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Light rail construction claims part of PECO Manufacturing

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: COURTESY OF THE PECO COMPANY - This photo is an aerial view of the business district on 17th Avenue between McLoughlin and Holgate around 1935, just before the PECO manufacturing structure was built. The Iron Man Manufacturing Company is present in the photo - as is the now-gone Brooklyn Yard Roundouse, in the upper left corner, near Holgate Boulevard.On the Wednesday afternoon of April 10th 2013, employees, secretarial staff members, and managers, of Peco Manufacturing Company in on the east side of S.E. 17th in Brooklyn gathered for one last look out the glass door and windows of their building.

Across the street, on the west side, near S.E. Schindler and 17th, heavy machinery and cranes were dismantling the original building of Production Engineering Company (PECO), to make way for the new Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line.

The transfer of large machines, computers, and equipment out of the painting and treatment plant in the doomed building was finally complete, and longtime workers reflected on the many hours spent finishing orders there, sharing memories of working side by side with each other.

The demolition of the PECO structure removed just one of the total of 62 buildings that are slated to come down within the year; many of them are already gone. Tri-Met Community Affairs spokeswoman Jennifer Koozer, responding by e-mail on how many other structures are involved stated that, “Overall the project has 203 acquisitions. Of those 55 are entire properties, and 90 are partial.”

As early as the 1930’s, the area of the Brooklyn neighborhood from 17th and Powell to Schindler Street was an industrial district. But it wasn’t always so.

During the 1880’s, the flowing wheat fields of Gideon Tibbett’s Land Claim occupied the land, accompanied by meandering streams, wild scrub brush, and small timber. In 1868 Tibbett invited the Eastside Railway (Portland’s first railroad – built to connect to California) to lay rails across his land. The tracks were completed from the Clay Street riverfront all the way to Roseburg by 1872.

The arrival of the railroad attracted German and Italian immigrants to settle in the neighborhood, and employed many in repairing rails, servicing trains, and working as conductors. By the 1920’s the Southern Pacific had purchased the railway. A machine shop was set up for repairing and maintenance of train engines, while brick and wooden buildings were built to house passenger coaches and rail cars that were constructed in the so called Brooklyn Railway Shops. These were the origins of today’s “Brooklyn Yard”.

When the 1930’s rolled around, Seventeenth Street was still mainly a residential district that rimmed the railroad yards of the Southern Pacific, but the completion of the new State “Super Highway” (McLoughlin Boulevard – Highway 99E) in the mid 1930’s changed everything.

17th Street was becoming an ideal place for light industries and small start-up companies. Easy access by truck and railway meant that companies would have supplies delivered faster and cheaper, and finished products from their factories shipped out in a timely manner.

Businesses such as the Crawford and Doherty Foundry and the Portland Wire and Iron Works had been the first large buildings and factories on the west side of the street. In 1924 the Iron Fireman Manufacturing Company had taken over the outdated Coin Manufacturing Company and built a massive warehouse at Schiller Street. By the 1950’s most of the homes had been moved or torn down, and 17th Avenue was now strictly an industrial area.

The Iron Fireman Company, a heating and furnace factory, is one of the few buildings still standing as a reminder of the 1930’s era.

In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, coal was replacing firewood as an economical heating source for residences and commercial buildings.

Owners of the Iron Fireman redesigned an old manual coal stoker that they found in a vacant warehouse they’d recently purchased. It became a commercial success, and when fitted to existing furnaces provided for a cleaner and cheaper form of heating for residents. In 1937, management at the Iron Fireman hired a talented and creative mechanical graduate from Oregon State College – Ralph D. McGilva, or “Mac” as he was called during his career.

But his time at the Iron Fireman company was short – as Mac McGilva had ambitions of starting his own company, and he effectively combined his skills to establish the Product Engineering Company.

According to reports in the Oregonian newspaper of the time, Ralph D. McGilva teamed with Harry F. Everett in 1938 to form this new company, but six years later the partnership was dissolved when Everett retired and McGilva became president, owner, and the chief engineer of PECO.

Now the sole owner, Mac increased the production of his company when he introduced a cold chamber process for use in die casting aluminum alloys, at a time when other business were using the hot chamber process in their factories. Cold chamber die casting offered manufacturers more intricate detail in the products they created for their clients.

According to information collected from Mac’s wife and daughter in Richard Carroll’s online biography of Mac McGilva, PECO was “a pioneer in the Northwest in producing aluminum and zinc alloy die casting materials”. The company produced products such as two-wheeled mail delivery carts for the postal service, and golf carts for sport enthusiasts. Toys, tools, carburetor parts, machine components, and various housings and motor parts were just a few of the items fabricated on the PECO manufacturing line.

When the United States entered World War II, PECO helped support the cause by manufacturing electrical fittings and military parts for the Army and Maritime departments. After the war the company expanded considerably, becoming a custom job business, producing goods and products to order. The PECO factories produced everything from vacuum cleaner parts to fire extinguishers, and from marine hardware to lawn sprinklers and air brake control valves.

In 1950, McGilvra experienced both a personal high and low. It was a terrific setback when a fire destroyed his building, leaving staff members and workers unemployed. But with the help of friends and distributors Mac found funding, and rebuilt a new 4,000 square foot factory.

At this time PECO gained attention for the production of a toy gun called the Frontier Smoker; over 200,000 were distributed and sold in the United States. With his evident innovation and creativity in the toy industry, Mac was asked to create a display for the 53rd Toy Fair held in New York City, and he responded by creating an exhibit of toy soldiers for the event.

When the Iron Fireman Company moved its production factory east to Fairview, Mac purchased the building from his former employer, and it is now the headquarters of PECO manufacturing today.

In 1962, employees and business associates were stunned when Mac McGilva unexpectedly died in 1962 at the age of 49.

PECO Manufacturing continues to be a leader in manufacturing components used in commercial and military aircraft, employing over 270 workers. Production items have included sophisticated aerospace systems, and PECO has always been a supplier of cabin interior components for airplanes, relying on a longtime relationship with the Boeing Corporation – testament to the tradition begun 75 years ago by Mac McGilva.

During a recent tour of the remaining PECO facility on S.E 17th by this reporter, with Vice President of manufacturing James “Jim” Stocks, we beheld the unique interior of the PECO administrative offices, once occupied by the Iron Fireman Company. Hand crafted and carved polished wood paneling along the walls contained hidden closets and compartments, and all three rooms are filled with stained glass windows not often found in offices built for business executives.

Once a mechanical engineer with ESCO Corporation, Stocks joined the partnership of PECO in 1967, and is part of a team that includes Stephen Scheidler, Steven Michaelis, Merrick Smith, Dave Freund, and Michael Loescher, who together oversee the daily operations of the company.

Brooklyn’s PECO Manufacturing Company on S.E. 17th Avenue at Schiller Street is today one the world leaders in the designing and marketing of aircraft parts, to cite just one product line – thanks to the dynamic ideas of its late co-founder, Mac McGilva.