Pittsburgh Years

Molasses

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T

he DeKalb Molasses Feed Company, with an industrial plant located in DeKalb, Illinois, about twenty miles west of Naperville, if in the middle of corn country, offered specialized feed supplements to regional farmers that were enriched with sugars in the form of molasses.  This helps fatten up the cattle and swine in the region.  You won’t taste the molasses in your steaks, but they like it; for them it’s like a Hershey bar; like you, they probably get tired of the same thing all the time.  The farmer doesn’t care about this, but he does like them to get fat fast.

In 1957 this plant burned to the ground—a cinder.  It must have been one hell of a fire, and sickeningly smelly for the townsfolk.  Imagine pancakes and maple syrup overheating on a stove-top in a thin pan on very high heat.

Engineering companies, with a small bow to the legal profession which perfected this technique, have a classic form of pitching engineering services, pejoratively known in the trade as "ambulance chasing".  Some engineering professionals stay on top of the news of fires, floods, tornadoes, explosions and similar disasters and then they get on the telephone.  Enter: Quilty Engineering Company.  After the fire, Mr. Quilty quickly contracted with the owners of the ashes to provide a new structure and I was put to organizing the work.  By that time I was the only one in the office except for Quilty who occasionally popped in and, as fast, back out.

Ordinarily, the first step in designing structures is to obtain soil borings, small holes drilled deeply into the ground with special pipes in such a way that round “core samples” of the earth beneath the planned building can be brought up and studied in a laboratory.  There are "geotechnical" companies who specialize in this work.  The borings in DeKalb indicated that the soil directly beneath the building was not capable of supporting Text Box:  
Drilled Pier

the new and much heavier concrete structure that the owners wished to build in lieu of the wooden structure now suddenly converted into ash. 

This soil condition is not terribly unusual and there are several methods of construction that will surmount this sort of problem, though these techniques are rather more expensive than traditional foundations.  The method that had been chosen here by our engineer after reviewing the lab report on the soil was to use what is known as "drilled piers". This is a process in which holes, perhaps 20in. in diameter, are drilled into the earth down to the point where the soil—which ordinarily gets firmer as one goes deeper—is sufficiently strong to support the weight of the planned structure.  After drilling to a specified depth the hole is widened (belled-out) at the bottom to provide more surface area.  Then concrete is poured into the hole and the building is then supported on these "cast-in-place" supports.  At DeKalb it was necessary to go down about 30ft. before the soil could bear the loads.

By this time, in addition to running the office and making the drawings, I was also going into the field and, in effect acting as a project manager.  Frank (Mr. Quilty—we were on a first name basis by this time) had loaned me of one of his cars, a big black Chrysler to get back and forth to the job sites; I liked it very much.  I went to DeKalb to watch the subcontractors install the drilled piers, an interesting process  which I had never seen before.

A large rig with dual rubber tires, a sort of modified truck with the "drill" mounted vertically on the back end of the truck bed, was used for this work.  The type used here had a long, hollow, steel shaft which in cross-section was about 5in. square. It had a special “bucket” on its lower end which engaged the earth. An engine mounted forward on the truck-bed turned a horizontal steel ring.  It was geared and thus it turned the shaft which, in turn, turned the bucket itself.  The bucket had cutters at its bottom which forced the soil into the bucket as it turned.  When it was full it would be withdrawn, swung to the side and emptied.  This process was repeated over and over, deeper and deeper, until the resulting hole was drilled to its specified depth. At this point special "wings" on the bucket were deployed which, as it was rotated, created a wider hemispherical bottom to the shaft.  This was called the “bell”; it increasing the bearing surface at the bottom of the pier.

I don't know whether it was the molasses in the building combined with the water used to extinguish the fire or just what it was, but we had great difficulty positioning this heavy rig in the right place to drill the holes.  Even this big truck with many tires kept sinking into the earth, the wheels quite useless. The responsibility for this problem can lie with different people depending upon how the contract is drawn.  In this case the responsibility was that of the project manager of the Quilty Engineering Company (me).  What to do? 

