The Aluminum Industry in Massena
The aluminum industry has been the driving force in the history of the Massena area for about 115 years. The growth of the local industry spurred the local population increase, job growth, overall economic expansion and greatly defined the culture of Massena and the surrounding area.
Beginning of the Aluminum Industry
In 1886, Charles Martin Hall discovered the only economical process to separate aluminum from its raw ore, aluminum oxide (alumina). The process, now named after him, depends upon passing an electrical current through a bath of molten cryolite (sodium aluminum fluoride) and alumina, leaving the pure aluminum behind. Over the years, improvements have been made, but aluminum smelting is still energy intensive. In 1888, Hall and others started the Pittsburgh Reduction Company.
Power Canal Years
In 1897, construction of the power canal was started. The canal was to connect the St. Lawrence River above the Long Sault Rapids to the Grasse River. The hydroelectric dam was completed in 1902. The Pittsburgh Reduction Company came to Massena to take advantage of the cheap electricity. It began production of aluminum on August 27, 1903. Many immigrants came to the Massena area during the power canal construction and the arrival of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. Originally, there were only 67 employees. The Pittsburgh Reduction Company was renamed the Aluminum Company of America in 1908. The Massena 25 Year Club was started in 1930.
World War II
The aluminum produced in Massena was important to the war effort during World War II. Production was greatly expanded. Over 8,000 people were employed at Alcoa’s Massena Operations. A wind and rain storm delayed Massena Operations 50th Anniversary Celebration. An open house was eventually held in 1953.
Power Project Years
The St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project was completed in 1958 by what is now the New York Power Authority. The old Power House was closed. The increased supply of cheap electricity enticed the Reynolds Metals Company (later acquired by Alcoa) and General Motors to build in Massena, contributing to the economic boom. Reynolds Metals supplied aluminum to General Motors for automobile engine production. Products over the years at Alcoa Massena Operations included aluminum pig, ingot, wire, rod, bar, structural shapes, forging stock, aluminum electrical conductor cable with steel reinforcement and covered conductor cable. The Apollo 11 spacecraft which landed on the Moon contained fabricated rod and bar parts made at Massena Operations.
The official name of the Aluminum Company of America was changed to Alcoa in 1999. Alcoa merged with the Reynolds Metals Company in May, 2000. In July, 2002, Massena Operations celebrated its centennial with community tours and technical and environmental displays.
Alcoa Massena Operations is the longest continuously operating aluminum facility in the Western Hemisphere. It employed around 1100 people at the end of 2011 and contributed millions of dollars to the state’s economy. The East Plant includes the smelter and casthouse, while the West Plant includes the smelter, casthouse and continuous caster. These operations at the two plants belong to the Primary Metals Business Unit. The West Plant also includes fabricating operations, in the Global Engineered Products Unit. Massena Operations serves customers in the automotive, transportation, aerospace and industrial distribution markets.
The General Motors Powertrain plant contributed more than $114 million to the local, state and national economies in 2005. The local payroll was more than $36 million. GM Powertrain currently produced aluminum engine blocks and cylinder heads using the lost-foam casting process. Engines produced are the four cylinder 2.2 liter Ecotec engine and cylinder heads for the Vortec 2800 Inline 4 engine. General Motors closed its Massena plant in 2009.