How the smokestack photo was made at the Morro Bay Power Plant

Posted by David Middlecamp on February 7, 2014 

THE STACK IS HIGH...This dramatic photo of a rigger, Orval Ady, dangling 15 feet below the top of PG&E's 450-foot smokestack was taken by Telegram-Tribune photographer Fen Truebridge who had just previously been hoisted up through the giant chimney's brick-lined interior. The power plant building is shown at the top left.


Fifty-nine years ago the Telegram-Tribune cost 5 cents a copy and had roughly a quarter the circulation it has today.

Big changes came to the county in the '50s and one of the biggest that decade was the construction of the Morro Bay Power Plant by Bechtel for PG&E.

Millions were spent on the construction and the plant provided head of household payroll for hundreds of employees for more than two generations.

The then-Telegram-Tribune published a special section July 7, 1955, as the first unit opened.

Tax dollars from the plant gave stability to the San Luis Coastal School District and provided a base for Morro Bay to become a city.

Technology evolved over the years.

Though electric power is more central to life than ever, the Morro Bay facility can no longer compete in the environmental and economic market.

The power plant observed its last day of electric generation availability this week, and Dynegy is in the process of shutting it down.

There is some debate if the 450-foot tower is a smoke stack or a chimney. Smoke stack No. 1 is lined with acid-resistant bricks. The stack provided the exhaust system for electric power units 1 and 2.

A few years later units 3 and 4 were built, each with their own stack.

I had unearthed a remarkable photo from the top of the first smoke stack but had never heard the story behind the photo, until this clipping turned up.

Reporter/Photographer Fen Truebridge told the story in the Telegram-Tribune on March 4, 1955:

Smokestack Is 'Way Up,' Says Cameraman How high is up? As far as I'm concerned, 450 feet is plenty high up. Also down. I plan to stay strictly on the ground for quiet a spell.

All that separated me yesterday from a brick bed, 450 feet below the top of Pacific Gas and Electric company's giant smokestack in Morro Bay, was a thread-like cable and a skimpy sort of a foothold on a concrete block.

A routine assignment, the editor called it. Hmmfn!

Workers were painting the multi-million dollar power plant's smoke stack high above the ground and drawing the eye of may curious bystanders. Tipped off by a local newshound, the boss said "this has picture possibilities."

A visit to the plant Wednesday gained average pictures of the smokestack with two ant-like figures glued to the near top of the skyscraper. Construction superintendent for the huge stack, J.C. Melton, said that it was impossible to go up at that time since the only means of ascending was being used by painters. It would mean shutting down operations to send another up to the top. He promised the next afternoon would be a quiet one and transportation would be furnished.

Shortly after 2 p.m. yesterday, after forwarding my reinstatement application for G.I. life insurance to the veterans administration, I approached the stack's base. Melton was busy with his crew laying the last of several hundred acid resistant bricks, which line the huge funnel's interior. He remembered our appointment at once. "Hey, Joe, lower the carpet," he yelled to his winch operator." A barrel-shaped hunk of concrete was lowered to the inside of the concrete tower.

Melton casually said, "Put your right foot on this, next to the cable, and I'll tag along with my left foot on the other side. Don't grab the cable, let it spin in your hands or we'll get the dizzy treatment."

All of a sudden we were on our way, but the winch operator had forgotten to let the cable unwind first and as we were raised, we spun like a merry-go-round gone wild. The superintendent, feeling concerned with his passenger's comfort, screamed to 'let down' before continuing. Back on the brick deck I reeled from the false run and was quite willing to forget the tower assignment.

With a reassuring word from the superintendent for Rust company of Pittsburgh, Pa., subcontractors for constructing, brick lining and painting the stack, we were on our way again. This time I kept my eyes closed!

Seconds later—it seemed like hours—we approached the square platform opening near the top and Melton told me to sit on the platform and pull my legs in. We were on top of the world on what seemed to be a shaky wooden platform, suspended from large beams stretched across the nine-foot-wide chimney top.

Morro Bay, Cayucos and Baywood Park stretched out beautifully below, we were sitting on the world's crest. My camera came to life as I suddenly felt at ease. Steeplejack Orval Ady of Seattle—he calls himself an iron worker—had preceded us, and as we arrived at the top, the single cable was re-rigged and dropped over the side of the run.

Ady nonchalantly mounted his narrow 1x6-inch plank seat to check the painter's previous day's work.

Height then seemed unimportant as I leaned over the top to catch Ady's operations. An antique-looking radio, used for communications between the top and ground level winch operator warned that a worker had broken his leg when falling inside the power plant building and that safety belts were being required on all high level work.

We were more than twice the height of the tallest power plant buildings. Cumbersome safety belts were scoffed at by these men.

After taking my pictures of the plant, Morro Bay's sea damaged harbor, Cayucos to the north, Morro Rock, and the beach community stretching towards San Luis Obispo, I was ready for the grand trip down.

The thimble of concrete was brought into reach and without looking down I once again placed my foot into position for the descent.

The "let the cable revolve in your hands" instructions ran through my mind as we shot to the bottom and then it was all over—the job was done.

Previous Photos From the Vault posts on the Morro Bay Power Plant:

Generating Tax Dollars

Below the Morro Bay Power Plant

Morro Bay Power Plant Construction

Morro Bay Power Plant

Morro Bay Power Plant Smoke Stack

Morro Bay Power Plant Parts on Parade

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