Metaline Falls and the Lehigh Portland Cement Plant, 1947-1969: A Reminiscence by Alfred Schaeffer

  • By Alfred Schaeffer
  • Posted 10/04/2008
  • Essay 8787

This reminiscence about Metaline Falls and the Lehigh Portland Cement Plant was written by Alfred Schaeffer (1914-2009), who served as plant manager from 1947 to 1969. This piece was originally printed in 1999  in The Big Smoke, the publication of the Pend Oreille County Historical Society, located in Newport. It is reprinted here with kind permission.

Remembering Metaline Falls 

After hearing wild stories of the early days in Metaline Falls from a number of people and knowing of its remote location, when I was asked in 1947, at the age of 32, to transfer from the Alsen Lehigh Cement Plant in Catskill, New York, to the Metaline Falls plant, I felt I was being asked to go to the end of the world. Some of the stories came from Irvin Kohler, construction manager during the building of the Metaline Falls plant and first plant manager. He had retired in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and had all kinds of souvenirs and paraphernalia from his days in Metaline Falls stored in the attic. He was only too pleased and happy to show them and reminisce of those days. Another person was Harry Hausman, who was the first chief clerk of the Metaline Falls plant, and over the years was elevated to vice president of operations. He had many photos of the early days of Metaline Falls and the cement plant. He eventually passed them on to me and they are now in the possession of the Pend Oreille County Historical Society at Newport.

At the time I was asked to transfer, I was plant chemist at Alsen and involved in all phases of operations and scheduling. Overall, I had a great deal of experience, but taking over as plant manager at Metaline Falls came as a complete surprise. It had not occurred to me that I was even being considered for such a position. In spite of the fact that it was a promotion, I put up quite a resistance. I knew that the plant manager at Alsen was reaching retirement age in three years and my contention was, since I was being considered for such a position, I would prefer staying at Alsen and taking my chances for that job. The final outcome was that I would transfer to Metaline Falls for three years and would still be considered for the plant manager's position at Alsen.

In March 1947, on my first commercial air flight, I flew out of Allentown, Pennsylvania. I will never forget the most severe headache I ever experienced as the plane descended for a landing in Chicago. It was before planes were pressurized and the descent was rapid. The next morning, I met with the Western Regional Marketing Manager and, though I do not remember much of the conversation, I do recall his saying, "I was told a young man was taking over as plant manager, but I was not expecting anyone this young." I later learned I was the youngest manager of the 14 plants operating at that time.

From Chicago, instead of flying, I took the then-famous Great Northern Empire Builder to Spokane to see more of the country. Up until that time, I had not been west of New York or Pennsylvania. I will always remember how awe-stricken I was as we passed Glacier National Park. At Spokane I was met by Roy Young, vice president of operations (who had arrived earlier from Allentown on other business), and Art Dehuff, retiring plant manager of the Metaline Falls plant.

In order for Mr. Dehuff to show Mr. Young some property he thought Lehigh might be interested in acquiring, we went to Metaline Falls by way of Colville. By the time we had dinner, it was dark. The trip to Metaline Falls on that dark, rainy night over what was then a gravel road, and Mr. Dehuff not sparing the gas pedal, is still most vivid in my mind. This was my introduction to Metaline Falls. My next surprise came the following morning: a view of six large cougars suspended in the city park courtesy of Bud Moon and his cougar-hunting dogs.

At the time, there was a severe housing shortage in the Metaline area. Mr. Dehuff was living in an apartment over the Lehigh office and having his meals at the Washington Hotel, which was owned and operated by Harry Peters, who was originally from Egypt, Pennsylvania. I came out alone in March of 1947. My wife, Mae, and our 20-month-old daughter, Barbara, followed in May. For months, we lived over the office, and, since there were no kitchen facilities, we had our meals at the Washington Hotel. At the time four mines were operating and many of the miners lived and ate at the hotel. Our daughter was quite fascinated by it all and she was also quite an attraction to the miners. Finally, a small one-bedroom house became available where we lived for about a year unitl a new plant manager's house was built.

Since Mr. Dehuff had passed retirement age, I was immediately placed in charge of operations with little grooming. I must say the relocation and new job were quite a challenge. At the time, with the great demand for cement, we were pressed to maximize production. It was a busy year becoming acclimated and making the numerous changes I felt necessary. In the same year, Lehigh acquired a contract to furnish half the cement for the construction of the Hungry Horse Dam. This meant the capacity of the plant had to be doubled and be completed within a year. Blueprints started to arrive from the home office, but it was soon discovered that, in too many instances, there was no relationship between the blueprints and the way the plant actually existed. Apparently the blueprints were not strictly adhered to during the initial construction.

