Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Waning years of Clay City tumultuous

“Absentee ownership never works. People assume you don’t want it anymore.” These are words of advice from Jeff Linstad, manufacturing engineer for Mutual Materials, who oversaw the demolition of Clay City.
Houlahan holds one of the last bricks made in Clay City.
The plant made its last brick in January of 1994, but it was not completely demolished until September of 2003, and during the ensuing years, it underwent a variety of interesting unauthorized uses.

 “When we shut the plant down, we didn’t realize what people would do,” Mutual Materials President Gary Houlahan said. “We couldn’t afford to keep someone there for security, and some crazy things happened.”


The text reads: This “MUTUAL USED” brick represents the last firing of Kiln-7, Batch #403 at the Clay City Brick Plant on January 19, 1994. Made by members of the Aluminum, Brick and Glass Workers International Union Local #868 AKA “The Clay City Crew.”
Company personnel tried to secure the site by putting up signs and fences. Initially, they couldn’t close the Clay City Road because it was a dedicated county right of way, but Linstad hired a company to make a chain link fence to completely surround the plant the year it closed. “It cost us $24,000,” he said. “Thieves came in and took every last link of that fence.”

Then, Houlahan said, “Some enterprising fellows set up a meth lab in one of the buildings there. They weren’t particularly bright though, because hunters and a lot of people were still walking through that area, and somebody reported them to the police.”


This photo of a kiln from the Dispatch shows that the plant was still in
 decent condition in 1996, as large scale unauthorized salvage
 operations had not yet begun.
According to an account in the August 21, 1996, Eatonville Dispatch, a nearby property owner had earlier confronted one of the young men who was wearing camouflage gear and holding a shotgun. The property owner told the man he shouldn’t be on the property, and when the intruder didn’t respond, the neighbor called the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. Twenty officers showed up and found three men in the final stages of producing a batch of methamphetamine.

Around the same time, a former employee at the brickyard formulated rumors that the clay mines contained gold. He started an organization that advertised tours to this gold-rich land. Paying customers would dig up clay and take it down to the river to pan for gold. What they didn’t know is that the organizer  had sprinkled small amounts of gold dust in the bottom of the pans, enough to keep the customers interested but not enough to cut into the enterprise’s profits. Once Mutual Materials heard about the scheme, they forced it to shut down.

The meth lab and gold mine didn’t end the illicit activities at Clay City, though. The buildings were still mostly intact, and while the furniture had been removed by Mutual Materials, valuable items remained in the walls and machines for someone experienced in salvage operations.

“After that, a group of professional thieves came in and changed the lock on the gate,” Houlahan explained. “They would open it up during the day and steal everything of value—copper wire and copper from the radiators, especially, but also fixtures, doors, lumber—anything on the buildings they could tear apart and sell. They were operating on a regular 40-hour work week. During daylight hours, they’d drive their trucks in and go to work. At the end of the day, they’d lock the gate back up until the next morning. It was kind of funny, in a sad sort of way.”


Some of the vandalism of the plant can be seen
 in this photo from Jeff Linstad of Mutual Materials.
Besides the professional thieves, there were also hunters and mischief makers who shot buildings to pieces.

“There had always been a shooting problem there,” Linstad said. “The plant managers would call and tell us that hunters were setting up salt licks within 100 feet of the plant to attract the deer for easy kills.” But the problem escalated after plant closure. “The school bus driver didn’t want to drive the bus past the gate because kids on the bus might be hit by stray bullets,” Linstad said.

“People shot their names in bullet holes in the roof of the clay shed,” Houlahan said. “They’d shoot at some areas repeatedly to try to make small holes bigger.” Some of the destruction was also done, apparently, by sledgehammers, with vandals breaking apart brick smoke stacks and pillars in expectation of watching them tumble down, though from photos Linstad took of the damage,  rebar usually  prevented brick walls from falling.
This 2003 photo from Linstad shows the dismantling and leveling of the plant.

