Solvay Coke
Milwaukee, WI

Fuel without a fault

Decayed Beyond A Doubt

Solvay seems more like a post-apocalyptic village nowadays, rather than an abandoned industrial relic.

Ruined factory.

Homeless camps.

Roving gangs of scrappers, ripping out whatever metals they can find… and in Milwaukee of all places.

Walking the Ovens

One is never alone here, that’s the first feeling you get when you walk past the old offices. It’s not like there are many places to go here, either, not since the EPA brought the demo crews to dig out all the coal tar and heavy metals from the ground.

A packing house, some repair shops, an utterly destroyed laboratory, and two or three long piles of fire brick… that’s all there is.

“Ruins of coke ovens,” a seasoned industrial archeologist or well-traveled urban explorer would say about those bricks, uniformly spread out in piles where the dozers pushed them over. “Worthless,” anyone else would say. My opinion, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

This concrete sections supported a coal tower that loaded the larry.
This concrete sections supported a coal tower that loaded the larry.

I just wanted to find a trace of the past, beyond the message of the ruined smokestacks and tire-filled engine shed. This place was a big deal once; ‘Milwaukee’s Solvay Coke’ was widely advertised and well respected throughout the Midwest for its products.

Yet I was left as the sun literally set on my adventure, with the reality that I must take Solvay at face value.

Looking back, that’s not so bad. Enjoy the pictures.

Taken in a closet in the middle of the demolished coke ovens. No doubt, these charts were for equipment in the ovens.
Taken in a closet in the middle of the demolished coke ovens. No doubt, these charts were for equipment in the ovens.

Some Basic Industrial Chemistry

Milwaukee Coke & Gas Company began construction in 1902, but can trace it technological roots to the Solvay Process Company outside of Syracuse, New York. There in 1892 the Semet-Solvay by-product oven was pioneered, an invention that was adapted and adopted at coking plants all over the country.

Coke is almost pure carbon, and because of that fact it is not only very hard, but it is able to burn extremely hot. You may remember in your grade school chemistry class that fire converts other elements to carbon—but when you burn carbon itself it gives off extreme heat. When coke was introduced in the United States, it was soon piled outside of foundries and blast furnaces, displacing coal in the act.

Not that coke isn’t coal—not exactly.

The process of making coke is straightforward. One builds an airtight oven, packs it with coal, seals the oven, then heats the coal until all the impurities burn out in the form of gas, leaving the only thing that would not convert into gas (without oxygen, of course)—the carbon in the coal. I will be detailing the process in more detail as well.

I had to search the shelves a while to find this old logbook. The open page lists changes in stock numbers for Cutler Hammer Coils, and one row says that a new coil was installed on the black larry. The larry is the machine that loads coke ovens.
I had to search the shelves a while to find this old logbook.

What makes the Semet-Solvay system different in this process is how the coal is heated. When the coal is still red-hot from the baking process, water is sprayed over it, releasing a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, a highly volatile compound gas. That gas would be captured and used to heat the next batch of coke. This is cheaper, more efficient, and it means that whatever gas isn’t used up in the process could be sold in the form of ‘coal gas’ to heat homes or cook on. Note the name of the company again—Milwaukee Coke and Gas!

Building the Ovens

To pick up where I left off, these Milwaukee ovens were built in 1902 and were likely first fired up in 1903 (some sources suggest 1904 as the startup date). Originally the plant supported 80 ovens, which were divided into two batteries. A battery is a group of ovens that are fired simultaneously. Milwaukee was chosen as a good place to produce coke because of the many foundries around the city, the availability of coal, which could be brought in by boat very cheaply, and the growing consumer market for gas.

By the time a second pair of batteries was built, making for a total of 160 ovens, boats were pulling up to the side of Milwaukee Coke and unloading thousands of tons of hard West Virginia coal.

Working the Ovens

Unloading

Aerial image before demolition. Source: ggpht.com
Aerial image before demolition. Source: ggpht.com

On the shore of Lake Michigan there were three clamshell unloaders charged with unloading coal boats. Men called ‘riggers’ would get the boats tied to the dock while the ‘operators’ worked the clamshells to empty the hulls. At the rate of 500 tons ever hour, the coal would be loaded onto a long covered conveyor belt into the coal yard, where it was crushed to a uniform size.

There were many conveyor belts at the plant, and they required a lot of oil to stay in motion. The job of lubricating them was that of the ‘oil riggers’. A 1911 article talking about their job says it all: “Their work is arduous and dangerous and requires young and active men.”

The Lab

The parking lot is in better condition than most of the complex. The left building is the lab.
The parking lot is in better condition than most of the complex. The left building is the lab.

Samples from each load were taken from the crusher to the plant lab, where it was determined how volatile that sample was, so that each oven was a good mixture. The hardness of the coke-to-be was also tweaked at this time. Blast furnaces wanted a hard mix that wouldn’t be crushed by the weight of iron ore, and did not need to care about minimal combustion temperatures. Domestic coal, on the other hand, needed to be easily ignited and a bit softer.

The Ovens

Demolished coke furnaces. See my article on ACME Coke in Chicago to get a feeling for what this looked like before it got knocked down.
Demolished coke furnaces. See my article on ACME Coke in Chicago to get a feeling for what this looked like before it got knocked down.

When a suitable mixture was determined, orders for certain coal piles would be sent from the labs to the coal yard, where the mixtures were put on another conveyor belt that shot coal into an elevator over the ovens. This is the function of the tower you might have seen at another coke plant I wrote about, ACME Coke of Chicago.

Rolling on rails atop the coke oven was a special train car called a ‘larry’, which took coal dropped into it from the elevator and loaded the coke ovens. Workers called ‘oven men’ would have to open the hatch on top of the oven and help guide the coal into the hole, sealing the oven again when it was full.

