The Isaacson Iron Works Plant No. Two/Jorgensen Forge facility, located at 8531 E Marginal Way S in Tukwila, is bounded on the east by Boeing Field and on the west by the Duwamish Waterway. The property is part of a larger site purchased by Isaacson Iron Works in 1939. In 1941 the U.S. Navy financed the construction of a metal-forging operation, called Isaacson Plant No. Two, on the 22-acre site, where during World War II the company produced precision parts for the military. After the war Isaacson concentrated its operations on structural-steel fabrication. In 1961 it bought Plant No. Two and its equipment from the navy, and in 1965 sold them to the Earle M. Jorgensen Company (EMJ) of California. In 1992 a group of Jorgensen Forge managers purchased the plant from EMJ, and it later became part of a holding company, Constellation Enterprises LLC. When Constellation went into bankruptcy in May 2016, the forge plant and property were taken over by a group of Constellation's secured creditors, doing business as CE Star Holdings. In April 2018 Jorgensen Forge was closed, its 110 workers laid off, and the heavily polluted property put up for sale.
A People and a River
The site in Tukwila that includes the now-closed Jorgensen Forge (for clarity, known hereafter as the "subject property") lies within the traditional territory of the Duwamish Tribe, which before first contact had a number of villages next to bays, rivers, and lakes in what are today Seattle, Tukwila, and Renton. Encroachment by non-Native settlers led to the loss of tribal land and weakened traditions, eventually bringing to an end nearly all Native life in the region's urban areas. Many Indians of Duwamish descent live (as of 2020) with the Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, and Tulalip Tribes on their reservations. The Duwamish people continue to seek federal tribal recognition, which outgoing President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) granted on January 19, 2001, only to have it rescinded two days later by incoming President George W. Bush (b. 1946).
The river that carries the tribe's name was a meandering waterway that looped back and forth through what are now the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods. South Park was annexed to Seattle in 1907, and Georgetown followed in 1910. The Duwamish flooded frequently and was hard for larger ships to navigate, and after the annexations straightening and deepening the river became part of a slate of ambitious engineering feats that included filling tidelands in South Seattle, building the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and completing the Denny Regrade project.
Before the channelization of the Duwamish began in 1913, the subject property was part of the then-developing South Park neighborhood on the west bank of a bend in the river. South Park and the surrounding area was home to several family-owned truck farms, including that of Guiseppe "Joe" Desimone (ca. 1880-1946), who was instrumental in establishing the Pike Place Market in 1907. When the Duwamish was straightened at South Park, the subject property ended up on the east bank of the river's new course. It was now in the city of Tukwila, separated from South Park by what had been renamed the Lower Duwamish Waterway. Most of Desimone's truck farm remained on the west bank, but a 1.5-acre section ended up on the east side, in the northwest corner of the subject property, where from 1949 to the early 1960s Bethlehem Steel ran a distribution center.
John Isaacson: A Self-Made Man
John Isaacson (1876-1939), already a trained blacksmith at age 16, immigrated to America from Sweden in 1891 with his wife, Anna K. Young (1872-1956). The couple first settled in Montana, then moved to Seattle, where Anna's uncle hired John to work in a blacksmith shop. When that operation closed, Issacson bought a small smithy shop on Seattle's King Street and founded Isaacson Iron Works. It grew to be a major enterprise and would be operated by three generations of Isaacsons before closing its doors in 1983. For many years the Isaacson plant was located at 2917 E Marginal Way S in Seattle, across the Duwamish East Waterway from Harbor Island.
After World War II broke out in Europe, America began ramping up its production of ships, airplanes, and other military equipment and supplies. Boeing moved its primary plant to the east bank of Lower Duwamish Waterway in 1939, and Isaacson purchased adjacent property. John Isaacson died later that year and his oldest son, Henry, took over the running of the company.
In 1941 the U.S. Navy, using federal funds, started constructing Isaacson Iron Works Plant No. Two on the company's Tukwila property. The new facility, which opened in 1942 and was the largest of its kind on the West Coast, was run by Isaacson and had operations for melting, forging, and fabricating steel. Its output included propeller shafts and other precision-made parts for the navy and for U.S. Maritime Commission vessels, including the all-important Liberty Ship cargo carriers.