Mutual Materials realized that the only way to discourage thieves and trespassers was to completely dismantle the plant and level the site, which it completed in 2003. The company was able to recover and sell the pug mill, the machine that actually made the bricks, because it was too heavy for thieves to salvage. Now nature has taken over and traces of Clay City are slowly disappearing. The company did some logging on the site from 2004 through 2008 and then considered converting it to a rock quarry. However, roads to the site are not ideal and would have been too expensive to upgrade. Also its distance from metropolitan areas is a problem. In 2011, Mutual Materials put the 416-acres site up for sale.

A visitor has tagged the inside of the gate that bars to road to Clay City with an epitaph.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Traces of Clay City today are scarce


These are the tracks Nonno would have taken to Clay City. 

What would one find at Clay City now? I recently wrote about the overall history of this brick factory and how it intertwined with the lives of my family 100 years ago. However, my initial efforts at exploring this lost city involved a more direct approach. In May of 2011, knowing almost nothing about Clay City except that Nonno once worked there and my dad was born there, I searched for Clay City on Google maps.

I found a Clay City Road East that cut through a large forested area about five miles north of Eatonville. When I went to the satellite view, I saw a clearing in the trees about a mile from Orville Road, and I felt sure that must have been the site of the old brick factory. About a half mile further along Clay City Road, I could see another cleared area that reminded me of a gravel pit. When I zoomed in closer, I could see three distinct colors of dirt—yellow, red and buff—colors commonly used for bricks.

Lucy and I headed out on a sunny day and took the hour-long drive from Gig Harbor to find the spot I had marked on the map. About 1,000 feet in on Clay City Road, we crossed the Tacoma Eastern Railroad line and stopped for a minute to snap some photos. At one time, the train stopped here, and a spur track led directly to Clay City to haul materials to and from the brickyard. I tried to picture the first time Nonno rode the steam train to this isolated place in the wilderness. At the time, the factory was in the beginning stages of boom times, so he would not have had trouble finding his way. Likely he was not the only one looking for a job at Clay City, so he walked expectantly with other men to the brick yard, which was only about 500 feet from the train track, if one took a route directly through the woods.

Beyond the gate, the pavement continues, but it's covered with leaves and moss.
For us, though, we had to take a more circuitous route, as there is no longer a path directly from the train track. About a thousand feet up the road from the rails, we were met with a locked gate. Here the road turned mossy and leaf-covered, showing its disuse. We scaled the gate and continued on foot. At various places, we found spent shotgun shells on the ground, and when we crossed a bridge over Twentyfive Mile Creek, we saw that the guardrail had been used for target practice, and a few people had tagged it in spray paint. The only other signs of life were droppings left by coyotes.

The road beyond the gate.
The easy half mile walk took us through a forest of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees that looked to be about 30 years old. The property looked like it has been logged more than once. When we came to the clearing I had seen on the map, we found it to be about 400 by 700 feet—around six acres. Most of it was flat and covered with 20- to 30-foot tall alder trees, although a few patches were still bare. One area still had some undisturbed asphalt pavement.

A once-bustling factory and community is now a field that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. This photo (and all the others on this entry) was taken in the fall of 2012 because my camera malfunctioned on my first visit in the summer of 2011 and I had to go back to re-shoot the photos.
The surface had plenty of clay mixed with the dirt, and it was not difficult to find bricks and tile fragments of various colors and shapes. Beside the road was a shallow pond teeming with tadpoles. We walked through the alder trees hoping to find some other signs of the old factory, but we were disappointed. Everything has been razed; the scattered bricks are the only clues of what used to be here. Where Nonno and Nonna lived, Dad was born, my aunts Nelda and Clara played—it’s all left to my imagination.

Bricks of various colors and shapes can still be found.
Having lived in Gig Harbor for most of my life, which has experienced at least a 10-fold increase in population in the past 100 years, it is strange to find a community that has gone from more than 150 people to wilderness in the same span of time.
Why did civilization disappear in Clay City? Gary Houlihan, president of Mutual Materials, has the answer. “We essentially ran out of high quality clay, and we shut the plant down in January of 1994.”  With the plant closed and the road barricaded, it seemed the story had ended, but in reality, action at Clay City was far from finished. In my next entry, I will describe some of the interesting events that took place in the 19 years that have passed since the making of the last brick.