Welland: A Former Industrial Power House Guided Tour

By Fiona McMurran

map of Welland industries

First settled in 1788 by United Empire Loyalists, the site that became the city of Welland was the location of the decisive second-to-last battle of the War of 1812, in which Canadian troops defeated an American raiding party at the Battle of Cook’s Mills, on October 19, 1814. The Americans retreated back to Buffalo after an intense and bloody skirmish.

In 1833, the First Welland Canal was extended to reach Lake Erie, and a wooden aqueduct was built to carry the Canal over the Welland River. A small shantytown arose at the settlement to provide essential services at this convenient stopover location. The town was first named Merrittsville, after William Hamilton Merritt, who initiated the building of the Welland Canal.  Merrittsville became Welland when it was incorporated on July 25, 1858. In 1917, Welland officially became a city.

One of the few railway crossings to cross the Welland Canal was also located near Welland, and several railways passed through the city. The primary north-south road through the Niagara Peninsula, the Merrittville Highway, also passed through Welland. This combination, in addition to its proximity to the Sir Adam Beck hydroelectric station at Niagara Falls, led Welland to become a centre for steel, automotive, and textile industries. Welland was shaped by companies like Union Carbide, United Steel and the Plymouth Cordage Company, in addition to three drop forges, a cotton mill, and the Atlas Steel Co., along with general manufacturing plants.

In 1914, a local business called Empire Cotton Mills was bought by a Quebec-based company. They brought in twenty francophone families to work in the mill. They settled in east Welland, in what is still called Frenchtown, giving a start to a French-speaking community still very alive in the city today.

In the 1960s, the city was starting to outgrow the canal passing through its core; the passage of ships necessitated raising the bridges and halting traffic. The Welland By-Pass project, started in 1967 and finished in 1973, provided a new, shorter alignment for the Welland Canal by removing it from downtown Welland to the outskirts of the city, and the deeper draught of the renovated Canal also accommodated larger ships.  

The negative effects on local manufacturing of the canal relocation were compounded by the recession of 1982, the rise of the globalized economy, and the signing of NAFTA. The decline of the steel industry in Ontario, much of it due to free trade policies and weak anti-dumping regulation, hit Welland hard, as it did Hamilton, Ontario’s Steel City.  Welland, a city that once boasted the highest per capita income in Canada, lost ten of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Today, Welland has a population of approximately 51,000. This population is rapidly aging, however, as youth tend to move out of the city because of the lack of jobs. After many attempts to revitalize Welland’s economy, new solutions are badly needed. 

Former industrial sites in Welland.

Today, the WELMET site, located along the Welland Recreational Canal Waterway, is completely overgrown with weeds, obscuring the site’s long history of heavy industrial manufacturing. 

Welmet site. Welmet Industries Limited. 

Welmet site today (2008)

Welland Steel Castings began in 1924 as a small private company, pioneering the production of stainless steel castings in Canada; the Welmet name became a trademark for their high quality stainless steel valves. In 1934, Welland Steel Castings became a division of United Steel Company Limited. The company branched out into the manufacture of unloading towers, coal and ore bridges, draglines, derricks, cranes and more. Welland Steel Castings

Welmet site today (2008)

purchased land a few blocks away, incorporating as Welland Electric Steel, a company designed to make steel castings by electric process. The Welland Electric Steel later added a plate shop for manufacturing pipe and fittings, tanks and vats of stainless steel plate or sheet.

Welland Electric Steel Foundry became a branch of the Canadian Corporation Management Company Limited. By 1950s they manufactured stainless steel castings, valves, fabrications for erosion and heat resistant applications and expanded to make stainless steel castings of all kinds. 1956 saw the increase in melting and molding facilities. Heat and corrosion resistant stainless steel casts, castings of manganese steel (crusher jaws and liners for grinding mills used in mines) and carbon and alloy steel parts and a complete line of stainless steel valves were added to their production line.

The worldwide recession of 1982 had a drastic effect on Welland Electric Steel, as the bottom dropped out of the steel market. By 1986, the plant had closed and all the buildings were demolished.

