Opening Letters

An Elevating View

how the city’s oldest elevator changed the way I see this place

Zack Gauck |

When you stand on top of a roof looking down on a city, it makes you feel like you are an ever watchful eye, peering over cracked mortar to observe, maybe even fight crime. Other times, the rooftop moment happens because the oldest elevator in Eau Claire happened to get stuck between floors and needs some prodding to get it working again. Today was one of the elevator days.

The whole experience started not long after I moved into a new office building and was carting around large boxes of files and clothing; in fact, if you frequent Barstow Street, you might have seen a large U-Haul truck putzing around town in mid-January.

I am far from an Eau Claire native; in fact, I was one of those people that took the entire Midwest and bundled it together as, well, the Midwest. I grew up in North Carolina, went to school at the University of Iowa, and started generalizing about the Midwest based on Iowa experiences alone. I was the one who cursed the lack of snowplowing in Iowa City, the one who hit a patch of sand while taking a turn on his bike, fell, and skidded to a stop in front of a very astonished Korean couple. I was that guy who scoffed at the very idea that anyone would want to live for an elongated period in Iowa, let alone the rest of the Midwest. And yet, here I am, living in Eau Claire, and actually enjoying myself – though Midwest Tattoo, you make me smile every time I look at your sign – please say you’ve tattooed corn on someone before.

Seeing as how I am the “new face in town,” everyone I meet seems to want to tell me random facts about Eau Claire. Apparently this was a logging town complete with logging days (a festival of sorts that I’m told died down — and here I wanted to challenge someone to log rolling), the Eau Claire River was named as such due to the French’s glee at no longer seeing the sandy Chippewa … oh, and get this, the floor I am currently standing on has a foundation built of sawdust – wait, what?

It’s true, the oldest elevator in Eau Claire is housed in a building with a foundation that has since been stabilized (6 S. Barstow, for those curious), but has these fun sink spots throughout. The back storage room looks more like a failed attempt at an indoor skatepark than a stable foundation worthy of supporting weight. Would you know the building has such an interesting floor? Probably not, though you might be confused as to why on the second story there is a slope leading to the elevator doors – sawdust does deteriorate overtime.

    As per that elevator, not but a month into work here I climbed a set of rickety stairs to a surprisingly stable ladder that opened up to rooftop glory. Armed with two two-by-fours and having watched too many seasons of MacGyver, a co-worker and I entered the elevator house with high hopes of restarting the mechanics. The diagram was simple and large: push the upper left and the bottom right – easy enough. Nothing. Try to make it go down? Upper right and bottom right, nothing. So much for pushing high voltage metal with wood.

But the experience got me onto my first roof in Eau Claire. It let me stare down on the cracking streets and see that, yes, it was cold, but people weren’t complaining about it, they were dealing with it. The streets get plowed, albeit (apparently) less than they used to; the sidewalks are shoveled (sans most college streets – that’s more of pushing snow around when they remember); the cafés still have live music; the mailman still gets me letters from family; and the people still smile. This is not the Midwest with torrential floods, tornadoes that miss your apartment by two blocks, snow and sleet and ice that build up so much that when you go to back out of your driveway your front suspensions snaps. No, this place is different.

The “oldest working elevator in Eau Claire” is still out of commission, though I’m told it will be fixed soon. Funny how you get in and move a lever, estimate when you should stop it, move the lever to “stop” and hope you are flush with the floor – it’s a guessing game similar to “where should I live next?” Just pick a spot on a globe and stop. Funnier how that rarely works out well (for the elevator that is). So if you are driving, walking, or biking down South Barstow, take a look up once in awhile – you may see a guy holding two-by-fours standing on a rooftop looking perplexed. If so, feel free to wave.