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More reminders of Hamilton industrial heritage vanish without ceremony or notice

More reminders of Hamilton industrial heritage vanish without ceremony or notice

North Third Street buildings once housed Niles, HOR and General Machinery plants, known worldwide for their machine tools

Compiled by Jim Blount

There was no obituary, no memorial service, no flowers, no request for contributions to a noble cause and no tears or mourning. Death was slow, spread over the last months of 2010 and the first weeks of 2011. There was no privacy during the last agonizing days . Thousands witnessed phases of the passing, but most casual observers were too young to recall the significance and importance of productive earlier decades.

it wasn’t the demise of a person. It was the removal of a complex of Hamilton buildings -- structures that once housed factories employing generations of local people, operating under a series of corporate names and gaining international respect and prestige. They were known by several names, including:

** Niles Tool Works.
** Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. (HOR).
** General Machinery Corp. (GMC).
** Lima-Hamilton Corp. (L-H).
** Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp. (B-L-H).

The buildings razed recently -- on the east side of N. Third Street, south of Black Street -- were only part of Niles/HOR/GMC facilities. Some structures disappeared during the last 50 years. Others survive, including large sections on the west side of North Third Street and structures between Martin Luther King Blvd. and north Fifth Street astride Heaton Street.

At its World War II peak, GMC’s shops covered 30 acres and employed about 4,500 men and women, many working 11-hour shifts five to seven days a week from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Workers blended muscle, sweat and brains as they designed, cast, machined, crafted and tested all or components of large artillery pieces, tanks, ship armor, aircraft parts, steam engines, diesel engines, railroad equipment and other transportation and military hardware for U. S. and allied armed forces in addition to presses and a variety of machinery for other manufacturers.

Employees ranged from laborers to skilled draftsmen, molders and machinist to a multi-language clerks who translated correspondence and contracts from foreign customers.

Earliest products in the mid 1800s were farm implements. In 1830, when farmers relied on muscle power, it took about 250 to 300 labor hours to produce about 100 bushels of wheat from five acres. By 1890, thanks to mechanical advances -- including Hamilton-made equipment -- the same output could be achieved in 40 to 50 hours.

From modest shops in 1845 until closing and relocation in 1960, management direction and innovation came from among Hamilton's industrial who's who. They included Clark Lane, Job E. Owens, George A. Rentschler, Frederick B. Rentschler, Walter A. Rentschler, Henry C. Sohn, J. C. Hooven, George H. Helvey, James E. Campbell, Alexander Gordon, James K. Cullen, R. C. McKinney, Sidney D. Waldon and many other leaders. They also shared their talent and leadership with numerous community projects and public services.

Niles opened in Hamilton in 1872

Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. traced its origin to the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Shop established in the mid 1840s.

A major milestone came in the 1870s when the Niles Tool Works -- once known for building and repairing inland river steamboats and producing steam-powered sugar mills -- moved from Cincinnati to Hamilton.

Led by Job E. Owens and William Beckett, Hamilton business and civic leaders offered Niles several incentives, including land, stone and locally-made bricks for factory construction and, for a few years, free water power from the Hamilton & Rossville Hydraulic. The North Third Street factory opened in 1872.

A series of expansions, changes and reorganizations followed as Niles Tool Works and the Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. established Hamilton’s national and international reputation for machine tools.

HOR was known for its Monarch portable engines and Monarch thresher before producing at least 700 Corliss engines in the last 20 years of the 19th century.

Corliss engines synonymous with Hamilton

The Corliss steam engine, introduced at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia [illustrated above], wasn’t invented in Hamilton, but many of the powerful engines were built in local shops.

Author-journalist William Dean Howells, who had spent his 1840s boyhood in Hamilton, described the centennial Corliss engine -- the highlight of the centennial -- as "an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble, the hundred life like details do their office with unerring intelligence." Howells said "in these things of iron and steel the national genius speaks."

Some observers of the late 19th century claimed it was the quality of Hamilton-built Corliss engines that was most responsible for the city’s lofty image as an industrial center.

In 1882 Niles opened an office in Philadelphia. Others followed in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Sales offices and other Niles plants also operated in Europe.

