The majesty of America’s National Parks is unmatched and communing with nature is a great way to celebrate our country’s history, but sometimes you just want to escape to a factory and recall America’s heritage.
The W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Rices Landing, PA, has recently been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior, meaning this sprawling factory on the banks of the mighty Monongahela River is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That’s not news to George Blystone, caretaker of the building. When I called him to congratulate him on the designation, he immediately suggested that the Engine Builder staff (as well any readers) stop over for a walk down Memory Lane.
“The original machine shop was built in 1900 – the equipment dates from 1870-1920 and much of it is still operational,” brags Blystone. “They orignally worked on paddlewheel riverboats that traveled between Fairmont, WV and Pittsburgh. Rices Landing sits about halfway between, so it was a great location to service those boats.”
Blystone explains that W.A. Young created patterns for parts but contracted with a Pittsburgh iron foundry to produce the castings which would then be shipped back to his machine shop. In about 1908, he realized that he could make the castings too, and the shop expanded to include the foundry.
I guess the modern variation to this can be found in this issue’s article by Technical Editor Larry Carley. Larry interviews engine builder John DeBates who uses his CNC machines to create high performance Nissan engine blocks. Not exactly your father’s paddlewheeler, but…
Young was a master carpenter and crafted many of the patterns used by the foundry from a special type of wood that could withstand changes in humidity without warping. After some study of these sketches, Young would make the pattern and the finished product would be ready for pickup the next day.
“They made anything that had to do with a paddlewheel steam engine, including nuts and bolts,” Blystone says. The shop also did work for local mines and other local businesses and residents. They were kind of your local one-stop-shop.”
Young and his sons were early supporters of the fledgling automotive industry as well, Blystone says. “Before there were gas stations, the shop would sell 5-gallon cans of gas. They put in a grease pit to change oil and, if a customer had a transmission problem they could even make him a gear.”
During World War II, the workforce at the shop swelled to over 30 as wartime production of “something” kept men and women employed. “There was some kind of a machine that built something during the war, but it was pulled out and we don’t really have a record of what it was,” Blystone says.
Apparently, any apprentice working in the shop was required to build his own toolbox and tools in order to pass his apprenticeship. Can you imagine putting that requirement into your pre-hire interview today? It’s tough enough finding qualified employees!
Blystone says that the machine shop closed its doors in the late ‘60s and – as was the unfortunate fate of many of our country’s industrial factories – became the victim of vandalism. Thanks to a committed volunteer effort the facility has been reopened for tours since the mid-’80s.
If you’re interested in visiting the facility, it’s at 116 Water St., Rices Landing, PA 15357. It’s open on summer Sundays from noon-4 pm. Other times of the year, George says he might be there. Engine Builder might be as well. Sounds like a great place for a hike.