Another Perspective

The Elgin Pelican Turns 90

Cleaning up America’s streets since 1914.

By 5.13.04

When our first boy was a toddler, I started making up stories to tell him, stories about the Biggest Elgin Pelican in the world. What is an Elgin Pelican, you ask? You see them every day. The Elgin Sweeper Company of Elgin, Illinois, makes the Pelican, the most commonly seen street sweeper in U.S. cities -- indeed, it is the most popular single model of street sweeper in the United States. It's a tall, ungainly-looking thing with a big arched snout, two big wheels in front, one small steering tire in back, making it surprisingly nimble. It has big fan-shaped rotary brushes underneath on the sides, followed by an even bigger roller-type brush behind, sweeping counter to the direction of the machine.

I first noticed one and took a good look at it when I saw it filling up at a fire hydrant. It had somehow never occurred to me that street sweepers carried water and that they had to get it from somewhere.

Riding around town in his car seat, Bud began to notice Elgin Pelicans, too. So I invented the "Biggest Elgin Pelican Stories," about a super-giant street sweeper that had been built by a refugee German musical instrument engineer while his boss was on vacation. The Big Guy had a solid brass exhaust pipe that could play music like the finest bass trombone. At first, I used the stories to illustrate moral points. The Big Guy got lost one day trying to sweep by himself, so he had to learn how to follow directions, for example.

Story by story, the cast expanded. Mel, the Biggest Elgin Pelican's driver, found a girlfriend, Sandy. The Mayor, who was a Dixieland trumpet player, started a jazz band with the Big Guy and three firefighters from the garage next door. Mel and Sandy got a dog, Buffer, to guard the Big Guy against nasty city dogs who were always peeing on his tires. Sandy put Mel on a diet. And so forth.

I think we abandoned the stories when one of the minor characters, Sid the Shell (Sandy's racing shell, her preferred form of exercise), took over in Bud's esteem. Sid the Shell had a wild imagination, and was always pretending to be an ocean liners or a destroyer or a circus boat or some such.

THE ELGIN SWEEPER, as I am informed by the website of the Elgin Sweeper Company, was invented by John Murphy in Elgin, Illinois, in 1914. Boise, Idaho, ordered the first production model. The machine's three-wheel design allowed it to maneuver around automobiles, wagons, horses (bet the horses loved that), and carriages.

Mr. Murphy's design has lasted, essentially unchanged, till this day. Brian Giles, Elgin Sweeper's product manager for mechanical products, pointed out to me that I had mistaken the rear wheel for a single. It's actually a pair, a great deal like the nose gear on an airplane.

Mr. Giles explained the sweeper's basic operation. "The brooms that stick out to the side -- side brooms, gutter brooms, curb brooms; they're called all three -- their job is take the material that is in the gutter and move it to the center of the machine, which ultimately is in front of the back broom, or pickup broom. The pickup broom literally lifts (the material) up into the air and puts it onto a cleated conveyer belt" which runs up at an angle to the Pelican's refuse tank.

There is actually a science involved in the back broom's design, concentrated on the design of the bristles themselves -- called filaments. The science is called "flick."

The polyethylene filaments, designed as carefully and in much the same way as a golf shaft or fishing rod, "are typically about 60/1000 of an inch in diameter. The treatment of the filament, the patterns in them, the shapes of them, all give them the ability to bend under load and flick as they come around."

I probably should not have been surprised that the Elgin Sweeper home page devotes a good deal of attention to ecology and the environment. It was designed originally, after all, to handle one of the major urban environmental problems of the day -- horse dung. The Pelican sweeps up after parades, and can still do that job. "Oh, yes, absolutely," Mr. Giles assured me. These days, the Pelican contributes most to the environment by cleaning up wintertime sand, soot, and salt before they can be ground to dust by passing cars and get into the air or the water table.

What's it like to drive an Elgin Pelican?

Once you get used to the rear wheel steering -- "When you turn the steering wheel, the back moves, not the front" -- the machine wins over its operators with its ease of maneuverability. It has an infinitely variable hydrostastic transmission, which sends controlled amounts of oil to each of the three wheels. "You can run any engine speed with any bristle speed." The 99 hp Diesel drives the Pelican up to 20 mph.

IN ONE OF MY stories, the Big Guy got restless in the winter, so he and Mel figured out how to use the Biggest Elgin Pelican as a Zamboni on the city's ice rinks. Could that actually work?

Mr. Giles laughed, and pointed out that a Zamboni actually has a knife edge for smoothing ice. "But (the Pelican) will sweep snow off an ice rink, and it has been used for that."

The Elgin Pelican, classic model, is certainly popular. Toy Truck City, at toytruckcity.com, has a 1/43 scale plastic model for $25. Trucktraderonline.com offers a 1995 Elgin Pelican (the real thing) for $25,000, with 45,000 miles on it, only one of many listings.

Happy Anniversary, Elgin Pelican. You made one little boy very happy for a long, long time.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.