The site sat empty for thirty years until 2007, when the City of Welland sold it for a nominal amount of money to Terrasan Corporation— under the condition that the developer would assume the estimated $2-million cost of its environmental liability. The company took advantage of brownfield incentives offered by the city to start working on the project in 2009, removing some of the debris left behind from the factory that had called the property home until the mid-1980s. Terrasan removed most of the concrete, while recommending on-site remediation of chemical and other contaminants through their new technologies. The proposed plan for a rezoned site included 300 square metres of commercial space, an eight-story apartment building, and 215 townhouses. In 2011, however, Terrasan filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving the future of the Welmet site, like others around the province, unresolved.  

Concept for Redevelopment of Welmet site (2008)

Energex Tube site.1910-2012. 

In what was once a major industrialized area in Welland sits the Energex site, where pipes and tubing were produced from 1910 until 2012. Having begun operations in Guelph at the end of the nineteenth century, Page-Hersey Iron Tube and Lead Company was encouraged to locate in Welland in 1910 because of cheap hydroelectric power and the concessions made by the municipality of Welland. The immediate proximity of the site to the Welland Canal allowed the company to easily import steel from the UK and the US.

The Page-Hersey factory consisted of three buildings; a smelter, pump house and office. The plant produced open-hearth ingots, billets, angles and merchant bars, and steel castings from one pound to fifteen-ton light rails. The plant closed in 1913, but reopened shortly afterwards to produce shell casings for WWI, and then expanded its facilities to allow for the production of pipe and tubular products; it also assembled and finished six-inch shells for the Allies.

The company’s fortunes improved with an increase in orders after the war; hundreds of men were rehired, only to be laid off again as orders decreased. Nevertheless, a third mill was built in 1923, but men were laid off again two years later. In 1930, a seamless pipe mill was built; the continuous weld process was introduced in 1939.

WWII saw a revival in orders; Page-Hersey Tube produced shell forgings, naval boiler tubes, pipe for aircraft frames, bazooka guns and mortars. A federally-funded cold draw facility allowed the company to produce precision tubing for boilers for frigates, corvettes and destroyers. After the war, three more mills were built to produce different types and sizes of tube. In 1949, Page-Hersey closed its Guelph site, leaving Welland as the company’s sole location.

Page-Hersey began to profit from the burgeoning oil industry. Imperial Oil contracted with the company for sixteen-inch pipe for its Western Pipeline, and Page-Hersey also secured the contract to manufacture sixteen-inch pipe for the Alberta-Great Lakes oil pipeline. In 1957, the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and Page-Hersey established Welland Tube Limited to supply the big (up to 36” diameter) tubes for oil and gas production; by 1958, Page-Hersey was one of Welland’s “big three” industries. Stelco bought out Page-Hersey in 1965, also assuming ownership of Welland Tube Works; by 1969, Welland Tube was only operating nine or ten months of the year, because Stelco found it could easily hire three hundred workers when demand for its products was high.

Page-Hersey and Welland Tube Works were incorporated in 1985 under the name Stelpipe, headquartered in Welland. By 1987, Stelpipe was Canada’s major supplier of pipe and tubular products, with seven mills in Welland, making one-eighth inch to sixteen-inch diameter pipe and employing 1,300 workers. This employment level ranked Stelpipe as Welland’s second largest employer.

The company underwent significant modernization and increased its participation in various pipe and tube markets, including commercial and industrial, automotive, mining, and oil and gas. By 2005, however, Stelco had entered bankruptcy protection, and its Stelpipe division was bought by Lakeside Steel, which employed 504 workers. Then came the recession of 2008; the workforce had shrunk to 390 by 2009. In April of 2012, Lakeside was acquired by JMC Steel (now Zekelman Industries) and Energex Tube was launched.  “Dumping” of cheap foreign steel on the Canadian market cut orders still further, causing JMC to cut 110 Energex jobs in Welland. Later that year, JMC phased out the production of 8” pipe and cut 94 jobs at Energex. In 2014, the plant was idled and 400,000 square feet of buildings were demolished. 

Union Carbide site. 1914-1999. 150 acres.

One of the larger brownfields in Welland is the site of the former Union Carbide (UCAR) plant, built in 1914 as a branch plant of New York Union Carbide to manufacture calcium carbide used in producing acetylene gas. Two years later, Union Carbide bought Electro Metals, located just south of the original plant. Then Linde Air Products, a division of Union Carbide (Canada) Limited opened in 1925 to produce oxygen and acetylene. In 1929, Union Carbide acquired Acheson Graphite in Niagara Falls and moved it to Welland, where it started to make graphite electrodes.

