Time Machine: The T.M. Sinclair smokestack

Towering landmark stood from 1909 to 2010

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When it was built in 1909, the landmark T.M. Sinclair Co. smokestack was labeled the “Finest Smoke Stack in Iowa” by the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette.

If nothing else, it was extremely sturdy. The iconic smokestack, one of the largest in Iowa, was a part of the Cedar Rapids skyline for more than a century.

The stack’s base rested on a solid octagonal block of reinforced concrete that was 14 feet deep and 31 feet in diameter. The block weighed 836 tons.

The base, also octagonal, was made of hard Chicago brick and rose 41 feet. Above that, the chimney itself was made of glazed, yellow-brown fireclay bricks.

“Their shape conforms both inside and outside of the chimney to the complete perfect circle,” the Evening Gazette story said. “Each brick dovetails into those next to it, and cement mortar is used in laying them. As a further precaution against cracking, the frequent fault in chimney construction, circular steel bands are laid at suitable intervals within the walls.”

The chimney had a firebrick lining for 50 feet above where smoke entered the stack.

The bricks were gradually decreased in size on the way up the stack until the capping point, giving the structure a graceful look.

Some of the bricks were specially colored during baking to inlay the names “Sinclair” and “Fidelity” in 6-1/2 — foot letters on the side of the stack.

The 193-foot-tall smokestack replaced three 150-foot steel stacks. The new one had double the capacity of the three steel ones combined.

“The handsome shaft attracts the attention of travelers both entering and leaving Cedar Rapids by the Northwestern and Rock Island roads, advertising in a practical manner the fact that this is one of the growing manufacturing cities of the great Middle West,” the newspaper article stated.

Sinclair, primarily a pork exporter, was sold to Sulzberger & Sons in 1913 when the bottom fell out of the pork export market. In turn, it came under control of Wilson & Co. in 1916. The plant remained under the Sinclair name until 1935, when it became Wilson & Co.

The Sinclair/Fidelity names remained on the stack for 25 years more, until October 1956. Nesper Sign & Neon Co. painters took three weeks and 40 gallons of paint to paint “Wilson & Co” in white letters on a black background on the stack. Each letter was 6 feet high.

In 1962, the stack was surrounded by a boiler room, pump house and mechanical shop on the factory’s triangular grounds that included more than 70 buildings.

As the meatpacking industry changed, plants in the Midwest changed hands and then closed. Wilson’s became Farmstead, then closed in 1990.

As the industrial era in Cedar Rapids gave way to technology, some of the crumbling old factories, such as the meatpacking plant and the steel and iron works, were torn down. Efforts were made to preserve some of the remnants of these sites, including the smokestack, which could be easily seen by much of the community and was considered a landmark.

The 30 acres where the plant stood passed into the hands of the city of Cedar Rapids in 2006 for cleanup and repurposing. After several fires and the major flood of 2008, the remaining buildings were slated for demolition.

The iconic smokestack qualified for the National Register of Historic Places but was torn down, beginning at 9:30 a.m. July 19, 2010.

The plan was to get the structure down to about 60 to 75 feet using a pneumatic jackhammer and then take the rest down with an excavator and wrecking ball.

It took D.W. Zinser of Walford an hour to dismantle a foot of the giant stack. Work stopped after 3 feet were gone because of high winds and began again the next day. Demolition was completed July 27 at a cost of about $200,000.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was assisting in flood recovery, would have provided that much to restore the smokestack, according to a July 20, 2010, Gazette story. That was enough to stabilize it but restoring it would have cost up to three times that.

As part of an agreement with FEMA, the city agreed to create a web-based archive of items related to the Sinclair/Wilson/Farmstead plant history. The city also agreed to create a booklet to explain the plant’s history.

In August, the Cedar Rapids Public Library received pallets of bricks salvaged from the Sinclair smokestack to use during construction of the new library about to be built across from Greene Square.

Library Director Bob Pasicznyuk said the bricks would be part of creating a facility that reflected the history and values of the community.

The bricks were incorporated into a cozy fireplace in “The Den,” an area just off the fiction area, near the coffee shop.

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