I’ve never held a professional title of any kind, other than perhaps, Shaker Plant Expert (SPE). According to unreliable sources, there are only two of us in the world. Rod Steiner is one and I’m the other. This honor is self-bestowed; some would question its authenticity.
The State of Alaska – Department of Transportation & Public Facilities – Maintenance & Operations section was experimenting with using glacial sand for winter road use around 1990, give or take five years. Light, imported sand currently being spread on snowy and icy roads was quickly blowing off the slick asphalt as soon as it was put down. Someone came up with the idea of mixing heavier, and sharper granulated glacial silt in with the light. It seemed like a perfect plan.
Because this glacial sand was laden with boulders and rocks, a shaker plant was needed to separate things. DOT purchased a portable one and installed it beside a tributary creek of Portage Lake. This creek was some distance off the Seward Highway and in a beautiful setting.
A shaker plant works much like a mechanical sieve. Stones and gravel are dumped into a hopper, where it then goes to a vibrating screen of sorts. The fine sand drops down through metal grates, while a conveyor carries the heavier material to a designated pile or piles.
A counterweight on a long shaft, driven by fan belts makes the device, shake, rattle, and roll as Rod and I liked to say. We falsely told people that we invented the term, but actual credit goes to 1919 vaudeville performer, “Baby” Franklin Seals. Baby’s use of it I’m sure had nothing to do with making sand.
It was middle September, and a call came in from Larry Bushnell, Girdwood Shop Foreman, that their shaker plant had lost a couple of bearings. The machine was no longer operational. Larry needed it up and running and like right now.
For whatever reason, our boss, Ray Henry, chose Rod and me to drive down and repair it. I believe Ray thought it would be an easy fix with us on the job. Perhaps it was punishment? Weather was as bad as it gets in the Portage Valley area. Wind was blowing icy rain and snow near sideways. Even with Carhart’s and raingear on it was brutally cold.
The machine needed a complete, unbalanced flywheel shaft plus bearings. All essential parts were overnighted. We worked from the bucket of a Case loader in most difficult weather. Rod and I took turns thawing out in the always-running service truck. A thermos of hot coffee wasn’t enough; hypothermia was a snail’s tail away.
It took us four days to complete our mission. The drive from Anchorage to Portage and back was two hours alone. After the mission was complete, we were able to bask in the glory of our success. We wore our imaginary shaker plant expert badges with honor.
Afterwards, whenever the shop phone rang, Rod and I would be on imaginary edge claiming it was another call for our expertise. That never happened for good reason.
Throughout that winter, automotive glass shops in Anchorage, Seward, Homer, and Soldotna were kept extremely busy. The heavier sand had worked just fine. It stayed on the roadway. It also took out countless windshields and headlights in the process. People complained and the operation was immediately placed into mothballs.
I’m told by unreliable sources that this shaker was purchased by a gold mining operation in Girdwood. I can’t verify such, but perhaps, Parker Schnabel, of GOLD RUSH fame can.
At times when I pick up the home phone, I flash back to that inside joke at DOT, expecting an imaginary voice on the other end to call out,
“We need a couple of shaker plant experts, and we need them right now!”
That always brings a smile to my face!