Evidence of Hamilton craftsmanship and quality, it has been said, was reflected in government bid advertisements that insisted a machine had to be "of Niles quality."

Niles contributed to railroad expansion

New and expanding U. S. industries and the westward extension of railroads provided plenty of customers for Hamilton-made machine tools in the 1875-1900 era. U. S. railroad mileage, for example, increased from about 53,000 miles in 1870 to more than 207,000 miles in 1900 -- about a 400 percent expansion.

In the late 1800s, in regard to the success of the Niles Tool Works, it was often claimed that "every mile of track laid, every locomotive and car built and repaired contained something of Niles’ industrial lifeblood."

By the early years of the 1900s, the success of Niles/HOR/GMC was a major reason why the city could realistically claim to be "the greatest manufacturing city of its size in the world" and that "more skilled artisans are to be found in Hamilton than in any other city of equal size in all the world." No community challenged that boast.

Track, rolling stock and sources of power also were required by the nation’s growing network of electric-powered interurban lines in the late 19th century. The "traction" -- a common name for interurban transportation -- reached Hamilton from Dayton in 1897. A year later -- when service was extended south toward Cincinnati -- a powerhouse was built at Symmes Corner in rural Fairfield Township. [Car barns and the power plant were near the southwestern corner of Pleasant Avenue and Nilles Road. -- on part of the present site of the Village Green in the City of Fairfield.]

"Two 600 horsepower engines, built by the Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. [of Hamilton] furnish the motive power," said a local newspaper in describing the Cincinnati & Hamilton Electric Street Railway powerhouse (pictured in center of photo above). "These engines are single cylinder heavy-duty Corliss engines of massive build. The flywheel alone weighs 25 tons and makes 90 revolutions a minute. The circumference of the flywheel travels 5,040 feet every minute."

"These engines drive Westinghouse motors of 500 horsepower capacity," the report said. "The steam boiler plant consists of two batteries of 600 horsepower each. Duplicate boilers, engines and dynamos are provided in case of accident."

Henry Ford relied on HOR power source

Later, as another form of transportation developed, a pioneer in the automotive industry relied on Hamilton technology. "Probably no factory changed life in 20th century America as much as the Highland Park Ford Plant" in Michigan, claims a National Park Service (NPS) web site. The Michigan complex has been acclaimed "the factory that changed the world."

"Power to turn the machines of the plant," a Hamilton newspaper reported in 1913, "will be furnished by the largest gas engine power plant in the world," built by the Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. (HOR)

"Henry Ford and his engineers developed many of the crucial principles of modern mass production" at Highland Park, noted the NPS. "The most notable of these was the continuously moving assembly line; its introduction in late 1913 reduced the assembly time of a Model T from 728 to 93 minutes. By 1920 the plant turned out a car every minute, and one out of every two automobiles in the world was a Model T." [Highland Park Model T assembly line pictured above.]

The Highland Park plant -- about four and a half miles from downtown Detroit -- was built between 1909 and 1920 and is regarded as "the birthplace of the moving assembly line." It was Ford's major plant until 1927, when work shifted to the River Rouge plant. Near the end of World War II, about 45,000 employees were engaged in defense work at Highland Park.

A newspaper in 1913 said the Hamilton-built HOR machinery "will embody some features that are practically untried" and "will come as near to solving the problem of perpetual motion as mechanical science will permit in that every possible bit of energy will be put to use. A combination by which the heat from the gas engines will furnish steam to operate other machinery is the device that is to be used in the new power plant."

Later, citing an industrial publication, a Hamilton newspaper offered this explanation of the $1 million HOR project: "The power, to be turned into electricity and thus distributed through the great automobile factory covering many acres, will be produced by the four big 6,000-horsepower engines." [Allowing for inflation, $1 million in 1913 would be equivalent to more than $22 million in 2011 dollars.]

"Each engine will have four cylinders in tandem on each side, one pair of cylinders being operated by producer gas and the other by steam. The steam will be generated from water heated in the water jacket of the gas engine, further heated by exhaust gases and by waste heat from the producer gas plant. The water or steam will be used as the feed water for the boiler which supplies the steam engine cylinders."

