Gettysburg Battlefield Rumbles While National Tower Comes Crashing Down

Recognized as the bloodiest engagement ever fought on American soil, the Battle of Gettysburg raged for the first three days of July l863 across what was then farmland near the town, 80 miles north of Washington, D.C. It was here, on the final day of the conflict, that General George E. Pickett led Confederate troops in his famous charge. Despite the southerners’ heroic struggle, Union troops commanded by General George G. Meade forced Pickett’s forces to retreat. When the smoke cleared from the battlefield, a total of 5l,000 men were dead or missing.

A different battle began a hundred and eleven years later when Baltimore, MD-based Overview Limited Partnership opened its Gettysburg National Tower in l974. Intended to be a “classroom in the sky,” it afforded panoramic views over the 6,000 acre historic site for thousands of the two million visitors Gettysburg receives annually. However, the tower was a controversial enterprise right from the beginning, for as soon as the project was mooted in l972 preservationists decried its design as unpleasing. In addition, many stated they considered the landscape-dominating presence of the massive structure demeaning to the dead.

To the delight of preservationists, this June the land on which the Gettysburg tower stood was taken by the National Park Service under the law of eminent domain, thus clearing the way for the Park Service to decide the controversial tower’s fate.

The decision was to demolish the tower at 5 p.m. on July 3, 2000, the l37th anniversary of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. According to the Park Service, removal of the structure falls in line with their ongoing project to return the battle site to the way it looked in l863. These long-range plans, expected to take up to twenty years to accomplish, include restoring the orchards, lanes and fences that formed part of the 19th century landscape, as well as undertaking woodland management and removing modern buildings built on the site.

The battleship gray tower had an imposing presence. At 307 ft. high (393 ft. tall counting its crowning lightning rod antenna) it was constructed of 5 mi. of steel latticework weighing some 2 million lbs., held together by l4,000 bolts, and anchored in a granite base by l5,000 tons of concrete.

Although at first glance its hourglass silhouette was reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle, the Gettysburg tower was so unusual that its engineer designer, Joel H. Rosenblatt (who has been quoted as describing its demolition as vandalism) took out patents not only on its construction but also its shape. With a nipped-in “waist” 33 ft. in diameter and a base diameter of 94 ft., the tower supported four tiers of octagonal observation platforms boasting a diameter of 70 ft. The quartet of viewing decks (two open and two enclosed) could accommodate up to 750 visitors at a time.

The difficult job of imploding the tower was handled by Controlled Demolition Inc., a 53-year- old family-owned business based in Phoenix, MD, and part of an international group of Loizeaux businesses handling both planned and post-emergency demolition of all sorts of urban, industrial and offshore structures, as well as removal of mass amounts of concrete and rock. Founded by Jack Loizeaux, the company now boasts a third generation among its employees, since Stacey Loizeaux, a licensed blaster since she was 2l, has worked full-time at CDI for nine years, having held summer jobs with the company since she was 14. Her father Mark is president of the company and an uncle, Douglas, serves as vice president. The tradition continues, with her sister Adrienne, who has just joined CDI.

CDI has carried out over 7,000 successful implosion jobs worldwide, many of them projects of extraordinary difficulty and record breaking complexity, such as its l998 demolition of the 439-ft. high Hudson department store in Detroit, MI. This was the tallest (and tallest structural steel) building ever imploded and at over 2 million sq. ft. the largest single building demolished in this fashion. Other record-breaking jobs handled by CDI include the most buildings leveled simultaneously (l7 of them in Puerto Rico in l998) and the tallest man-made object demolished by explosives (a l,202 ft. 6 in. tall radio tower in Argentina). The company has also carried out special effects work, performing implosions for action movie sequences.

For the Gettysburg tower job, Stacey Loizeaux noted that preliminary factors to be taken into account included possible exposure of nearby structures, utilities and property lines to the blast. As it happened, the surrounding properties were far enough away so that they did not require special protective measures, as is often the case. Then there were the weather conditions during preparation for, and the actual felling of, the tower. “High winds would have prevented us from performing structural torch-cutting operations, for example,” she explained. “But it turned out to be fairly calm, allowing us to modify the steel elements for subsequent explosives placement.” Another vital consideration that needed to be addressed was the structural integrity of the tower. As it turned out, “The tower was in pretty bad shape structurally,” Loizeaux said, “and therefore it was not ’strong’ enough to hold together during its felling … it literally fell apart in mid-air.”

CDI utilized RDX, an explosive compound capable of cutting through steel, to carry out the job. Very little was required, despite the size of the tower. “We used a total of 13.85 pounds of explosives on the project,” Loizeaux said, “including linear shaped charges, detonating cord and non-electric and electric detonators.”

On July 3, the project got under way with RDX-containing linear shaped charges placed into seventeen locations around the tower’s lower 35 ft. or so. As soon as this task was accomplished, the controlled demolition needed only two further actions to be accomplished. In the first, a capacitor was electrically charged, storing the energy until a second button was pressed. As soon as that happened, 600 volts crossed copper wires from the capacitor to the blasting cap initiating a chain of explosions that, traveling 28,000 ft. per second, exerted 3 million lbs. of pressure per square inch onto selected steel elements supporting the structure. The pressure was so powerful that it took less than 10 seconds to topple the tower — about the average time for a construction of that size and weight, Loizeaux said.

Controlled Demolition Inc carried out the Gettysburg tower implosion without charge because, she added, the company had decided to use the opportunity to promote media good will. In addition, having documented the tower’s fall from several angles, CDI will license their stunning exclusive pictures for reproduction.

Normally a demolition job of this size would carry a price tab of between $75,000 and $l00,000 but the Park Service noted in court documents that acceptance of CDI’s offer would save the government $1 million, which was the estimated cost of taking the tower apart piecemeal. Meanwhile, up to $3 million is to be awarded as compensation to the Oversight Partnership and Hans Enggren of New Oxford, PA, owner of the 6.45-acre property on which the tower was erected. Oversight, in a 99 year lease arrangement, had paid Enggren a monthly rental approaching five figures. The value of the tower itself has been variously assessed at between $3.3 and $6.6 million. It is estimated to have cost $2.5 million to construct.

Debris clearance is being handled by Mayer Pollock Steel Corporation of Pottstown, PA. Once the steel elements are segmented into 5-ft. long pieces for transport, they will be recycled at a foundry near Harrisburg, PA. The clean-up job is expected to take about a month.

With a fine sense of historical drama, seconds before the implosion was set off, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave orders to men dressed in Confederate or Union uniforms — members of recreated Civil War military units — to fire blank rounds from their cannons. Hardly had the echoes died away across the battlefield when the explosive charges were detonated and the 26-year-old tower fell gracefully into the carpark.

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.