By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
The massive, silent building that has spanned the 1300 block of North Walnut Street since 1957 began coming back to life last week. Darkness was replaced by sparks from a welding torch and by sunlight streaming through open doors. Trees and vines that had grown along its foundation and fence line were peeled back.
The former home of McNally Manufacturing, which closed its doors for good more than a decade ago, has a new tenant: CDL Electric, a family-owned company for three generations, is moving in.
It’s something local leaders had been hoping for years would take place before the building that once played such a vital role in the city’s economy crumbled.
“It’s a great story, a local business growing and adding local jobs while bringing an important piece of Pittsburg history back to life,” said Blake Benson, the city’s economic development director and president of the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce. He watched Thursday from the main plant floor as the renovation was getting under way.
“Back in its prime, this building was as important to the Pittsburg economy as Pittsburg State or Via Christi,” Benson said. “It’s right in the middle of town. Nearly everyone drives by it regularly, and it’s been sitting here hulking, dark.
“Now, to see it not only being used during the day and lit up at night, but to know that it’s a local company that’s in here once again, I think will have a very positive psychological effect on the entire community.”
A history of McNally Manufacturing published in the Pittsburg Almanac 1876-1976 puts the company’s roots in a small boiler shop that opened 13 years after the city was founded.
“It is one of the industries that enabled the community to evolve from a mining camp to become a Southeast Kansas Industrial Center,” the almanac reported. “And the firm itself during those years grew tremendously, expanding its operations onto the international scene while continuing Pittsburg as its home base.”
In 1889, a boilermaker named Thomas J. McNally established the shop in a 40- by 80-foot building on West Third Street, a space donated by an early-day predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce that saw McNally’s skill as badly needed because local coal mines all used steam engines.
With new mines opening frequently and existing mines expanding, McNally was kept busy and soon expanded the operation. His son, Thomas J. McNally Jr., took over the shop in 1906 and continued its pattern of growth. By 1955, the company was known around the world wherever coal was mined.
The company started building tipples, and in 1921 McNally designed and erected the first all-steel tipple in the Pittsburg coal field. The machine, which crushed larger sizes of coal and screened it to commercially salable size, proved so efficient that it became standard in the industry.
The company began turning out elevators, screens, conveyors, loading booms, picking tables and heavy-duty gear drives, and soon it was able to offer coal operators a complete plant designed, erected and fully equipped with McNally machinery. The company then worked with engineers to develop a coal washer, which revolutionized the industry.
At its height of operation, the Pittsburg plant was churning out equipment and complete plants that were installed across the U.S. and Canada, in Central and South America, in Europe and Asia, the Near East, Africa, Australia and the Far East. The only continent without McNally equipment was Antarctica.
The founder’s grandson, Edward T. McNally, succeeded his father as president in 1955, but coal production began to wane.
“The company had to diversify to apply that engineering in other fields,” said Ed McNally’s son, Tim McNally.
It began manufacturing giant tire molds, coke plant machinery, dredging equipment, oversize water valves for irrigation lines, dam gates and dam gate hoists.
The approach worked, and again the company expanded, acquiring a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania with experience in the stone industry, a plant in Ohio and a plant in India. The company grew locally by building the 143,000-square-foot shop on Walnut Street, the headquarters for its manufacturing production.
“When we were at our strength in the early 1980s, we were the largest employer in Pittsburg,” Tim McNally said. “At one point we had 750 to 800 people here locally, and in all of our facilities and our construction crews, we had 1,200 to 1,500, depending on the year.”
It was a noticeable loss, then, when McNally began winding down operations.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, if you didn’t work for McNally’s yourself, you definitely had an uncle or cousin or someone who did,” said Jim Villamaria, a lifelong resident and vice president of CDL Electric.
“It was one of the primary employers, gave people jobs and a livelihood, but it also represented growth.”
A Swedish company, Svedala, bought McNally Manufacturing in the late 1980s, and it closed the Third Street plant in about 1991. The company was sold to the global engineering and technology corporation Metso, which shut down the Walnut Street shop in 2002 to consolidate operations.
The Walnut Street building has been for sale ever since, with occasional interest from out-of-state companies, but nothing panned out until CDL came forward with an offer.
During the past week, at the recommendation of the Economic Development Advisory Committee, the City Commission approved a $150,000 forgivable loan to help CDL fill the gap on the $423,000 purchase price. In return, the company must create five jobs by 2015. CDL currently employs 45 at its Pittsburg location.
For years, CDL, which now does electrical, heating and air, security system, and railroad work across the U.S., has had to spread out its local operations among several sites as the company has grown, thanks in large part to the simultaneous growth of another locally owned company, Watco Transportation, based on Third Street where the original McNally building once was.
The two companies formed a working relationship on a handshake in the 1980s, when Watco had just one rail line between Coffeyville and Pittsburg and CDL maintained five signals on it. Watco now is one of the largest short line railroad holding companies in the U.S., operating on more than 4,500 miles of track. CDL now maintains 600 railroad crossings.
“We looked at several options for the past year, and one was developing a property south of town,” Villamaria said of the company’s search for a large enough building. “We kept looking at our business model and kept coming back to the McNally property. ... We are excited to bring back to life a property that was so important to this community for so many years.”
His first job out of high school, in the summer of 1980, was at McNally Manufacturing.
“My job was to paint the two tones of green on the walls,” he said. “We called it Edythe McNally Green. Now, 30 some years later, here I am looking at that green. I guess I’ve come full circle.”
Last week, he was helping direct interior and exterior cleanup and renovation work, including loads of chat trucked in by Midwest Mineral to fill 15-foot holes in the floor where enormous coal equipment-building machines once sat.
He can envision what the building will look like in eight months.
“Over there will be our electrical, and on that side our HVAC, and we’ll expand the offices over there,” he said. “There’s a real excitement about this space.”
Hall of Fame
Thomas McNally Jr. was inducted in 1994 into the Kansas Business Hall of Fame. He was recognized as an “international pioneer in coal processing, Midwest industrialist and community leader.”