By Tim Bean
September 2nd, 1954
LaPlant-Adair Company had just twelve hours—from 7 PM to 7 AM—to move the 920-ton captured German submarine from its steel cradle on the Lake Michigan beach to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry 900 feet away. Between the beach and the museum pulsed Lake Shore Drive, which pumped the city’s lifeblood of traffic and commerce. Twelve hours to do the almost impossible…or they didn’t get paid.
For the LaPlant-Adair Company, that was no big deal. The impossible was its business.
Based in Indianapolis, LaPlant-Adair begged many descriptions. Engineering firm, moving company, transport management, structural migration—all those labels worked, but none really described what the firm did. It transformed the fantastic needs of municipal, commercial, and industrial clients into reality. LaPlant-Altair was Walt Disney with a slide ruler and oversized pulley
LaPlant-Adair made it possible to outfit an entire town (from farm houses to steepled churches) with wheels and whisk it two miles away (Osborn, Ohio). The company coaxed a Ford plant’s 250,000 gallon water tower, still full of water, along 150 feet of skids and rails to another location, allowing plant expansion. LaPlant-Adair morphed Texas Tech’s Jones Stadium from a 27,000-seat humdrum arena to a 41,000-seat coliseum of college football, and did it by simply “swelling” the seating. The company’s engineering feats became a fixture in newspapers and magazines, and the company’s president, Kenneth F. Adair, blossomed into an engineering legend.
Kenneth Adair’s entry into the miracle-moving business began when he was an 18-year-old kid fresh from the wheat fields of Iowa. The intuitive teenager heard E.W. LaPlant needed strong backs and sharp minds to move the two hundred homes of Osborn, Ohio. For Ken Adair, the job was like coming home. Within a few years, Adair made himself an indispensable asset to E.W. LaPlant; he became his traveling representative and project director, then his partner in the LaPlant firm, and finally his son-in-law when he married LaPlant’s elegant daughter Zola Jeanette LaPlant. The two men shared a mutual respect for one another’s raw intellect, and upon E.W. LaPlant’s passing in 1945, Adair honored him by renaming the firm the LaPlant-Adair Company.
Homes, water towers, bridges, and stadiums were one thing. A streamlined submarine, designed solely for stalking prey in the Atlantic, was something completely different. But Adair didn’t need a miracle. There was no great secret to Adair’s success as a “mover of giants.” It was just preparation. A transport might take minutes or hours, but the preparation leading up to those dramatic moments lasted weeks or months. Every movement and moment was rehearsed to second nature. Such was the case with the German submarine U-505.
At 7 PM on September 2nd, 1954, Chicago police barricaded Lake Shore Drive, and the German submarine crawled off the Lake Michigan beach for the final leg of its 3,000 mile journey. Kenneth Adair directed the monumental effort himself, standing only a few feet away when the sub slipped onto a line of screw jacks. The surreal scene was filled with the squeak and grunts of Adair’s men twisting the screw jacks to lift the 920-ton sub just four feet, level with Lake Shore Drive. 10,000 spectators surrounded the submarine (at a safe distance) and cheered the LaPlante-Adair Company.
But the grind of dismantling and moving tracks and rollers over and over again to gain a few feet bored the fickle crowd. As dramatic as its rise off the beach had been, watching a giant winch pull the captured sub across 300-feet of LSD was not exactly thrilling. When the submarine finally crossed the road at almost 4 AM, only 500 spectators remained.
Kenneth Adair, on the other hand, knew it was the Indianapolis firm’s shining moment. His engineering feat would be as immortal as the museum exhibit. Most impressive of all was the efficiency of Adair’s project: Chicago gave him 12 hours to cross Lake Shore Drive.
Adair did it in nine.
Almost as if U-505 had bookended his era of the LaPlant-Adair Company, Kenneth Adair left Indiana for Florida in 1959. He handed the reins of LaPlant-Adair to his sons and grandsons, who still run the business today, focusing on practical home moving rather than their namesake’s extravagant projects. Adair retired and passed away in 1998, at the age of 93.
In his time as a brilliant self-educated engineer, he concocted feats of physics so astounding, they seem works of fiction. But they were not.