Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Chinese Ghost in the Grain Elevator

A photo I took of T5 from a water taxi while doing stowage area exams on ships anchored in the Columbia
In my book, "Portland's Lost Waterfront," I have a section devoted to the O. R. & N., Pacific Coast Grain Elevator System, often called the "great grain pipe." This was a system of grain elevators following the rail lines up the Columbia River basin, with tendrils reaching out as far as Idaho.

Today this system is duplicated in many ways by the Japanese owned, Columbia Grain International, a company with elevators reaching as far as North Dakota. Since the 1970s this company has operated the gargantuan Terminal 5 grain elevator near the mouth of the Willamette. This one grain elevator is responsible for a large percentage of Oregon's total exports, and a surprisingly large percentage of the entire nation's wheat exports.

 This industrial giant pulls grain from hundreds of railcars each day—up its whirring and rattling "legs" and into the concrete fortress of its warehouse.  Bulk cargo carriers from the Orient and beyond move up the Columbia river by tug and into the CGI slip. Rain and shine, by daylight, or by the glow of hundreds of halogen lamps, the grain pours into the holds of these carriers. Since this elevator is on property belonging to the Port of Portland, and due to a complexity of agreements and memorandums of understanding with the International Longshore Workers Union, all the jobs, aside from management, security, some high voltage electricians, and USDA, are held by longshoremen—even down to sweeping with a broom to get the grain dust that makes its persistent way past the vacuum collectors to settle, like a fine white frost, over everything.

The elevator is a big machine run mostly from a control room in a nearby building. Since most of the machinery is operated by remote controls this huge operation only needs a crew of about 20 workers to provide the labor There are workers on board the ship running the controls that move the giant spouts that pour the grain into the holds. There are two rail dumps, each with its full-sized locomotive. These locomotives are run by switchmen who use a remote control box, much like those used to operate model airplanes. There is a barge unloading facility, and a "truck pit" where hopper trucks drop their burden, and where semi tractors-trailer rigs are hoisted by a hydraulic "tipper" to a 40 degree angle so the grain slides out and into a pit where belts and legs take it away. All of this activity is overseen by a longshore "boss" who makes sure the workers sent from the hiring hall make it to their various jobs. This boss oversees the whole shooting match so that it hums like some futurist, heavy metal bee hive. 

Some years back, maybe ten, maybe fifteen, there was a boss whose initials were E.T., and those initials became the only name by which he was known. E.T. was one of those "hands on" kind of personalities—the kind who need to know every detail of everything, and who become quite disturbed by anything out of the ordinary. I recall a mystery that occurred during E.T.'s tenure that is quite unforgettable.

It was one of our duties, as USDA inspectors, to tour the inner parts of the elevator from time to time to make certain the system was delivering grain to the proper shipping bins dedicated to export cargo. During these tours we began to notice bare footprints in the thin layer of grain dust on the floor. The footprints would lead into off limits areas, and areas with dangerous, high voltage machinery. E.T. may have even been the first to notice these footprints. 

Then the whispering began, someone had seen a "Chinaman" creeping around up in the upper reaches of the elevator. Some said that he must have escaped from one of the ships and was now living up there until he could affect an escape beyond the gates of the T5 compound. When these rumors reached E.T.'s ears he became obsessed and could even be heard muttering to himself as he wandered about, looking for the culprit—hoping all the while that it wasn't a ghost, as some of the whispering declared.

The escaped Oriental crewman was not an implausible theory. Most of the maritime workers are Oriental, and the larger number are Chinese, who work for very low wages, by Western standards. It was entirely possible for one of the crew members to get inside the tower that supports the shipping spouts, climb up to the gantry that carries the belts to the dock area, and hide himself in the labyrinth of the elevator warehouse. The proof that this action had been carried out were these mysterious footprints that appeared each day in different locations.
Terminal 5 Columbia Grain International Inc. Elevator

E.T. would spend hours searching through the basement and up to the bin tops. He looked into each corner beneath the shipping bins, each holding 2 million pounds of wheat above his head. He examined beneath drag conveyers, transformer rooms (off limits to all but the electricians), elevator shafts, belt tunnels, toilets, but to no avail. For weeks, maybe even months, the bare footprints continued to appear and E.T.'s obsession to find the mysterious Oriental mariner became a monotonous compulsion.
Then one day, as one of us "Federal boys" was making his rounds he came upon the longshoreman who usually operated the truck pit. He was this well-liked fellow, a beanpole kind of guy, who wore Yosemite Sam mustaches to hide is perpetually goofy grin. He was holding his work boots in his hand, whistling softly to himself, while he tip-toed through the grain dust.

Word spread quietly among the USDA workers that the mystery of the Chinese ghost had been solved. So, as is the way of all gossip, the news eventually reached the ears of E.T. himself, and the quest was abandoned. 

This one turned out to be fake; but there have been other hideouts and stowaways that were real, and, should I find the time, I will tell you about them.