Originally published in The Inquirer on Sunday, September 6, 1998
Alexander Maslanka tilted his head and set his stare toward the sky. His eyes followed the pendulous swing of a wrecking ball as it pounded on a stubborn landmark, nibbling at a hulking, hauntingly beautiful structure that has loomed over Port Richmond for 70 years.
For nearly two weeks, Maslanka, 72, has sat at the corner of Richmond and Clearfield Streets, watching as a fellow survivor is laid to rest.
``I don't have anything else to do,'' he said.
He was sitting in a folding chair under the only tree on a busy corner that faces Interstate 95.
``It's just something that brings back memories. ''
Maslanka was only 2 when the Reading Co. built this gray concrete giant, a 42,000-ton grain elevator. It is a monument to Port Richmond’s once-thriving industrial economy and to the company whose railroads virtually created this neighborhood 150 years ago.
The elevator is the last great vestige of the Reading era, whose coal and grain exports helped make its port a key rail terminal for international trade for many years.
``You hate to see it go, but everything that goes up has got to come down,'' Maslanka said. ``Progress. ''
A demolition crew began chipping at the building's 110 grain silos on Aug. 13, using a 1.5-ton wrecking ball and backhoe to chomp away at the 130-foot concrete cylinders wrapped around a skeleton of steel reinforcing rods.
After all the silos have been leveled, demolition experts will rig the 235-foot-tall headhouse with explosives and implode it, said Joann Winzinger, vice president of Robert T. Winzinger Inc., which Conrail hired to bring down the relic.
Demolition may be completed in two months, but Winzinger said no decision had been made about whether to implode the headhouse all at once or in stages over several weeks.
The silos are crumbling at the painfully slow rate of one and a half per day, but knocking them down is still cheaper than trying to rig each one with explosives, Winzinger said.
The real challenge, she said, will be the implosion itself. The main building may be too sturdy to crumble into small enough pieces for immediate recycling into highway concrete.
``When we implode them and they fall over, most buildings crack up to nothing, almost,'' she said. ``They end up in a big pile. This is probably going to lay down on its side. It's not going to break up all that much, the way it's built. ''
Erected during the boom of the Roaring Twenties, the Reading Co. grain elevator became a symbol of the railroad’s vibrant presence north of Center City. Reading began building its 225-acre port terminal in 1837, and the town surrounding it was called Richmond.
Five years later, construction was completed on the Port Richmond terminal, providing the first rail link to the coal mines in central Pennsylvania. It brought industry, jobs, and a population influx that led to the development of houses. It put a small community on the map.
The town soon changed its name to Port Richmond, and in 1847, it was incorporated by the city. By 1919, the port employed 60,000 people in shipping coal, grain and other commodities, according to statistics compiled by Temple University.
``Port Richmond was an incredibly important area because of the Reading and what they did there,'' said Jeffrey Ray, curator of Philadelphia's Atwater Kent Museum.
In January 1928, the Reading replaced its old, wooden grain elevator with a concrete one built sturdily enough to hold highly explosive grain dust. The moment was one of hoopla and expectation as Philadelphia angled to boost its sagging overseas grain exports and port commerce in general. More than 1,500 invited guests arrived on special trains for the gala opening ceremonies on Allegheny Avenue.
Touted as the ``largest in the East,'' the grain elevator’s 2.5 million bushel capacity was considered essential in revitalizing the city’s once-esteemed grain-export business, which dated to the 18th century.
``Philadelphia, the stepchild and Cinderella in the sisterhood of Atlantic ports, stepped out upon the palace floor in a beautiful new gown yesterday,'' The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Jan. 15, 1928.
But exports nosedived during the Great Depression, only to rebound during and after World War II. As the demand for coal dropped and Midwestern farmers began shipping their grain down the Mississippi River and up through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, port commerce dried up, said Bob Libkind, spokesman for Conrail, which took over when Reading went bankrupt in the early 1970s.
The building cost $4 million to construct - $38 million today, adjusted for inflation - and had been rendered obsolete by the 1980s.
Conrail, which acquired the building and port terminal along the Delaware in 1976, is paying about $1 million to tear it down, Libkind said.
``It's a potential safety problem,'' he said. ``It's not being used, hasn't been used for 15 years or so. And kids go up there. We just want to get rid of this potential problem and avoid anyone's getting hurt. ''
Conrail tried to lure investors to convert the grain elevator to a coal facility in the early 1980s, but the effort failed. It has lain dormant ever since.
``We've been waiting for that to come down for years,'' said Joe Capecci, 72, who spends every morning sipping coffee with pals outside a corner luncheonette on Somerset Street several blocks away. ``What good was it? The only thing that [building]had up there was pigeons and rats. The kids used to go up there with bows and arrows. ''
George Farr, 31, was one of the mischievous pranksters who passed endless hours in the port's nooks, crannies, and 38 miles of serpentine railroad tracks.
``We used to get our worms off the railroad tracks underneath the boxcars and fish from the tall piers back there,'' said Farr, whose grandfather owned a lunch truck outside the grain elevator years ago.
``That whole place, when I was young, it was like a dare to go into it,'' he said, remembering the rats that ran about at night. ``They'd tell ghost stories about it. ''
Sophia Kurylo, 58, was shocked to see the wrecking ball while walking to a bakery for a fresh loaf of rye bread.
``I think it's sad,'' she said. ``In Europe, you see a lot of old buildings. Here, you don't see too many of them. They tear it down and put a McDonald's in there.''
``Sad? '' Farr shot back. ``Sad was the day they closed it down and everyone lost their jobs. It's good now to get it out of here. ''
Though the grain elevator has been an eyesore to some, it has been a liability to Conrail, which had sought for the last five years to demolish it, Libkind said. In 1995, Conrail agreed to pay a record $800,000 to settle claims that the freight railroad had violated federal asbestos regulations during an asbestos-removal project at the grain elevator between 1992 and 1993.
The future of that tract of land likely will remain uncertain until the acquisition of Conrail by the Norfolk-Southern and CSX Corps. has been completed. Its fate is anyone's guess.
``The nature of rail activity has dramatically changed, so I don’t think it’s going to become a major rail terminus,'' said Bill Hankowsky, head of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. ``Can it become a viable property? I think the answer to that is yes. ''
Frank Weer, 68, a retired mechanical engineer who worked for Reading and Conrail, looks at the grain elevator the same way he admires the stacks of photos and paraphernalia he acquired when Reading went under: It's history.
``That building is the last monument of this very important international trading facility,'' said Weer, whose Overbrook home is a virtual museum of transportation artifacts.
``It's a hell of a change in a lifetime - or even less,'' he said of the city's aging waterfront. ``Today, except for Center City, it seems that everything is just falling apart. ''
To the few surviving grain-elevator workers in Port Richmond, such as Vince Newell, the building’s crumbling walls contain the memories of a lifetime. Newell, 72, found out about the demolition only a week ago. He immediately remembered the long hours and friendships forged while riding rail cars and ``working the pipes'' along the pier, operating the giant chutes that shot grain into ship holds.
``It brings back a lot of memories. A lot of fellows I worked with are passed on now,'' he said, rattling off names - Sweeney, Kelly, Kozlowski.
``All my bar buddies are gone,'' said Newell, who has lived with his son since his wife of 47 years died three years ago. ``I’ll have to go over and get a piece of that concrete and keep it as a souvenir.''