In order to complete the expansion on time to meet Lehigh's commitment, construction had to be continued through the winter months. That winter was one of the most severe and coldest in Metaline Falls history, with temperatures of 10 and 20 degrees below zero for weeks. During that time, temporary buildings had to be erected and heated where any concrete pouring for foundations was required. Larger grinding mills had to be installed to replace the older Griffin mills, a 350-foot-long kiln, 10 feet in diameter had to be added to the two smaller kilns, and additional crushing equipment installed. The installation schedule was met, but then other problems arose which had to be resolved.

At the time of expansion, the only available electrical power in the area was that generated by Lehigh's and the Pend Oreille Mines' power plants and for the town's use. Additional power had to be brought in for the increased demand. Contracts were negotiated with Percy Campbell, manager of the Public Utility District (PUD), and Harold Sewell of Sewell Engineering Co., a contract engineer for the PUD. From 1949 until the flume (which carried the water to the power plant) failed in 1956, the older part of the plant was operated by power from the Lehigh power plant and the newer part by PUD power. Coordinating these two systems created some difficult operating problems.

Two years had passed since my arrival. The problems then consisted of meeting the current production schedule, working the bugs out of the new equipment, and coordinating the operation of the new with the old. Another year passed quickly but unfortunately with all the demands on my time, my family and I were not afforded much time to experience the Pacific Northwest. Consequently, when the company, true to its promise, offered me the opportunity to return East, I agreed to stay another year. After turning down several other opportunities to return East, it was not until 22 and a half years later that we decided to do so. By that time, our four children, Barbara, Suzanne, Bette, and Bill, had reached or were reaching college age, and my wife, who had been quite involved with all of their activities, was becoming concerned about how she would occupy her time with them gone. Also, the opportunity to become the Northern Regional Plant Manager of six plants seemed too good an offer to turn down. With a great deal of mixed emotions, we left Metaline Falls in August 1969 and moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania. One of the last remarks I remember my wife making before leaving was, "Have we made the right decision?"

I do not remember, or have any record of, the number of employees at the Metaline Falls plant when I arrived in 1947, but records show that 180 people were employed after the expansion of the plant. By 1969, the number of employees had been reduced to approximately 50 with no reduction in cement production. Some of the reduction was brought about by the discontinuation of the power plant operation and flume maintenance, but mainly it was through automation, mechanization, and the installation of newer and more efficient equipment. It had been recognized that, on a whole, the plant equipment was old, and the plant isolated from the major markets and small as compared to some of the other competing cement company plants. To remain competitive, the plant had to be run as efficiently as possible. Fortunately, there was a good working relationship and cooperation between the union and management. Changes that were necessary for the reduction in manpower probably wouldn't have been as easily accomplished at other plants.

The process of producing cement has remained the same over the years, but the manufacturing of it has changed considerably with larger and more efficient equipment. To produce cement, large amounts of suitable raw materials have to be brought together, crushed, ground to a fine powder, blended to meet the required chemical composition, then burned in rotary kilns at a high temperature (approximately 2,700 degrees F.) producing a marble-sized material called clinker. The clinker is then cooled and pulverized into a substance finer than face powder. This material, when mixed with water, produces a paste that holds all other material together.  As it ages, it hardens into what is known as concrete. The main elements required in the raw materials to make cement are calcium carbonate, silica, alumina, and iron oxides. The above is a brief description of how cement is produced and the materials needed, but the manufacturing process is a complex one.

Coming to Metaline Falls from New York State was quite a transition, especially for my wife. As time went by, however, she was able to meet people and become involved with numerous organizations and our children's activities. She soon recognized that there were many opportunities and that Metaline Falls was a good place to raise a family. She became quite involved with the Congregational Church activities and Girl Scouts, among others. With four mines in operation, and with the many young mining engineers, geologists, metallurgists and their families, it was an interesting community and increased more with the construction of the Box Canyon and Boundary Dams.

During the expansions of Lehigh and the Pend Oreille mines in 1948, there was a severe housing and manpower shortage. It was difficult to keep a work force. Ten to 15 men would be hired one week and, by the following week, a like number would be gone. In order to develop a more stable work force, a decision was made to construct more housing units in addition to the 32 existing Lehigh houses. A contract to build 12 duplexes was given to Bill Condiff, son-in-law of Percy Campbell. These were built quickly, easing the manpower situation and turnover.

A number of men who started their careers with Lehigh at Metaline Falls later became plant managers. Walt Viebrock, a Washington State University graduate, was transferred East as a plant engineer and later named plant manager at Union Bridge, Maryland. Les Copple, chemical engineer, was transferred to Miami, Florida, as plant engineer and then promoted to plant manager. Bob Dixon, a WSU chemical engineering graduate, succeeded me as plant manager when we left Metaline Falls. Another man of great talent and help in bringing about the many changes necessary for plant efficiency and reduction of manpower at Metaline Falls was Austin Clayton, a mining engineer, draftsman, and geologist. He was with Lehigh from 1950 until he retired in 1973.

