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Fire at Superior grain elevator causes $10M in damages, battalion chief says

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Grain elevator fire
Firefighters responded to a large fire on Monday afternoon at a defunct grain elevator in Superior. The fire is visible via the Duluth Harbor Cam.
Screenshot of Duluth Harbor Cam

By Duluth News Tribune

Updated 5:35 p.m. | Posted 4 p.m.

Firefighters responded to a large fire on Monday afternoon at a defunct grain elevator in Superior.

Formerly the Globe Elevators, the fire was located at 2 Banks Ave., in Superior adjacent to the operational General Mills elevators. Large flames and smoke plumes were visible from places throughout the Twin Ports, blowing the trail of smoke northeast for all to see.

"This is a large wooden structure so it's going to burn for a while," Mayor Jim Paine said in a statement on Facebook. "The wood is untreated, old growth timber, not much different than what you would throw in a fireplace. Superior Fire (Department) is on the scene, there are no injuries, and we don't expect much damage beyond the structure itself."

Battalion Chief Scott Gordon of the Superior Fire Department told the News Tribune that three contracted workers and the owner of the structure were working there and located safely right away.

"They called 911," Gordon said.

Gordon expected the fire would take multiple days to suppress. The elevator is 150 feet tall and firefighters have established a 225-foot collapse zone around the blaze, Gordon said. Nobody, including firefighters, will be allowed within the collapse zone.  

There was an estimated $10 million of wood reclamation equipment on site, Gordon said, with only a Bobcat salvaged. Firefighters were going to try to pump water from the harbor in an effort to fight the fire.

The defunct elevator has been in the process of being dismantled, said a spokesperson with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.   

"It was being taken apart and its wood being reclaimed — salvaging that had been taking place for years and years," said spokesperson Adele Yorde.

The fire was believed to be located in the "head house" portion of the old elevator site, Yorde said.

"We're pretty sure it's the head house that's on fire," said Jason Serck, the port director for the city of Superior. "The old Globe Elevators haven't been in operation for many many years."

The defunct elevators are owned by Gordon Ostedahl, who Serck said lives down on the elevator property.

The site featured two storage buildings and a head house. Built in 1887, the Globe Elevators were at one time the largest elevators in the world, according to an online historical record kept by the Old Globe Wood Company and confirmed by the Duluth port authority.

The Globe Elevators featured the first integrated elevator system — able to convey grain between structures.

Grain from throughout the Midwest was transported by rail to the Globe Elevators, where it was then loaded onto cargo ships and transported throughout the Great Lakes and beyond, said the historical record.

More recently, much of the elevators' wood had already been removed by Wisconsin Woodchuck LLC, which sought to salvage the elevators' millions of board feet of old-growth pine. Notably, their efforts were documented on the History Channel's "Ax Men" series.

But a foreclosure judgment entered in Douglas County Circuit Court in 2013 put a stop to the work. At the time, only grain-eroded slabs and a small amount of dimensional wood was said to remain.

Employees at the nearby Barko Hydraulics building gathered outside to observe the fire and take photos with their smartphones.

"When I looked out the window everybody was outside," said Barko customer support representative Shawn Wynne, who noted his place of employment wasn't in any danger from the fire. "It's pretty big, but with the wind everything was going straight up."