Built in 1865 as a general iron foundry, Portland’s Willamette Iron and Steel Yard was a major producer until its closure in 1990. Originally, the company served mainly as a production facility for marine engines and steamboat boiler units. Most of the region’s iron and steel constructed equipment used in plumbing and pipefitting were also manufactured here, including fire hydrants for the city of Portland.
Because of its location near the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, the site became more active in shipbuilding by the end of the 19th century. In 1904 the company, which until then had been known as Willamette Iron Works, was renamed Willamette Iron and Steel Works, and began to produce large components for marine vessels, as well as iron and steel hulls.
During both World War I and World War II, the company manufactured a tremendous amount of naval auxiliary vessels and specialized military craft, including minesweepers, submarine chasers, tugs and harbor buoys. The facility had a close relationship with the nearby and much larger Kaiser Shipyards, and under joint contract the Willamette Iron and Steel Yard built over 70 naval vessels in the early 1940s.
After WW II, production of military craft was in decline, and the shipyard began to shift its focus once more to specialized engine parts, plumbing systems, and small commercial craft. It even manufactured locomotive engines and components of rolling stock. In the 1970s, the company turned out large turbine units for installation of the third powerhouse at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. Other primary contracts during this period were specialized marine hull designs and shipbuilding assignments for the Alaska Marine Highway.
During all of this activity, a number of hazardous materials were in use at the Willamette Iron and Steel Yard. Among these were toxic paints, residues from sandblasting and metal lathe operations, and asbestos. The use of asbestos as an insulating compound in floors and ceilings, as well as pipe and electrical panel covering, would expose a large number of workers to the fibers cast off by this substance.
Asbestos can be inhaled and remains embedded in clothing for a substantial period of time. Inhaling or swallowing the mineral may result in a rare and deadly cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma symptoms are often dormant for 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure and treatment is often ineffective. Willamette Iron and Steel Yard closed in 1990, but even at that time, much of the facility still had a large amount of asbestos located in the buildings where countless employees had worked.