According to a biography of former congressman Frank Boykin, a visit to New York in 1924 led to the eventual construction of an Alcoa (Aluminum Corporation of America) plant in Mobile more than a decade later. Boykin was an early riser and noticed another hotel guest waiting for the restaurant to open for breakfast. Thinking the older gentleman reminded him of his father, he invited him to share a table.
Boykin recounted that he had missed hearing his companion’s name but did register that he was visiting from Pittsburgh. As his table companion dined, Boykin raved endlessly about the wonders of his corner of southwest Alabama and all that it had to offer.
As they parted, Boykin asked his new friend to repeat his name. It was Andrew Mellon, who at the time was serving as secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He also happened to be a major investor in the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, which had been renamed Aluminum Company of America in 1907. Mellon said he had enjoyed the meal, adding, “No one has ever talked to me like this before.”
Mellon reportedly kept Mobile in his thoughts and mentioned it to Alcoa officials who were actually quite familiar with the port that handled incoming shipments of bauxite from South America to a refinery in the North. By the mid-30s, with aluminum in growing demand, Mobile was selected for the company’s second refinery.
A $4 Million Plant
Construction began in a swampy, snake- and mosquito-infested tract of land north of the Alabama State Docks in August 1937. Workers regularly had to be pulled out of the mud, usually without their boots, which were never found. Pilings disappeared into a seemingly bottomless pit of mud. Miraculously, the Alcoa plant took shape and was up and running by June 1938.
Mobile’s sprawling new Alcoa operation made headlines around the nation, and other companies noticed. As the decade came to a close, Alcoa was joined by Scott Paper, the National Gypsum Company and the Ideal Cement Company. Mobile’s economy was booming. The Mobile plant was soon producing 34 percent of the industry’s output of alumina, which was then converted to aluminum.
Alcoa expanded its plant during World War II, and production of alumina jumped from 1,800 to 2,400 tons a day. Operations went on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the aluminum was used to build airplanes to bomb Japan, the company’s previous leading customer.
From Aluminum to Cargo Ships
By the early 1950s, Alcoa Steamship Company was operating a fleet of 40 ships that visited 59 ports. General freight had been added to the mix, and there were also three passenger-cargo ships, which sailed in and out of the Port of Mobile.
A $12 million expansion was completed in 1952, and employees could take advantage of a scholarship and tuition aid program by 1956. Mobile’s Alcoa plant paid some of the highest wages in the Mobile market and offered numerous fringe benefits described as being among the best in the world. At the decade’s end, Alcoa had 800 employees and a multimillion-dollar impact for Mobile and Mobile County.
Boom and Bust
Alcoa continued to prosper and announced the plant’s fourth expansion program in the early 1970s, but problems were on the horizon. The demand for alumina began to wane as new competitors flooded the market. By 1982, management of Alcoa sought to convert the Mobile operation to an alumina chemical plant, which would have necessitated a drop in personnel by over 50 percent. If the market for alumina picked back up, many of those employees were assured they would be rehired.
In March 1982, members of United Steelworkers voted against the changes sought by management. Alcoa’s response was quick: “We have no alternative but to cease operations.” This left 550 union members and 220 members of management unemployed. As one unhappy union member was later quoted, “There’s a time to fight and this wasn’t it.”
The impact on Mobile’s economy was quick. In addition to taxes paid and one of the region’s largest payrolls, the plant had once used enough natural gas in a month to heat 12,000 homes in a year and enough electricity in a minute to supply the needs of 22,000 households.
The company closed the plant in barely two weeks’ time and promptly shipped materials and equipment to other locations. All hopes of reopening the operation ended in 1985 when Alcoa declared the closing to be permanent. The corporation declared a $14.7 million loss for the final quarter.
Within a matter of months, wreckers arrived. An estimated 40,000 tons of steel were salvaged and sent off on barges to scrap dealers. Some 120 tanks that once held alumina were removed. Nothing recognizable survives. Although Alcoa is now a $40 billion firm, it has no presence in Mobile, where, ironically, Austal is building some of the world’s greatest aluminum vessels.