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Napa Pipe plant loads its final rail car

Napa Pipe

The entrance to the Napa Pipe property.

What happened on the banks of the Napa River in 1941 would be impossible today.

With war looming, Basalt Rock Co., a sand and gravel operation, decided to go for broke and become a defense contractor. On an open field south of town, Basalt built a shipyard.

No voluminous environmental studies. No endless public hearings. Basalt just up and did it.

Photos from late 1941 capture this historic moment. They show a shipyard that looks like a Gold Rush boom town. The first buildings are going up. Cars are parked willy-nilly on dirt.

Basalt wasn't ready for war, but that didn't stop the company's hard-charging founder, Al Streblow. To fill the first Navy order, Basalt began building ocean-going barges on muddy land.

"The war was coming on. Mr. Streblow saw this opportunity. The Navy needed barges out in the Pacific," said Harold Halterman, a retired plant manager and unofficial plant historian.

A year later, the Basalt shipyard was going gangbusters. Three thousand workers from Texas, Oklahoma and a dozen other hardscrabble places were working around the clock on Navy ships as long as football fields.

"Surmounting obstacles that at times appeared impossible, Basalt Rock Co. has answered this great Nation's call for implements of war," proclaimed the inaugural issue of the shipyard newspaper, the Basalt Beacon.

Workers called it "the biggest little shipyard." By the time the war ended, Basalt would produce 150 oil tankers, mine layers and salvage tugs.

From this jump-start beginning, Basalt's shipyard evolved into a steel powerhouse, a gritty industrial presence in a valley better known for prunes and wine.

"Streblow was the smartest man I've ever known," said Jim Maggetti, who joined Basalt in 1948 and later became a Kaiser Steel vice president. "He had confidence in himself. He was ambitious. An industrialist is what he was, actually."

The son of German immigrants, Streblow created an industrial empire with little more than an eighth-grade education. New technology fascinated him, his daughter, Lorrain Kongsgaard recalled. "He liked things that were strong."

Streblow was a Napa booster. "People used to say, why did you build this shipyard in a hayfield? He'd say, 'Because it's home,'" she said.

Napa, then a sleepy town of fewer than 8,000 residents, was forever changed by the shipyard and the peacetime production that followed the war. The plant's good-paying jobs added diversity to a local economy anchored by government employment.

The first few years after World War II were rocky ones. Seeking a peacetime mission for its steel operation, Basalt tried hot water tanks and walk-in refrigerators. Then came a fateful order from the city of Napa for 30 miles of pipe to carry water from the new Lake Hennessey reservoir.

Large-diameter pipe would ensure the plant's future, even as the ownership changed to Kaiser Steel, then Napa Pipe. The country was growing. The need for high-pressure gas lines was huge. Over the next half century, the plant would make enough pipe to ring the globe.

Pipemaking was only half of the operation. When Kaiser added the Napa plant to its West Coast empire in 1955, the fabrication mill began making some of the biggest steel structures in the world.

Oil drilling platforms as tall as skyscrapers. Miles of steel tunnels for BART. Missile silos. Submarine-size pressure vessels for oil refineries.

Skilled workers bent, cut and welded steel plate into structures weighing millions of pounds with the matter-of-factness of children working with clay.

"It was the finest fabrication shop on the West Coast," Halterman said. If it involved steel plate, there was practically nothing this plant couldn't make.

Around the mid-1970s, employment at the pipe mill and fabrication shop hit a peacetime peak of 1,700. Kaiser Steel was Napa County's biggest industrial employer, and the biggest private employer from here to the Oregon border.

Things began falling apart in the 1980s. The domestic steel business was hit hard by foreign imports. Kaiser shut down its steel mill in Fontana, east of Los Angeles. In 1987, new owners filed for bankruptcy and the Napa plant closed.

Oregon Steel Mills, a non-union operator, acquired the site later that year and resumed pipe production. The fabrication shop was leased to a smaller operator.

The next 15 years were some of the busiest in the history of the pipe mill, which when going full bore could produce up to six miles of pipe a day.

But the industry trend of fabricating steel where labor is cheaper and raw materials nearer, including Asia and Canada, took its toll.

Recently, business soured. In June, Oregon Steel announced that it was indefinitely closing the mill. Saying the Napa plant lacked the latest technology and was too far from steel supplies, company officials planned a replacement mill in Portand.

Viewed from the Butler Bridge and the Grape Crusher statue, Napa Pipe today looks like an industrial ghost, a depressed splotch of gray sandwiched between wetlands to the west and the manicured grounds of Napa Valley Corporate Park to the east.

The clanking of pipe moving down the production line is no more. Vast fields used for pipe storage sit empty. Quiet reigns.

The era of big steel on the Napa River isn't totally dead. At the north end of Napa Pipe, where those first Navy barges were assembled 63 years ago, Trans Bay Steel leases space for steel fabrication.

Trans Bay is a shadow of the steel operation that once was, but sparks still fly and welding machines sizzle as workers make components for the new Bay Bridge.

This steel complex is part of an industrial heritage that is fading in America, said Bill Kavicky, a Trans Bay co-owner, who resents those who talk of redeveloping his site into something more of the times, like an office park or marina.

"As long as it's still viable, as long as it's still producing sales tax for Napa County, why would you want it to go away?" Kavicky said. America needs this kind of industrial capability, he argues, even if to outsiders it looks dark and dirty.

To Kavicky, heavy steel is a thing of beauty. When he walks through his plant, he doesn't mind the black patina of iron oxide or the din of production. "I'm walking through a cathedral," he said.

At the silent pipe mill, Jeff Salsman, the plant engineer, is equally proud. He describes his current job as keeping the equipment in a ready state. If the word came, "we could flip a switch and have it going."

Like Kavicky, Salsman views the history of big steel in Napa as a glorious one. He points to a large O-press, invented and manufactured right here in Napa. When it applies 24,000 pounds of pressure, inch-thick steel bends like paper.

An amazing machine, he said. "This piece will move the earth when she's fired up."

You can reach City Editor Kevin Courtney at kcourtney@napanews.com or at 707-256-2217. 

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