Bowmanville Foundry forged in fire

Many jobs performed at the foundry. Workers pour hot liquid iron into casts (top left), which are melted in furnaces (bottom left), melt down iron pieces (top right), and inspect materials (bottom right). Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick

Ductile. Grey. Malleable. To most, these words may have no correlation to one another but to the ironworkers at the Bowmanville Foundry, they are the types of iron used in components produced at the foundry every day.

Active since 1902, the Bowmanville Foundry was originally co-founded by Christian Rehder and George Harris Linton. Rehder eventually bought out Linton’s share in the foundry in 1907 and it stayed in the Rehder family’s ownership until 1988 when it was sold to the current owners.

The Bowmanville Foundry as it looked when it first moved to Wellington and Scugog (left) and when it had been rebuilt after a fire in 1960 (right). Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick & Clarington Museums and Archives

According to Victoria Greene, the foundry’s general manager, there are currently about 30 people working in the foundry. Greene says many of the employees are Bowmanville residents.

The foundry has employed many from the local area in the past, helping families take root. Ashley Bain, a Bowmanville resident, says the foundry employed a fair amount of her family, including her grandmother and many of her grandmother’s siblings.

“It touched someone, somewhere, all the time in my family so I feel like it employed a lot of people locally. As far as I know, it employed a lot of people and kept a lot of families local,” Bain says.

The space the foundry workers operate in is dim and hazy, with sands that make up the casting moulds swept into piles throughout the foundry.

Working in the foundry can be very hot, according to Greene, with a door being propped open even on chilly days. She said there are even days in the summer the employees can’t work due to the intense heat.

The foundry specializes in making small iron components out of ductile, grey and malleable iron to be used in larger machines or structures. Greene says the foundry ships these components globally.

“We make 3,000 different parts in a year for 200 customers. We’re a jobbing foundry, so we have orders that are small, 25-piece orders, and then we have orders where we’re making thousands of the same part for customers,” Greene says.

A jobbing foundry is a foundry that makes multiple smaller pieces for multiple customers. This contrasts with a captive foundry, which makes one or two large metal pieces, be it poles, frames, etc., for one customer.

Located at Wellington and Scugog Street in Bowmanville, the foundry wasn’t always where it is now, originally built across the road from where Bowmanville’s Salvation Army chapter exists today. It moved to its current location in 1921, with its original buildings being torn down in 1959 to make way for a supermarket that was never built.

The foundry was “founded” out of a need for close proximity to the Dominion Organ and Piano Company; the foundry made piano pedals and other metal parts at the time.

Hot, liquid iron pours out of the furnaces to be brought over to the casts. Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick

Today, the foundry primarily deals with American customers, with 60 per cent of its revenue coming from the U.S. and the remaining 40 per cent from Canada, according to Greene.

Greene says the foundry’s closest customer is in Whitby, but she says customers as far as Vancouver and Nova Scotia place orders within Canada. To the south, the foundry has shipped freight as far as California, Florida and Texas. Sometimes they get customers even farther away, and have even shipped out to Jamaica in the past.

The foundry makes iron pieces for many industries including construction, electrical, and agriculture.

“Aquamarine, we make parts for them. They make boats or barges that collect garbage off the top of water. They also harvest seaweed, things like that, so we get into a bit of everything so that’s really cool,” Greene says.

They even make parts for the automotive industry, just not in a way most would expect. The foundry makes components used in firetrucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles, but also makes hardware for military vehicles like tanks.

Some roles in the foundry include cleaning and inspecting parts. Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick

Closer to home, according to Greene, “even though you’ve maybe never bought a casting in your life,” components used in a person’s everyday life could have been made at the foundry.

“Probably when you woke up, if you used hot water, one of our burners may have been in the bottom of your hot water tank…maybe food that you’ve been eating has been grown in a field that was plowed with parts that were made by our foundry,” she says.

Some Bowmanville residents, however, are less familiar with the foundry’s existence. Sophie Charette, who has lived in Bowmanville her entire life, was surprised to learn that an iron foundry had been in Bowmanville since 1902. “I didn’t even know there was [a foundry] in Bowmanville,” Charette says.

In a typical day at the foundry, Greene says the workers pour hot iron into casts for about 10 hours per day. Beyond that, there are people operating fine-tuned machines to ensure quality in components, grinding iron pieces, and annealing casts. Annealing is a process used to remove internal stresses in the iron.

“It’s always busy,” Greene says, “Busy, busy, busy. Which is great because the day goes super fast for everybody.”

Iron is poured into the dozens of casts through small holes in the top. Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick

Busy days, hot iron, and summer heatwaves don’t compare to the heat the foundry experienced when it was completely destroyed in a devastating fire in March 1960.

The fire started near midnight when an explosion went off in the foundry. According to the Bowmanville Foundry’s own history book, Iron In The Blood, the explosion likely happened in a shell core machine near the centre of the building.

The fire caused about $500,000 in damages, according to records in the Clarington Archives, and was so hot that it melted hydro wires, cutting power to the entire west end of Bowmanville, according to Iron In The Blood.

Reconstruction of the foundry started that year and was complete by 1962 with the look that still exists today.

Sparks fly as iron pieces are thrown into the furnaces to be melted down and recycled. Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick

The Bowmanville Foundry has stood the test of time, having moved locations, changed hands from the founding family, and come back from a disastrous fire. What could have been brought to an end in 1960 has continued to grow since then, far beyond Canadian borders.

It now serves on an international scale, shipping small iron components that you may not normally see, and might not normally know it was made in Bowmanville.