Clyde Iron Works
Duluth, MN

From factory to skate park to restaurant. This is in the skate park stage. The buildings to the right are demolished now, and in their place are hockey rinks.

Hoists to Hogies

I was just in the Clyde Iron Works factory last week… I had the smoked salmon and cheese soup. It was well made, but it was no crane.

Every time I go, I sit in the same spot. At that spot, a table sits where I first poked my head out over the shaky railing into the middle of the industrial space, where the gantry crane searched for purpose over the factory floor. Take a look at the photo I took from that  spot years ago, and how it looks right now:

On the balcony…

The legs are a little wobbly, but so were my legs when I made the picture, so I deem it appropriate, and neglect to slip a few cardboard coasters under the off leg.

This was where the machine shop used to be, a wooden wrap-around balcony at a height between the crane and ground level, an assembly space. Parts were fabricated and calibrated around the outside of the building and brought into the middle for installation.

The floors are still wood, but they’ve been replaced, planed, and sealed.

Sharks in the floor.
Sharks in the floor.

The Experience, or, A Stinky Digression

If someone asked me for an authentic Clyde experience, I would wheel a barrel of chain grease in the middle of the bar and grill, and invite them to stick their head over it. You can’t spell ‘olfactory’ without ‘factory’.

In a now-demolished building, a skylight begins to separate.
In a now-demolished building, a skylight begins to separate.

Every time there is a historic preservation there is a choice of senses; with renovations and reimagines and interpretations, some senses are privileged. At Clyde, smell drew the short straw while tactile and visual won the day. Even the sound of half-drunk hockey dads competitively bragging creates a sort of mechanic resonance as it echoes down the hall.

But smells… smells are not only more difficult to describe than its four sisters, but they leave impressions more cryptic than we usually admit.. Maybe because all smells are sensory cocktails of so many parts-per-million this with a trace of so many parts-per-million that, or maybe because they are too wrapped up in our conception of place, of feeling. Smell is the most personal of the senses, because it is it something we experience constantly, but also something that lives and dies in its identification. As soon as a scent is labeled, its magic dies under the weight of words.

Instead of a pit in the floor, now there is an oversized chessboard here.
Instead of a pit in the floor, now there is an oversized chessboard here.

Smells are Anecdotal

My father’s family is a farming family. When anything on the tractor got replaced, the old part would be thrown in one corner of the machine shed. The pile was so high that I imagined there were the makings of at least two or three complete tractors in it.

As a kid, I used to sit atop the parts and snipe mice and swallows to pass the time. It was, if nothing else, more interesting than pulling rocks out of the garden.

Now, Clyde didn’t smell like the pile, not exactly, but on humid summer days, when the sweat would stand on my skin as I tried to keep perfectly still, my flesh soaked in the smell of the chain oil, the seized cylinder head under a dripping can of used antifreeze and scorched upper exhaust manifold.

Clyde Iron Works smelled like me, or I smelled like it, after one of those days.

I wish I had the equipment then that I have now... I look back at these 10-year-old pictures and can't ignore all the grain.
I wish I had the equipment then that I have now… I look back at these 10-year-old pictures and can’t ignore all the grain.

It is something the new owner were diligent to erase; I doubt, as he did, that the middle class patrons would order their pizzas and beer from a restaurant the smelled like, well, a century-old factory.

We may value the dressed-up gantry crane or exposed brick (yes, you’re still allowed), but I hope the experience makes some people seek out actual factories. Not because that is what I do, but because I genuinely think they are valuable culturally and rhetorically.

Also, because I think everyone should take a whiff of a factory at least once, so they know what it smells like to them. I know they will remember it forever.

Model: Ryan. On the second floor between wooden joists and massive, inert lighting is simply nothing but warped wood, stained with crane grease.
Model: Ryan. On the second floor between wooden joists and massive, inert lighting is simply nothing but warped wood, stained with crane grease.

