Sunday, September 9, 2012

Industrial Archaeology commando style 1

The San Francisco Bay area was once a formidable manufacturing center. Urban sprawl and property value stupidity has all but driven most of the heavy industry out of the area. In my fifty odd years around here I have witnessed the huge shift in industry from giant industrial sites to more scattered garage size operations. Nobody wants a million square feet of heavy industrial floorspace any more. The focus has shifted to twelve hundred to twelve thousand square feet of "Light Manufacturing R/D" Which is secret code for white lab coated cubicle hell with five managers for every technician on the floor. The noisy smelly machine shop is always tucked away in some closet that was never intended to be a shop and is definitely off the investor tour. Since when has is become embarrassing to make things?

One of my hobbies is the study of large manufacturing and exploring the remnants of these once mighty industries. The San Francisco Bay area has been a major manufacturing center from the time of the gold rush and is loaded with potential dig sites. I have an old book on machine design with a fellows name in it that was an engineer and draftsman at the Globe Iron Works which was located on Fremont back in the day. The date of his beautiful cursive hand written entry in the book is April 1885. This machine shop specialized in the manufacture of mining and logging equipment as well as a iron foundry and supplied the machinery and expertise that built the city. I have seen some of their equipment at abandoned mining sites in the Nevada desert.

All this industry was located on what is now a bunch of non nondescript mirrored glass towers most likely full of cubicles and computers screens. The property became much too valuable to be a mere iron foundry. Possibly the children of the company founders did not want to mess around with all the dirty stuff their fathers and grandfathers built, perhaps instead cashing in on the most profitable use of the property.

I have had the good luck to have seen some of these utterly impressive places as they became unwanted and embarrassing to the new world business model.

One of the places that I spent some time at was the old Hunters point naval shipyard. When I was there the military was in its last throes and rented the bulk of the shipyard to private enterprise. The only thing of importance to them was the huge drydock next to the building I managed a machine shop in. It was pretty interesting to see the military ships come into the dock and have repairs made. Each day you could watch the progress as the ship was swarmed over by an army of contractors and navy people performing various tasks.
In this picture looking roughly east from the roof of the steel shop B411 you can see the large drydock in the middle of the picture. This particular drydock is big enough to put the largest aircraft carriers in. One time I spoke to one of the guys working on something related to the dock itself and asked the question how long does it take to pump the dock out once the doors are closed. Take a guess. Guess short. Did you guess a few days? a few hours? It takes something like forty five minutes! I was speechless. It got me thinking about how much water had to be pumped out. Do a little exercise. The Enterprise is 1100 feet long and has a beam of 130 feet at the waterline and draws 40 feet. The width of the drydock at the top is about the same width as the flight deck and the length is fully contained in the perimeter of the dock. You start to get the idea that it takes some massive pumps to empty this thing in under an hour.
This is a shot from the heyday in the seventies from a similar vantage point showing the scale of the dry dock and surrounding operations. The point of all this is its just the infrastructure to support one thing at the shipyard. There were three huge dry docks like this there. All this is was thrown out with the stroke of some bean counter or politicians pen. You cant just replace this stuff off Amazon dot com any time you please. Snooping around these old sites gives one an appreciation for just how big and important some of these places were.
In this picture is a special purpose room above the steel shop. This is the pattern loft where full size templates of the hull plates and parts of the ships were lofted. Lofting is the process where patterns for plates shaped in three dimensions are developed. It is part of the process carried out down stairs in the heavy steel shop were the hull plates are cut formed and welded into a ship. Its probably two acres in size with hardwood floors and almost clear span over the entire area.
All of this abandoned and soon forgotten. The dust collection pipes for the woodworking machinery in the pattern loft can be seen in the upper picture. 
Some of the spaces look like somebody just stepped out for lunch. You get the feeling that one day somebody just came in and said to pack your stuff and get out.
I don't think they left anything important in there. So much so they had to put a label on it for the would-be safe crackers that lurk around most military sites.
 The sheer size of these buildings is hard to get a sense of  in just a few photos. At this scale its acreage not square feet. I got to see this building when it had equipment in it. Now if its still standing its just a cold dead space waiting for the wrecking ball.
Around 1989 when I worked in a nearby building I used to sneak around and try to get pictures of some of the equipment inside. The doors were wide open and you could wander in if you had the guts to go for it. But if one of the roaming navy patrols saw you it made for some awkward explaining . Looking down the bay in the picture above there was a 1500 ton press brake in the middle of a sea of floor platens. The lower die of the brake set flush with the floor so the heavy ship plates could be formed and dogged into the shapes that the pattern loft sent down.
Its a crappy picture because its a scan from my spy film camera I used to carry around back in those days. The curved wood on the right is cribbing to support sections of hull as they are built up.
So I propped up the camera and set the timer and quietly ran back to get in the picture. I'm probably one of the only people anywhere that have their picture next to this machine. My guess is it got scrapped and is now driving around in the form of new Toyota's. You can see the lower die right at floor level. It had a cool adjustment slot arrangement to change the die opening for different thicknesses.
In the long bay adjacent to the press brake were a huge set of pyramid plate rolls. The upper roll was over two feet in diameter. The gouges in the rolls were finger deep. I kick myself for not shooting a whole roll of film when I had the chance. Its hard to scurry across a littered floor while trying to be quiet at the same time. This set of rolls had a massive mechanism used to open the rolls to remove cylinders.

Next up in this industrial archaeology series is the instrumentation and calibration building which was penetrated in the digital era. No more crappy scans.

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