In the lead-up to World War II, the federal government used the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and the Defense Plant Corp., chartered in 1940, to boost war materiel production by financing mills and factories across the country.
The Northwest was chosen for aluminum production facilities. The Grand Coulee Dam, under construction since 1935, would open in 1942 and provide the power required to make sheet aluminum to build airplanes.
The first aluminum plant in Spokane would be the Trentwood rolling mill, built between the Spokane River and Trent Avenue, between Evergreen and Sullivan Roads. This was quickly followed by the Mead plant, where a line of electric melting pots would pour molten aluminum in large ingots that the Trentwood plant would roll into sheet metal. A few months later, a magnesium plant was added near Hillyard.
Those materials went to Boeing and other manufacturers who built the planes that would win the war.
The plants were operated by the Aluminum Company of America, known as Alcoa. When the war ended in 1945, the federal government put the plants up for sale.
The only bids came from industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who coincidentally had started his career in Spokane as a salesman and contractor. After leaving Spokane, Kaiser was involved in construction and manufacturing, paving highways, building Hoover Dam and hundreds of ships for the war effort. And Kaiser had a magnesium smelter in Permanente, California.
For the next 50 years, Kaiser Aluminum would be Spokane’s largest industrial employer, employing more than 2,000 workers at Trentwood and Mead. Generations of Spokane families were raised on Kaiser paychecks.
Kaiser died at 85 in 1967.
In September 1998, some 2,000 Kaiser workers went on strike. Kaiser locked the employees out after four months. After two years on the picket line, the union and Kaiser agreed to arbitration and workers returned to work in October 2000. Hundreds of workers had found other jobs or retired, shrinking the workforce.
The Kaiser Mead plant was shut down in December 2000. The struggling company declared bankruptcy in 2002, then emerged from it in 2006. Union members now sit on the company’s board of directors.
Today, the massive Trentwood complex, with more than 900 workers, still produces aluminum products for aerospace and other industries.
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