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Now, THAT'S an office

To be a tower crane operator, you've got to be able to climb a ladder 188 feet above the ground. You've got to ride out gusts of wind that shudder your one-man control box. And you've got to be comfortable enough to relieve yourself into a plasti...

To be a tower crane operator, you've got to be able to climb a ladder 188 feet above the ground. You've got to ride out gusts of wind that shudder your one-man control box. And you've got to be comfortable enough to relieve yourself into a plastic bottle.

Welcome to Wade Johnson's world.

As tower crane operator for Boldt Construction at its downtown Sheraton Hotel construction project, he's got perhaps the best office view in town.

His day starts at 6:30, climbing up and up into the murky morning light.

"It'll wake you up in the morning," says the 33-year-old Two Harbors High School graduate. His bag full of snacks and other supplies is winched up and down.

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Johnson got his start in construction in Silver Bay, helping build the marina there. His job with Boldt Construction is his first in a tower crane.

Since he began in September, he sees every sunrise and many sunsets. He saw a fight far below on Superior Street. Emergency medical helicopters buzz by. An occasional pigeon visits his perch. And he sometimes spies his dad's boat at work in the harbor.

"You've got a helluva view, that's for sure," he says.

Not that he has a lot of time to gawk.

Once he goes up, he might not clamber down until 9 p.m. (The trek down isn't as bad as the journey up, he says.)

He hoists loads of more than 6,000 pounds, guiding rebar, scaffolding, metal studs and concrete buckets up and down 11 stories. The $36 million glass-and-concrete building will have 147 hotel rooms, a restaurant, fitness center, indoor pool and 33 luxury loft condominiums.

He credits his fellow crew members for making his job easier. The crew keeps in contact via two-way radios.

Johnson is one of the few skilled crane operators in Duluth, site superintendent David Jones said. He praises Johnson for the job he's done, saying he hasn't missed a day.

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The crane is designed to sway. It shakes after swinging a load from place to place.

"She moves a lot. That was kind of hard to get used to," Johnson said. "I can feel it. I can't see it."

When the wind gets too powerful, he lets the boom swing with the wind, which crewmembers call "weathervaning." At first, the experience was a little nerve-wracking, he said.

"Usually, I just weathervane it and ride it out," he said.

Every once in a while, someone must venture out in a small cage along the boom to grease the pulleys, tracks and wheels.

Johnson said he takes a break whenever he can.

Sometimes he talks to his wife by cell phone. Jaime Johnson said she worries about freezing rain icing up the ladder rungs. It was her husband's dream to get that job, though, she said.

"I know he likes it."

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It's generally a safe job, Davis said, but danger lurks.

On Nov. 6, a 45-year-old Wyoming, Minn., man plunged to his death while dismantling a similar crane in downtown Minneapolis. The man, who lost his balance and fell 35 stories, worked for Northwest Tower Cranes, the company that rented out the Sheraton Hotel crane.

"It [the accident] makes you open up your eyes a little bit," said Johnson, a member of Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. "It's stressful, 'cause you're swinging loads all over."

Johnson rolled his eyes when asked about bathroom breaks. He says it's the most commonly asked question about his job.

He has learned to "self-regulate," and uses a plastic bottle for regular duty. A five-gallon bucket sits up top for emergencies.

Every day, after a drive from Maple, Johnson steels himself for the second phase of his morning commute. At least there's no snow on the rungs -- yet.

"To me, I climb up a ... ladder every day and go to work," he said.

JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at jmohr@duluthnews.com .

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