A reader recalls elevator construction and the recent explosion in Hinton, Iowa

By Michael Pelelo

I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents’ farm south of Merrill, Iowa, where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54.


The Hinton elevator in July 2015. Photos by Kristen Cart.

Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I spent many days in the 70s and 80s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

In the 70s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa, that built jump-form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, Iowa, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton.

I have probably been in every elevator in northwest Iowa at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local, too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Younglove Construction out of Sioux City, which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump-formed in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump-forming elevators.

Way back when I was doing that type of work, old guys would come around every day and gawk at what was going on. Now, I am one of the old guys gawking!

* * *

DSC_0455My days in construction are ones I remember fondly, even though the work was hard and dangerous and the hours were long.

One of the companies I worked for was involved in a three-fatality accident at the Ritter, Iowa, Co-op in 1976. We were building 24-foot and 30-foot jump-form silos all up and down the Floyd Valley. I was working on the 24-foot forms in Sheldon, Iowa, south of Ritter at the time.

The March 17 explosion at Hinton was in the main workhouse, which is the Tillotson structure built in 1954.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was very involved with work on several structures in that complex with two different construction companies. Much has been added since I last worked around there. From pictures in the media, it appears that at least one or more of the tanks in the Tillotson structure have ruptured, as I can see grain spilling out in some photos.

A freak accident led to the fatal fall of Bill Russell’s son

The Aurora Coop's Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator's construction.

The Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator’s construction. Photo by Kurt Glinn.

Story by Ronald Ahrens

My uncle, Tim Tillotson, recalls some details of the death of a son of Bill Russell, a superintendent for Tillotson Construction Company. Russell was the father of eight sons in all. The accident occurred in the 1950s.

Although he can’t remember which job [it was the Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy location in central Nebraska] or when it happened, Uncle Tim, who was not present at the time, recalls from on-the-scene reports that two of Russell’s sons were running the night crew.

The two were working with a storey pole, a measuring device of ancient origin. In this case, the storey pole was a metal tape, and it was used to verify the height of vertical sections. One son was on top, fifty-five feet up, feeding the tape down to the other on the ground.

“It was blowing in the wind, and he was letting it out,” Uncle Tim says. “The wind caught it to some power lines, and it gave him a jolt.”

A fall to the ground ensued.

“One side of him hit the Georgia buggy, which kind of spun him around. He was conscious on the ground, saying he thought he’d broken a leg. But by the time the ambulance got there, he’d died of shock.”

Uncle Tim suggests the likelihood of a brain hemorrhage as well.

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.