May 1992

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Raising the Dredge

By 1948 the Finewood family had bought all the stock of Valley Sand & Gravel, Inc. "Valley" had two aggregate processing plants in Livingston County, one near the Village of Avon, the other three miles south of Scottsville. At the Scottsville plant, the hydraulic suction dredge used for pumping sand and gravel through a ten inch pipe back to the top of a screening and washing plant sank, unobserved, at its moorings next to the shore of the lake it had formed. It happened during the week-long, year-end shutdown in 1948. Unfortunately, no one checked the bilge pump that broke down during this time. The wooden-hulled dredge took on water until it settled, bow first, leaving only one corner of the stern exposed. The bow and boom with all its rigging rested on the bottom of the gravel bank that sloped some twenty feed downward from shore. For the next two weeks top priority for the Finewood and Valley resources was assigned to the raising of the dredge.

At first L. B. took charge and wasted several days trying totally inadequate methods, such as trying to lift the hulk out of the water with shore-based power cranes which didn't wiggle it. I went to Ted Jacobsen, our best rigger, for ideas. His first advice was for us to seek a more practical approach to the problem, and suggested we consider an underwater option. As I drove back to the city I thought of one Bill "Red" Daley who was one of a few Ridge Construction people who had drifted into town when the Memorial Bridge across the Genesee River was constructed, and then stayed to work for the Ridge.

Red Daley, a huge red-haired and red-faced man, originally from Brooklyn, had told me of working on salvage operations in New York Harbor. He liked to talk of his accomplishments. Unfortunately his love of whiskey had reduced his station with the Ridge to that of labor foreman. That afternoon I arranged a meeting with Bill at a Charlotte Tavern where I briefed him on our sunken dredge problem. He thought the problem a relative simple one, and in a half hour sketched out a procedure on the bar that made sense to me. The plan required a professional hard-hat diver, and Red just happened to know one who beside his air pressure suit, owned a portable air pump that came in a brass trimmed mahogany chest. On each side of the chest were fitted wheels that when cranked supplied air to the diver. His name was Frank Davis.

I managed to borrow Red's services from the Ridge for a week, and two days later we sent Frank down into the icy, black water to plug the many ventilation ports that were spaced at regular intervals about a foot below the deck of the dredge. Two men were assigned to shaping the wooden wedges that would seal the hull so that a battery of water pumps on shore could remove the water from the hold, hopefully faster than it could come in. With the water evacuated, the dredge should float. There were hitches, of course, that would keep us struggling for nearly a week.

One was when Frank's air lines became entwined in the many boom cables at the bow end of the dredge. In the underwater darkness he had traveled around the boom rigging until he was so tangled he was unable to retrace his route. Frank's shore attendant beckoned me to his side, handed me the phone receiver that was connected to Frank's helmet, and quietly said, "He's praying," For a moment I listened to the eerie sounds of Frank's voice that sounded as if it was in an echo chamber, or perhaps from outer space, as he pleaded with the God of all divers. All we could do was to speak soft confident words of encouragement until, after what seemed hours, Frank worked his way free and surfaced, mighty happy to be back with us. At a conference it was quickly agreed that a companion diver should be provided.

The other scare came when the battery of eight power pumps on shore began to evacuate water fast enough to cause the dredge to shift as it attempted to rise. Frank was still under water looking for more holes to plug, as each hole closed helped the pumps win the battle against incoming water. This we desired, but any movement of the dredge hull now placed Frank and his assistant in danger of being crushed against the lake bottom, or the underwater gravel banks. When the pump attendants saw the dredge move it took harsh words to convince them to shut down their engines, for after days of futile effort they saw imminent success, and of course were reluctant to abort the pumping.

With the divers back on shore, the pumps were restarted, and under softly falling snow the dredge again began to rise, slowly at first, then rapidly to the surface to be greeted by long and lusty cheers by all. Some credited me with the success. Actually my contribution was to seek and find the correct advice. Experts had to handle the rest.

Our family album of photos of that year displays a page size black and white picture of our gang working around the sunken dredge. It tells more than my words, and helps convince skeptical grandchildren that I was really there.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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