Plant No. Two's forging facility was a fully integrated operation -- ingots of raw steel brought in by rail cars were fed directly into furnaces, then onto massive hydraulic presses that stamped out rough parts. The unfinished parts were heated in annealing furnaces to increase the ductility and reduce the hardness of the metal, making it easier to shape into final form. Heavy trucks on rails carried the steel to tooling machines, including huge lathes, for precision finishing, and the finished products were loaded onto freight cars for shipment. In 1943 a melt facility was added to the plant to reduce its dependence on outside sources for steel ingots. During the war, Plant No. Two employed as many as 1,200 workers operating around the clock and quickly proved its skill at producing high-quality precision parts. Before 1942 had ended, the company won the navy's "E" award for excellence, efficiency, and effectiveness ("Seattle War Plant Hums ...") and the Maritime Commission's "M" pennant for outstanding production in the merchant shipbuilding program ("Seattle Plant Will Receive ..."). To cap the honors, on July 31, 1943, Isaacson was named the nation's "War Plant of the Week" ("Cultural Resources Assessment ...").
Isaacson began transitioning into peacetime production after the war ended in 1945, laying off a number of its Plant Two workers and dropping the graveyard shift. In the late 1940s it listed its specialties as "manufacturers, structural steel fabricators, tractor and road equipment, contractors' and logging equipment, forgings, heat treating, galvanizing, marine hardware" (Polk City Directory ...). The company began to focus on its structural-steel operations, which had been conducted at its yard near Harbor Island but were expanded into a new facility built by Isaacson on the southern portion of the subject property. In March 1961 Isaacson bought the buildings and equipment the navy had constructed in 1942, assuming full ownership of Plant No. Two, and in 1965 it sold its forging operations to the Earle M. Jorgensen Company of California.
Between the end of the war and the company's closure, Isaacson supplied structural steel for many well-known local projects, including the Norton Building (Seattle's first modern skyscraper, completed in 1959); the Seattle Center Coliseum (1962); the Westin Hotel (1969); and support beams for highway overpasses on Interstate 5. But the vagaries of the economy and foreign competition took their toll, and Isaacson Steel, as it was known by then, finally went out of business in 1983, more than seven decades after John Isaacson started the company in his small King Street blacksmithing shop. In 1984 the Boeing Company purchased the southern portion of the subject property where Isaacson had been operating its steel-fabrication operation and demolished the buildings.
Earle M. Jorgensen: Another Self-Made Man
Earle M. Jorgensen (1898-1999), founder of the eponymous Earle M. Jorgensen Company (EMJ), was born about 10 years before John Isaacson opened his iron works on Seattle's King Street. By the time he died 101 years later, Jorgensen had built up one of the largest and most successful steel-supply companies in the nation. Although not himself an immigrant, Jorgensen's rags-to-riches story was every bit as remarkable as that of John Isaacson. One biographical sketch tells of his early life:
"Earle M. Jorgensen was born in San Francisco in 1898, the only son of a Danish immigrant sea captain, who plied the South Pacific routes out of the city. It was a profession that came in handy during the 1906 earthquake that leveled and set San Francisco ablaze. The family took to the sea, where, from the safety of his father's ship, the young Jorgensen witnessed the calamity onshore. His father died when he was just 13, forcing him to quit school and go to work. Although he never attended college, Jorgensen completed his high school education at night. He was a hard-working, ambitious young man, inspired by the era's inspirational self-help literature that promoted the virtues of pluck and industry in getting ahead. At the age of 16 he came across a magazine article titled, 'Hustle--That's All!' It became a lifelong creed for Jorgensen and a motto for the company he founded" ("Earle M. Jorgensen Company ...")
After serving in the army's tank corps in World War I and a short and unsuccessful postwar stint in New York working at a novelty-toy company, Jorgensen made his way back to California, settling in Los Angeles in 1921. In the aftermath of what English author H. G. Wells (1866-1946) famously (and mistakenly) called "the war to end all wars," the U.S. Navy began dismantling many of its 72 submarines, deeming them no longer necessary if there were to be no more wars. Jorgensen had a brainstorm that would be the seed for the company he would build. He convinced oil companies that were drilling on Southern California's beaches, and later offshore, that the submarines' scrapped steel propeller shafts could be retooled for drilling. With orders in hand, he had the money to buy the shafts and soon was purchasing other scrap metal from the navy and selling it to the petroleum companies for far less than the cost of newly milled steel. And that was just the beginning, as his business biography tells it:
"In 1923 Jorgensen raised $20,000 in venture capital and spent half of that to acquire one acre of land in nearby Lynwood, California. He also bought equipment and built his first warehouse. In 1924 he incorporated Earle M. Jorgensen company and became involved in the steel warehousing business, graduating from scrap to handling steel taken on consignment. He steadily grew the business, moving beyond oil companies to service the emerging aerospace industry in Southern California as well as other industries. He also expanded outside of California and across the country. He added aluminum to the product mix in 1950, and took the company public in 1957 as Earle M. Jorgensen Steel Company" ("Earle M. Jorgensen Company ...").
