In the time it takes to dab tears from two eyes, a smokestack that was part of Janesville’s identity for 100 years fell and shattered into uncounted pieces on Sunday morning.
Few were there to witness it.
Video from two drone pilots, Andrew Sigwell and Josh Marx, show an excavator pulling on a cable to begin the process on the site of the former General Motors plant around 8:45 a.m.
The smokestack, which featured the blue GM logo and remnants of the former Samson tractor insignia, is part of memories of generations of Janesvillians, both those who worked at the plant and many others who saw the smokestack on the skyline throughout their lives.
The 200-foot stack was part of the Samson plant, which opened in 1919, said videographer Marx.
Sigwell, owner of the Zoxx 411 Club next to the plant site, has monitored the plant’s demolition for about a year, flying drones each day through fair weather and foul, capturing this and many other collapses as the site was cleared.
“I became obsessed and dedicated to not give up on it, following this to the day they were done,” said Sigwell, whose family has owned the bar since 1961.
“It’s an icon. I grew up less than a mile from here,” said former Janesville GM worker Sue Martin, who dropped by Zoxx before heading back to Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday.
“We had a top-notch workforce here,” she said.
Martin, like many others, transferred to the Fort Wayne GM plant so she could put in enough years to qualify for a pension. She’s still working at it.
“I heard it, from Mom’s (house) ,” Martin said of the smokestack falling shortly before 9 a.m.
It sounded like “construction noises,” she said.
Marx, of Dousman, has also been following the plant’s demolition for many months. He and Sigwell started their monitoring shortly after 6 a.m. Sunday. Workers had cut squares out of the base of the stack in recent weeks, so they knew the end was near.
Sunday they saw workers use cable or chains to pull sections out of the base of the smokestack wall and then run, but it didn’t fall right away, Marx said.
It was emotional for the videographers when it did fall.
“We were hootin’ and hollerin’, screamin’, high-five-in’. Andy said I high-fived him so hard his hand hurt. We were shaking, literally uncontrollably, (as we were) trying to land the aircraft,” Marx said.
Representatives of the Rock County 911 dispatch center and Janesville fire and police departments said they had not been notified of the event and hadn’t received any calls before or after the stack was toppled.
Comments on the Janesville GM End of an Era Facebook page were largely sad.
“That image is burnt into my memories,” wrote one man whose grandparents lived near the plant.
Sigwell worked one physically challenging summer at the plant.
“That was brutal work,” he said. “I salute anybody who worked in there.”
Commercial Development Company of St. Louis owns the property and is redeveloping the site. The company has estimated the demolition and cleanup of the site will cost $10.2 million.
The plant site, with its access to rail and roads and other infrastructure, is seen by some as a key piece of the city’s resurgence.
A Commercial Development official said last June that light industrial, manufacturing and distribution businesses are likely future occupants of the site, and possibly some retail.
The last SUV rolled off the plant’s assembly line on Dec. 23, 2008. Truck production continued into 2009, and then GM mothballed the plant.
GM finalized the sale of the 300-acre property to Commercial Development in 2017.
It appears much work remains to clear the remnants of the 4.8-million-square-foot plant. Among other structural elements, the front wall of the plant facing Jackson Street still stands.