One of the first people I was introduced to upon my arrival was Jim Shaw, chief clerk for Lehigh. Jim was quite an outspoken individual with a ready command of some colorful language, and a loyal Lehigh employee. There was never a question where he stood on matters, and our relations over the years could not have been better. Jim was employed by Lehigh on April 1, 1917 and retired on June 1, 1962, having served at Metaline Falls for 46 years from 1911 to October 1957, when he retired.

My time in Metaline Falls included some lighter moments. One of the selling points presented to me back East was the great fishing I could expect at Metaline Falls. With great enthusiasm, I accepted Lehigh's machinist Bill Ball's invitation to fish with him on opening day at Crescent Lake. At daybreak we found a place on the shore and there we sat until noon without a single bite. My visions of great fishing in the West were quickly compromised.

Another experience was an invitation to go duck hunting with Spud Lambley and Loren Billings of the Pend Oreille Mines, druggist Erwin Jones, and his son. Again at daybreak, we were surrounding a small pond, but very few ducks were arriving. After a day of hunting we returned with, as I recall, a half-dozen ducks among us. When I was dropped off at my home, everyone offered me his ducks. "How kind of them," I thought. Not until I was half way through trying to clean the darn things did it occur to me what I had fallen for. I had not learned the technique of cleaning ducks by dipping them in hot melted wax. I am sure they all had a good laugh after they left me.

An experience, while I was serving as a member of the Pend Oreille Planning Commission, is still fresh in my mind. Howard Woods called me one day and said that Dick Mackey would not be able to attend the meeting that evening at Newport, and would I be interested in flying down with him. After getting into his plane at the Ione Airport, he taxied out to the middle of the field, got out and dropped a blinker light. I asked him if he was concerned that it might stop blinking while we were gone.  His reply was "No," but he expressed some concern that a kid might move it. The flight down that beautiful fall evening was great, as was the flight back, with a full moon reflecting off the Pend Oreille River. Nervously, as we approached Ione, I kept looking for the blinking light. Finally I spotted it. Just at the last moment before landing, Howard flashed on the bright headlights and landed safely.

When I learned in 1960 that William and Beatrice Roberg's 100-acre farm was for sale on the flat above Metaline Falls, I immediately investigated. Having been born and raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, the property interested me. I learned that the Lehigh quarry road crossed over part of it and a good portion of it was hillside. Believing the hillside might contain suitable materials for cement manufacturing, I brought the matter to the attention of Lehigh. The final outcome was that Lehigh purchased what was of interest to them -- approximately half of it. I purchased the rest, which included the buildings, farm equipment, and approximately 50 acres of pasture, haying fields, and wooded areas. I thought that if I stayed at Metaline Falls until retirement, it might be a good place to retire. However, in the meantime, it would provide a place to have horses, for which I was being pressured by several of my children.

My first tenant was Ralph Caves, manager of Jim's Transfer, which was contracted to haul and deliver all of Lehigh's cement. After he died of a heart attack, Chris Greene, who is now  production manager at the Lehigh Mason City, Iowa, plant asked if I would be interested in working out a cooperative deal with him in raising cattle. We did this for many years until he left Metaline Falls. In 1984, Willie Kurlo asked to buy several acres. In order to sell lots of less than 10 acres, I had to have it surveyed and platted. This was done by Jim Sewell Engineering Co. The farm was subdivided into seven units. In 1987, the larger parcel of 15 acres, which included all the buildings and farm equipment, was sold to Tom and Pamela Whalen. The last portion was sold in 1992 to William and Mary Sackman.

During my years in Metaline Falls, I was involved in a number of volunteer activities. I was president of the Hospital Association during the initial planning, fund raising, and construction of the hospital. I served until its completion and a Hospital District with elected commissioners was created. I served on the school board, as I recall, about 12 years. This included the time period of the consolidation of the Ione and Metaline Falls School Districts and the building of the new Selkirk High School midway between Ione and Metaline Falls. I was also one of the initial members of the newly created Pend Oreille County School Board and served as chairman until we left Metaline Falls. Both my wife and I were members of the Metaline Falls Congregational Church and over the years served in several capacities.

In 1970, after I had been at the home office for about a year, recession forced the company to close four plants, eliminate many departments (including research and geology), and reassign or terminate over 800 people. I was placed in charge of the Mason City Plant as operations manager and served in that capacity until I retired in 1976. In 1977, we moved back to Washington and since then have lived in Spokane.

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