The History of Clyde Iron Works

1889-1947

Stump Puller, Contractors and Engineers Monthly
Stump Puller, Contractors and Engineers Monthly

Northwestern Manufacturing, what would become Clyde Iron Works in 1901, was founded on October 21, 1889. It was one of many heavy industrial fabricators in Duluth, which was a factory town, a working-man’s town, a port city. There was a lot of demand for hoists, and this company aimed to specialize.

One of the first products was the 1901 McGiffert Log Loader, a steam-powered, self-propelled hoist capable of moving 350,000 board feet daily. That means that every three days the loader could place more than one million feet of trees, lying tip to tip, in a line.

Mechanical Engineers Catalog and Products, 1917
Mechanical Engineers Catalog and Products, 1917

The success of the loader drove the construction of their first dedicated building in 1907, and what followed was a long list of firsts, some of which are: First to use internal combustion engine for a hoist (1912); First to use a silent chain drive for a hoist (1922); First to build a welded steel crane (1925); First to build a crane capable of lifting in excess of 4,400 tons—almost 9 million pounds, or the weight of a large building (1985).

War Effort

Like all major American factories, Clyde was called to duty for WWI and WWI. For each, the plant made hoists and derricks for the Army, many of which were used in Europe to replace destroyed port facilities. Wartime employment peaked around 500 men who worked around the clock.

The cranes left such an impression that, after the war, Duluth was called on by France to build even more units for their ports. Clyde was awarded the Army-Navy “E” for excellent war manufacturing service. Staff were awarded “E” pins and management received pennants. Clyde was the sixth in Minnesota to receive such an award.

This building had no identity issues. My chief regret was not spending more time documenting the ghost signs around the complex.
This building had no identity issues. My chief regret was not spending more time documenting the ghost signs around the complex.

1948-1986

After World War II, employment dropped by half.

Only a few years before, Barnum Steel acquired the company for 1.5 million dollars, but the takeover did not seem to hamper operations at all. On the contrary, the design team continued to innovate to meet new challenges. In 1961, Clyde built the world’s largest portable hoist to pull the lines for a 4,200-foot long suspension bridge in New York, the Verrazano-Narrows.

In a now-demolished building, a skylight begins to separate.
In a now-demolished building, a skylight begins to separate.

Clyde changed hands three more times over the next decade, and there was even talk of it being relocated closer to the harbor so that its products could be loaded directly onto ships. Instead, 3 million dollars were poured into the Duluth plant in 1976 in the form of retrofits and at least one new building.

Slowly, though, Clyde was dying—no cash injection could stave the foreign competition and slowing market for extremely high-capacity cranes. Still, orders came in, including a 1978, 2,000 ton unit, the largest in the world at that time. Success was followed with bad news, though, as first 25, then 60, then 100 workers were laid off from the plant. In late 1984, the plant only employed 30, consisting of a design team and skeleton maintenance crew.

As a last act, Clyde produced a masterpiece: a crane capable of lifting 4,400 tons (“the weight of the new Radisson hotel” said the newspaper). Then, in 1986, Clyde closed.

I wish I knew what has become of this great one-of-a-kind sign that used to brag how many days the Clyde Iron factory has gone without a serious accident. Update: It's hanging in one of the smaller venue spaces behind the bar.
I wish I knew what has become of this great one-of-a-kind sign that used to brag how many days the Clyde Iron factory has gone without a serious accident. Update: It’s hanging in one of the smaller venue spaces behind the bar.

Clyde Machines in Duluth

Visitors to Duluth can see two circa-1957, 81-ton Clyde cranes still in operation for the Duluth Port Authority at Port Terminal. There is also a 1923 McGiffert Log Loader on display at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, located in the historic downtown Union Depot.

Harbor cranes, 1960, MS2.9 DU4H p55, MNHS.org
Harbor cranes, 1960, MS2.9 DU4H p55, MNHS.org