By 1960 EMJ's annual sales had topped $50 million, and were growing. It opened a steel supply outlet at 1713 6th S in Seattle in 1960, and in 1965 purchased Isaacson's steel-melting, forging, heat-treating, and machining operations at Plant No. Two for $4.2 million. Isaacson retained ownership of the adjacent steel-fabrication facility, while the forging operation eventually was renamed Jorgensen Forge. In 1966 EMJ cracked the $100-million milestone for total sales, and Earle Jorgensen's son, John W. Jorgensen (d. 1990), took over as president of company.
But the senior Jorgensen had a second act. In 1966 he and Holmes Tuttle (1905-1989), a successful automobile dealer, had urged actor Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) to run for governor of California. He won that seat in 1967 and 1971, then captured the presidency in 1980. Jorgensen, Tuttle, and other wealthy men were informal advisers to Reagan throughout his political career, dubbed Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" by the press. Earle Jorgensen outlived all the other members of the kitchen cabinet. When he passed away at the remarkable age of 101, The New York Times reported:
"William A. Wilson, a California businessman who served as Ambassador to the Vatican in the Reagan Administration, said Mr. Jorgensen's personal success story 'had a lot to do with influencing' Mr. Reagan's economic policies in support of free enterprise. 'Everyone had appreciated the fact that Earle had started with nothing and built himself a nice fortune,' Mr. Wilson said" ("Earle Jorgensen, Reagan Adviser ... ").
When EMJ took over from Isaacson in 1965, the relationship with the navy was uninterrupted, and Jorgensen was able to offer all its customers an increased range of services. Over the next several decades the company would supply the navy with, among other things, propeller shafts and titanium periscope tubes for the nuclear-powered Seawolf-class submarines and, more recently, Virginia Class-A attack submarines.
The property was owned and operated by Earle M. Jorgensen Company from 1965 until 1992, when it was purchased by a plant-management group and became the Jorgensen Forge Corporation. This eventually became the property of a holding company, Constellation Enterprises LLC. In recent years, Jorgensen Forge's customer list included SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
In May 2017 Constellation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Jorgensen Forge was taken over by a group of Constellation's secured creditors, organized as CE Star Holdings and doing business as Star Forge LLC. It closed Plant No. Two in April 2018, letting go its remaining 110 union employees, some of whom had worked for the company for more than 30 years. The assessed value of the property was $14.4 million, and as of February 2020 King County was in negotiations to purchase it as a support facility for the King County International Airport (Boeing Field).
A Dirty Business
The Lower Duwamish Waterway has served as Seattle’s major industrial corridor since the early 1900s. This has caused the sediments at the river's bottom to be contaminated with toxic chemicals from many sources, ranging from stormwater runoff to wastewater to industrial operations. Due to the severity of contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared a five-mile stretch of the waterway a "Superfund" site in 2001, making it eligible for a special federal cleanup program The EPA is responsible for administering the cleanup of sediments in the waterway, and the Washington State Department of Ecology is responsible for controlling the sources of pollution.
Metal forging is a heavy industrial use that produces a witch's brew of environmental toxins, and the subject property is one of the most polluted sites along the waterway. In 2017, after the bankruptcy of Jorgensen Forge, the state entered into an agreed order with the former owner of the site, the Earle M. Jorgensen Company, to define the nature and extent of contamination and determine if it is contributing to the sediment contamination in the Lower Duwamish Waterway. Among the contaminants found in its soil and groundwater were polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), halogenated volatile organic compounds (HVOCs), and metals (including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead). These results will be used to evaluate measures to remove these contaminants, after which the Department of Ecology will prescribe specific clean-up actions.
