Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Accident at the Heating Plant: A Campus Catastrophe in 1924

Campus Heating Plant, 1924
Campus buildings had been warmed by heating plants since 1905. The first heating plant, with the adjoining school laundry, was built in 1905 near the intersection of Walker Avenue and McIver Street. In 1924, a second heating plant was planned for the North Carolina College for Women (now UNC Greensboro). This beautiful red brick structure, designed by Fellheimer & Wagner of New York, would be located near the corner of Oakland Avenue and Forest Street. The design boasted an 18-ton, 227-foot chimney with a 12-foot bronze cap. When completed, it would be the highest structure in Greensboro - 5 feet higher than the much-admired Jefferson Pilot Building.

Building a heating plant of this size required the creation of a wooden “superstructure” over the chimney, allowing workers to navigate at great heights. Fritz Deitrick, of Richmond, Virginia, was employed as a brick layer on the project because he had experience working more than 200 feet above the ground. Local metalworkers were not skilled in working so high up and refused to go to the top of the structure; therefore, James Wacaster, of Reidsville, North Carolina, was hired. 

Deitrick and Wacaster were charged with placing the bronze rim around the top of the completed chimney. To reach the top of the edifice, an “elevator” was constructed inside the chimney that allowed workers to ascend to the scaffolding above the structure. The elevator was made of a ball of concrete on the end of a cable that was lifted by a steam engine. Workers placed one foot on either side of the ball and grasped the cable as they ascended the height of the chimney.

Seemingly, the accident occurred when one of the men reached the top of the structure, and then waited for the other man to ascend, who was transporting a long beam to be used at the top. One end of the beam was resting between his feet on the concrete ball and the other toward his head. As the man was hoisted to the top of the chimney, there was a creaking sound and the entire superstructure, called a “cat’s head” by the workmen, began to topple. The men attempted to grasp the cable – but it was too late. The immense chimney had already started to break. Both men were instantly killed as they fell from the 225-foot structure.

Campus Heating Plant, ca. 2000

Initially, the accident was blamed on the engineer who was operating the elevator, believing that he had not stopped the hoist at the top of the chimney. Yet, a coroner’s jury found that the men met their deaths because of the actions of the last man who ascended the chimney, as well as the weak pine timber used to build the superstructure.

The building was eventually completed, and stills stands as the UNC Greensboro Steam Plant, which is currently responsible for heating most of the campus buildings.

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