Mighty Vulcan Returns to Red Mountain Domain

Thu August 21, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

One of Birmingham’s most beloved ambassadors is standing proud once again, due in part to the efforts of Tim Whitten.

Whitten, a third-generation crane operator, played a key role in returning the mighty Vulcan to his perch atop Red Mountain in June.

“I am very proud to have been involved with this job. Not very often does a person get to work on something his grandfather worked on 65 years earlier,” said Whitten.

His grandfather, crane-operator Ralph Whitten, hoisted some of Vulcan’s parts in 1939 when the statue was first moved from the Alabama State Fairgrounds to Red Mountain.

The 60-ton cast iron statue, which celebrates its 100th birthday next year, was removed in 1999 because of much-needed repairs.

Created by sculptor Giuseppi Moretti for the 1904 World’s Fair, Vulcan originally served as a symbol of the city’s once booming iron industry. After a four-year absence, crews were hired to re-position Vulcan as part of a multimillion dollar park renovation.

“Putting Vulcan up has been a unique experience for me. Most of our jobs do not have this kind of media coverage. The Vulcan Foundation Committee tried to keep reporters out of our way — to keep them from harm’s way and to keep them from talking to us,” said Whitten.

“My work on Vulcan consisted of lifting each leg and the torso,” he explained. “I wasn’t personally involved in the lifting of the famous posterior, but I’m told its weight is about 25,000 pounds. The chest was set in one lift with a weight of 20,000 pounds. Then the left arm came next with the hammer attached at about 12,500 pounds. The head weighed in at 11,000 pounds. The right arm was set last. The weight on it is about 12,500 pounds with the spear attached.

“This is the order he was reassembled. On the lifts with the torso and arms, a spreader beam was required to get the correct angles and pitch to line the boltholes up,” Whitten, who works at Steel City Inc., Bessemer, AL, further explained.

“The spreader beam enabled us to put cables in the right location. A beam is used to keep from mashing in the top of articles to be hoisted, when the lifting lug is on the bottom of the load. In Vulcan’s place, to be able to change the pitch or angle, something needs to fit up, so it can be bolted in place with less difficulty,” he noted.

Using primarily a 250- ton (226.8 t) Link-Belt 268 lattice boom crane, Whitten said he didn’t run into any major problems, except for weather delays.

“Mother Nature does not always cooperate, so we were only able to set one piece a day. Some of the parts to Vulcan take longer to set than others. The head was quick and easy, but the arms took longer, because they had to be bolted all the way before we could turn the crane loose. The arms were the most difficult to line up, before a spreader beam could be used to make the shoulder line up for the bolts to fit,” said Whitten.

At the start of the project, crews of Robinson Iron in Alexander City, AL, unloaded tractor trailers and placed Vulcan’s feet on the ground to attach his lower torso. They then welded the interior armature system together before it was put in place.

According to Scott Howell, company president, “This portion of the statue is the heaviest at approximately 38,000 pounds. It is the most difficult piece to hoist and put on the pedestal.”

“Most all of the Vulcan is original,” explained Whitten. “Only places that were cracked or broken were remolded and cast.

“Vulcan is the tallest and largest cast statue in the world. It is 182 feet to the top. As far as how high we lifted each part, the bottom of his feet is at 124 feet. To get each part, as it was set, we used a 200-ton Liebherr crane with a personnel basket. Operator Donnie Thomas was able to put them where they needed to be. To do the job bolting and setting the parts, he had a little help from Wade Yates,” Whitten said. “With a personnel basket, you stay very busy, with not much time to get out. When you have anything on the crane hook, you have to stay with the crane.”

It took just more than a week to complete the Vulcan project, which meant Whitten, who lives in Gadsden, had to commute 70 mi. each day. His family, however, was very supportive of this particular job.

“My wife was pretty excited, but I think my daughters, Lauren and Megan, enjoyed it even more,” said Whitten. “They watched me on the Internet. Channel 13 News had a tower next to the job with a camera on it — it took a picture every 30 seconds. They could see the parts as we put them up. My oldest daughter wanted to come to the job and watch, but the Vulcan Foundation would not allow anyone even in the parking lot.”

That is because, like any of Whitten’s assignments, officials were extremely concerned about safety issues.

“This is a dangerous line of work, without question. You are never sure of ground conditions. All you can do is put mats under the outriggers and hope it is enough.” Whitten said. “Cables have been known to break, but the worst part is taking things down. When they cut something loose on you, you have two choices — either you got it and can handle it or you cannot, and that’s when things can get ugly in a hurry.

“I had an oiler ask me one time what you do if you start to turn over. I think he thought I was being smart, but what I told him was I do not know. I was totally serious, because you rely on instinct. If you take time to think, you may be upside down,” he said.

“But this is what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember,” explained Whitten. “As a child, I really understood a lot about cranes. When my dad worked on Saturdays, he would take me with him when he could. I sometimes think that is what got me excited and made me want to be an operator. My father was not crazy about the idea, though.

“After I finished school, I found some work in gravel pits running a dragline, and picked up some other jobs,” he continued. “Then my dad gave in and helped me get in the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 312 out of Birmingham.

“I tried to learn all I could about cranes. The company I worked for — and that my dad retired from — was made famous for cleaning up train derailments. They made a system to put under 80- and 90- ton Grove cranes to travel up and down the rail.” Whitten said. “He was one of the first operators to work train derailments. That is one of the most dangerous jobs Steel City does. You can come in contact with cars loaded with all kinds of dangerous things. I remember that I liked to watch him hang iron. He could bring the beams into the ironworkers and they looked like they were floating in air.”

“As for my responsibilities, they include knowing where to set the crane for the lift, driving it to the jobs and putting it together. The putting together part is really the easiest part, as far as I’m concerned. I have the best set up crew I know,” he explained. “Danny Headley and Steve Bylsma are two of them. They know where everything goes. From doing it so many times, they make it look easy to the customer.”

According to Jeff Rodgers, Steel City assistant operations manager, “Tim is a true operating engineer. He’s very conscientious and diligent. He’s also one of the first to arrive on the job and one of the last to leave. He gets to the sites early so he can figure out the safest, most efficient way to operate a lift. We always know he’s going to give 110 percent.”

“I guess I like the pride and good feeling you get when you finish a job and do it right,” said Whitten.

“You know, you can go back years later and see your work — Vulcan will be one of those jobs. My children will be able to show their children and many people will get to enjoy it.”

Whitten’s biggest challenge with the Iron Man seemed to be the tight deadlines.

“We have a saying,” he said. “ The crane operator is the most loved person on the job as long as they’re needed, and the most hated person when they’re not needed anymore. Cranes are one of the biggest costs of a job. Therefore, they want to hurry and get through with us. The more they hurry you, the more the pressure is on the operator which causes more stress. They want the same quality work you get going slowly, at a high speed.

“But I feel very lucky to do this kind of labor or I would not have had the chance to work on Vulcan,” Whitten noted. “It has truly been an experience that I will not soon forget. Like my grandfather told me when I was a kid — ’It’s in your blood. You won’t be happy until you’re a crane operator.’

“In my eyes, it is something to be very proud of, indeed.”