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Forensic analysis could save Heart Mountain smokestack

Apr 8, 2012 - By Martin Kidston, The Associated Press

HEART MOUNTAIN (AP) -- They're here to cut, drill and dig their way through time. More precisely, they're here to get a better understanding of what time has done to an iconic smokestack.

Over the past 70 years, the Wyoming wind has battered the stack, which dates to 1942 when the Heart Mountain Internment Camp held thousands of Japanese-Americans behind barbed wire.

The summer sun has baked the stack's smooth, red brick. Deep winter freezes have opened cracks in the mortar. Time is taking a toll on the historic structure, and the race is on to save it from collapse.

"That chimney, it bends," said Steve Leger, director of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center. "They're doing a real scientific investigation of what's going on and what we need to do to keep it from falling down."

The stack stands 75 feet above the high Wyoming desert. It weighs 185 tons. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it's listing sharply to the east, the direction of the area's prevailing winds.

Larry Graham of WJE, an engineering and materials science firm based in Connecticut, stepped away from the stack one day last week and looked into the Wyoming sky.

He noted the stack's curve, which begins about halfway up the structure and continues until it's 18 inches off plumb at the top.

"We're trying to figure out what's causing it to do that," Graham said with a tone of curiosity. "We're conducting a forensic analysis to determine what's causing the stack to bend."

Graham and his forensic coworker, Jaret Lynch, are hard at work. Lynch squats in the belly of the stack, cutting a sample of brick, which they'll take back to their East Coast lab and analyze in detail.

"We'll test the strength of the brick," Lynch said, emerging from the hole covered in a fine, red dust. "We'll look at what the mortar is made of and what the brick is made of."

Inserted on the stack's exterior, an instrument resembling a telephone jack is reading moisture levels in the mortar. WJE has already taken core samples of the concrete foundation, along with earth samples from the ground surrounding the structure.

More devices have been wedged in cracks in the brick. One crack runs horizontally, the other vertically. The instruments, called potentiometers, measure movement within the structure.

"It's moving with the wind gusts, but not very much," said Lynch, scratching his head for a number. "It's like 1,000th of an inch right now. We think the horizontal crack moves a little more in the wind."

Seventy years ago, the Heart Mountain Internment Camp became Wyoming's fourth-largest city. At its height, it housed more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans in cramped and difficult living conditions.

The stack stood above the camp, as it stands today above the smattering of buildings that remain. The old boiler house is there, covered in tar paper and connected to the stack by a small, rusting flue.

The coal chute is still visible, as are the windows that opened onto the boiler. It's easy to imagine workers shoveling coal, heating the boilers that in turn heated the camp's hospital.

The smokestack and boiler house, and the empty foundations surrounding it, look bleak and abandoned. But the National Park Service has called this the most intact hospital complex remaining at any of the 10 relocation camps build in the U.S. in the 1940s.

The stack's significance hasn't been overlooked by local, state and federal officials. When the stack first became threatened in the 1970s, local citizens rallied to save the structure from demolition.

In the '90s, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation formed, looking to preserve the former camp as a historic site. Starting in 2002, state and federal agencies pitched in by funding studies aimed at developing a long-term preservation plan.

Some of that work took place last week when WJE arrived on scene to conduct the forensic analysis. Once the company's report is filed, funding will be sought to help preserve the stack and keep it from falling down.

The work may include foundation repairs, repointing the brick so the stack stands vertical, and lining the chimney's interior to help strengthen the overall structure.

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