Saturday, September 21, 2013

Brick and Terra Cotta Manufacturing in Vallejo

This Vallejo-made brick features a distinctive "V" imprint.
During the 19th century, Vallejo was home to a thriving brick and terra cotta industry. The Union Pressed Brick and Terra Cotta Company was located in South Vallejo, while the Hydraulic Brick Works and the Pacific Brick Works were located north of town, along present-day Wilson Avenue. In December, 1891 the Vallejo Evening Chronicle featured an extensive article about the history of the brick and terra cotta industry in Vallejo, reprinted below:

"The term terra-cotta, if used generically, would, if its etymology were strictly adhered to, include every kind of brick and porcelain, since in Italian it means “baked earth.” It is, however, limited to mean a species of kuolin or clay, usually of a dark cherry red color though comprising also every variety of a buff shade and utilized in all sorts of ornamental work for the exterior and interior of buildings, for stationary, tiles, brick, etc. In fact, it would be difficult in the erection of a building to point out where its use for architectural or constructive purposes could not be brought into requisition. While its advantages have been recognized during a long lapse of time, still it is becoming so popular and so highly appreciated everywhere that the present may justly be termed its period of renaissance. The application of terra-cotta to the simplest subject of domestic utility as well as to the higher orders of architectural expression, demonstrates besides the almost illimitable opportunities of this humble, cheap and universal clay as a promoter of art. There is no other material that can compare with it in mobility, ease of production or wideness of application. With proper handling, relative to harmony in a while building, there is scarcely a situation in cannot be made to adorn, and with a more general use of it, its cost is comparatively so light as to be within the reach of the most modest house building.

People follow settled habits altogether when they begin building. They do not look around them to discover it there be any material that could produce better effects, and one may add that furnishers of such material do not advertise their products widely enough, and people go on in using wood in fancy shapes that cost more to whittle out than a good, fire-proof terra-cotta coating would, and then invite an annual outlay for paint and repairs that in five years would pay for the clay product. Besides its qualities of durability and economy, we cannot resist the utterance of the belief that terra-cotta is yet to prove an irresistible educator in art. 

Vallejo is to be congratulated that works in this product are located in her midst, as the south end of the town, and that the Union Pressed Brick and Terra Cotta Company is operating so successfully and turning out so high an order of work.

This Company is composed of San Francisco gentlemen, with the following officers: President, John H. Wise; Vice President, H.T. Scott; Sec., W.H. Magee, and Superintendent of Works, Alphonse Le Jeune. Thirty-five acres of land adjoining the works were purchased by the company and contains a practically inexhaustible supply of the terra-cotta clay. This is a shale clay, rich in iron and is the product of the disintegration or weathering of silicious rocks. It contains in round numbers 60 parts of silica, 30 of alumina and the remainder are oxides of iron, magnesia, water, impurities, etc. Mr. Le Jeune, the gentlemanly  and accomplished Superintendent of Works, who has operated in terra cotta in Belgium, France and Germany, and who for eighteen years had charge of the great Northeastern Terra Cotta Works at Chicago, pronounces it the best clay for the purpose he ever met with. This being the case and with this establishment crowded with orders it is easy for the people for Vallejo to predict that in a short time its capacity must necessarily be increased. 

Five large three story buildings each 135x50 form the main body of the works. Besides these there is a shed at the south end of the same dimensions containing brick in stock, and running and the right angles with these and alongside the water’s edge is a mammoth double shipping shed over 500 feet in length with tracks and turntables between. Here is sorted for shipment the varied products of these works, which when suitably crated are run on tram cars out on the company’s wharf which projects 1800 feet from the land. The convenience for shipping stock and receiving coal could not be improved on. 

Perhaps of the many features in this establishment which prove so interesting and instructive to the visitor, the office of Mr. Le Jeune is the most replete with attractions. It is hardly exact to term it as office, since it has more of the air and methods of a sculptor’s atelier than anything we can compare it to. It is here that his artistic inspiration gives forth its impressions in the shape of designs and models for all the ornamental work. Here he drafts plans and sketches with an ease of manner and prolificacy of artistic expression, seemingly unconscious on his part. Here he designs brackets, cornices, sills, window jams, arches, columns, mantles and all kinds of ornamental work where felicity of skill and harmony of detail are required. In one corner of the room was a terra cotta altar, just receiving its elaborate finishing touches and intended for St. John’s Episcopal Church of San Francisco. Over in the corner was a medallion of the “divine Sara” Bernhardt, while scattered in ornamental profusion were plastic objects in clay to which his creative hand was extending their first endowment of beauty. 