By 1940, the Electro Metals division operated twenty furnaces. Thirteen were closed by 1954 because of the diversification into carbon and graphite, which then became the major operations of the plant; seventy jobs were lost due to the closure of those furnaces. One modern unit at the Quebec plant, costing $13.7 million, replaced the entire production capacity of those closed Welland furnaces.

The remaining furnaces were gradually closed in the 1970s, due to concerns over pollution. Welland operations for producing graphite electrodes closed in 1974, and carbon electrodes were the only product manufactured at Welland’s Union Carbide plant over the next twenty-five years.

·Union Carbide site today taken by Terry Nicholls

In 1991, Union Carbide moved its headquarters to Welland, along with 400 jobs. The electrodes, carbon electrodes and carbon cathode blocks produced at Union Carbide were distributed throughout North America and the world. 

UCAR restructured in 1997, deciding to divest or joint venture its graphite specialties business since they were not in alignment with the company's new strategic direction. (The graphite specialties business generated $113 million in 1997 net sales.) It was no surprise when UCAR International closed the Welland plant, deeming it “not cost effective.

John Deere site. 1910-2009. 184.5 acres

Along Canal Bank Street facing the Welland Recreational Canal sits the 184.5-acre brownfield site, location of the former John Deere Company.

In 1909, Dain City, now part of Welland, was established as a company town to support the Dain Manufacturing Company Limited facility; shortly afterward, it was bought out by Illinois-based John Deere Company. In 1915, John Deere moved its Canadian headquarters to Welland, Ontario to facilitate the distribution of its products throughout Ontario and Quebec.

Although the Depression forced the plant to close in 1924, it reopened in 1931. The Welland plant was able to expand in 1944; three years later, John Deere transferred its farm implements manufacture almost exclusively to Welland. Between 1955 and 1982, John Deere grew to become the leading producer of farm equipment in the world, as well as a major producer of construction and forestry equipment, and lawn care products.

The 1982 recession forced the company to diversify, putting more investment into non-agricultural products. Nevertheless, the Welland plant continued to be profitable, and Deere & Company’s net income reached unprecedented levels for five consecutive years, surpassing $2 billion in 2008. Revenues more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. So it came as a terrible shock when, in 2008, John Deere announced it was closing its Welland plant.  Two of its operations moved to Mexico, and one to Wisconsin; the plant closed in 2009, eliminating 800 well-paying jobs.

The headquarters of John Deere’s Canadian operations continue to be located in nearby Grimsby. The Grimsby office houses a major parts distribution centre for eastern Canada and parts of northeastern United States, and it is also a centre for the company’s human resources, legal, and corporate governance employees.lant closes, eliminating 800 jobs

Atlas Steel: 

Atlas Steel started operations in 1928, employing 3000 workers at the height of its success, during the war. The company diversified to meet new demand and was sold several times, becoming Atlas Specialty Steel. In 2000, the plant was purchased by Slater Steel. It soon declared bankruptcy and closed in 2004, when it was bought by an American company, and limited operations resumed, but without success — it was sold in 2008. MMFX Technologies Corporation of California bought the idled melt shop in 2006 and reopened it in 2008 as MMFX Steel Canada. MMFX ran the melt shop for a year before closing, and then it, too, went into bankruptcy.

Since then, the factory is slowly rotting away and truly became a cathedral of rust, all machines now silent and collecting dust years after years….with one exception: ASW Steel.

NY Times photo, 1942’workers ply acetylene torches on heavy steel billet at Atlas Steel, Welland

Workers ply acetylene torches on heavy steel billets at the Atlas Steel Co. plant in Welland, Ontario (New York Times, May 1942).

 

ASW Steel: Keeping steel manufacturing alive in Welland.

Abandoned ASW building by Terry Nicholls

Tim Clutterbuck, a manager at Atlas Steel until Slater Steel bought it in 2000, established ASW from the remains of Atlas Steel. ASW is the only producer of stainless and tool-grade steel in Canada, and now employs about 100 workers.

From “Welland’s Industrial Reboot”, Allan Benner, Welland Tribune, April 22, 2013—

Locally, Clutterbuck has had a significant role in efforts to reinvigorate Niagara’s manufacturing sector. After several years working in other segments of the steel industry, including a few years as manager at Lakeside Steel, he returned to the former Atlas Steel plant, picking up the pieces after MMFX failed to make it a viable operation and again went out of business in 2009.

