Inland Northwest History Moment: Kaiser Aluminum's Potlines

 
Michael Cain's slag-crusted work boots are a relic of two summers in the brutal heat of the pot lines at Kaiser’s Mead aluminum reduction mill - built in 1942 to support war effort. Throughout the 20th Century thousands worked industrial jobs like this in the Inland Northwest, processing raw materials --from aluminum and timber to silver ore. Mead reserved a handful of summer jobs for local college men like Michael. He recalls his summers of 1980 and ‘81:

“First, I bought a pair of safety boots at the company store and, like most, paid a potline cobbler to add a layer of leather to the uppers and used tire tread to the soles for insulation from the heat.

The heart of the huge plant was its eight potlines. Each had 142 pots 10 feet high, with a narrow catwalk between and a moat below to catch molten aluminum when pots failed.

Each pot was like a huge battery, with large blocks of baked carbon as anodes, melting the raw materials. Pot men regulated the process by raising and lowering the carbons and deciding when to pour the finished aluminum. Carbon setters replaced the used carbons--that was my job. When things went well, a good carbon setter and crane driver could replace a pair of carbons in about a minute. But when a carbon got stuck or broke, you could be up between the boiling pots in the heat for five minutes or more.
The enormous electrical current made every pot a giant magnet. You had to fight to use every tool.

We worked in brutal heat, acrid fumes, and filth that ground into your skin. Work clothes lasted only a couple of weeks. Many bought cheap surplus cotton military fatigues and wore long johns underneath. One day I forgot my long-johns and ended a painful shift to find much of the hair had been burnt off my legs.

I was laid off near the end of my second summer due to second-degree burns on my feet, which had slowly boiled in my own sweat. But income from those 20 weeks paid nearly four years' tuition at Gonzaga University.”

The Inland Northwest History Moment is a collaboration of Spokane Public Radio and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC), in celebration of 100 Stories, the museum’s centennial exhibition. www.northwestmuseum.org

More Resources:
Kaiser history and effect on Inland Northwest, Spokesman-Review Feb. 17, 2002:
http://www.spokesmanreview.com/news-story.asp?date=021702&ID=s1102846
Kaiser-Mead closure, Spokesman-Review Oct. 6, 2013:
http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2013/oct/06/the-next-phase-kaisers-mead-smelting-plant-being/


Image caption:
Employees of the Kaiser Mead aluminum reduction mill added used tires and leather to their company-issued work boots to better protect their feet from searing temperatures. Michael Cain’s Work Boots, 1980-1981, Museum Collection 4244.1
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