I hired a bulldozer to push the rig into place but, even then, in some areas, that was impossible.  So I began to buy great trucks of gravel, spreading it out with the bulldozer, hoping to make a roadbed solid enough for the rigs to maneuver on, but, as soon as the trucks drove onto it, the gravel just sunk into the muck and disappeared as though into a swamp.  Nothing had changed.  We had successfully drilled a number of piers around the perimeter of the mess, but there were several interior shafts to be drilled that seemed quite impossible for us to reach.  I had no idea what to do about this.  Fortunately this was a situation where Frank's engineering experience at Merritt Chapman & Scott finally kicked-in.  His first known contribution to the “engineering” of any of his projects:  he knew of a company in Chicago that would dig these piers by hand.  I waited impatiently to see how this seemingly impossible job could be performed.

A week or so later a couple of odd-looking trucks pulled up at the job site.  Then, as though part of a circus act, a half dozen midget Irish­men with muscles like Popeye’s piled out and stretched after their long ride out from Chicago.  They had been selected because they were small and strong; they had to dig a four or 5 foot diameter hole 30 feet deep or so.  Though small, they managed because they were very tough.  I had never encountered a rougher bunch before.

I supposed that being small and Irish in a rough neighborhood of Chicago might serve to toughen one up, unnatural selection dominating.  Over a period of a few weeks, while I watched and listened to them work, my English vocabulary becoming significantly enriched by their lilting Irish profanity which they didn’t seem to notice, but the young boy from the country did.  Their lunch breaks were wholly liquid, taken abundantly at the nearest bar.  I was told that they were paid very, very well and by the time the job was finished I was not at all surprised at this.  It was tough work.

The process is as simple as can be imagined. These small men, one at a time, using special shovels and picks with very short handles, simply dug a hole about 4 or 5ft. in diameter, just big enough for one small guy to work in. They spelled each other every half hour or so.  When they got down about 5ft. or so the wall of the hole was lined with vertical boards reinforced by strong horizontal metal hoops to prevent the earth from collapsing in on the digger as the hole expanded downwards.  A bucket hoist had been mounted over the hole on a tripod; they simply shoveled the dirt into that and then it was hoisted up by someone then on break from digging, and dumped out off to the side.  This bucket was also used to get the guys in and out of the hole as it got deeper; they simply climbed into it and were hoisted up or down.

Each time they achieved another 5 foot depth, more casing was installed, with more steel hoops, and so it went, down and down for about 30ft. This is a dirty, messy job:  After awhile when one gets below the water table, water pours through the casing boards from the sides of the hole. It is pumped out with a small pump at the bottom.  The men wore yellow rubber pants, boots, slickers and hats to keep most of the water off of them, but when they were twenty or 30ft. down it was like standing in a heavy rainstorm and digging mud.  They seemed used to it.  When a hole was finished, after only a few days, it was time for inspection:  Was the earth firm enough, or was it necessary to go farther down?  As it turned out, I was to be the inspector.

Though I was on pretty good terms with these toughs by this time, they seemed to rather enjoy the idea of the greenhorn going down into the hole.  Perhaps they thought I would just skip the trip down, pass on it, say nevermind, but, though I was nervous about going down to the bottom of this shaft, I thought I ought to make the try, kind of a rite of passage: all my credibility would be shot if I chickened-out at this point.  I was duly fitted with rain gear over my business suit and dutifully climbed into the bucket as I had seen them do many times before. They slowly let me down to the bottom of the hole, water pouring in on me from all sides.

Although I knew theoretically that it was safe, by the time I got 30ft. down, with the surface of my normal world was barely visible through the water drops pouring in on me.  I looked up, squinting my eyes against the water and saw the light of day, looking like a small circular full moon, 30ft. above me.  I didn’t dilly-dally around.  I stamped my foot a few times on the soil; it seemed solid to me.  I signaled to be hoisted up, quite aware if of how absolutely dependent I was on the boys doing so.  But the knowledge that I had to approve their paychecks gave me a certain confidence.  They might torture me a little bit by hoisting me very slowly on the way back up, and I would be soaked, but I would get out.