A History of Overcoming Challenges
In honor of Columbia Steel’s 120th anniversary, we’re looking back through the decades at a few of the defining moments in our company’s history. In our first anniversary installment, we traveled back to Columbia’s founding in 1901 and traced twenty years of steady growth. Our next installment begins in 1920 and moves through four-decades of repeated challenges for our company and the country. During this era, the Bird family emerged as the leaders Columbia needed to survive such challenging times and become the industry leader it is today.
1920 – 1929: A Decade of Growth with Tough Times on the Horizon
Our story picks up in 1923, as a big local housing boom fueled demand for timber and sawmill parts, while a growing number of new automobiles created the need for more highway and bridge construction. Columbia Engineering Works responded to this increasing demand by installing the first three-phase electric arc steel melting furnace west of the Mississippi. This new furnace allowed the company to make manganese steel using the “duplexing” method by melting ferromanganese in a cupola and mixing it with steel from the arc furnace.
Six years later, Columbia Engineering Works was sold to U.S. Steel, which meant the transfer of Columbia’s only salesman to Salt Lake City, bringing Hobart Bird an opportunity. After returning to Portland from his heroic service during World War 1, Hobart came back to work at Columbia as a member of the maintenance crew before advancing to foreman. But that wasn’t enough. One day, he left for work wearing his best suit and asked for the salesman position that had recently been left vacant. Surprised by Hobart’s initiative, company president, Alexander Clark, said if he wanted the job that badly, he could have it.
Later that year, a stock market crash plunged the U.S. into the Great Depression and changed Columbia’s financial fortunes almost overnight.
1930 – 1939: New Products and New Leadership Ensure Survival
In 1931, Columbia returned to local ownership when U.S. Steel sold the company to a group of local investors who officially changed its name from Columbia Engineering Works to Columbia Steel Casting Company. Alexander Clark remained president under the new ownership group, while Hobart Bird advanced to vice-president.
Where others saw loss during the ongoing financial crisis, Hobart saw opportunity. Gold dredging operations were still profitable in many parts of the county, so Hobart set out to design new dredging parts and sell them throughout the west. Before long, this market made up 80% of Columbia’s business, allowing it to survive the depression when so many other companies did not. In 1938, Alexander Clark retired, and Hobart Bird took over as president.
1940 – 1945: The War Years Bring Unprecedented Growth
Throughout the 1930s, Hobart Bird and his wife Helen bought company stock whenever they could afford to do so. When former president Alexander Clark died in 1941, Hobart purchased the remaining company stock and took over majority ownership. In just over twenty years, Hobart had advanced from maintenance crew to ownership, beginning a legacy of family leadership that continues to this day.
After America entered the Second World War in 1941, a massive ship-building operation sprung up along the Willamette and Columbia rivers as manufacturers scrambled to build liberty ships, victory ships and “baby flattops” — the smallest class of aircraft carriers. Of course, these ships all needed steel castings.
Even with the addition of a second arc furnace, the plant at Northwest 9th and Johnson was too small to handle this new volume, so Hobart purchased the vacant Pacific Car and Foundry plant near Northeast Halsey and 55th Avenue. This plant became the principal source of large steel castings for ship construction. To finance new equipment purchases, Hobart sold a portion of the company to investors connected to the local ship-building effort.
Columbia developed a reputation for quality and efficiency during the war years. Hobart developed a new ship-building process that allowed the company to increase ship stern frame production from one casting per week to one casting per day. In recognition of its extraordinary efforts, the Navy awarded Columbia with the “E” Flag for excellence in achievement.
The Bird family helped the war effort in other ways as well. Hobart’s son Hobart “Bud” Bird entered the University of Oregon in 1941 but sought entrance to the Coast Guard Academy after the war started. Bud would go on to command a Coast Guard Cutter in the Philippines at the age of 21.
1945 – 1949: The War’s End Brings Challenging Times
When the war ended in 1945, Columbia’s capacity greatly exceeded the demand for steel parts. As a result, outside investors gained control of the company, liquidated the large equipment in the Halsey plant, and began developing it as an industrial park. Eventually, Hobart was able to buy back the plant and continue operating at the 9th and Johnson location at pre-war levels. When Hobart passed away unexpectedly in 1946, Bud Bird left his Coast Guard career and took over the company’s leadership.
In 1948, historic flooding swept away the wartime community of Vanport and left much of Portland underwater. The Columbia Steel plant was flooded and forced to close for nearly five weeks before reopening.
1950 – 1959: A Time of Transition
Columbia Steel was left searching for new markets during the postwar years. In 1950, the company was the first all-manganese foundry in the U.S. to use olivine molding sand, which eliminated the problems of silica sand reacting with the manganese steel casting surface. During the first half of the decade, Columbia made dredge parts and sawmill products, along with replacement parts for sand and gravel plants and metallic mines. The company also began selling blast furnace parts, and soon, nearly a third of its total production was going to foundries in the eastern United States.
By the mid-fifties, the Interstate Highway Program had increased demand for crushed aggregate rock, which fueled Columbia’s crusher parts business and allowed it to expand the dealer network throughout the United States. During this time, Bud Bird began looking for a new location to replace the aging 9th and Johnson plant, which was on a month-to-month lease from the railroad and had no room to expand.
Columbia was dealt a near-fatal blow in 1957 when a fast-moving fire nearly destroyed the 9th and Johnson plant. Fortunately, product drawing prints survived along with critical financial and customer records, which allowed the company to continue operating. It took six weeks of tremendous effort to rebuild, but customers and employees came through to save the company. Columbia remained at the old pant for another five years before finally leaving it behind for good in 1962.
Entering the Modern Age
Columbia survived these challenging decades thanks to steady leadership and a cautious approach to growth. As the company moved to its new location, it began a modernization program that would set the stage for more dramatic growth in the coming decades.
The Columbia Steel story will continue — read part one here and stay tuned for future entries in this series.