Philly Flashbacks

The odd, the interesting and the downright ridiculous.

How Two Sewer Rats Made History in City Hall Tower

Phila City Hall1889

From the moment the elevator in the still unfinished City Hall tower, above, was opened to the sight-seeing public in April of 1889, it was a huge hit. The top of the tower, even unfinished, provided a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. During the following summer, the elevator operators were astonished at the number of young couples who decided that ascending the tower of the new Public Buildings on Penn Square was just about the most romantic thing they could do. There were so many “bashful swains and blushing sweethearts” that one elevator engineer commented:

You never saw the like! They’re all spooneys, too. They’ve been kissing and hugging all day, and I’m sick of it. Another day’s work like this would break me all up.

Toward Logan Sq

City Hall 1908

Throughout the next decade, the popularity of the elevator continued to grow. By 1899, 5,000 people a month were ascending to the top of the now completed tower, to gaze down at the city from right under the feet of its beloved founder, William Penn. Take a look at the spectacular late 19th century view from the tower toward Logan Square, above. The completion of the the clock room and aluminum cap had increased the tower’s height by another 200 feet, to a total of over 500 feet.

In 1900, a new, hydraulic elevator was installed to accomodate the new height. Not long after, a few accidents began occurring. Most were minor, but when the locking device failed, one of these was fatal, giving rise to a new concern about the safety of the new hydraulic elevator. After all, it was now operating in what was one of the longest elevator runs in the world, second only to the Washington Monument. Newspapers began calling the City Hall tower elevator ride “a Constant Menace to the Lives of Passengers.”

 Tower 1902In 1901, the Public Building Commissioners shut the tower ride down for a few months and petitioned City Councils for $8,000 in funding to install an automatic safety air cushion under the tower elevator. Installed in 1902, this “air cushion” was a compartment 70 feet deep at the base of the shaft that the manufacturer claimed would slowly and safely bring the elevator car to a gradual stop. On the afternoon of September 25th, 1902, the new safety system was tested before the public in a somewhat bizarre and dramatic demonstration.

At 1:30 pm, the 2,500 pound car was raised 372 feet up in the shaft, left, the steel cables were detached and the car was held suspended only by a single rope. Inside the car was a cage containing two sewer rats, along with dozens of eggs and delicate light bulbs placed on the floor as well as several glasses of water filled to the brim. A crowd of of over 500, including the entire Bureau of Elevator Inspectors and the chief mechanical engineer of the Federal Treasury Department, assembled to witness the official event.

When the rope was cut, the car plummeted down the shaft past the spectators at a rate of about 120 miles an hour. Clouds of dust were thrown up, and a giant boom reverberated through the building as the car hit the air well. The whole thing took only about seven seconds. From the noise, many of the spectators were sure the car had been smashed to pieces. However, the crowd in the hall directly below the elevator shaft reported that the giant electric chandelier suspended there had remained absolutely steady and never flickered. When the onlookers rushed to the elevator car, they found that none of the water had been spilled, only three eggs were cracked and our heroes, the rats, looked shaken up by the fall but were unharmed. The unbroken eggs were distributed as souvenirs.

The next day, the Inquirer headline dutifully reported:

Rats 1902

The paper also said that the builders and spectators were highly elated over the test, which it called “the greatest elevator drop that has ever been made in the world.”


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