Hallett Construction Company (formerly Hallett Materials) has been a fixture in Ames for almost five decades. Its plant on the northern edge of Ames has been a landmark along Highway 69 since the 1950s. Although often referred to locally as a quarry, a more correct term might be sand and gravel pit. A large supplier of road-building materials, Hallett has operated gravel pits in Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas.
The Iowa list of Hallet owned gravel pits includes Ames, Ashton, Auburn, Boone, Cherokee, Clear Lake, Clemons, Gast, Gilmore City, Johnson, Lake View, Marengo and Red Oak. Hallett was cognizant of the glacial till bottom land in Franklin Township, section 22 north of Ames. In 1957 it had test holes drilled to determine the potential for a sand and gravel pit. Initial reaction was that this would be a costly pit to operate because of the considerable overburden to be removed and perhaps not enough material there to excavate. Test holes were typically drilled no more than 40 feet deep. Land was leased from Robert and Clark Christiansen, and the plant was laid out by the grandfather of Bert Sewell, the current president of the company. Interestingly, the layout was not elaborately drawn on rolls of blueprints, but traced out in the sand during a walk-through of the site. The plant was finally opened in 1958. Christiansen and Felber land was purchased in 1964 and 1967 respectively.
The trials and tribulations of drilling later test holes during an Iowa winter were noted in a memo from Ron Harken to E.W. Hallett in February 1965: Drilling has slowed considerably. Another blizzard is blowing in across the plains with about 6 more inches of snow predicted. We have about 4" on the ground already with 45 mph winds and a temperature around 3 degrees. It takes just about twice as long to do anything in weather like this. (Typical Iowa weather!).
Sand and gravel pit operations involve extracting, washing, and screening. The most visible evidence of extraction at Hallett’s was the huge, red dragline that dominated the site.
A dragline rather than a dredge was deemed necessary due to the large number of boulders encountered. The workhorse for 35 years was a Page 625 walking dragline, class C-25, machine number 144. It was made by the Page Engineering Company of Chicago and took several years to build. Although it was built from 1936-1938, it didn’t take its first walk until 1942 . These large machines typically take several years to build and are dated from the time of their first use. Page specialized in making this type of heavy equipment through the 1980s and later was acquired by P&H Power Shovel Company.
Other companies such as Bucyrus, Marion, Monighan and Manitowoc also made moving draglines. The Ames dragline was originally used in a coal strip mine in Missouri from 1942 until 1956 when it was purchased by Hallett and dismantled. E.W. Hallett was known for always purchasing giant excavating equipment used and then reconditioning it. Mr. Hallett had wanted the railroad to build a spur line to the pit but was denied permission. Therefore, the parts were shipped by tractors and flat-bed trailers to three places: Boone, the Ames site, and St. Peter, Minnesota. After rebuilding, the parts were trucked to the pit on flat-bed trailers across farmland on the west.
Permission was obtained from Robert Pasley, owner of the 80 acre parcel of land just west of the Hallett operation, to drive along the north boundary of his farm. Mr. Pasley agreed to let Hallett come through provided they execute the move on frozen ground and replace the fence after removal. Hallett did not wait for winter, but proceeded with the move, tearing up the land and getting stuck more than once. A lawsuit had to be initiated to finally restore the land.
Two people were required to run the two-storey dragline: an operator on the top floor, and an oilman on the lower. The first operators were experienced men hired from the eastern coal fields. Later operators included, among others, Emmett and Louis Eckard, Jim Hovick, Steve Weigel, Randy Page and Mike Berhow. Randy Page was employed for a 24-year span from 1978 to 1993 operating backhoes, endloaders, and bulldozers. He spent 15 years of his career in the cab of the Page dragline and took a lot of ribbing because he shared the same last name as the machine. Once he used this to his advantage when he visited the Page Company headquarters in Chicago. After he introduced himself as Randy Page he received red-carpet treatment on the assumption that he was one of the family.
INTERESTING DRAGLINE FACTS
- The crane itself weighed in at 300 tons.
