City Council discusses future of old coal tipple

The fate of an 86-year-old historic landmark honoring Grand Haven's railroading past is being debated. City officials are trying to decide the fate of the coal tower (tipple) on Harbor Drive.
Alex Doty
Dec 8, 2011

 

“It is the big concrete building on the waterfront next to the 1223 (locomotive),” City Manager Pat McGinnis said.

The tipple was built in 1925 as part of a modernization of the Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee terminal facilities in Grand Haven. Hopper cars loaded with coal were pushed under the tipple’s arches and the coal was dumped into a deep pit beneath the rails. The coal was then conveyed to the storage vault at the top of the tower, where it would be loaded into an engine’s tender through metal chutes on either side of the tower. Sand for wheel traction could also be loaded into the engine’s domes.

According to a report to City Council by McGinnis, the 2011-12 budget supports $10,000 for the cleaning and study of the structure; and $40,000 per year, beginning next year, for three consecutive years to restore the building.

McGinnis said those figures are just placeholders until a firm figure could be reached on what it would take to restore the structure.

“We have no cost of what it’ll take to restore the thing,” he added.

City officials say before any restoration work can be done, money needs to be spent on cleaning and shoring up the structure.

According to a memo from the city’s Department of Public Works to city administration, the cost to clean the structure ranges from $7,000 to $10,000. That does not including the costs for removing loose concrete and making repairs to the cracks — expenses that could equal or exceed the actual cleaning.

McGinnis said the city has an artifact fund that was established in 2006, which currently has $58,000 in it. Since it is an endowed fund, McGinnis said the city could only access net earnings to pay for repairs.

“That’s not going to pay for much of the study or much of the cost to restore this thing,” he said.

While one of the options is to improve the building, the city’s Department of Public Works recommends demolition of the structure.

A landmark in the Riverfront Historic Conservation District, any plans to restore or demolish the building would need to go through a rigorous and extended process of review and approval by the city’s Historic Conservation Commission.

Members of Grand Haven’s City Council had mixed reaction to what should be done with the coal tipple.

“Because of our neglect is the reason it’s in the state it is today,” Councilman Mike Fritz said. “I am not in favor of getting rid of it.”

Fritz said the structure is an important part of Grand Haven’s past that can’t be reclaimed.

“As you lose things, you don’t get them back,” he said.

Councilman Bob Monetza said he also thought the city should look into ways to keep the icon around.

“It’s important to do as much as we can realistically to keep this thing around,” he said.

Monetza said the longer the tipple is left to sit with no improvements, the worse off it will be.

“We need to preserve what we can for our future so they know who we are and where we came from,” he added.

There were others, however, who thought that the city had more pressing needs and shouldn’t spend taxpayer money on the structure.

Councilman Dennis Scott said there were parks and other items that needed to be maintained, and said he couldn’t see diverting funds from essential services.

“I cannot see spending taxpayer money on this,” he said. “If that’s the case, it needs to come down.”

There are also opinions on what should be done from outside city leadership.

Paul Trap, a railroading expert from Holland, said he desired to see the tipple saved from the wrecking ball.

“The tower is the most visible icon of our transportation past,” he said. “And Grand Haven certainly was an important part of transportation history — not only for this area, but for the whole country.”

Trap urges city officials to do everything possible to preserve it.

To help give direction on the future of the city landmark, City Council suggested sending the issue to the Historic Conservation Commission to come up with a recommendation by April 2012.

 

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