Sixty Years of Vulcan in Chattanooga

In the midst of all that’s going on these days, one anniversary (for this site at least) doesn’t need to pass unmentioned: this month sixty years ago, Vulcan moved its operation from Chicago to Chattanooga, after 108 years in the “Windy City.” Everything around the operation went according to plan, from the plant construction to the move itself to the restaffing of the company (none of the Chicago employees opted to move to Chattanooga in spite of Company incentives and in an era when Americans were more mobile.)

Looking down the machining bay, flanked by the crane rails.

One of Vulcan’s board members noted the following in the notes from a meeting with two others in February 1961:

It was gratifying to us to observe firsthand to hurdles that had been overcome in this major move of the plant to Chattanooga. No one with industrial experience can help but admire the seemingly effortless transition which occurred without, at the same time, realizing the almost endless effort which this difficult task demanded. Management is to be congratulated on this major performance.

Not everyone had the same view of the “effortless” part: Chet Warrington, soon to pass from emphysema, asked the following question from his visit: “Why is everyone moving so slow?”

Machining using one of Vulcan’s horizontal boring mills at the Chattanooga facility, 1968. The machinist is General H. Cook (that was his name) who went on to be a supervisor.

In any case management congratulated itself on a successful move. Operating costs were lower, the plant was much more efficient than the Chicago one, and Chattanooga’s central location was in the geographical centre of most of his customer base. It’s main casting supplier at the time (Ross-Meehan Foundry, now the First Tennessee Pavilion) was on the other side of downtown. What could go wrong?

Vulcan’s Chattanooga facility, 1968.

Let’s start with the philosophy of the managing family. In his speech at Vulcan’s Centennial celebration eight years before the move, Chet Warrington summed it up as follows:

However, this discouraging, yet challenging environment, only increase the original conceptions of Henry Warrington whose single purpose was that of contributing to the then economic stability and progress of the community, and his own family as well…Every business lasts and grows by serving. Through these one hundred years four generations of the Warrington family have and are serving. We have served our customers as specialists in the development and economical production of high efficiency construction equipment.

The Warrington philosophy was simple: build a good product, back it up with service, bring the business in, pay the people well, and you contribute to the community. Unfortunately those which dominated Chattanooga’s scene in the early 1960’s (and for many years before and after) had a different idea. Many of them, like the Warringtons, came from the North, in their case in the years immediately after the Civil War. But that’s where the similarity ended. To make a long story short, over the years they basically adopted a social compact that went like this: you let us dominate the community and we’ll go along with (and adopt) your racial and educational paradigm and bestow on you philanthropy/patronage, which we’ll also use as a key component of our social system.

Machining a Vulcan offshore base at the Chattanooga facility, 1968.

On the other end was the workforce. Vulcan had a union workforce in Chicago and was hoping to have an open shop in Chattanooga by offering what Vulcan thought was a reasonable wage/benefit package. But that was not to be: the Machinists organised the shop on 23 March 1962. Both family and company found itself trapped in a bifurcated social system (one that has been replicated in the country at large since then) not of its own making. My father found it frustrating. Of the union he said at the time they organised “There is really very little that can be said of the occurrence except that it is not as I would have liked it to be.” About the other end, at a dinner party my father was asked the question that has dominated the conversation of the leadership of this community before and since: what is needed for the economic growth of Chattanooga? His answer was blunt: “About a half dozen funerals.” Needless to say, he was happy when Vulcan moved its executive offices to Florida in 1964.

But there were other changes afoot in the years after moving to Chattanooga. The biggest one was the development of the offshore oil industry, which shifted Vulcan’s production to larger equipment. Ross-Meehan was quickly outstripped and Vulcan was back to using Northern foundries to produce its equipment. Not only was its supplier base going away but the size of the equipment made servicing its Gulf Coast customers problematic due to shipping requirements. Vulcan’s decision to be in the middle of its customer base insured that it was near very little of it, and that made for operational difficulties that plagued it throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Machining an offshore cylinder on one of Vulcan’s horizontal boring mills, 1968. As these got larger, Vulcan’s base of boring mills, which Vulcan added to from time to time, was strained to keep up with both the size and the quantity of these castings.

The management and ownership changes of the late 1970’s shifted the executive centre of the company back to Chattanooga. The offshore boom inspired adding to the Chattanooga facility. But alas that boom was beginning its downward slide even as the plant was dedicated; the facility never reached its potential for the remaining years of the Illinois corporation.

My father used to say that “hindsight is 20/20” and “too soon old, too late smart.” But I think that it’s fair to say that, although many of the “right” boxes were checked in moving here, coming to Chattanooga wasn’t optimal for Vulcan, looked at from the broad view.

But it would be otiose to end this commemoration on a sour note. Vulcan had a core of loyal employees, some of whose time there spanned the Illinois’ Corporation’s entire time in Chattanooga from 1960 to 1996. The facility was well conceived and worked well, even with the expansion. And Vulcan put out its durable pile driving equipment through all of those years and beyond.

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