Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: What are in the Cork Street tanks?

An elderly man and woman stand on the sidewalk next to a railroad crossing on cork street. Behind them are two large rust gray tanks surrounded by bare trees and bushes. A metal fence blocks access to the tanks, though some have still made their mark with graffiti.
Michael Symonds
Question-asker Laurie Kaniarz and her husband Godfrey Grant standing in front of the Cork Street tanks that prompted her question.

Many thought nothing of the tanks, but for local resident Laurie Kaniarz, they were a potential hazard.

Laurie Kaniarz knows them well, two large round tanks, a little over a story tall, next to the rail crossing on Cork Street in Kalamazoo, across from the Allied Paper Superfund site.

They’ve become part of the scenery, the rusted exteriors engulfed by trees and bushes with the odd bit of graffiti breaking up their routine metal exteriors.

“Ya know, I go up and down Cork Street a lot. And I always had this uneasy feeling that they were not a good a good thing to have so close to railroad tracks.”

Laurie has lived near the Cork Street tanks for over 20 years. We went to see them on a Monday afternoon.

While many may ignore them, she saw cause for concern. Fearing that whatever was stored in the tanks might one day leak from the aging containers.

“They just made me feel very uneasy and scared for Kalamazoo. Because we've had our share of environmental disasters, haven’t we.”

Under Michigan law, a tank like this, if still used, would need to be registered with the state.

So, I filed a FOIA request for the list of registered tanks. But these Cork Street tanks were not on the list.

After asking whether this was an oversight, I was surprised to find out that a state inspector from the Bureau of Fire Services was sent to investigate.

The inspector confirmed the tank’s owner: local heating contractor E.M. Sergeant.

A white van passes over a railroad crossing on Cork Street. To its left, orange mess fences in the Allied Paper Superfund Site, where mounds of dirt can be seen. The trees are bare around the street, but much of the grass is a deep green.
Michael Symonds
The Allied Paper Superfund Site sits just across the road from the old Cork Street tanks.

That would make sense given the age of the tanks. E.M. Sergeant is old, having started as a coal-heat distributor in the early 19th century, according to the company’s website.

Current owner Pete Woodruff said he was not able to put an exact date on the tanks but had some idea as to their age.

He declined to be interviewed, but answered questions over email.

“My family's owned the business since 1980. And the tanks had already been in service for a long time before that. My guess is that they're from the 1950s. But that's just a guess.”

Woodruff added that the tanks were emptied and decommissioned over 40 years ago.

They did once serve a purpose, however, when the company was still owned by the Sergeant family.

“The Sergeants used to fill those and other large tanks with heating oil in the summer, and then sell it over the course of the heating year. But when fuel prices became more volatile in the 1970s, it no longer made economic sense to use them that way.”

As for the location of the tanks near the railway, Woodruff said it made things easier when it came to transportation.  

“One of the best ways to transport large quantities of fuel is by rail, and that was likely the primary method to fill them, as opposed to tanker trucks which hold a fraction of the fuel of a railcar.”

The two tanks sit surrounded by trees and bushes, which are bare due to the early spring season.  Just beyond the left side of the fence gating the tanks lies railroad tracks, sitting on piles of gray gravel and rocks.
Michael Symonds
The tanks have sat unused for many decades, with nature reclaiming much of the area around the tanks, but they may not go unused for much longer.

As for the future of these tanks, Woodruff said they may one day find a unique purpose.

“I've kept the Cork Street tanks because I like their location and someday plan to convert them to buildings.”

Woodruff did not respond to request to elaborate on this idea, which was both confusing and intriguing for our question asker Laurie.

“Ew, that doesn't sound like anything I'd like to live in. But I can't wait to see what he does with them.”

Though she was unable to think of how this particular conversion concept could be executed, Laurie said she has seen similar projects online.

“Somebody had turned like a large propane tank into like, something more like a weekend home.”

Laurie’s husband, Godfrey Grant, joined us part way through our conversation. He was also intrigued by the proposed conversion, even if he too could not see how it could be done.

“I don't have a very good imagination. I guess when it comes to things like that. You could imagine possibly a little dwelling for a family.”

Though, whether Cork Street would one day be home to rail side tank-homes meant little to Laurie. She was just happy to know the two tanks were empty.

“I'm just experiencing relief at knowing that if indeed they are empty that they aren't the threat that I thought they were and I hope that anyone else that had the creeps driving by here, well listen to this program and go thank goodness.”

Michael Symonds reports for WMUK through the Report for America national service program.

Report for America national service program corps member Michael Symonds joined WMUK’s staff in 2023. He covers the “rural meets metro” beat, reporting stories that link seemingly disparate parts of Southwest Michigan.