Foundries forged Edmonton
Originally published October 3, 2014
Edmonton was forged in the flames of foundries which manufactured the metal components that became the backbones of its streets, buildings and underground infrastructure. Through the twentieth-century, the burgeoning need was serviced by an assortment of “clamour-filled” plants, as a 1926 newspaper article put it.
“The clang of electric-driven hammers fills the blackened building,” a reporter wrote in a March 1, 1926, Edmonton Bulletin story on the Edmonton Iron Works at 96th Street and 104th Avenue. The article painted a vivid portrait of the noise and heat as red forge fires gleamed and the iron was twisted into the required shapes and sizes. “A din of clanging, rattling, and hammering deafens the ears.”
It was the sound of progress, and at the beginning, it didn’t come easily. The basic raw materials to forge metal weren’t readily available, and coal mined locally was too soft to fire foundry furnaces. So, enterprising entrepreneurs began transporting harder coal from British Columbia and importing pig iron from Scotland.
The earliest foundry in the Edmonton area and perhaps in all of Western Canada started in 1894 with the arrival of John Alexander Jackson and William James Jackson, brothers from Ontario. They brought their skills in forging and machining metal to what was then a frontier agricultural community, and it’s no wonder their abilities were in high demand.
The Jackson brothers operated from a little wood-framed building at what is now 8334 103rd Street. They manufactured and repaired parts for all manner of machinery of the day, including farm tractors, mill equipment, iron grates, wheels and rims.
By the turn of the century, several other foundries were operating across the river including the Great West Foundry, the Brewster Foundry (1900), and Nichols Brothers’ Machine Shop at 10103 95th Street (1901). It was the height of agricultural settlement, and as the region’s first commercial boom accelerated, the foundries began churning out great quantities of hardware and building supplies.
A group of Edmonton businessmen took over Brewster’s venture in September 1903 and organized the Edmonton Iron Works. Their factory produced a variety of material, including clips for Edmonton’s street railway and parts for the Canadian Northern and Canadian Pacific railways. It also manufactured hardware for some of the landmark structures of the time like the King Edward Hotel, the Royal George Hotel, the Merchants Bank, the Griffin packing plant, Ashdown Block and the Canadian National Railway Station.
Business was good, and the company opened a larger facility in 1909. The building, at 10415 96th Street, boasted a 10-ton blast furnace, one of the largest in Western Canada.
An article in the Edmonton Daily Bulletin reported on the new plant. “With the din of hammering iron, the dull rumble of machinery in motion and flying sparks from the flaming forge; with sturdy men in the scantiest attire engaged in casting, welding and shaping all kinds of iron goods, the work in the Edmonton Iron Company's foundry is being carried forward.”
Demand was so strong that the operation used 20 railway carloads of pig iron in 1908. To fire the blast furnace, coke was imported from British Columbia at $11 per ton.
A report by Tim O’Grady, graduate heritage planner with the City of Edmonton at the time, says that “coke and pig iron were shipped by rail from Vancouver and unloaded at the Iron Works’ private rail yard. Huge furnaces were then used to melt the ore down and cast various fittings and parts for use in construction and machines. It was loud, smelly, dirty, backbreaking work, but the fruits of this labour helped propel Edmonton’s early growth, literally building the city we know today.”
The 1909 structure has survived and is part of the Boyle Renaissance Project. It provides a priceless connection to early industrial Edmonton, yet for years it was forgotten and nearly demolished before being added to the city’s Register of Historic Resources in August 2010.
One of the most dominant of the city’s twentieth-century metal forgers and machinists was the Norwood Foundry. Started in 1922, it has been leaving its mark on Edmonton for more than 90 years. The company name is stamped onto tens of thousands of iron manhole covers and storm sewer grates all over the city.
The venture was founded by Squire Hearn, along with colleagues from the recently closed Western Foundry & Machine. He called it Norwood after its location at 9111 111th Avenue. It manufactured agricultural products such as cast iron cookers, and from the 1920s through the 1930s, the plant churned out stove and furnace parts, and agricultural and municipal castings.
A fire on March 21, 1927, gutted the building and destroyed the roof. It was rebuilt by Ernest Lionel Buker, who purchased the business from Hearn that year. The L-shaped plaster-clad building had just a few touches of ornamentation, like a small cupola that allowed smoke to escape through the roof.
Buker grew the business with acquisitions including the Garvie Bolton Foundry in 1946, the Coutts Machinery Company soon after, and then the Edmonton Foundry in 1950. Business was booming during the Second World War and during the post-war boom, and the foundry provided employment for hundreds of workers.
The plants produced cast iron castings along with brass and aluminum. Buker died in 1968 and his son Robert took over. He ran the company until 2001. Norwood Foundry built a new plant at Nisku in 1978, and the original location was demolished on December 16, 1992.
There were several other key foundry operations in Edmonton between the 1920s and 1950s. They include Acme Machinery & Foundry at 10244 108th Street, Edmonton Foundry at 10054 79th Avenue, Great North Foundry at 9520 125th Avenue, Standard Iron & Engineering Works at 120th Street and 107th Avenue, and Precision Machine and Foundry at 9908 107th Avenue.
© 2020 Lawrence Herzog. All rights reserved. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.