"This remarkable power plant, by utilizing the energy usually lost in waste heat, is expected to give the Ford factory the cheapest power in the world," the report said.

In the Henry Ford Museum inventory, the engines built on North Third Street are described as "very large gas/steam engine driving generator;" 5,888 horsepower, drives 4,000 kilowatt DC generator; weighs 750 tons; 82 feet long x 46 feet wide; "one of nine similar engines that generated power for the Highland Park Ford plant, 1915. Made by Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co., Hamilton, Ohio. One cylinder gas driven for efficiency, one cylinder steam driven for regulation and reliability. Beautiful condition, huge."

One of the HOR generators is displayed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. A sign says: "These engines represented for Mr. Ford the pinnacle of power, efficiency and beauty."

Coastal defense depended on Hamilton

HOR, Niles and GMC also were known for their more than half century of national defense contributions.

In the spring of 1898 -- after the U. S. declared war on Spain April 25 -- from Maine to Florida, civic leaders in Boston, New York, Charleston and in the smallest Atlantic coast villages feared bombardment by Spanish ships. A news report said "some towns ask for the immediate construction of [artillery] batteries" to fend off potential attacks.

The Spanish-American War meant work for more than 1,000 industrial craftsmen in Hamilton.

"The Niles Tool Works are at present very busy on government work which consists of disappearing gun carriages and 12-inch mortars," said a Hamilton newspaper six weeks before war was declared. "To judge from this activity, there is not the least doubt but that the government expects to have a brush with the Spaniards sooner or later."

"Long before any trouble with Spain was anticipated," the newspaper said, the Niles Tool Works had "secured a government contract for the building of disappearing gun carriages for fort and coast defense of this country."

"The Niles Tool Works had 14 gun carriages to build under two contracts. Of these, eight have been finished, inspected, accepted and delivered to the ordinance department of the government."

The report offered these details: "The weight of each gun carriage is 100 tons and consists of steel and brass. The carriage supports 10-inch guns that are 32 feet in length, weigh 67,000 pounds with a 30-inch diameter at the breech and a diameter of 16 inches at the muzzle, the bore of the gun being 10 inches and rifled. These guns discharge a projectile weighing 512 pounds with a powder charge of 250 pounds which will carry the projectile from seven to eight miles."

In its firing position, the gun "is just above and extending about 10 feet over the parapet of the fort. The carriage is behind the parapet in the pit. After discharging, the recoil carries the gun to the rear about 10 feet and down into the pit, thus dropping it out of view of the enemy."

"It requires five or six months to finish a gun carriage, and there are several almost completed at the Niles Tool Works. Nearly every important seaport now has one or more of these 30-ton disappearing guns of 10-inch caliber for its defense."

The newspaper said Niles "has also under contract for the government 15 mortars.

They are 12 feet long, have a 12-inch bore, are breech-loading and rifled. These mortars weigh 13 tons or 26,000 pounds apiece and are made of steel. The tube is built up at breech with two separate rings, one pushed over the tube red hot and the second ring over the first in a similar manner, where they are shrunk to the tube and increase the resisting power of a charge of powder."

Similar weaponry was assembled by Hamilton workmen before and during World War I.

Niles and HOR join as General Machinery Corp.

Between two world wars -- even during the Great Depression -- Niles and HOR were introducing and testing new products. In 1899, Niles became part of a nationwide business, the Niles-Berment-Pond Co.

Starting in 1928, Niles and HOR had a new name. That year George A. Rentschler merged his Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co. and Niles Tool Works to form the General Machinery Corp. (GMC). The HOR and Niles names remained in common use among Hamiltonians for decades after they were combined as General Machinery.

In February 1940, a report said "a revolutionary new development for transmission of power from an internal combustion engine has been perfected by Heinrich and Adolf Schneider, and engineers of the newly-formed Hydro-Transmission Corp., an affiliate of the General Machinery Corp. of Hamilton."

