey elevator. After hearing of its demise in an online forum, I recently passed near the town on I-5 and stopped to see the hulking remnant. It was a sorrowful sight, topless and dreary.

But beside it was a more interesting find.

In an empty lot next to the elevator, piled randomly, was the elevator’s leg. It brought to mind a story–a cautionary tale, really–which illustrated why concrete was so attractive to engineers looking for a better alternative.

dsc_0933

The leg from the Halsey, Ore. elevator, piled on the ground.

While exploring elevators in Alberta, Canada, I took a trip to a small town called Milo.

It was a snowy day, and as I gazed up at the lone wooden elevator, a gentleman pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed directions. He introduced himself as Ian Thomson. He was a long-time resident and farmer, and once we got on the topic of elevators, he told me that Milo once had nine wooden elevators lined up along the rail line. The sole survivor, silver-sided and huge, was built in the 1970s. It was still active, and its nearest neighbor had come down a year or two before.

DSC_0598

The lone wooden elevator in Milo, Alberta, Canada.

Ian told a tale of the demise of one of the old wooden houses.

One of Milo’s elevators was decommissioned in winter, years ago. When the leg was torn out, a salvage company tried to remove the conveyor belt to reuse the rubber. Water remained in the pit, and the lower portion of the leg could not be retrieved because it was frozen solid. So they cut the belt off at the top of the ice and hauled off what they could. The owners told Ian that as soon as the pit thawed out, he could have the rest.

It was an early spring day, and a thunderstorm rolled by. A farmer could always use rubber–Ian was thinking of mud flaps for his truck, so when he went to check the elevator that day, he was disappointed to find the leg remnants still frozen solid in the pit. So he left without them. But as he exited the elevator, he noticed a thin tendril of smoke rising from the headhouse.

DSC_0610

Ian Thomson displays his railroad collection.

With gut wrenching dread, he called the owners, but he knew it was already too late. A fire company fought the blaze, but by then the elevator was fully involved, and it burned completely down.

A nagging worry stayed with Ian. While he knew he had done nothing to cause the fire, he was seen leaving the elevator, and he thought his neighbors might wonder about it. But the real culprit was lightning. He needn’t have worried.

Ian Thomson was an honorable member of the community and an esteemed historian, with a proud military heritage. He was, and still is, a true gentleman farmer.

DSC_0593

Alberta wheat country.

The fire danger inherent in wooden elevators spurred engineers to try concrete building methods. Concrete elevators came with their own hazards, but also great advantages, and they remain the premier choice for durable, large scale grain storage.

But we still miss the proud old wooden denizens of the plains.