Gordon Street, Wheland Foundry heir, dies at 75

photo CEO Gordon Street stands near where molten metal is poured deep inside Wheland Foundry. Street died Thursday at 75.

The death of former foundry king Gordon Street Jr., 75, on Thursday morning severed one of Chattanooga's last links to its past as the Dynamo of Dixie.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the Street legacy burned deep into the consciousness of many residents who won't soon forget the night glow of foundry fires and molten steel that flowed like blood through the heart of the city. Tens of thousands of Chattanooga residents worked for the Street family over the years, and thousands more indirectly depended on his businesses for their prosperity.

"He was one of the greats, one of the giants," said former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey. "Gordon will be remembered for being a leader not only in the business community, but in the overall civic leadership of our community as well."

At its height, more than half of all cars on U.S. highways contained metal parts manufactured by Wheland Foundry, which was built into an automotive parts giant by Street's father, who died in 1982. Wheland was once second in size only to General Motors' own foundry operation. At Wheland's high water mark, more than 2,000 metalworkers worked for North American Royalties, the parent company of Wheland, which also operated oil wells and poured millions of dollars into industrial and civic improvements for the Scenic City.

"He was an icon of the manufacturing world, for sure," said Tim Spires, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association.

But Street's legacy extends beyond the boundaries of the business world, and beyond even the once-smoggy atmosphere of downtown Chattanooga where he plied his trade.

"Gordon was respected by all who knew him as a principled, committed leader," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor and businessman who bought his Riverview home from Street in 2000 for $2.4 million. "What I will miss most, though, is his generosity of spirit, and his caring nature. Always, always asking how he could help."

Street told the Chattanooga Rotary Club in 1995 that "there is more to being a business than making a profit and paying your taxes."

He was honored in 1999 as corporate philanthropist of the year, in part for his efforts to give away $100,000 in scholarships every year to college-bound students, support of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen and his transformation of the five-acre Harris-Johnson Southside Community Park from a pit filled with tires into a picnic area, playground and walking trail.

The Baylor School and University of North Carolina graduate helped Chattanooga's educational institutions as well, supporting The Baylor School and GPS, where he sent his children.

"He was a tremendous advocate and longtime supporter of education," said Anne Exum, director of communications at Girls Preparatory School.

Street worked to save historic buildings, including the historic Dome Building, the Carnegie Library and part of the walls and tower of the Old Stone Methodist Church. The Dome Building and Carnegie Library served as North American Royalties' headquarters until the company was forced to sell the buildings to pay debts.

North American Royalties was traded on the New York Stock Exchange from 1969 to 1983, until the Street family took it private in a $40 million deal. The company then earned $21 million per year on sales of $260 million, if revised for inflation.

Formerly one of the most significant manufacturing operations in the U.S. and top employers in Chattanooga, the Wheland Foundry got its start producing farm and cooking utensils at a small operation in Athens, Tenn., then switched to steam engines and sawmills. At the beginning of the 20th century, the company began to produce oil-drilling equipment which it provided to drillers in exchange for a cut of the profits. During World War II, the foundry produced big gun tubes for the Navy, eventually settling on brake drum production after the war ended.

Though buffeted by union strikes, recessions, layoffs and overseas competition, Wheland soldiered on through the 1990s. But after 136 years in operation, Wheland permanently shut down operations in 2003 after filing for bankruptcy bankruptcy protection. Wheland was forced by the court to sell most of its assets to pay creditors as much as $120 million in debt.

Today, Wheland's Broad Street plant no longer exists, bulldozed to the ground after the economic shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks sharply reduced demand for the company's cast parts. Wheland attorneys said the company was consistently profitable through most of its history, but was hurt by a costly seven-week employees' strike in 1997, its failed bid to make drivetrain parts for General Motors and the slump in sales of the brake equipment made by Wheland. The former Wheland Gun Plant on Signal Mountain Boulevard is now home to a Komatsu manufacturing plant, where the Japanese company makes construction and earth moving equipment.

But his trials weren't over. Environmental regulators came after Street's company for $3.5 million in environmental cleanup costs, including $2 million for landfills and a corroded pipe they said was endangering the heavily polluted Chattanooga Creek.

Despite his struggles in the manufacturing sector, Street never gave up. Even into his 70s, Street -- a diabetic since the age of nine -- went to work every day at his North Shore office, where he sat at a wood writing desk amid stacks of papers and reminders of the past.

Street entertained other business interests as well, making real estate deals that still echo today.

He bought more than 3,000 acres of land atop Aetna Mountain in 1988 for $675,000, eventually selling it in 2001 for not much more than he paid to a group of developers who have begun to build what could become the largest neighborhood in the Chattanooga area.

The sale included thousands of acres on the sides of the mountain that will be dedicated to conservation through the U.S. Forest Legacy program. Calling it a "great gift," Street said he saw the unspoiled land as part of his own legacy as a community servant.

"I just wanted to leave the world better than I found it," Street said.

The family will hold a public memorial service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga on Sunday at 3 p.m., with a visitation scheduled for the same day from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. The burial service is private.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with news tips and documents.

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