The article said the hydro-transmission "is installed in a switching engine, powered with a 400-horsepower Hamilton Diesel engine. The engine is now undergoing tests in the yards of the General Machinery Corp. on North Third Street, and has been demonstrated to many industrialists, including officials of the Hamilton Coke and Iron Co., New Miami, and the American Rolling Mill Co. in Middletown."

At the same time, GMC was working on a $3.9 million contract for diesel engines for U. S. submarines, plus a variety of armament for the U. S. and its allies.

The foemer HOR building pictured above remains at the southeast corner of Heaton Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Hamilton.

Liberty engines and world’s ‘shopping baskets’

Hamilton’s best-known World War II product was the Liberty engine, which powered cargo ships regarded as "the shopping baskets of World War II"In 1941, the British government -- fighting Germany since 1939 and desperate for food and supplies -- designated GMC to build 1,500-horsepower vertical triple expansion engines, later called Liberty engines. The task involved redrawing English metric plans to standard U. S. measures in Hamilton. Jigs, templates and other devices -- shared with other U. S. builders -- were designed by local engineers and made in the Hamilton plant.

The U. S. Maritime Commission contracted with GMC and 13 other U. S. companies to build the engines for 10,500-ton cargo ships. The Hamilton plant turned out the first Liberty engine July 1, 1941-- five months before Pearl Harbor. The last of the 826 Hamilton

0-built engines was completed March 9, 1945. Hamilton produced more than 31 percent of the 2,623 Liberty engines produced by the 14 U. S. companies during the war.

Liberty ships acquired that name after the first American vessel of its type -- launched Sept. 27, 1941 -- was designated the SS Patrick Henry, recalling the revolutionary leader's "Give me liberty or give me death" declaration. The name also was attached to their engines, which were designed and first built in England in 1879.

GMC contracted with other Hamilton industries -- large and small -- as subcontractors on the project. One of GMC’s local partners was the machine shop at Champion Papers, on the west side the Great Miami River, just a few yards west of the GMC complex. Because of war secrecy, a complete list of local subcontractors was never revealed.

The large engines (287,700 pounds each, or more than 100 tons) were assembled in the GMC shop as the parts were machined. The completed engines were taken apart, crated and sent from Hamilton via railroad to 18 shipbuilding companies. Each assembled engine was 23 feet long, 17 feet wide and 23 feet high.

The 441-foot cargo ships -- which could haul 440 tanks or 2,840 Jeeps -- were designed to carry supplies across the Atlantic to England before the U. S. entered the war. The intent was to build the ships faster than German submarines could sink freighters ferrying food and supplies to war-strapped England. Only 195 of the 2,751 slow-moving ships (11 knots maximum) were lost during World War II.

By the war's end, Liberty ships had served a multitude of duties, including transporting troops and supplying to Allied forces around the world. A former crew member is credited with labeling them "the shopping baskets of World War II."

GMC’s defense-related output during World War II also included diesel engines, reciprocating engines, a variety of machine tools and components for weapons and equipment manufactured by other war contractors.

Merger of GMC and Lima Locomotive

After the war, the company, while still fulfilling some military contracts through the Korean War (1950-1953), sought new outlets for its know how. GMC executives saw an opportunity as U. S. railroads gradually converted from steam locomotives to diesel engines. GMC made its move in 1947, agreeing to a consolidation that put the Hamilton-based company in the expanding diesel locomotive business.

Combining with Lima Locomotive Works was called a perfect merger when two Ohio companies combined to form the Lima-Hamilton Corp. GMC and the Lima Locomotive Works had long histories of success in their respective lines of business.

Considered then the "Big Three" in the business were (1) American Locomotive Co., or Alco, (2) Baldwin Locomotive Works and (3) Lima Locomotive Works. The latter was about 100 miles north of GMC facilities on the same Baltimore & Ohio Railroad mainline that served Hamilton.

During World War II, in addition to steam locomotives for domestic and military uses, Lima had built M4 Sherman tanks for the U. S. Army. When the war ended, it also was producing cranes and shovels for the construction industry.

Its prime locomotive competitors, Alco and Baldwin, would leave the steam locomotive business in 1948 and 1949. Both companies had started producing diesel locomotives before World War II.

