The once proud and powerful Schenectady, New York, plant of American Locomotive Company ("Alco") has been reduced to rubble in this early July 2011 view from along Erie Boulevard. While Alco had ceased production in 1969, the majority of their manufacturing plant had been repurposed by other local industries until the last few years.
A vacant field of dreams:
The end of Alco's Schenectady Plant
By Jim Rowland/Photos by the Author
Historically speaking, this phrase has long been linked to some sort of significant loss. On Monday morning, April 15, 1912, at roughly 2:20 a.m., I'm sure those words were uttered as the Titanic slipped beneath the icy waves of the North Atlantic when she foundered. On Sunday evening, May 6, 1937, those words were probably heard at the naval air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey at 7:35 p.m. as the Hindenburg exploded and crashed to the ground in a hydrogen-fueled inferno. In the world of dieseldom, add to that sad list July 3, 2011. The location, Schenectady, New York.
For many decades, the city of Schenectady was billed as "the city that lights and hauls the world." This was no misnomer as Schenectady was home to both General Electric and the American Loomotive Company (more commonly known as Alco). Both plants were located a few short blocks from one another along Erie Boulevard and the banks of the Mohawk River. Locomotive production in Schenectady predates Alco, going back to 1848 when the Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory was founded. On June 24, 1901, this facility was merged with the Brooks Locomotive Works, Cooke Locomotive and Machine Company, Dickson Manufacturing Company, Manchester Locomotive Works, Pittsburgh Locomotive and Car Works, Rhode Island Locomotive Works, and Richmond Locomotive and Machine Works to form the American Locomotive Company. Within a decade, these plants were closed down and all work was transferred to the Schenectady facility as it was the largest of the plants.
Alco's research and development department at Schenectady helped to transform engineering dreams into some of the most well-known locomotives of all-time. Who could forget the Milwaukee's Hiawathas, New York Central's Niagras, Union Pacaific's Big Boys, Nickel PLate's Berkshires, as well as the Mohawk, the Hudson, and the Mallet-type steam engine? In 1940, this plant pioneered the first true road switcher diesel locomotive, the RS1, at the urging of the Rock Island. In 1948 when Alco produced its last steam engine, they had produced over 75,000 locomotives. This plant went on to produce the famous PA passenger diesels, considered by many to be the most beautiful locomotive ever constructed. It's final line of diesels, the Century Series, closed out over 100 years worth of engineering dreams.
A lesser-known fact was that this plant played a significant role in the success of the United States during World War II. The Schenectady facility turned out over 6,000 tanks for the war effort. They produced 1,000 M-7 tanks which were used to defeat Erwin Rommel and the Nazi regime in North Africa. All of these were produced in Schenectady. They also produced gun forgings, marine boilers, turrets, and other necessary tools for the Allied war effort.
In the 1950s, with steam engine production long since finished and World War II long-gone, Alco embarked on a major plant modernization to facilitate diesel production. More than one-third of the 112-acre plant was demolished. New assembly-line production bays were installed to make the production of locomotives more efficient. All of these efforts came as too-little, too-late for Alco. By the 1950s, Alco was ranked number two in the field of locomotive builders, a distant second place to challenger Electro-Motive. In 1960, Alco's one-time partner in diesel production, General Electric, annnounced their own line of road locomotives. This doomed Alco to the number three position. Even with the refinement of their 251-series prime mover and the introduction of their Century series locomotives, Alco could not stave off the inevitable. In January, 1969, Alco rolled out its last new locomotive, a T6 switcher for the Newburg & South Shore Railroad of Cleveland, Ohio. One hundred twelve years of locomotive production at this site came to a sad close.
Following the closure of the plant, General Electric acquired and adapted severeal of the huge buildings for their usage. This lasted until the early 1980s when GE no longer needed the overflow space. The Schenectady Industrial Development Agency acquired the property and converted it to an industrial park. This lasted for approximately two decades until the property was phased out. Various uses of the old Alco plant were floated, including converting the site to luxury condominiums. However, over a century of pollution from manufacturing deemed the site nearly unusable. In the fall of 2010, it was announced that demolition would begin on the remaining buildings.
It was this news that prompted me to make one last pilgrimage to the birthplace of locomotives that I've spent thousands of happy miles tracking down throughout the US and Canada. I first saw the Alco plant in September, 1998. Building 62, the main erecting shop, still had "AMERICAN LOCOMOTIVE " proudly emblazoned on the top of it, albeit very faded. The site still looked impressive. There hadn't been much news about the progress of the plant's demise, so I assumed as my friend Bruce Hodges and I drove down Erie Boulevard on July 3 to still see Building 62 and the fading lettering one last time. What greeted us was gut-wrenching for any Alco enthusiast. There was no more Building 62, no more paint shop, and no more truck and sheet metal shop. All that was left were piles of rubble, the old Alco general office building at the corner of Erie Boulevard and Nott Street, the guard shack, Building 45, and a portion of a warehouse in the process of being torn down.
The weather that day was gloomy, and it fit my spirits as I solemnly walked along the perimeter of the facility on Erie Boulevard. A musty smell filled the air, eminating from the buildings and rubble that lay on the other side of the fence. Documenting what little was left was a bitter-sweet experience. I thought about the achievements that were envisioned and willed into solid reality at this plant, the tens of thousands of proud workers who toiled here to produce these machines, and that sad day in January 1969 when all of this came to an end. Most likely by the end of the July, all that will be left is a vacant field of dreams. It was a very sad, hard reality for this die-hard fan of Alco locomotion.
The hallowed halls of Alco now join those of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, EMD's LaGrange plant, and many others in the growing list of things to forever pass away from the contemporary railroading scene.