This engineering marvel marks a new high for Provincetown

This engineering marvel marks a new high for Provincetown

The view from the new inclined elevator at the Provincetown Monument.Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

“This is the most important thing since the monument opened in 1910,” says David Weidner, executive director of the non-profit Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, which oversees the monument and museum. Weidner took over in 2017 and not long after began exploring the idea of ​​how to better connect hilltop attractions with the city below. One goal was to increase the number of annual visitors by 50 percent, to nearly 100,000 in the pre-COVID era.

Making it easier to climb the hill was a project that many people had thought about for a long time but never tried to make it happen. And it turned out to be quite complicated.

John Bologna, CEO of the Orleans-based consulting firm Coastal Engineering, says several solutions were proposed: a ski lift, a tram or stairs. One project looked a bit like Piazza di Spagna in Rome, he says. But the stairs would have required clearing much of the wooded hill. During the construction of the monument, a temporary narrow-gauge railway was built to ferry blocks of granite up the hill and an accident involving a runaway rail car running down the hill killed an 84-year-old widow. This may have eliminated a binary from consideration.

In 2017, Weidner traveled to Europe to examine the systems used to climb hills. Similar to an indoor elevator, an inclined elevator uses an electric winch at the apex of a track to lift a single car. “It’s like an elevator shaft set on a slope,” explains Bologna. “We used to refer to it as a funicular, which is the wrong term. This is a tandem system, where you have two trams on each side, and they use the weight of the other as a counterweight ”when they travel up and down.

David Weidner (left), executive director of the nonprofit Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, spoke with Barbara Semple as they drove the new exterior inclined elevator.Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

The designers identified a Swiss company, Outdoor Engineers, as the supplier. Another Swiss company, Inauen-Schätti, manufactured the lift. The scheduled opening date was September 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower departure from England. (The Mayflower Compact, the settlers’ government document, was signed aboard the ship while she was anchored in the Provincetown port.) The projected cost was initially $ 2.2 million.

Because much of High Pole Hill is sand, laying stable elevator tracks required drilling screw anchors 20 to 40 feet into the ground, says Bologna. The two tracks had to be precisely positioned using the X, Y and Z coordinates in space, from the bottom to the top of the hill. If something was out of balance, the elevator could work, but it would stress the metal rails and cause faster wear, says Bologna.

A condominium complex at the base of the hill has filed a lawsuit, questioning the sandy hill’s ability to support the elevator system and complaining about the traffic and noise it would generate. (The lawsuit was settled out of court.) Arranging the travel of Outdoor Engineers staff from Switzerland to Provincetown during the pandemic was a challenge, especially during this past summer. COVID outbreak in the city. If all went smoothly, Outdoor Engineers would have had to visit the site three times, says Thomas Müller, head of the inclined elevator division at Inauen-Schätti. Instead, his crew traveled to Provincetown “about five or six times — for sure, more than expected.”

All measurements by Outdoor Engineers and Inauen-Schätti used the metric system, so things had to be carefully converted to English units. There were also difficulties in the supply chain in bringing some of the necessary supplies to the site, says Bologna.

Inclined elevators are rare in the United States, but it’s not like Weidner’s nonprofit organization was trying to build the first one. Bologna had ridden one as a child at Niagara Falls, and there is also one in Plymouth, the White Cliffs Country Club, and the condo complex. But the state elevator regulations weren’t exactly written with uphill climbing systems in mind.

For example, says Bologna, the project involved power and water lines running alongside a flight of emergency stairs, adjacent to the tracks. It would power the lights and a ticket kiosk at the base station, as well as provide water for the landscape. But it says, “The elevator code says you can’t have water in the elevator shaft – you can’t use the shaft for any other service. But there really isn’t a well here. It is an open-air structure ». They were able to fix it without having to move any utilities. Regulators also wanted to speak in person with the Swiss engineers on the site.

A second scheduled opening date, May 2021, is round trip. For most of last summer, the elevator stood desolate inside its glass base station, functioning but not approved for operation. Final approval came just before Halloween, when the museum and monument were nearing their annual winter closure. “It was a pretty complicated process,” says Weidner.

By that time, the budget had gone from $ 2.2 million to $ 6.5 million. Most of the expense will be borne by the nonprofit, although there was a $ 200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and financial support in the form of tax-free municipal bonds from MassDevelopment. The cost of using the lift is included in the museum admission price.

Bologna speaks of the elevator as a long-needed link between the Provincetown commercial district and the museum: the present to the past. Weidner says that when he first took the elevator on a test trip last year, “I was absolutely amazed, just the beauty of seeing the whole city” as he climbed High Pole Hill. After more than a century of thinking about building that connection, “I’m really very proud that we were able to do that,” she says. “This was really hard work, and now it’s done. In a hundred years it will be normal, people will say it has always been here. ”Weidner says he even cried a little when he saw the project finally finished.

Although the elevator began operating in “soft launch mode” on April 1, a formal opening ceremony is scheduled for June 1.

In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Provincetown Harbor on his presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to speak at the laying of the monument’s cornerstone. In 1910, President William Howard Taft returned to the same ship to speak at the dedication.

Weidner says both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have an open invitation to the official ribbon cutting. Although the presidential yacht was decommissioned in 1929, the monument still stands, although it is now a little easier to reach.

The new inclined elevator station at the Provincetown Monument.Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

Scott Kirsner can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter @Scott Kirsner.

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