In October 1947, the GMC and Lima boards approved a merger that created the Lima-Hamilton Corp. In 1948, Lima-Hamilton’s Lima plant built 36 steam locomotives and was still taking orders. The last of 7,548 steam locomotives produced by Lima left the shop in May 1949.

Lima-Hamilton (L-H) started with two models of diesel-electric switching locomotives. The diesel engines -- based on GMC marine models -- were produced in Hamilton. The remainder of the locomotives was fabricated in Lima. L-H sales to railroads were few. Only about 170 diesels were built under the Lima-Hamilton logo before another merger.

Nov. 30, 1950, L-H joined the Baldwin Locomotive Works to become the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp. Baldwin's interest, it was reported, was diversification, specifically Lima's construction equipment market. BLH ended diesel locomotive production in 1956. It had closed Hamilton operations by January 1960.

Later that year, Champion Papers acquired the majority of the former GMC property along North Third Street, including four factory structures, a steam plant and two office buildings.

What are machine tools?

Among Hamilton's vanished industrial credits is a claim to being one of the nation's leading centers of machine tool production.

Most notable among several firms was the Niles Tool Works that moved to Hamilton in 1872 and eventually became part of the General Machinery Corp.

"The General Machinery Corp. plant, extending two blocks south from Black Street on both sides of Third Street . . . is one of the largest manufacturers of machine tools in the world, and a builder of diesel engines," said the Ohio Guide, compiled in the late 1930s by the Writers' Program of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), a federal Depression-relief agency

"The production of machine tools involves the highest grade of skill in design and of workmanship in production," noted a souvenir book published during the Hamilton centennial in 1891. One source described machine tools as "power-operated, metal-working machines by which other machines are built." A recent study said machine tools provide "the principal industrial equipment base for the manufacturing industries."

Machine tools, the 1891 centennial book explained, included lathes, planing machines, drilling machines, slotting machines, boring machines, gear cutters "and a host of other machines designed for operating on cold metals by the operation of a cutting tool."

"Wherever machinery of any kind is built, machine tools are employed in doing the work," said the 1891 centennial publication. "The accuracy and low cost of any kind of manufacturing in metal must therefore find its foundation in the accuracy and efficiency of the machine tools employed in the work."

"By the turn of the 20th century, the U. S. had developed a strong position in the world [machine tool] export markets through a well-organized network of sales agents," noted Heinrich Arnold of the University of Munich’s Institute for Innovation Research and Technology Management.

"Between 1972 and 1987, the U. S. lost its leading position as the biggest producer of machine tools to Germany and the new entrant Japan," Arnold wrote in 2001.

"Since World War II the U. S. had emerged as the leading producer of machine tools with up to 30 percent of the world market in the post war years," Arnold said. "In the late 1960s though, the U. S. influence dropped. Although the consumption of machine tools in the U. S. was growing, the U. S. manufacturer share of the world market had decreased to 15 percent by 1970, behind Germany, which held between 15 to 20 percent."

Arnold said "by 1977 Germany controlled 30 percent of the world export trade. This situation lasted until 1980 when Japan – parallel to the introduction of computers into numerical controls -- conquered 20 percent of the world [machine tool] market. The U. S. share dropped further to around 10 percent and also lost control over its home market."

1891 Niles Tool Works catalogue

Take a look at illustrations of the Niles Tool Works plant and many examples of Niles products in the company's 1891 catalog by accessing the following Internet site: http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924063726289

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Jim BlountJim Blount's local history books are available in Hamilton at the Butler County Historical Society, 327 N. Second St.; Tom's, 135 Main St.; Ross Ave. Barber Shop, 907 Ross Ave.; in Fairfield at Pleasantree Gift Shoppe, 702 Nilles Rd.; and in Shandon at Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Rd. For mail orders, call Books in Shandon, 513-738-2962. The columns are posted monthly on the Lane Libraries Web site and are also available via email subscription. A searchable archive of these columns, including Mr. Blount's columns from the Journal-News dating back to 1988, is available at www.lanepl.org/blount.htm.

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