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Mercury Falls but Huge Thermometer Will Rise Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Thank God no one was hurt,” said Willis Herron when he saw the jumbled mess of metal and shattered glass, the remains of his 13-story, $750,000 thermometer that crashed to the ground in a windstorm here.

When the giant thermometer swayed back and forth in gusts of 70 m.p.h. and suddenly snapped 20 feet above its base Wednesday, the hopes of this Mojave Desert town--a rest stop on the busy Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas interstate--were dashed as well.

“It was to be a memorial to Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, the inventor of the thermometer, since (the) measuring of temperatures has reached some of the greatest heights here in Baker,” Herron said.

More than that, residents had expected Baker to become internationally known as “Thermometer City” with the completion of the colossal temperature gauge. It was to have been dedicated this Friday.

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The 134-foot-high, three-sided, needle-like column crashed through the midsection of a gift shop under construction next to it and onto a park and an unoccupied Southern California Edison Co. maintenance truck.

“Our insurance company will cover the damage,” said Dave Mead, vice president of Young Electric Sign Co. of Las Vegas, the firm erecting the structure.

Mead said his company is baffled by the collapse of the gigantic thermometer. “Our engineers are analyzing the metallurgy of the severed steel pipe to determine what caused it to fracture and fall. All calculations had been checked and double-checked. It was designed to withstand winds of much greater force.

“Our company’s specialty is erecting the large spectacular signs Las Vegas is famous for--many much more complicated than this one,” Mead said. “In the 70-year history of Young Electric we have never experienced a major failure like this.”

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Mead said all is not lost for Baker. He said his company will pick up the pieces and install a replacement thermometer in the town in the near future.

Herron, 66, and his partner, J. O. Failing, 70, were having the finishing touches put on the gigantic temperature gauge next to their Bun Boy Restaurant just off Interstate 15. The two men own the majority of the businesses in Baker, 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

“For 25 years I’ve had this dream of putting up the world’s tallest thermometer,” said Herron, “because people pulling off the freeway in the heat of summer are always making remarks like: ‘Whew! It’s hotter ‘n hell. How hot is it anyway?’ ”

Baker, population 400, is in the heart of the Southern California desert. It sizzles in summer with temperatures from 110 to 120 and higher on most days.

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The town exists to serve the needs of passing motorists. Caltrans estimates that 9 million vehicles will go through Baker on Interstate 15 this year. The state agency reports that an average of 11,600 vehicles a day take the off-ramp into the town.

“People stop here to buy gas, to get a bite to eat,” Failing said. “We had hoped many more would pull off the freeway to see the thermometer.”

When Failing and Herron’s restaurant burned down two years ago, the two men decided to build the huge thermometer next to their new $2-million eatery.

They were hoping the thermometer would be to Baker what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco and the Gateway Arch is to St. Louis.

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Before it slammed to the ground, the black temperature gauge had been covered with 4,943 red light bulbs, which were to represent mercury and show the temperature.

The height of the column, 134 feet, was symbolic of the highest temperature ever recorded in North America--134 degrees in 1913 in Death Valley, a few miles north of Baker.


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