Schenectady — Big engines and big wheels always were part of Schenectady.
They rolled out of the city’s massive American Locomotive Co. plant every year: locomotives that pulled train cars through large cities and small towns – passing mountains, rivers, forests and other parts of the big country.
For ALCO, the end of the production line came 50 years ago last week. Two finished locomotives left the plant on Maxon Road during the second week of January 1969, bound for separate railroads.
Strange words came out of the main office to explain what was happening: On Jan. 6, ALCO executives announced the company would “dispose” of all business operations at the Schenectady plant. A time period for the disposal was not given, and company officials emphasized the local works and other facilities would remain in operation.
At the time, ALCO was owned by Studebaker-Worthington Inc. Edward C. Forbes, the company’s president, offered a reason for the decision. He said the railroad transportation business, ALCO’s primary market, was in a “highly depressed” state.
According to a story published in the Schenectady Gazette, purchases of U.S. locomotives had dropped to fewer than 1,000 in 1968 — in a market where buyers had purchased 4,500 units during earlier, peak years. The export market for locomotives was in an even more depressed state.
“There is no immediate prospect for improvement in either the domestic or export market for locomotives,” Forbes told the newspaper.
At one time, business had been booming; Locomotives had long been one of the city’s most celebrated products. The Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory’s first steam engine, the Lightning, received its final rivets in 1848. That machine traveled for the Utica and Schenectady Railroad.
The American Locomotive Company formed in 1901, through a merger of Schenectady Locomotive with seven smaller locomotive manufacturers.
In 1969, news that ALCO was at track’s end shocked and surprised community leaders.
David Danzig, president of Local 2054 of the United Steelworkers of America, heard the news from a reporter seeking comment. Albert W. Lawrence, president of the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber was concerned about ALCO’s departure from the local economic scene.
“A lot of people do have the naive view that business prospers just because it is business,” Lawrence told the Gazette. “This is far from the case. In order to stay in business, an enterprise is faced with a continuous and difficult struggle for efficiency against competition. What we are unfortunately seeing here is a Schenectady firm which, for a variety of reasons, has lost the struggle.”
Company struggles included layoffs. By early 1969, the work force was down to 1,100. During the World War II years, according to the Gazette, construction of tanks and tank guns kept 6,200 people employed.
“The writing really kind of went on the wall in the fall of 1968, when they canceled an order with Pakistan,” said Chris Hunter, curator at MiSci, the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady. “They had an order for 60 locomotives … I guess Pakistan put some delays into the order which kind of increased the cost of the order.”
There still had been work at the shop — 70 locomotives were built there in 1968 — but production was dropping.
“Earlier in the decade, they had done nearly 200 in a year,” Hunter said, adding that demand for locomotives had always been cyclical in nature. When business took a downturn, orders for new engines also dropped.
“Traditionally, when there’s an upturn, companies start ordering,” Hunter said. “That worked fine for the old Schenectady works, the ‘Big Shop’ and the farm town. If there was a downturn, the plant closed, and all the workers went back to the farm.
“As time progresses and the workers unionize, the plant gets bigger, the farms move elsewhere and the workers don’t want those shutdowns,” Hunter said. “Like any good human, they want to keep working during the bad times.”
When production of new work was canceled, workers at ALCO concentrated on machine repairs.
“You have temporary layoffs, you get people moving to other jobs,” Hunter said. “Management was still trying to find other things to manufacture.”
At first, Hunter said, ALCO’s departure was more of a psychological loss. Then things began to change.
“In May of 1970, GE is looking for more floor space and announces it has signed a lease for some of the ALCO buildings,” Hunter said. “By mid-’72, they’ve got 700 workers in there and plan to add another 1,000.”
The Gazette was hopeful.
“And of course, one hopes that whoever takes over the Schenectady business will prosper,” one editorial stated. “There is much at stake for the economic well-being.”
Fifty years later, the old buildings are gone. New ones have been built, and the old locomotive work floors are now occupied by people searching for personal economic well-being. Dice tables, card players and slot machines are the new arrivals; the Rivers Casino & Resort opened Feb. 8, 2017.
Hunter said people can still see the old ALCO name.
“There are still a fair amount of ALCO locomotives running,” he said. “Without the Schenectady Locomotive Works coming in, there probably wouldn’t be a GE here. And there’s just 100 years of amazing craftsmanship.”
Contact Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].