Flashback Friday: Space Tower Stranded Passengers High above State Fair 50 Years Ago

September 01, 2017 10:03 AM

Bill Nehring didn't expect climbing to be part of the job description when he showed up to work on the crew operating the Space Tower at the Minnesota State Fair 50 years ago this week.

But when the gondola carrying 19 people up the 33-story structure unexpectedly stalled about three-quarters from the top on the morning of Aug. 31, 1967, the then-20-year-old Wisconsin Dells native knew he had to spring into action.

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"We weren't sure what went wrong and we had to call in an elevator repair crew (from Stillwater) to do maintenance on it," Nehring recalled.

"This was back before cellphones, and we were trying to figure out if anyone was getting panicky up there. So I figured I should go up and visit with them."

That meant Nehring - who also worked for the same owner at a similar tower in Wisconsin Dells - had to scale about 200 feet up the outside and enter the gondola through a hatch.

"We didn't use safety belts a lot back then, but I figured I should probably take one with me," he said. "The problem was the safety belt got caught getting in there. So I had to get the thing off while holding on with one hand and with one foot on the bracket."

Nehring made it safely aboard though and found the passengers calm, cool and collected. But realizing that might not be the case for their friends and family back on the ground, he volunteered to drop notes down.

The first of which requested music be played over the loudspeaker to help pass the time. The next day's Minneapolis Tribune reported those on the ground crew complied, pumping the soundtrack to "My Fair Lady" over the P.A.

But this was a younger crowd and it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

So a second note came down requesting the ride's crew "Turn speakers on our P.A. straight up and put on a GOOD tape."

The Space Tower - modeled on the much larger Space Needle in Seattle - remained a relatively-new attraction at the state fair, having first opened just two years earlier. But Nehring had already been working on the ride, as well as the one in the Dells, for a bit by that point.

And he said he wasn't overly concerned.

"We hadn't had a problem like that before where it got stalled for a significant length of time," he said. "Usually, if something happened, we found a way to get it going again right away. But I wasn't too worried. I knew how well-built those structures were."

Eventually, as the delay dragged into a second hour, those on the ground were allowed to grab the microphone and send greetings up to those in the gondola.

Finally, the source of the problem, an electrical short, was located and power was restored. So more than two hours after their ride started, the Space Tower's passengers descended back to the ground.

the ride remained open for business.

Nehring, meanwhile, went on to a career in the amusement business that continues to this day in Wisconsin Dells. He even owned the Dells' version of the Space Tower for a time before it was torn down. 

But he said in all his years, he's never quite had a day like that morning 50 years ago.

"We were fortunate over the years, especially with those towers," he said. "They were so well-constructed that we never really had an incident like that one again."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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