Elevators play a powerful role in our lives. Actually, we could say uplifting, right?
Think about it. If you have a doctor’s appointment, chances are it’s in a multistory building — and you’re probably going to take the elevator to get to the right office.
If you live or work in a high-rise building, you certainly have elevators and you most likely use them — unless you’re a fitness aficionado and enjoy a vigorous stair workout. Ditto if you’re traveling and staying in a hotel.
Haverhill can now lay claim to being the home of a museum that’s dedicated to these machines that take us up and down. Stephen Comley, a veteran elevator mechanic and curator of The Elevator Museum at 145 Essex St., said that as far as he knows, this is the only museum of its kind in the region.
Located in the historic Burgess Building, in the heart of what used to be Haverhill’s shoe manufacturing district, it operates under the slogan “Preserving our past and elevating our future.”
“We’ve had elevators for thousands of years,” Comley said.
After all, an elevator is a device that lifts or elevates something. The pyramids, he said, were likely built with lifting mechanisms.
The modern elevator that brings us to, say, the 100th floor of a skyscraper came much later. Elisha Otis invented a safety-locking mechanism that could stop an elevator if its rope or cable broke.
When Otis demonstrated his device at the New York World’s Fair in 1854, it impressed many people. Safe elevators would do much to encourage construction of skyscrapers in New York and elsewhere.
Otis and his sons founded Otis Brothers & Co. It was one of many companies that manufactured elevators in the United States, including Salem Elevator Works and the F. S. Payne Co. in Cambridge, Comley said.
The museum includes parts from the elevators made by those firms, as well as documents connected to them. A book detailing 300 elevators sold by Otis Brothers is in the collection, with entries dating back to the 1890s.
Many older readers probably remember riding in elevators that were guided by operators, who were quite prevalent in the first half of the 20th century. In the big department stores, these operators usually wore uniforms and would step out of the elevator and announce, “Going up!” or “Going down!”
The elevator operators started disappearing, Comley said, as automatic elevators began getting installed in the 1950s and ’60s. Slowly, but surely, automation became more prevalent and the elevator operators pretty much went the way of the harness makers and streetlamp lighters.
“I have a sad story,” said Comley, who has been working on elevators for 35 years and is now employed by Halley Elevator Co. of Newburyport, a family-owned operation that services elevators in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
One day, Comley and other workers were installing a new elevator at a building in Haverhill.
An older man asked what they were doing. When they told him they were replacing the old elevator with an automatic one, “he started crying,” Comley recalled.
The man had been the operator of that old elevator for 20 years, he said. That’s how he found out he was out of a job.
The Elevator Museum has numerous car switches from bygone eras. The device was used by operators to move the elevator up and down the shaft.
The museum even boasts a seat upon which an operator sat while guiding the machine from floor to floor.
“Operators had to be licensed,” Comley said.
The museum features an elevator operator’s paycheck from 1919. He earned $25 for two weeks of work.
An old photograph from about a century ago shows eight elevator operators, each clad in his uniform.
The Elevator Museum, which opened in February, is a machine-lover’s paradise. A drum machine that operated an elevator in Mary Baker Eddy’s mansion in Chestnut Hill is among the items featured.
The machine was built in 1908 and is in “mint condition,” Comley said.
Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, had two elevators in her three-story mansion, according to Comley.
The elevators were hoisted and lowered by steel cables. A safety clasp known as a dawg that would grab the cable and stop the elevator if it was descending too rapidly can be found on display.
Well over 100 years ago, the manufacturers developed very effective safety devices, Comley said. The museum has an overspeed governor — a stop device — that functioned at the Mount Washington Resort in the White Mountains for 87 years, from 1930 until 2017. It was designed to slow the hotel’s passenger elevator if it exceeded 125 percent of its rated speed, he said.
Taking up most of a wall of the museum is a gigantic mural that once graced the corporate headquarters of Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Pittsburgh. The artwork depicts the elevators and escalators that Westinghouse manufactured.
There’s so much more, too. You’ll find a 100-year-old coffee grinder traction elevator, which was pulled up by rolling steel ropes over deep-grooved pulleys, and learn how a water hydraulic elevator operated in the 1800s.
Wooden patterns used to make the sheaves and drivers that are part of the lifting and lowering of an elevator; inspection certificates, including the original, circa-1954 ones from the White House’s freight elevator and sidewalk lift; cans of hydraulic elevator fluid; and the heavy-duty wrenches and other tools that mechanics used are here, as well.
Two-hour guided tours are available to take visitors through many of the highlights in the collection that numbers more than 4,000 elevator artifacts in all.
If you go
What: The Elevator Museum
When: Open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: 145 Essex St., Haverhill
How much: $10 for adults; $5 for children ages 10-16, seniors and veterans; $15 for families; free for children under 10
More information: 603-828-1849 or www.theelevatormuseuminc.org