Greetings Vern,

As a steel fabricator and in my work in the preservation of historic truss bridges, I’ve worked with many types of industrial cranes and recognize the vital role the mobile crane and its operator has in the handling of iron and steel. I had one memorable experience as a young steel fabricator working with a retired crane operator and an early twentieth century crawler crane that contributed to my long appreciation of skills of those who operate mobile cranes.

Remembering the event, I did not recall the model of the crane, but in a search in Google Books I found a War Department Technical Manual for a 1940 Koehring crawler crane that brought back memories of the sights and sounds of my work with Vic the crane operator and contributed to my writing about this experience.


Vern Mesler 2023

Vic the Crane Operator

Engine clutch engaged, traction gears engaged, traction brakes released, traction jaw clutches engaged, crane boom lowered, and the hard steel crane crawler shoes begin to track. Beneath the shoes, gravel stone and earth is crushed as Vic travels to the next loading position. He is operating an early twentieth century crawler crane that the construction company he retired from decommissioned and parked in a storage area.

Watching Vic operate this historic crane and spending time during our lunch period listening to some of his life stories was one of my most memorable work experiences in my career as a steel fabricator.


It was Spring 1968, and the fabrication company I was working for had a shipping storage yard of fabricated steel ready for delivery to multiple erection sites. The one crane and loading crew were working overtime to keep up. One morning the plant manager drove by a local construction company and spotted a crane setting in their storage yard. He stopped in the office and asked if he could rent the old crane. “We have no problem renting it to you but there is only one man in the state of Michigan that can operate it, and he’s retired. Maybe he’ll work for you. Give him a call.” The plant manager did call, and Vic the crane operator agreed to work. The crane was delivered to the company’s shipping yard, and on a Monday morning Vic arrived for work. I was reassigned from my fitter’s position, given a clipboard and assigned a loading crew. Along with Vic we loaded the truck trailers.


On each side of the crane were metal doors that opened into the engine area, and every morning Vic would pull out an old oil can and perform the required lubrication. Afterwards he would pull out a large crank (similar to an engine crank used to start an early automobile but much larger), insert it at the base of the engine, position the crank and apply his full weight to turn it clockwise a half turn. The engine would start with a familiar cranking, rattling, smoke, gas fumes, and finally the steady rhythmic sound of a well-oiled engine.


Vic would have his lunch in the employee parking lot, and I joined him there. Vic was a big man in bib coveralls, seventy-two at the time, and the car he was driving, a compact, didn’t seem to fit him (his wife’s car, as he mentioned later). As a retiree, Vic had a garden and brought in his daily harvest, his big red tomatoes especially memorable. One afternoon Vic showed me a copy of an early 1900s Sears and Roebuck catalog his kids had given him for his birthday, a gift he was especially proud of, maybe because he used to flip through the pages wishing to purchase many of the products listed there.

As a teenager he asked his mother for written permission to work at the Panama Canal, which was still under construction at the time. His mother refused. Vic would eventually find work at another historic construction project: building roads in the Rocky Mountains. With tractors, graders, horses, and a new gas-powered crawler crane on site. As Vic recalled, the steel boom of the new gas-powered crane didn’t hold up to the rugged Rocky Mountain terrain. One day the boom bent. A crane is not of much use with a bent boom, and certainly no crane service was readily available in the Rocky Mountains at the time. Craftsmen are often challenged with job site situations that require their innate cumulative industrial knowledge for a fix. As told by Vic, the boom was lowered on an embankment, and timbers were placed under the bent boom and set ablaze, heating the steel enough to straighten it. Later, timbers were attached alongside to stiffen the boom. It must have been quite a sight, the paint on the boom blistering and cracking, the smell of timber ablaze, the sounds of labor among the old forest.

Communication with Vic during our loading of the fabricated steel was with hand signals: hoist the boom, raise the boom, lower the boom, swing the boom. Vic was very attentive to these signals and aware of the location of crew members within the loading area. During one loading, another crew member and I were on the truck trailer positioned to receive a load of steel Vic had just picked up from the ground crew. Vic was about to swing the load into position alongside a previous load of steel. As the load moved closer, the crew member at the other end leaped between the loads to adjust a wooden block. I watched Vic as he operated this mechanical crane to change direction: engine clutch engaged, swing gears engaged, swing brake released. No loud grinding of gears, no steel cable breaking, just hand levers and foot pedals in skilled motions to swing the crane safely away from the dangerous situation.

It’s been over fifty years since I worked with Vic the crane operator. From memorable mental images and shop notes it is a pleasure to write this story. After my yard assignment, I was sent back inside the fabrication shop fitting up steel, one of the positions I enjoyed most in steel fabrication. I never saw Vic again. His crane was shipped back and probably scrapped out after this last chapter in its long service history.


Vern Mesler 2023

(retired from Douglas Steel Fabrication, Lansing, Michigan)

Destination Michigan

We met Adam Miedema in the open-air pavilion at the Calhoun County Historic Bridge Park, late morning on a cold October day, 2022. He had his video and electronic media equipment set up and was ready to interview Doug Ferrall and me with questions that might reveal why five historic metal truss bridges have found a home in a Michigan county park. Miedema, a videographer and photographer with WCMU at Central Michigan University, was developing material to produce a feature video for Destination Michigan, a travel show that airs on public television. Ferrall (Assistant Director of Community Development for Calhoun County) provided an excellent narrative of the park history and how the park is appreciated by those who visit.

Miedema expected to focus mainly on the bridges and the beautiful natural setting of the park as a worthwhile travel destination. He may not have expected to learn about the industrial riveting process or about the nineteenth century craftsmen who fabricated the wrought iron and steel bridges in the park and the twentieth century craftsmen who restored them. After a day of video and photography capturing scenes within the park, he would follow up a few weeks later to film a rivet demonstration at Lansing Community College for students in a Structural Fabrication class and then incorporate the riveting process into his piece. We hope you enjoy the finished product, the second segment of Destination Michigan's Season 14, Episode 2, expertly crafted by Adam Miedema. 

Rivet Demonstration for Blacksmiths

Rivet demonstration at the 2023 Blacksmith Association of Missouri (BAM) Ozark Conference, Missouri State Fairgrounds, Sedalia, Missouri

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