Each oven was 16 feet wide, about 10 feet tall, and 35 feet long.

Next, heat in the form of burning coal gas was applied to the furnaces, cooking its contents, which was captured for reuse later. After a few minutes, the heat was cut, and mechanical rams pushed the contents of the ovens into a waiting heat-insulated railcar. The car would then drive under the quenching tower—a tall elevator-like building with a water tank on top—and the superheated coke would be cooled instantly, releasing giant plumes of coal gas, which would be collected and concentrated.

The process would repeat every 15 minutes, virtually around the clock, every day of the year but Christmas.

By 1911, the annual output was around 600,000 tons of coke.

Delivery Truck (Source: The Black Diamond, 1911)
Delivery Truck (Source: The Black Diamond, 1911)

The company’s second major expansion was delayed by World War I, but by the time its workers were coming back and government restrictions on concrete and steel were lifted it had 22 new buildings and 40 new ovens (making the grand total 200). They even hired about 2,000 more workers, not that all of them were treated equally.

Between the repair shops and the stock department is this odd little structure. No, the walls are not level--it's not your eyes. The shops slope left, the structure slopes right.
Between the repair shops and the stock department is this odd little structure.

Blacks as Coal: Racism at the Coke Plant

In the early 20th century, Milwaukee’s Black community was growing. African Americans were moving from the South, through places like Gary, Indiana and into Chicago’s South Side, to work in the factories there. Because Milwaukee was growing even faster Chicago in the 1900-1905 period, many people just decided to move up one more city.

Maybe they thought, “The farther from The South, the better.”

Unfortunately, even at Milwaukee Coke they had to take the lowest positions. A former worker described it this way:

“They only did the dirty work… jobs that even Poles didn’t want.”

In the 1920s, the plant, by then called Solvay Coke or Milwaukee-Solvay, was one of six companies in the city that employed 75% of the whole Black population.

Every fitting label in the stock department was cracked, curled, and blank.
Every fitting label in the stock department was cracked, curled, and blank.

The Depression hit this part of the workforce especially hard. Customers could not afford coal gas and the steel mills were half-idle, eliminating the need for coke from as far away as Milwaukee.

World War II brought the jobs back, however, and with a little more equality with it. Records suggest that it was soon after the war ended that the first Blacks were allowed to ascend past the status of basic laborer.

The side of the administration building. Around the side was a sign instructing potential employees to return on set days and times.
The side of the administration building. Around the side was a sign instructing potential employees to return on set days and times.

Fuel Without a Fault—The Domestic Ad Campaign

Engine #2 exiting the quenching tower, 1954. Source: donrossgroup.net
Engine #2 exiting the quenching tower, 1954. Source: donrossgroup.net

Coke was widely seen as an industrial product; something more likely to make an oven than go into one. Solvay wanted to change that, though. Beginning in the World War I period they printed countless ads and engaged in public debates to argue the merits of cooking and heating with coke. More specifically, their coke.

It was true, consumers found, that Solvay Coke burned much hotter than coal. So hot, in fact, that the coke tended to burn straight through the bottoms of fireboxes!

Solvay salesmen were quick to suggest placing a pan of water under the ash grate, and making sure the damper was set correctly, and to be sure that the ratio of coke to the size of the firebox was appropriate. Of course, what else would one expect from burning something which was produced to melt steel inside a steel container?

The ads continued nonetheless and indeed built a large customer base throughout the Midwest in spite of the coke’s complications. I happen to go through a lot of old magazines and journals in my research, and have found Solvay-Milwaukee Coke blurbs all over the place.

1910 ad (Source: Gallagan, p. 7)
1910 ad (Source: Gallagan, p. 7)

Solvay After Solvay

Solvay shut down its operations in Milwaukee in 1983, about the time when metallurgical coke was in low demand and natural gas was replacing coal gas. So, like any other obsolete machine, it was thrown away.

A local scrapyard took over the property from Solvay (appropriate, I think) and used its big empty lots to store piles of concrete and steel. But the industry had poisoned the land with coal tar and heavy metals to the extent that it endangered the scrap workers and water supply, so the EPA shut operations down in 2003.

Aerial photos show a massive demolition and cleanup effort in 2004 and 2005, the results of which can be seen today in the piles of fire bricks, disconnect smokestacks, and a handful of scarred and gutted buildings.

Update: March 2013

Rumor has it that demolition crews are currently taking down the offices and laboratories.

Gallery

References »

  • (1906). Fifth annual meeting, wisconsin gas assn.American Gas Light Journal, 581-3. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=0rFEAQAAIAAJ
  • (1911). The Black Diamond , 47(21), 25-28 . Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=4OZZAAAAYAAJ
  • Galligan, J. A. (1919). Marketing and handling of domestic practical suggestions and results of experience in selling by product coke through local dealers to residential consumers. The Gas Age , 44, Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=2qrmAAAAMAAJ
  • House of Reps 64th Congress, Session 1, (1916). Letters from the secretary of war (Doc 1110). Retrieved from website: http://books.google.com/books?id=DME3AQAAIAAJ
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , (2008). Final community involvement plan: Solvay coke and gas site. Retrieved from website: http://www.epa.gov/region5/cleanup/solvaycoke/pdfs/cip-200804.pdf
  • Trotter, J. W. (1988). Black milwaukee: The making of an industrial proletariat, 1915-45. (p. 47, 59). Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=KVnulxLhVLQC
  • Wisconsin Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, (1909). Biennial report of the bureau of labor and industrial statistics. Retrieved from website: http://books.google.com/books?id=yRcoAAAAYAAJ