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It seemed like an accident--nearly a disastrous one--when the Geological Museum's elevator crashed into the basement, almost killing the two undergraduate riders.
But it wasn't.
At the time it happened, back in 1940, no one really did ascertain the facts of the case, since the two students involved fled from the elevator's wreckage before they could be questioned. Last week, however, a Greenwich Village weekly newspaper, the Village Voice, published an interview with Paul M. Hollister, Jr. '41, a local author and painter. Half the article was devoted to his recollections on cracking up the elevator.
Fascinated by Elevators
Hollister is neither afraid nor ashamed to talk about the event. As he put it yesterday: "In a way, the crash was premeditated. I had got to know elevators and had become fascinated with them. Before I ever found out about the one in the Geological Museum I had made several elevator crashes in France. I wasn't a novice in the thing."
The Museum's elevator offered unique possibilities, since it was neither automatic nor electric. The only mechanical advantage consisted of a winch and a few gears at the top of the shaft. To go up, one simply kept pulling down the main rope. The elevator descended of its own accord with any sort of a weight. And to stop at any of the floors, the rider pulled on the "brake rope," which stopped the winch from unwinding.
Such a set-up proved too tempting for Hollister. On the fateful day of the wreck, he recalls, "Charlie Fisher and I were just trying to see what we could do with the elevator."
'He'd Get Lonely'
(Contacted at his home in Weston, Mass., last night, Charles P. Fisher '42 had a somewhat more detailed explanation of just why he and his friend happened to be in the elevator.
("Paul was taking Geography 1 in the Museum at the time," he recalled. "There were quite a few athletes in the course, and during the fall lots of them had injuries which forced them to use the elevator for getting to class. Paul used to pull them up. That's how he discovered it. Normally it was just used for freight.
("After the football season, Paul had no more athletes to help, but still used the elevator by himself. Occasionally he'd get lonely and ask his friends to go for rides with him. I was chosen on that particular day.")
Starting from the top of the Museum, Hollister and Fisher began their descent. They never touched the brake rope. "By the time we passed the first floor, we had gained pretty good momentum," Hollister recalls.
They hit the basement floor.
For a few seconds they rested there, while the winch unwound all its cable. But then they suddenly shot upwards about halfway to the first floor, as the spinning winch started to take in the cable again.
The strain, however, proved too great. Winch, gears, cable, and elevator all crashed into the basement.
(According to Fisher, this sort of a ride was routine for Hollister. "Paul always used to let the elevator hit the basement floor. Only, the winch never gave way before. Depending on his morale, Paul would go faster or slower. He out-did himself on this occasion.")
Fortunately for both Hollister and Fisher, they were standing directly underneath the elevator's one cross-beam, which saved them from being crushed by the debris. "We were really pretty lucky," Hollister admits.
Finding a spiral staircase in the basement, the pair walked up to the first floor and ended up in the library, where "we were conspicuous for our pallor," according to Hollister. "We mingled with the crowd later and never did get into any trouble.
"The only other person who ever knew was my geography professor. He used to ride motorcycles and had a bashed nose. So he never told anyone," Hollister says.
("Paul was all prepared if anyone found out," Fisher recalled. "He looked up a state law which required inspection of elevators every six months. The Museum's hadn't been inspected since March, 1922.")
Following this occurrence, Hollister gave up elevator crashing. "I had to graduate," he recalls.
As for the elevator, the University put up an "Out of Order" sign for seven years. Then it installed an automatic, electric one
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