Two Historic Buildings
In addition to studies of contamination on the Jorgensen Forge site, the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) required a study to, inter alia, "identify any places or objects on or adjacent to the project that are listed in, or eligible for, national, state, or local preservation registers (Cultural Resource Report, p. 1). The overall assessment of the subject property was prepared by Perteet, an infrastructure consulting firm, and the determination of the possible historic significance of the buildings was investigated by Eileen Heideman, an architectural historian for Cascade Heritage Consultants. The information she gathered was used by the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) to prepare Historic Property Inventory reports for the five buildings on the site. These evaluations determined that two structures were eligible for listing on the Nation Register of Historic Places (NRHP) -- the forge operation's primary building, identified as "Isaacson Iron Works Plant Number Two," and the "Isaacson Iron Works Power House" ("Cultural Resources Assessment ...").
Isaacson Iron Works Plant Number Two
As noted infra, the main Plant No. Two was built and equipped by the U.S. Navy in 1942 on land owned by Isaacson Iron Works. It was supplemented in 1943, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967, but the additions were deemed not to affect its eligibility for listing on the NRHP, which is premised on its role in America's unprecedented industrial efforts during World War II. DAHP's Historic Property Report describes the relationship between the building and the war effort:
"This building is associated closely with the massive buildup of industry associated with the Second World War, with Isaacson Iron Works employees forging much of the material used to build and operate the Liberty ships that provided material to the Allied Army throughout the war as well as the bulldozers used by the Seabees in construction of Pacific theater runways and bases. Although the construction of the Billet Yard, Melt Shop Warehouse and Shipping areas in the 1960s resulted in some loss of integrity of design, the core of the building is largely unaltered and is easily recognizable from the exterior as the World War Two-era building" ("Historic Property Report: Isaacson Iron Works Plant Number Two, P. 5).
A description of the building follows:
"As the primary building and center of industry on the property, Plant Number Two was largely identified by areas of use. These areas include the Melt Shop and Melt Shop Warehouse, Forge Shop, Heat Treating Shop (Heat Treat), Machine Shop, Erection Shop (now called Hollowbore), Shipping, Automotive Shop, Billet Yard, and maintenance,lunch and locker rooms. These areas are to a certain degree defined on the exterior of the building by different rooflines i.e., the Machine Shop has a sawtooth roof to allow for increased natural light for machine tooling of products, while the Melt Shop, Heat Treat and the Forge Shop have high rooflines to accommodate the larger equipment and higher temperatures required in these areas. The interior of the building is connected and designed for a flow of raw materials to finished product" ("Historic Property Report: Isaacson Iron Works Plant Number Two, P. 6).
The equipment inside the plant building was removed in 2019, but as of February 2020 the structure remained intact.
Isaacson Iron Works Power House
The second building deemed eligible for listing on the NRHP was the Isaacson Iron Works Power House, which ensured a reliable supply of the massive amounts of electricity needed to keep the plant operating 24 hours a day during the war years. At some undetermined date after the war, the Jorgensen Forge Company converted the building into a heat-treating facility for aluminum, but made few structural alterations. The Historic Property Report provides the following description"
"This building is a tall (two-story), gable-roofed building with a north/south-oriented ridge and a shorter, single-story shed ell on the northern two-thirds of the building's east side. The building is clad with corrugated steel siding, and the roof is also covered with corrugated metal. The building is lit with steel multi-light fixed, awning and pivot windows. Some of these windows have been painted over or otherwise covered, but are largely intact. Large industrial ventilators line the ridge. The building is accessed by large garage openings on the north end of the building's west side, and at the south end of the building. Power line poles and electrical equipment stand near the southeast corner of the building" ("Historic Property Report: Isaacson Iron Works Power House," p. 5).
Soon Gone But Not Forgotten
In 2020 it seemed certain that both the Isaacson Iron Works Plant Number Two and the Isaacson Iron Works Power House will be demolished when the land on which they stand is put to new uses. They are symbols of a largely vanished past, when individuals of extraordinary ambition could built huge industrial concerns essentially from scratch, as did John Isaacson and Earle M. Jorgensen. Even though the physical manifestations of their efforts and successes may disappear, the story of their accomplishments and their combined seven decade of contributions to America's military might and technological dominance will be recorded and retained.