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Historic grain elevator burns in Superior

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Superior firefighters work as the remains of the Globe Elevators at 2 Banks Ave. burn. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 5
The head house of the former Globe Elevators in Superior burns on Monday afternoon. Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com3 / 5
A fire breaks out at a grain elevator in Superior on Monday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 5
A fire breaks out at a grain elevator in Superior on Monday. (Louie St. George / lstgeorge@duluthnews.com)5 / 5

A fire at a defunct grain elevator in Superior sent large flames and a smoke plume into the air Monday afternoon.

The fire broke out at the former Globe Elevators, 2 Banks Ave., adjacent to the operational General Mills elevators, around 3 p.m. as crews were salvaging wood from the structure. Three workers and the building owner who were at the site when the fire started were not injured.

Photo by Clint Austin / DNT

A smaller, rear section of the structure had collapsed by late afternoon, as had one of the large cranes workers had on scene. Just before 10 p.m., Battalion Chief Howard Huber said the fire was “mostly out” and that crews would remain on the scene through the night to keep an eye on hot spots.

“There's a lot of heat underneath it,” Battalion Chief Scott Gordon of the Superior Fire Department said during a press conference earlier Monday evening. Gordon predicted at that time that the fire could smolder for days, and it would take “millions of gallons of water to finally get the fire out to where we can let the owner in to see what we can save.”

Gordon said three contracted workers were removing wood when they apparently cut through a nail or spike, creating a spark that set the structure ablaze. The three workers, as well as the owner of the property, who lives on the opposite side of the complex, were all accounted for.

“They called 911,” Gordon said of the workers.

The elevator is 150 feet tall and firefighters established a 225-foot collapse zone around the blaze, Gordon said. Nobody, including firefighters, was allowed within the collapse zone.

“We’re trying to get as close to that as we can,” Gordon said of collapse zone just after the department began spraying the fire with water from two hoses.

“We’re working our way inward,” Gordon said.

Huber estimated damages at $2.5 million dollars on Monday night. Gordon said earlier that only a Bobcat was salvaged, and that wood valued at about $450,000 — and previously sold by the owner — was destroyed.

Firefighters successfully established a direct pump from the nearby harbor, though Gordon expected the fire would take multiple days to fully suppress.

Battalion Chief Scott Gordon of the Superior Fire Department talks to the media Monday afternoon.

“This is a large wooden structure so it’s going to burn for a while,” Mayor Jim Paine said in a statement on Facebook. “The wood is untreated, old-growth timber, not much different than what you would throw in a fireplace. Superior Fire (Department) is on the scene, there are no injuries, and we don’t expect much damage beyond the structure itself.”

The defunct elevator had been in the process of being dismantled, said a spokesperson with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.   

“It was being taken apart and its wood being reclaimed — salvaging that had been taking place for years and years,” said spokeswoman Adele Yorde.

Kiesow Enterprises of Valders, Wis., had been working to dismantle the remaining structure.

Owner Mark Kiesow declined to comment when the News Tribune reached him by phone Monday evening.

A ball of flame erupts after part of the remains of the Globe Elevators collapses. Clint Austin / DNTIn June, Kiesow told the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter that his company secured the bid after two contractors backed out when they saw the scope of the work.

“This will be our biggest project,” Kiesow told the newspaper at the time. “People these days like to recycle wood and other things from old buildings. They see the impact of throwing this stuff into landfills has. You can get it down to a third of what you would have thrown out.”

Photo by Clint Austin / DNT“The old Globe Elevators haven’t been in operation for many many years,” said Jason Serck, the port director for the city of Superior.

The defunct elevators are owned by Gordon Ostedahl, who Serck said lives down on the elevator property.  Ostedahl did not respond to phone calls or an email from the News Tribune Monday evening.

The site featured two storage buildings and a head house. Built in 1887, the Globe Elevators were at one time the largest elevators in the world, according to an online historical record kept by the Old Globe Wood Company and confirmed by the Duluth port authority.

The Globe Elevators featured the first integrated elevator system — able to convey grain between structures.

Grain from throughout the Midwest was transported by rail to the Globe Elevators, where it was then loaded onto cargo ships and transported throughout the Great Lakes and beyond, said the historical record.

Photo by Jed Carlson / DNT

More recently, much of the elevators’ wood had already been removed by Wisconsin Woodchuck LLC, which sought to salvage the elevators’ millions of board feet of old-growth pine. Notably, their efforts were documented on the History Channel’s “Ax Men” series.

But a foreclosure judgment entered in Douglas County Circuit Court in 2013 put a stop to the work.

On Monday, onlookers flocked to the Banks Avenue and North Third Street intersection to watch the flames and take photos and videos of the fire with their smartphones.

Employees at the nearby Barko Hydraulics building also gathered outside to observe the fire and take photos.

“When I looked out the window, everybody was outside,” said Barko customer support representative Shawn Wynne, who noted his place of employment wasn’t in any danger from the fire. “It’s pretty big, but with the wind everything was going straight up.”