Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle
Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence
Today, I had the chance to go up alone in one of the Space Needle's elevators. It was closed to the public, but I was allowed to step on and push the button for the Observation Deck. I note this because it was really fun to zip up by myself. Somehow the elevator seemed faster and the view more dramatic without other folks blocking the windows. It really gave me the sense of the kind of takes-your-breath- away experience of zipping up or down the Needle. In 1962, then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller described it as "just like going over Niagara Falls." It was kind of like that, only in reverse.
When I got to the O-deck, I called Claude Wakefield, Jr. He was assistant manager of the Needle during the world's fair. His job included keeping the lines moving and people flowing up and down, and as he said, "to keep those elevators running." And he must have done a remarkable job as the Needle often handled 14,000 or more people per day for six months.
Wakefield was in charge of staffing the Needle, and that included the security people. There were two kinds, he said. Uniformed guards who were usually off-duty police officers. But he also hired a number of young men who wore orange and red jumpsuits and kept order on the Observation Deck. They loaded the elevators and made sure things moved efficiently.
Wakefield said he spent a lot of time figuring out why an elevator had stopped working, which they did from time to time. Wind was a hazard, so were electrical outages. But he said mostly, stoppages were due to a fail-safe system that halted the elevators if it sensed a problem, which often was as simple as someone dropping a cigarette butt onto the tracks.
Wakefield generally worked from 11 am to 2 am. He told me that sometimes, he and other Needle staffers would climb to the top of the elevator machinery room and have lunch sitting on the Needle's roof.
Wakefield also rode the Blue elevator in March of 1962 when the Needle opened to the public. The very first load of guests taken to the top consisted mostly of family members of the Needle construction team.
He was not on the Needle when it was wind-tested during the famous '62 Columbus Day storm, however. Wakefield said he had not toured the fair during its run. He finally chose to see it on Oct. 12, the night of the rare hurricane. He did go back to the Needle, however, and help evacuate the visitors who were brought down during the big blow as a precaution.
Still, at the Needle, the elevator brought excitement his way. He remembers riding with Bob Hope, Richard Nixon, and he says a major highlight was a Playboy Playmate who sat on his desk.