An aerial view of the former shipyard area in the 1950s. The three largest buildings visible have Portland Machine Tool Works signs on them. Those buildings include: Building 26, the long building at the left in the photo, to the left of Madison Street (the street that leads into Bug Light Park today); Building 203, the long building directly across the street, on the right side of Madison Street; and Building 210, the long building in front of the ship basins, that extends to the right frame of the photo. South Portland Historical Society photo

When the South Portland shipyards closed at the end of World War II, it left thousands of people without jobs and many large empty buildings on the city’s east end. The Greater Portland Public Development Commission was created to take over the vacant land and buildings, and utilize them in some way to create jobs. There were a lot of buildings spread out over the space of the two yards and while some of the smaller buildings were put in use in a fairly short time, it wasn’t until the 1950s that some of the larger buildings were filled.

Early in 1951, executives from Portland Machine Tool Works came to look at the shipyard area as a possible site for their new business. They initially agreed to lease one of the large buildings (40,000 square feet), along with the former shipyard machine shop. They placed an ad for workmen in April of 1951 and got right to work looking for business.

According to an article in the Boston Sunday Herald in 1953, that first year in 1951 saw phenomenal growth, “Hundreds of machine tools were purchased all over the country and moved in by truck and flat car. Machinists, mechanics, electricians, carpenters and painters were added to the payroll daily. Orders were secured from giant corporations for the rebuilding of hundreds of machine tools of varying sizes and complexities.”

With the availability of additional square footage in the yard, and with the ability to ship by water or rail, it made it relatively easy for the company to take on large contracts and grow quickly. By the end of 1951, Portland Machine Tool had leased four of the largest buildings in the former shipyard and had undertaken contracts to build combat tank hulls and tank turrets.

Portland Machine Tool Works invested its profits right back into the business.

The company researched and built new, efficient large machine tools, such as lathes, planers, shapers, boring mills and other milling machines. It could take on machining projects in its own milling department, and it would also take customers’ older machine tools and redesign/modernize them for more efficient production. Given the massive size of the fabrication buildings that had previously been used to assemble large pieces of Ocean and Liberty ships, Portland Machine Tool was able to fabricate machine tools of enormous sizes. One project that they undertook was the fabrication of components of a hydraulic forging press that would stand 13½ stories high, a 50,000-ton press that would be used in the production of aircraft.

By 1953, the company had embarked on a new venture  –  a pipe machining program, producing nickel-plated pipes and pipe fittings in diameters up to 54 inches. Portland Machine Tool Works worked on this program in conjunction with the Walsh Construction division of Continental Copper and Steel Corporation, which also had a location at the shipyard.

The pipes and pipe fittings were produced for the Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of 1953, Portland Machine Tool had also picked up a contract for the production of bomb parts for the U.S. Army.

By 1954, Portland Machine Tool Works had 500,000 square feet of floor space at the former shipyard and 500 employees on its payroll, a large number of which were good-paying, skilled labor jobs. Machinists were part of a union, the Local 904, Springpoint Lodge of the I.A. of M. (International Association of Machinists).

In 1956 and 1957, Portland Machine Tool Works was one of many companies contracted to work on the construction of Texas Towers – these were large radar towers used by the Air Force as part of the Air Defense Command system, designed to provide an alert of enemy attack by air. Texas Tower 3 was completed in 1956 and Texas Tower 4 was completed in June 1957.

Because much of Portland Machine Tool Works’ business was done on a contract basis, when a contract was completed, the size of the work force was reduced. In June of 1958, the company reported that it had only about 100 men on its payroll and the business had been reorganized and renamed Portland Industries Corporation, as much of its business was no longer in the machine tool field.

The company was awarded a defense contract in 1958 for the construction of practice bombs, but the contract was for only $100,000 and the general manager stated that they would be able to fulfill the contract largely with the existing workforce.

Information is scanty in the late 1950s, but by July of 1960, Portland Industries appears to have been at a low point and was possibly sold. A new president suddenly showed up in the news, Ira Kamen, with news articles appearing regularly announcing new contracts underway.

In one article in November, 1960, Kamen is quoted as saying the company had been down to only 43 employees in July 1960. Kamen appears to have been fluffing the numbers in some articles, however, perhaps in preparation for the sale of the company. In one article in July, 1960, Kamen reported that the workforce was at 200 and they had signed a contract for space technology hardware that he expected would bring about a 50 percent increase in men. In November, 1960, Kamen reported that they had signed a $1 million contract with U.S. Vending Corporation for the construction of ice-making vending machines, that he expected to reach 200 employees by January, 1961, and that contracts in the works could lead to an increase in employment to 1,000 by 1962.

In December of 1960, Kamen reported that Portland Industries was nearing completion of a full-scale pressure test laboratory that would be able to simulate conditions on a submarine.

In early 1961, Portland Industries was acquired by Ward Industries, Inc., of New York. The business here was merged into a division of Ward Industries, known as the Prosperity Company. They retained Ira Kamen for a short time as a vice president of the division. The Prosperity Company was later sold, around 1963, to Ametek, Inc.

If you have any information to share on Portland Machine Tool Works, Portland Industries, or the Prosperity Company in South Portland, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact the South Portland Historical Society at 767-7299, by email at [email protected], or at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

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

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