Wall chunk removed to prevent collapse

Workers ease pressure from the shifting sections that imperil Port Deposit

May 20, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - Construction workers tore down a section of the century-old retaining wall that was in danger of collapsing in this Susquehanna River town, but it proved more difficult than expected yesterday.

"It's a tough old wall," Henson Spencer Jr. said after attacking the structure with his giant Caterpillar backhoe for nearly four hours.

By noon, about half of the 7-foot-high section of wall he had hoped to remove was still standing.

"At least the pressure is off. That's the main thing," Mayor Robert Flayhart said as he peered into an 8-foot-deep hole where dirt was pulled away from the wall. "Now we don't have to worry about it falling anymore."

After clearing away the dirt, Spencer, owner of JR Septic Systems Services Inc. in Glen Burnie, tried to use the long arm of his tractor to rake small pieces of the wall into the newly created hole. An estimated 3- to 4-ton section of the wall shifted back and forth but held firm.

Geoffrey V. Kolberg, an engineer with Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP in Baltimore who was supervising the project, then changed the strategy. "We've removed the load on the wall," he said. "Now we will come back with jackhammers and loosen up sections so the backhoe can pull them down."

Kolberg and Joe Smith, a construction supervisor with Manekin LLC in Columbia, which funded the emergency work, carefully watched the operation.

"That's exactly what we want to do," Kolberg said to Spencer, the backhoe operator. "Dig away the dirt and pull the wall toward you. Chip away at it, one stone at a time."

"We don't want anything tumbling down the hill," Smith said.

The wall sits on one of three terraces, resembling a giant stair step, that came up from the back yards of homes on Main Street to High Street, where the digging was taking place.

A few pieces of stone fell to the top terrace, but none made its way to the homes below.

The digging took place in front of Kerry Anne Abrams' home on South High Street. Like the other town residents, she did not evacuate during yesterday's process or when the wall was in danger of collapsing and destroying houses. "Everything I have worked for all my life is there," she gave as her reason for staying. Abrams said seeing what is happening was more comforting than being away.

Abrams, the town's deputy mayor, asked a construction worker to save her a specific granite stone from the wall and a portion of the concrete cap where her mother had written her name in the cement more than 50 years ago. The cap shattered when Spencer tried to remove it.

Bill Eldred, the town community development director, said he is working with the state to speed the process of a permanent repair of the wall. He said he hoped that work could begin within the next 30 days.

Although the stone wall now leans out about 18 inches from its original vertical position, Kolberg said most of that movement occurred before the wall showed signs of collapsing in February.

He said the wall has moved 2 inches since February. "We would measure it every week," he said. "At first it was moving about one-hundredth of an inch a week. Then about one-tenth of an inch. In recent weeks, when it shifted two-tenths of an inch, we knew we had to do something. We couldn't wait."

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