Years in the Water Tower Business or
Does the Ladder of Success Have to be this High?
Clyde Burns of Huntsville, Texasby
Photos courtesy Clyde Burns
tower and crane |
"This is one of the first tanks we erected with a
crane, close to Bridgeport, Texas in 1973."
may not have met Clyde Burns in person - but if you've lived in Texas longer than
two weeks - you've almost certainly driven by one or more of his projects. You
may also have driven by (or under) some of his work in Kansas, Oklahoma, Illinois,
Indiana or a dozen other states. Born a stone's throw from the Red River, in Collinsville,
Grayson County, Clyde's Texas roots go back to before the Civil War. His great-grandfather
was one of Gainesville's first three merchants. |
In 1957 having just graduated
from high school, Clyde took a job working in the oil fields. It promised good
pay, adventure and a high risk of traumatic amputation - what young man could
resist? His duties included climbing the rigs and derricks and it was here that
he discovered he had no fear of heights - a definite asset in his next job - the
one that turned out to be his lifelong career.
using a "Basket Pole" crane.|
using a Guyless Derrick crane.|
basket pole crane job. The crane is suspended by cables from the uprights as they
On one particular job, down near Port
Lavaca, a water tower crew was erecting a tank not far from the rig where
Clyde was working. The drilling crew watched with interest as the water tower
took shape - but what really got their attention was Saturday morning when they
showed up for work as usual and the water tower men were gone - not to reappear
until Monday morning. This was 1958 during the "Eisenhower Recession" and if someone
was considering a job change - they had better be sure they were making the right
move. A lunch hour conversation with the water tower workers revealed that there
wasn't that much difference in pay - so Clyde bid adieu to his oily comrades and
never looked back.
Burns deplaning near the latest job site.
in his career)
|Starting at the bottom
(both literally and figuratively) Clyde joined the bull gang and spent his days
doing the grunt work similar to that of an oil field roustabout. After a stint
as a "scaffold jumper" - grinding burrs on the welded seams and operating a chipping
gun, he then started welding and by the Spring of 1963, he had been promoted to
He worked for one company for 20 years - until the
owner started pursuing businesses unrelated to water towers and had to declare
bankruptcy. Clyde then joined a company in Kentucky who found a lucrative business
in salvaging older tanks all across the United States and then re-erecting them
at other locations.
View (from crane) of the Wamba, Texas water tower.
up view of the above photo. Inner rim is wooden scaffolding with welder appearing
as a gray dot just to the right of the inner pole.|
|When asked about the
inherent dangers of working so far above the ground, Clyde stated that fatalities
were rare. His company once went eight years without a one - and when it did inevitably
happen, ironically it occurred on one of the shortest tanks the company built
- a stubby fifty foot "washwater" tank - the type frequently used by municipal
utility districts and water treatment plants. |
Even then - the fall from
the tank didn't kill the man - the cause of death was an infection from his hospital
Age" Tower of Giant City When
you look past the three rings of any specialized business, there's always something
interesting on the midway. We learned from Mr. Burns that the American Water Tank
Association recognizes achievement within its industry with an annual award of
excellence. In 1972, Clyde won the award for his tank in the Giant City State
Park in southern Illinois. The 82-foot three-legged tank holds 100,000 gallons
- and its most unusual features (besides it's over-all Jetsonesque appearance)
is a spiral staircase leading up to a 50-foot observation deck* - allowing park
visitors a panoramic view of the Shawnee Mountains.
Park Crane at tower base. Note spiral staircase.
asked about tower evolution, Clyde said that the typical municipal water tower
was the natural offshoot of the railroad water towers. These went from wood construction
to steel tanks sometime around the time of the Civil War.
a salvage job in Gouda Springs, Georgia, Clyde says that he once removed a tower
that had a plaque installed in 1954 for the tower's centennial - making it a genuine
ante-bellum artifact. The manufacturer was Brown Steel of Noonan, Georgia
- one of the oldest companies tank companies in the southern United States.
water tower nearing completion.|
As one looks back on a career that has spanned so many years
- the occasional coincidence becomes inevitable.
buy tanks according to their needs. They have scores of options such as catwalks,
staircases, ladders, lights, etc. and it's entirely possible to have erected over
200 tanks (as Mr. Burns has done) and to never have had two with exactly the same
complement of accessories. Out of these 200 tanks - the option of a spiral staircase
had only been requested three times. One was the aforementioned tower at Giant
City State Park, but the other two tanks went to towns with the same name. Pittsburg,
Texas and Pittsburg, Kansas both requested spiral staircases. What does this
mean? Probably nothing. We just like to mention coincidences.
Texas water tower showing the spiral staircase.|
Photo courtesy Kazu
Padre Island water tower showing some salt spray weathering.|
photos included within this article are towers that Clyde has erected in Texas
over the years. He mentions that his crews were often en route to their next job
long before the painting crew ever showed up. Most of these photos were taken
well after the fact - as the South Padre Island tank (above) demonstrates.
result of poor workmanship at the fabricating plant.."
Note line under
Photo courtesy Kazu
also mentioned that "heat buckles" and other irregularities that disturb the symmetry
of the tanks were the result of poor workmanship at the fabricating plant and
should not reflect on the skill of the erection crew.|
| On some
occasions - salvage is not an option. Removal needs to be swift - as it was for
this WWII-era airfield tank
in Conroe, Texas. Clyde's expertise
brought the tower down in less time than it takes to write this paragraph - although
the cutting of the steel took considerably longer. |
|The next time you're
on a roadtrip and turn on the shower or flush the toilet - give some thought to
the water pressure and think of those huge tanks hidden in the clouds. There's
a good chance the pressure is coming to you from a Clyde Burns tank. |