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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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"Smoke Hawk" Towner Story

by Grand Rapids News, May 26, 1911

Perched in the tower of the city hall nearly 160 feet above the pavement, "Smoke Hawk” Towner watches the sky line for smoke as assiduously as Sister Annie in the Blue Beard tale watched for the arrival of the rescuing brothers.

His outlook on the world is from two triangular windows about 18 inches high and not over a foot wide at the bottom. Thirty feet above the big clock his perch is located, and he climbs to it by means of many long ladders and stairways.

On a little table he holds on his lap are charts with cross lines for every half minute.

Smoke pours forth from a far-off stack.

Towner smiles, “There’s another,” says he. “That’s four times in the last 50 minutes that stack’s been smoking.”

He records the fact.

Once in four hours is the limit under the smoke ordinance and Towner’s smile and the marks on the little chart spell trouble for the owner of the stack, for the city is enforcing the smoke ordinance, having finally cleared its own skirts by making the waterworks stacks smokeless. *(see below)

Doesn’t Rely Wholly on Chart

The “smoke hawk” doesn’t rely entirely on his chart. People might dispute that. He uses a big camera with telephoto attachment and makes pictures of them. The picture accompanying the story  shows one of the violators of the last few days.

The little cubby hole where he works is not more than 6 X 5 feet and is as close to the top of the tower as it is possible to be. Look at the top of the tower, way above the clock on the north and south sides, and you will see small triangular shaped holes. It is from these he gets his view.

“How does he watch the east and west?” you ask.

Towner Is “Foxy”

At the end of an iron rod he has fixed a movable mirror. He clamps the rod on one end of the tower braces and thrusts the mirror out of the window. By swinging it about a little he can get a view directly west while looking out of a north window. White facing the north on Ottawa Street he can see cars at the corner of Canal and Lyon.

A staff photographer of The News was in the tower with Towner this week when a storm came up. Thunder sounds mighty loud up there. It looked a long ways to the street.

“Swell place to be struck by lighting, eh?” said Towner, who seems to have no nerves.

Staff Photographer Misses Something

Luckily for the photographer’s peace of mind he didn’t hear until the last edition came out that several buildings were struck and one man killed during that same storm.

Towner is an engineer himself of more than 20 years’ standing. For several years he was engineer for the street car company, and he possesses more information about local engines, engineers, smokestacks, etc., than and other living man.

* November 14, 1910 Common Council Minutes, page 509: "Prior to the past weeks, the Municipality has not been in a position to enforce the Smoke Ordinance as the city was one of the worst violators of its own ordinance. After our new stack at the new pumping station had been in operation long enough to insure it remaining in regular service, the writer notified the Smoke Inspector that it was time for him to get busy and enforce the "Smoke Ordinance." We have at our new pumping station the cleanest appearing stack in the city of Grand Rapids, and we are in a position to enforce our ordinance. Submitted by Samuel A. Freshney, Secretary and General Manager, Board of Public Works."

(Transcription of the newspaper story in the Grand Rapids News on May 26, 1911 that accompanied the photo.)

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