Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Violent and Accidental Means"

[Yes, another packing house story. I spent the weekend playing with an Arduino I'd just bought at Radio Shack rather than making trees or detailing buildings or doing anything else worth writing about.]

Like I keep saying, the only fruit industry historic facts that make it onto the Internet are the scores from the company bowling team and the lawsuits.

Luckily, the lawsuits sometimes have details of life in the packing houses.

We all know thanks to those fancy Sanborn maps and stories of the business that most dried fruit packing houses were multi-story. The top floor had the grading equipment for the incoming fruit, the fruit went into large gravity-fed storage bins till sold later in the year, and the fruit for packing would be pulled out the bottom. Each of the packing houses needed a boiler for cleaning and re-hydrating the fruit, and an elevator to haul the tons of incoming fruit up to the top floor of the packing house. Each Sanborn map carefully indicates the presence of both the boiler and the elevator because both were likely of interest to those insurance actuaries.

But what were those elevators like?

Luckily, we've got cases like Fitzpatrick vs Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. In this particular case, John Whelan was the superintendent of the Guggenhime & Co packing house off Julian Street in San Jose. He'd bought a life insurance policy that paid off $5,000 if he died of "violent and accidental means", but would pay off double if the death was by elevator. Poor Mr. Whelan lost his life when riding the freight elevator in the packing house, and the insurance company refused to pay because it wasn't officially a passenger elevator, and because Mr. Whelan was running it himself. The insurance company lost, and his widow got the double value, but the appellate court decision (which also agreed with the double-value) was kind enough to include details about what a packing house elevator was like.
"The building in which the accident occurred was three stories in height, and was entirely occupied by Guggenhime & Co. in carrying on the business of drying and packing fruits. The only elevator operated therein was the one in which the accident occurred. It was of the hydraulic type, raised and lowered by water power, and operated by means of a cable which by pulling opened a valve and let in the water pressure. The dimensions of the floor of the elevator car were six feet by seven feet. The rear and side walls were constructed of heavy wire mesh or netting extending from the floor nearly to the elevator ceiling, which consisted also of wire mesh. The entire front side of the elevator was open. The elevator shaft was enclosed only part way up between the floors of the building, and on each floor the entrance to the elevator was protected by a gate which was raised and lowered by the movement of the elevator."

"The insured was alone in the elevator when the accident happened. Shortly prior thereto he stated that he was going to get a hand truck and go to the third floor to get some samples of dried fruit. Ten or fifteen minutes later two employees who were on the third floor heard the insured place the truck on the elevator on the first floor, pull the cable, and start to ascend. Then they heard a noise indicating that something had gone wrong with the elevator, and upon investigating found that it had stopped just as the elevator floor was about to reach the level of the third-story floor; the insured was lying on the floor of the elevator with his head projecting over the edge and it was being crushed between the two floors. Alongside of the injured was the empty truck, a couple of sample pans, and a few paper bags. An operator was regularly employed by the Guggenhime company to run the elevator, but when he was not on duty it was operated by any of the employees who had occasion to use it, and the accident to the insured happened early in the morning before the regular elevator operator reported for work.

"With respect to the use of the elevator the evidence shows beyond question that it was used indiscriminately for the carriage of both freight and human beings. The fruit manufacturing processes were conducted on the second and third floors, and the employees used the elevator generally and constantly, not only in going from one floor to another in the performance of their duties, but also to convey customers and visitors up and down whenever they had occasion to transact business on or visit the second and third floors. In this regard one of the employees testified that "in the summer time it is practically every two or three minutes a day a person might be going up". There was a sign hung on the rear wall of the elevator reading: "This elevator is for freight only. This means you. Guggenhime & Co."; but the testimony shows that neither the company nor its employees considered it a violation of the company's rules for employees to use the elevator themselves whenever necessary or convenient, or to convey other persons therein; that the sign was displayed merely to stop people not having business with the company from using the elevator for their own pleasure.

It's a tragic story, but it gives some details about life in the packing plant - the mesh-covered elevator and industrial controls, carrying visitors and customers up and down, the worries about the local kids sneaking in to ride the elevator for fun, and the "This elevator for freight only" sign - gives a little more detail to what would otherwise just be a dusty picture in an album, or a dark building on the edge of the model railroad.

[Photo: The Deadly Packing House itself, from a photo in San Jose State University's John C. Gordon Collection.]

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