The Willamette Iron and Steel Yard opened in 1865 in Portland, Oregon, along the Willamette River. Originally named the Willamette Iron Works, the company was a foundry facility dedicated almost solely to the manufacture of steamboat engines and boilers. In 1904, the name was changed and the facility operated as the Willamette Iron and Steel yard until closing its doors in 1990.
During World War I and World War II, the Willamette Iron and Steel Yard was kept perpetually busy, building and maintaining minesweepers, patrol boats, submarine chasers, naval auxiliary craft, and other military related vessels. During the 1920s and 1930s, between the world wars, the shipyard was kept busy with the construction of small commercial craft.
But after the close of World War II, work at the Willamette Iron and Steel Yard began to slacken, and the facility finally closed in 1990.
The Willamette Iron and Steel Yard built more than just ships. In the 1920s, the facility also manufactured a steam locomotive used in logging operations in the northwest woods. And in the 1970s, the yard constructed one of three turbines sued to power the Grand Coulee Dam. The facility also manufactured the fire hydrants for Portland during the 1890s.
As a major employer in the Greater Portland area, men and women regularly came in contact with a wide variety of marine parts and components, including spray materials which were used for coating and insulation on marine vessels. Prior to the mid 1970s, the vast majority of these products contained asbestos, a silica-based mineral highly prized by manufacturers of marine and industrial parts and treatments for its high resistance to heat and corrosion. Forming as a fiber, asbestos is also flexible and strong, making it seem an ideal component for the manufacture of a wide variety of components.
The material is also very lightweight, and tiny particles of asbestos frequently and easily become airborne, where they may be readily inhaled or injected by workers at shipbuilding and repair facilities. In the mid 1970s, safety concerns caused federal legislators to outlaw the use of asbestos in manufacturing. But by then, thousands and thousands of workers had been affected by work exposure to the particles, which can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, and other health problems.