 It was an artist’s studio more than a workshop or an office. In making an article the clay is modeled by hand into proper shapes, from this a plaster of Paris mould is made, then the prepared terra cotta clay is pressed thereon, when it is then “fired” in muddled kilns. There are three of the kilns, costing $7,000 each, and the company is now building a muffle kiln that will double their capacity for firing terra cotta. 

What puzzles the ordinary layman is how to get a given shade or color, so as to make any number or articles in the same kiln of a uniform color. This is easily explained it is the work of the Superintendent and he thoroughly understands his business. It is often the case in mining clay that one stratum is mined and used, then a stratum next below is used, the strata, however, differing widely in their composition. One stratum may be burned in much less time than another and the color of the articles produced may differ materially. To prevent any disharmony in the color or shade required Mr. Le Jeune experiments with the clays in a small kiln designed for this purpose. Besides he superintends the selection or mixing of clays for every article manufactured. it requires close scrutiny and a thorough knowledge of the soils, but the results are infallible. To give this ware a red color there must be a certain amount of oxidized iron, when heated to a certain degree, and care must be taken that the heat is not sufficient to fuse the alkaline salts in the clay as this would give the article a dark and metallic color or the luster of gray vitrifaction. A dainty task this, to select one’s clay appropriately and heat the kiln to the proper temperature. 

In the brick department only first-class face or stock brick are manufactured. Eight brick machines, the patent of the company, are in constant operation. The article turned out is perfect. It has a glossy surface, is of any buff, cream or red shades desired, and has a metallic ring about it that shows its durability. Nothing manufactured in terra cotta will oxidize. Acids will leave no impression on it, which can not be said of bronze, brass or iron which oxidize in a short time after coming in contact with the atmosphere. 

Five brick kilns, likewise patented by the company with a capacity of 50,000 each are in use. These can be fired from above or below as best suits the condition of the brick in process of hardening. Connected with the works is a large machine shop, containing lathes, planers and boring machines where the company makes its own dies, tools, etc. There is no occasion to go out for a single repair or to procure a single tool. 

These works are complete in every particular. Though they are yet in their infancy they have already acquired a most enviable reputation on this coast for the perfection of their work. They have recently filled contracts for such splendid edifices as the Crocker, Mills, and Fair building in San Francisco, and the School of Fine Arts in San Diego. Over one hundred men are employed, and a the present rate of incoming orders it is only a question of time when twice that number will be employed and the product of these works be sought for from all parts of the state.  

It is out pleasure to close this article with the statement that the company is now figuring to put up a plant to make clay fire proofing, which means employment for more of our people.

When man has passed from the condition of a nomadic herdsman and abandoned his tent to make a permanent home it was but natural that the choice of building materials should be a prime object in his changed conditions of life. On the plains where he pastured his flocks stone could not always be readily obtained, and on observing that clay on drying became hard and durable, the suggestion came naturally to him that if he put this clay in proper shape while soft and suffered the sun to bake it, he had a building material that required no tools to prepare it. Hence we find that the adobe, the first and oldest form of brick, was connected with the early stages of every nation that has made any considerable advance toward civilization. The transition was easy from the adobe to the burnt brick and was in itself an indication of permanency of habitation and domestic progress. It is not pertinent here to trace the wonderful improvements and modifications in the manufacture of brick from the time when the clay was tempered by treading with horses or oxen, when brick yards enjoyed a pre-eminence in their line if they burned 20,000 brick in a season up to the present day when a machine automatically filled from a pug mill can turn out its 50,000 per diem. It is sufficient for out present purpose to know that Vallejo in the brick making industry occupies a most enviable place and has at her disposal the most practical and complete machines which human ingenuity has so far devised. 

Two brick manufacturing companies located something over a mile north of the town were well worth a visit from the reporter. Beginning with the

Hydraulic Brick Works

We find here an establishment, an infant as yet in its operations, which promises much both for itself and for Vallejo. This company was organized in 1890 by San Francisco capitalists. Its chief officers are: President, Frank McCoppin; Secretary, G. H. Luchinger; Superintendent, Mr. Marr. A large amount of money has been invested; the plant is substantial and first-class in every particular and the gentlemen composing this company view their investment with pleasant satisfaction. Three hundred acres of land were purchased and on this the works have been erected. These consist of a storage shed, 100x200 feet, engine room and kilns of the continuous pattern, having just been built to take the place of the first kilns put in, which proved to be failures. 