Working with investors, Clutterbuck put together a team of about 30 dedicated and skilled workers — many of them former Atlas Steel employees — and fired up the plant’s furnaces to start making steel.

It was a huge challenge.
Clutterbuck smiled as he recalled the first day they tried to make steel in June, 2011.

June, 2011. Back in production                                                                                                                      

July 7, 2014: Fire broke out at ASW Steel

A company-owned watermain broke under the sudden pressure of pumping huge quantities of water into the plant. The water was needed to cool the molten steel.

There’s a frame hanging on the wall in Clutterbuck’s office containing a flat, polished slab of steel. It’s riddled with holes to the point that it looks like Swiss cheese, formed by nitrogen gas that was not supposed to be infiltrating the process.

But it was the first piece of steel created since the plant was revived, and it’s an accomplishment worthy of note.

As challenging as it was to go from creating that first piece of steel to a facility that now employs more than 80 people and produces stainless steel on par with Atlas Steel’s heydays, Clutterbuck said the process was made a little easier building on a reputation of nearly a century of creating some of the best quality steel in the world.

‘Atlas Steel had a tremendous reputation, and it still lingers,’ he said. ‘When I talk to people throughout North America, you can mention Atlas Steel and most of them will remember us.’ 

Henniges Automotive Sealing Systems Canada. 1921-2011.

Henniges Automotive Sealing Systems Canada manufactured anti-vibration systems and rubber sealing systems for the automotive industry until its closure in 2011.

In 1921, Joseph Stokes Rubber of Trenton built new plant in Welland, employing 70 workers. By 1928, high demand caused the work force to increase to 120; two years later, a machine shop, laboratory and shipping building were added to the plant. Its big seller: battery casings.

In 1943, Joseph Stokes Rubber Co. changed its name to Thermoid Rubber Co. In 1951, Thermoid Rubber became General Tire & Rubber Co. In 1962: General Tire & Rubber became Mansfield Denman General Canada Ltd., but in 1971, Mansfield Denman changed its name to General Tire & Rubber Co. of Canada Ltd. In 1987, the company shortened its name to GenCorp Canada Inc.

GenCorp Canada added 1,620 square metres of new space to the plant in 2000; in 2001, GenCorp Canada Inc. became GDX Automotive, supplying vehicle sealing systems and employing more than 1,000 workers. Another name change occurred in 2007, when GDX became Henniges Automotive. Demand declined drastically with the global recession of 2008, and Henniges laid off 235 workers. A German company, the Ruia Group, acquired 60% of Henniges in 2010, but in March, 2011, Henniges announced the closure of the plant. 300 workers lost their jobs as Henniges Automotive prepared for closure; a final 80 workers walked out of the plant doors about a month later, in Sept., 2011.

The shuttered Henniges plant in 2011.

·     .

·       August 7, 2012: major industrial fire at closed Henniges plant.

In March, 2014, Infinity Rubber Technology (formerly Biltrite Rubber, founded 1946) relocated from Toronto to the former Henniges site, utilizing 90,000 feet of manufacturing space and employing 70 workers. 

PowerBlades Industries site. 

Visitors watch a machine open up to reveal a 45-metre wind turbine blade at PowerBlades.

Like other municipalities in Ontario suffering from the collapse of heavy manufacturing, Welland heralded the 60% made-in-Ontario rule under the province’s new Green Energy Act as an opportunity to bring new industry to the city. In 2013, REpower Systems (Germany) opened PowerBlades, on the site of the former Welland Pipe plant. PowerBlades was established to build the 45- metre wind turbine blades to supply Senvion’s six wind farms in Ontario; the plant expected to provide 200 jobs.

In 2015, however, the 136 workers at PowerBlades were laid off and the plant closed, leaving $35 million in inventory.

PowerBlades was not the only company to be shuttered due to the successful challenge at the WTO of Ontario’s 60% local manufacturing rule under its Green Energy Act; several other Niagara renewable technology companies in Niagara also closed. 

Fiona McMurran, South Niagara Chapter, Council of Canadians. August 2016.

Image credits include: Welland Museum, Welland Library, Welland Tribune, Niagara This Week, Terry Nicholls.