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The Westinghouse Legacy

The collective memory of an area only goes as far back as about one generation or so than its oldest inhabitants. There isn’t anyone alive now that remembers a time when Westinghouse wasn’t there. But if the land along Sharpsville Ave. could talk, what a story it would tell.

At the south end of the old Westinghouse plant, The Atlantic Iron Works was built after the Civil War. Later P.L. Kimberly, who was a business partner with Frank Buhl, had an iron plant there, as well. Buhl and Kimberly built railroads and irrigation projects around the world. Up until the 20’s, the area north of Clark St. had a ball field on it and circuses often set up there because it was close to the train tracks.

In 1904 John Stevenson, also a business associate of Frank Buhl, bought out The Driggs-Seabury Ordnance Company and moved it to Sharon. He made weapons of war there early on. Because of the vast production facility, they also began making vehicles there in 1912. That year they produced Vulcan Trucks, of which, a few years later they sold several hundred to British, French and Russian Armies who are always gearing up for war. They also had unsuccessful forays into producing two different cars, the Ritz and the Twombly, around 1914-1915. In 1915, Driggs sold their munitions plant to Savage Arms, which made Lewis machine guns during the war and sold them initially to the British and Canadian governments. Savage began selling guns to the U.S., but General Crozier, who was in charge of munitions for the U.S. army, did not like Isaac Lewis (U.S. army Colonel and inventor of the Lewis machine gun) and made life difficult for him at every turn. Eventually the U.S. switched to Browning guns, dooming the Lewis gun.

Meanwhile in East Pittsburgh, Westinghouse had been building transformers as far back as 1900. By the 1920’s the need for (electric) machinery across the U.S. exploded and the East Pittsburgh couldn’t keep up with the demand for transformers. In 1922, Driggs Seabury still owned the property and contrary to legend did not produce vehicles here in the 1920’s. In order to satisfy a debt, Driggs Seabury gave the property to Westinghouse. On October 25th,1922, Westinghouse acquired the property and began moving machinery out of East Pittsburgh by train. Old timers in East Pittsburgh worried what would happen to them and many came here with the move.

By 1923, as there were over 650 people working at the plant in Sharon, it was time to expand. Westinghouse began building, what legend has said was the longest single building in the U.S. at the time, hard to confirm or deny that now. In September of 1923, a devastating 7.9 earthquake hit Tokyo, Japan killing 142,000 people. The quake, which lasted between five and ten minutes, laid waste to the whole region. Japan needed as many transformers as we could provide and Westinghouse went into high gear to fulfill the need. By the end of 1924, Westinghouse employed 2,200 in Sharon. As it did everywhere, things dipped during the depression.

World War II was the first war requiring an enormous amount of mechanized devices. When the Navy began talks with a few companies about producing torpedoes, the engineers at Westinghouse were skeptical they could ever create a working torpedo. The plant was re-tooled and production began. Westinghouse began making the MK-18 torpedo, which they tested at Pymatuning lake (and once at Buhl Park). There were some problems with the propulsion of the torpedoes. Then a break, captured German torpedoes were brought into the plant. The German engineering was so amazing that some Westinghouse engineers weren’t even sure what was the function of some parts. This war especially, felt like everything was on the line and some, even in the navy, were dismayed at the exquisite devices the Germans could produce. How could we compete? After the war, engineers realized that it was, in fact, one of the reasons why Germany lost…their torpedoes couldn’t be fixed piecemeal, in order to fix them you had to start from scratch. Conversely, American torpedoes with stamped parts could be fixed or modified easily. (Thank you Henry Ford.) 100 days after agreeing to make torpedoes, Westinghouse delivered the first batch of torpedoes to the navy. Eventually Westinghouse Sharon made more than 10,000 torpedoes which were credited with having sunk over 400 naval and merchant ships during the war, and damaging many more. All of this while losing an average of 150 guys a month to the war…enter “Rosie the Riveter “.

During the war, Westinghouse made tanks, stainless steel vacuum tanks with walls three and a half inches thick. Employees referred to them as the “Big Black Boxes”, but no one knew what they were for. It was later revealed, they were used in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the making of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. As the war ended, plans were made to secure and build Westinghouse park.

By 1956, just shy of 10,000 people were employed there with a monthly payroll of over 4 million dollars. (An average of $440). Strikes plagued the plant all through the 50’s, including a 156 day strike in that same year. Despite labor turmoil, the 50s were the heyday of the plant. In 1954 if the shipments out of the plant were strung together, it would take two trains a week, 137 cars long each, to move the finished transformers.

After the war, and into the 80’s, the plant began to add “extracurricular” activities that would make a country club jealous: basketball, softball, bowling, bands, public speaking classes, you name it, Westinghouse had it. It was one of the things that differentiated Westinghouse from other mills in the region. The era from 1950’s to 1980 was really the heyday of the American worker. Westinghouse employees could earn up to 13 weeks vacation..enough said.

In July of 1984, employees without notice were told the plant was suspending operations for a short time, they literally got up and walked out the door. No one cleaned up or cleaned out their desks or lockers…fittingly the plant and offices remained as they always were, almost a like a museum of the amazing role Westinghouse played in the valley’s history. On New Year’s Eve of 1985, it was announced Westinghouse would cease operations there. After 73 years, 2 months, and six days, Westinghouse was no longer here in the valley. Of course, the facility lives on, Winner Steel and (earlier) Wheatland Tube moved in, and the Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. is currently looking for tenants, but nothing will ever match the Westinghouse legacy.

Eric Bombeck

The Way It Was... - Newspaper