To obtain an intelligent idea of these works and the process of manufacturing brick, it is quite necessary to make a rapid survey of the entire establishment. Adjoining the storage room, to the east, is where the first work has been done in the clay pit. The soil for three feet down from the surface is a dark colored loam, from the surface is a dark colored loam, reposing on a light colored shale and of this latter the brick is manufactured. The clay is taken toward the pit and wheeled a few yards into the clay shed, where it goes through a natural sweating process, the moisture being better equalized here under shelter, than if taken directly from the bank. Immediately adjoining this shed is the mammoth and ingenious machinery, where the manufacturing proper is carried on. This consists of two Steadman crushers through which the clay is passed after being broken finely, hence through a roller crushers while this in turn is treated by a centrifugal wheel, which beats up the lumps. It is now taken in hand by a revolving screen which parts with every particle of hard or non-assimilating clay before its is conveyed into the bin where it drops automatically into the machine itself, where the bricks are given shape. The machine is known as the St. Louis Hydraulic Brick machine and has a capacity of 45,000 daily. Its molds are of steel and developed a pressure of from 2000 to 4000 pounds per square inch. It makes ten impressions at each fall. To watch these smooth surface, symmetrically shaped blocks, turned out here with so much precision and regularity, is to observe one of the wonders of mechanical sills. As fast as the bricks issue out they are taken directly to one of the kilns all under the same roof and set therein fifty-three courses high. 

It is estimate tat when these works are in fair operation they will turn out 40,000 bricks daily. Besides the common building brick for general purposes, we observe a face or “stock” brick, of a dark cherry color, as smooth as a planed block and which is as fine as article of its kind as can e produced any where. It is not difficult to designate the market for this product. That San Francisco will be the chief point of supply is but natural when on considers that its capital is derived from that city, and that transportation thereto is so easy. The company has a wharf here 50x200 feet with an 800 feet approach, and now that they are engaged in looking about for suitable vessels to do their own carrying it is but question of a brief period when these works will be the scene of considerable shipping activity. When once the works are in full swing keeping pace with their capacity, from 60 to 100 men will dine work, no inconsiderable pay roll for the merchants of Vallejo to cater to and become interested in. 


Pacific Brick Works 


The works of this company, located a few hundred yards north of the foregoing company’s plant, exhibit it both as a neighbor and co-laborer in the brick-making industry. They, too front on the Straits and kook towards San Francisco as a market for their out –put. This company was organized in June, 1980, by San Francisco gentlemen. Its officers are: Mr. R.V. Watt, President; L. J. Norton, Vice President; Mr. R. D. McElroy, Treasurer; J. L. Case, Secretary and General Manager; M.S. Wilds, Superintendent. Seventy –five acres of land here belong to the company, out of any portion of which brick of a quality unsurpassed either in Philadelphia or Milwaukee manufactured can be surpassed. The soil is of terra cotta based overlaid with loose dark colored loam and practically inexhaustible for the purpose to which it is now devoted. It is yet in its infancy, though it is passed that experimental stage, in having proved to the satisfaction of its stockholders and the gratification of the public that the article already manufactured surpassed the most sanguine expectations. This was accomplished in burning the first kiln of 250,000 brick. Many of these were of so fine a quality that visitor carried them home with then, heavy as they were.

The machine used here is the famous Penfield machine manufactured at Willoughby, Ohio, used for making soft mud brick. It works rapidly commonly, seldom clogs and has a capacity for molding 40,000 bricks per day. Connected with this machine are a clay crusher and stone separator and a pug for refining and mixing the dirt. 

A dry house, 40x90, is an essential part of the plant of this company. Since they design conducting operations every day in the year, once they get under headway, is essential they should be independent of unfavorable weather. For this purpose a dry hose was constructed. It is divided in to three “tunnels” or apartments, where brick can be placed in various stages of drying. Coils of iron pipe are stretched under the floor of these apartments, so constructed that they contain the exhaust from the engine and boiler from the day and the live steam during the night. The temperature of the dry hose is 140 degrees to 180 degrees. Brick are dried here sufficiently in forty-eight hours to permit of their being set immediately in the kiln. 

The engine house is the model of neatness as well as a symbol of power. It contains a large Atlas of seventy horsepower and manufactured in Indianapolis expressly for this work. 

A two hundred and fifty foot wharf runs out from the land and here with their own barges and steam tug they will be in readiness to delivery under their own management where ever their product may be in demand. These works are not in operation at present, pending proposed improvement in construction of their kilns. In the coming spring they will be started up."