- The boom measured 150 feet long from center pin to the tip.
- Three interchangeable buckets were used holding from six to eight cubic yards each, with the seven cubic yard bucket being the most commonly used. Brands included Page, Hendrix, and others. A different bucket was selected as conditions required more or less teeth, or repairs had to be made. The Page could dig 75' deep but usually worked only to 60' depths.
- Two diesel engines provided power: a 4-cylinder for the 2 3/4" drag cables and 1 ½" hoist line cables, and a 3-cylinder for the swing cables.
- The oil capacity of the main motor was 55 gallons.
- At its height of production in the early 1990s, Hallett was removing, conservatively, 300,000 tons of material a year.
As previously mentioned, the dragline could walk, but only backwards. The walking shaft was 50 feet long, and each foot was about 20 feet long, providing considerable stability. After excavating an area in front to full depth, and as the ground began to cave in, the dragline walked from the edge of the pit to a new digging location. A cam system lifted the crane itself up, including an edge of the turntable, and walked backwards dragging the turntable with it. This procedure took about one to two minutes per step, each step measuring six to seven feet in length. On average, the dragline could dig at one spot for five to six hours. Several times a year the Page had to be walked to a location on the other side of the lake. This procedure might take up to eight hours. This clip from a video taken by Mike Berhow allows us to experience the thrill of seeing one of these engineering marvels actually walking.
Mike Berhow worked for Hallett between 1982-1983 and 1986-1987 as dragline operator on the night shift. To illuminate the digging area, three 3,000-watt bulbs were mounted on the crane. Rare interior views and a video filmed by Mike in 1988 provide an excellent idea of how the machine operated. These are preserved in the Ames Historical Society collection.
Crane operators Mike Berhow and Randy Page relate several dangerous experiences. Some images of the dragline show a black scorch mark on the right side of the cab. An accident involving the oiler and a flammable oil barrel resulted in the crane operator leaping out of the window and getting burned and bruised in the process. Another time, the oiler noticed a two-inch crack forming in the frozen ground, and instantly shouted up to the crane operator to get the h--- out of there as fast as possible. The word was put out by management that if the machine ever fell into the pit, it would remain there. Pressure was always felt to keep the excavations going in spite of bad weather. The dragline continued to operate in freezing temperatures and in flooded conditions.
According to Al Jensen, company president from 1957-1993, the Ames Page was one of only three walking draglines that operated in Iowa at the time, the other sites being the Hallett plant at Lake View and a gypsum plant in Fort Dodge. Now none remain. The Lake View plant scrapped its earlier electric Monighan originally used in the eastern coal mines, as well as a diesel Manitowoc crawler from the early 1970s. National Gypsum Company in Fort Dodge sold its Manitowoc 4600 “for a song” to a Florida person. Drill and blast and endloaders are the methods of extraction preferred now in the gypsum mines there.
Many people believe it was great tragedy to lose the Page in Ames. That machine was well maintained during its career. The oilman was constantly busy lubricating all moving parts. As pistons developed problems, rollers broke, or the rails wore down or broke, appropriate repairs were made by the Hallett shop. Parts were often obtained by seeking out similar machines in coal fields and cannibalizing parts from inoperative draglines. The Page was rebuilt several times during its Ames tenure. Finally a main traveling shaft on the right leg broke during the winter of 1992-1993 and was not repaired since extraction was drawing to a close. You may remember that Hallett opened the south Ames pit in 1993. Efforts during the summer of 1999 to sell the machine to a mining museum in Pennsylvania were unsuccessful. The Page was cut apart and sold for scrap in the summer of 2000. To add insult to injury, according to contract, Hallett had to pay for cutting the dragline apart. The bill for trucking the scrap away came to $50,000. This is truly a sad ending for such a dependable workhorse and the last walking dragline operating in Iowa. The maintenance person from Chicago claimed it was the best working dragline he had ever seen.
