This image shows the old Building 5 after it was vacated by General Electric. The photo was taken from the area just in front of where the historical society’s museum building is today, looking toward Bug Light. The land and building next to the lighthouse were later acquired by the City of South Portland and the building was removed. South Portland Historical Society photo

General Electric opened its Heat Transfer Products Division in South Portland in 1967 and manufactured products there until 1983. The company was a major employer in Greater Portland during those years. I’d like to thank South Portland resident, Michael Horton, for answering our historical society’s call for information this past spring. Michael worked for GE from 1968 to 1983; he met with me a few months ago to talk about the business and very patiently explained some of the operations and products that are a little difficult for a layperson to understand, so that we could better document the business in our records.

The company made a variety of small and large assemblies used in power plants (hydro-electric and nuclear). Some products manufactured here included boilers (the size of a house), desalination units, hydrogen coolers, steam drums, and moisture separators (also known as reheaters or “pickles”).

GE operated out of many buildings on South Portland’s east end in the former shipyard. Building 203 was the largest building, near the corner of Pickett and Madison streets, where boilers and reheaters were fabricated. Large cranes (with various capacities, up to 50 tons) were inside the building to move large units.

Attached to Building 203, on the Madison Street side, was the smaller Building 204 which served as the machine shop. In the large Building 210 (formerly the shipyard’s plate shop), was GE’s management offices (upstairs), with the first floor used as warehouse storage. In Building 5 (what looked like the airplane hangar by Bug Light), GE employees manufactured small assemblies (some were 20 to 30 feet long), like stator coolers or lube oil coolers. Building 5 also had its own machine shop area.

GE used the former shipyard basins behind Building 210. They filled the bottoms of the basins with crushed rock to raise the bottom of the basin. Horton remembers when they had worked on four desalination units for Romania; all four units were loaded onto one barge and the crushed rock raised the floor level so that the barge could sit on the bottom at low tide (in order to load it safely).

Horton described the working conditions as cold (the large buildings were heated with hot air blowers, so when doors were opened, the large buildings always felt cold. He also described it as a noisy and smoky place, especially with all of the welding going on, and some boilers were manufactured with fiberglass insulation that resulted in health issues for some workers in later years. OSHA would announce their visits in advance, so the workers would clean up areas that might otherwise be a bit dangerous. Overall, however, he described GE as a great company to work for, with excellent benefits and a good management style. The company had an annual Christmas party and summer outing (sparing no expense) and management would even participate with workers on bowling leagues, baseball and other outside recreational activities.

The GE Heat Transfer Products Division closed in 1983. The company told employees that the nuclear power industry was in decline. Workers were offered the possibility of transferring to jobs at other GE plants. As the remaining units were finished in South Portland, any continued product manufacturing was transferred to a GE plant location in Charleston, South Carolina.

Note to readers: South Portland Historical Society’s museum is now closed for the winter. The society, however, remains active with its staff and volunteers working on collecting, documenting and cataloging our local history, and starting work on a new museum exhibit. If you need to reach us in the winter, just give us a call at 207-767-7299, email to [email protected], or visit us on Facebook at South Portland Historical Society.

The Online Museum is also available; you can link to that through our website at www.sphistory.org.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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