After 121 years of operation, Chattanooga's oldest family-owned foundry plans to cease operations by the end of September, leaving a handful of foundries in a region that once had more than 50 metal castings and foundry operations employing thousands of local workers.
Eureka Foundry Co., which has operated continuously near downtown Chattanooga since 1902, gave its 41 remaining employees notice Wednesday of the plant shutdown. Fred Hetzler Jr., the fourth-generation president of the family-owned company, said he and his brothers were unable to find a buyer for the business, and maintaining the aging factory at 1601 Carter St. is proving increasingly challenging.
"We had hoped to find a buyer and we had a couple that were interested last year, but for various reasons, they decided not to buy," Hetzler said in a telephone interview. "Both of my brothers and I are getting up in years, and we ultimately felt that the only option left was to close the foundry down."
Eureka submitted the required 60-day notice of the business shutdown Wednesday under the requirements of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which triggers a number of state and local efforts to help displaced workers find other jobs or qualify for retirement or jobless benefits.
— Wheland Foundry, once the largest independent automotive foundry in the nation, whose parent company once employed more than 2,000 employees, closed its plant on the Southside in 2003 after operating for 129 years.
— U.S. Pipe & Foundry, which traces its roots to the Chattanooga Pipe and Foundry Works started in 1877, closed its Southside plant in 2006 and sold its operations to Mueller Water Products, cutting nearly 350 jobs.
— Waupaca Foundry cut 540 jobs last year when it idled most of its 21-year-old automotive foundry in Etowah, Tennessee.
— Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg has expanded three times in the past 12 years and now employs about 600 workers.
— Mueller Co., which purchased the former Columbia Iron Works in Chattanooga in 1933, continues to operate local foundries and plants in East Chattanooga and in Cleveland, Tennessee.
— Athens Plow Co., founded in 1921, continues to produce 22 different models of tillage tools.
— Acheson Foundry & Machine Works, founded in 1899, continues to operate a foundry on 38th Street.
— Chattanooga Pattern & Foundry, founded in 1959, still operates on Stuart Street.
Eureka is the seventh manufacturer to either close or announce plans for a plant closing in the Chattanooga region so far in 2023. Collectively, the plant shutdowns this year will end up cutting almost 1,000 jobs and come just a year after the Waupaca Foundry cut 540 jobs in Etowah, Tennessee, in June 2022.
"We are sad to see a plant closure in our region," Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Charles Wood said in a statement Wednesday. "Economies are fragile, and situations like this serve as reminders that economic development should be a continuous commitment by our community's leadership to constantly build a resilient economy for Chattanooga area residents."
Despite the plant closings, unemployment in Chattanooga hit a record low in April and remains below the national jobless rate with nearly three job openings listed for every unemployed person still seeking work, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor.
Area plant closings in 2023
In Southeast Tennessee, seven manufacturing plants have closed or are planning to close so far in 2023, collectively cutting 933 jobs.
— Shaw Industries in Decatur, Tennessee, is closing by Aug. 29, cutting 336 jobs.
— Volkswagen supplier ThyssenKrupp closed in May, cutting 156 jobs.
— Beiersdorf Manufacturing in Cleveland, Tennessee, closed in April, cutting 140 jobs.
— National Seating & Mobility is closing this week, cutting 108 jobs.
— Arcade Beauty in Chattanooga is closing by Aug. 31, cutting 84 jobs.
— Volkswagen supplier Grupo Antolina closed in May, cutting 68 jobs.
— Eureka Foundry in Chattanooga will close by Sept. 2, cutting 41 jobs.
Source: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, WARN notice filings
Hourly foundry workers at Eureka are represented by the U.S. Steelworkers Local 53. The company has been a union shop since it was founded by Fred Hetzler's great grandfather, Patrick Delaney, who was a member of the molders union in Cincinnati.
Delaney first came to Chattanooga in 1886 for a general manager job at Ross Meehan Foundry and 18 years later decided to start his own foundry.
As a railroad hub and manufacturing-based city, Chattanooga developed as a leading foundry town, and Eureka became one of more than 50 foundries and machine shops that ultimately operated in Chattanooga by the 1950s.
But as many manufacturers moved overseas, air pollution rules tightened and many automotive and consumer products shifted away from heavier metals in favor of lighter plastic and aluminum, most of the iron and steel foundries that once operated in and around Chattanooga have shut down.
Wheland Foundry, which once operated the nation's biggest independent automotive foundry, shut down its South Chattanooga plant two decades ago, and other major foundries — U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Waupaca Foundry and Rockwell International — subsequently closed or consolidated their local plants with other facilities.
Ross Meehan also shut down its Southside foundry in 1980, but Eureka bought the shuttered foundry and has operated the 215,958-square-foot complex ever since, making primarily water valve parts and other specialty products for U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Tyler Pipe and other manufacturers.
"This is an old plant, and just the upkeep on this facility puts us in a relatively poor competitive situation," Peter Hetzler, vice president and plant manager at Eureka, said in a phone interview. "We're spending all of our money trying to keep the roof on this building and keeping everything wired together."
The roof of the sprawling plant at 1601 Reggie White Blvd. covers most of the 7.5-acre site and was damaged and subsequently repaired after a wind storm a couple of years ago, Hetzler said.
With all three of the Hetzler brothers who own the company now in their 70s and none of their children still working in the business, Fred, Peter and Chris Hetzler decided it was time to proceed with an orderly shutdown of the aging foundry.
The current generation of owners grew up working at the foundry when their father, the late Fred Hetzler Sr., who was married to Delaney's granddaughter, Mary Margaret, was in charge. Fred and Mary Margaret Hetzler had purchased the foundry from her brother, Joseph Delaney, and sister, Ann Mahoney.
Over the years, Eureka has made castings for a variety of customers across the nation. One hometown customer is the National Park Service, which depended on Eureka to make the raised-letter signs that chronicle Civil War action throughout the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.
"You can still see the name Eureka Foundry on stormwater drainage grates along many of the streets in older sections of Chattanooga," Hetzler said.
As an essential business, Eureka has operated continuously through its history, including during the pandemic.
Once Eureka completes its final foundry orders and shuts down the plant, Hetzler said the owners will look to sell the 7.5-acre downtown plant site between Reggie White Boulevard and Highway 127.
Forged in metal
According to government figures, metal castings are found in 90% of durable goods, including motor vehicles, aerospace, trains, mining and construction equipment, oil wells, appliances, pipes, hydrants, wind turbines, nuclear plants, medical devices, defense products, golf clubs, office chairs, cast iron pans and even toys. But with lighter-weight materials and greater automation and production efficiency, the number of foundry workers continues to decline in the U.S.
Four decades ago, there were more than 3,400 ferrous and nonferrous foundries employing 444,827 workers across the United States. But by 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of foundries had shrunk in the U.S. nearly in half to 1,811 foundries. Employment in the industry was down by 73% from 1984 levels to just 120,919 workers in 2018, and layoffs since have further reduced that number.
With the closing of the Eureka Foundry, only a handful of foundries will still operate in Southeast Tennessee. But the region still stamps out valves and water products at Mueller Co. and is home to the oldest and longest-running cast iron manufacturer in the United States at Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg. In 2021, Lodge began a $59 million plant expansion that added nearly 240 jobs.