WASHING & SCREENING
After the dragline had deposited a pile of excavated material, loaders filled trucks which hauled the material to a hill and dumped the load into a sump perhaps 15 to 20 feet deep. The sump was covered with grizzly bars which could be variably spaced, but typically set at 18" apart. These prevented large rocks from going through. Conveyer belts carried material to jaw and cone crushers, washers, and sorting screens which were placed throughout the plant to reduce material to the desired sizes. Depending on the job requirements, common sizes were 1 ½ -2" septic and river rock, 1", and ½" rock, coarse concrete sand and fine mason sand. Various mesh sizes of vibrating screens sieved the gravel and sand. A separate conveyer was set up for oversize rock. The usual size for ready mix gravel was minus 1 ½", and minus 3/8" size for sand. Fine sand (minus 3/16" to 1/4") was used for fill and golf course sand traps. The results of the completed operation were separate piles of aggregate ready to be loaded and delivered.
The proximity of the Iowa Road Builders plant (and later Manatt) to the north made operations very convenient, as sand and gravel trucks could take the west road right into the ready mix plant. With the closing of the ready mix plant and the diminishing resources at the pit, Hallett began to seriously consider the sale of the land. Since the mid 1970s various bodies, including the city of Ames and the Story County Conservation Board, had discussed with Hallett the possibility of obtaining the quarry area for recreational use and as a public water resource. Indeed, Hallett itself had foreseen the potential for future development around the perimeter of the resulting lake after sand and gravel operations ceased, and had purchased the south 40 acres with these thoughts in mind. As a developer, however, they would have had to install water, sewer and electric lines, curb and gutter - all very costly. In the end they decided against their proposed residential development.
During its 35-year operation, Hallett excavated 63 (129?) acres to an average depth of 50 feet, for a total of approximately 7,560,000 tons of material. It is estimated that perhaps 20% of the available material was left in the pit after operations ceased. Sand and gravel from the quarry went into paving Interstate 35, new highway 30, county and campus roads; many parking lots and buildings; and covered most area gravel roads. With interstate construction, operations ran 24 hours, seven days a week. Many thousand of tons of sand as fill were supplied to the Iowa State Center. During the winter, sand was also sold for application to icy roads. Tours of the plant were often given to ISU engineering and geology students.
Water continually drained into the lakes, so pumps had to be used. The pumping bill often amounted to $12,000 a month. The drought of 1976 and 1977 affected many Midwest communities, Ames being no exception. The City had long recognized that the Hallett site was an important supplemental water supply. In July 1977 water shortage became critical and Hallett agreed to let the City pump water from the lake into the Skunk River channel to recharge the aquifer. A low-head dam constructed near 13th Street allowed water to pond to a depth of five to six feet. As reported, “The ponded water successfully recharged the aquifer supplying water to Ames’ wells until early August, when rains brought a return to stream flow and an end to the drought.” Another example of Hallett cooperation occurred during the flood of 1993 when they loaned a water pump to ISU for pumping out the Hilton Coliseum.
In 1993, Hallett Materials started the plant south of Ames along Interstate-35. A dredge was selected for use here because there were few boulders to ruin equipment. A dredge also reduces noise at a site by eliminating much banging and clanging of metal. Sand and gravel is pumped through twelve inch pipes from depths of 85 feet. Geologists often smile when they see the Hallett ad for materials: All of our products are made in America. Canada actually supplied much of the granite rocks that came down with the glaciers.
This brings us almost to the present day. The years from 1999 to 2001 were filled with public meetings debating a variety of proposed residential development projects, rezoning, water quality concerns and watershed protection. Many residents were involved in the Friends of Hallett’s Quarry organization.
The decision by the city to purchase approximately 460 acres for a nature preserve was celebrated by many groups.
- Berger, Roger & Kay. 5-12-03.
- Berhow, Mike. 5-26-03.
- Dodds, William E. 5-10-03.
- Jensen, Al. 5-10-03.
- Page, Randy. 1-7-03; 5-17-03.
- Pasley, Robert G. 1-16-03.
- Sewell, Bert. 9-5-02.