Layoffs to begin at Harbison Walker International

Courtesy photo / General Refractories built the Sproul Plant in 1911. The company merged in the 1990s with AP Green, another refractory company. Later there was another merger of refractory companies of AP Green, Harbison Walker and North American Refractories.

SPROUL — A longtime southern Blair County industry will soon close its doors.

Harbison Walker International plans to curtail its manufacturing operations at its Sproul plant and a plant in Oak Hill, Ohio, in anticipation of closing both facilities this year.

In a late January HWI press release, HWI announced it was investing $30 million to build a new, state-of-the art, technologically advanced monolithics plant in South Point, Ohio, “as the next step in its strategy to improve performance and better meet customers’ needs. The location provides unique transportation, logistics and business amenities resulting in efficiencies not possible elsewhere,” the release said.

Meanwhile, employees affected by this change have been notified, and both facilities will continue to produce and ship customer orders in process. Layoffs have been delayed until the end of June and will continue until the two plants cease operating, the release said.

On Jan. 29, HWI said that about 88 employees impacted, and all relevant government officials with a 60-day advance notice that operations at the Sproul facility will be curtailed.

“These are extremely difficult decisions, given the impact on families, residents and the longtime presence of these plants in their communities. We explored a multitude of possible options before determining that we would need to cease operations at these facilities,” said Carol Jackson, HWI president and CEO, in a statement.

“We are committed to providing our HWI colleagues in Sproul with appropriate support as they make this transition.”

The area had been home to two refractory plants.

Standard Refractories was built in 1914 in Claysburg and was later bought by General Refractories Co. The plant produced silica brick. The Sproul plant was built by General Refrac­tories in 1911, according to Claysburg historian Richard Allison, who served as president of General Refractories in the mid-1980s.

Altoona-Blair County Develop­ment Corp. had been communicating with corporate representatives out of Pittsburgh and employees at the local levels when they were informed of planned closure, President/CEO Steve McKnight, said.

“We are currently working to better understand what the future of the site and building may be if they in fact completely close the operations in the coming months. The PA CareerLink and local officials have also been activated to ensure a quick response and placement for those who may be impacted by HWI’s decision. The local HWI plant is made up of extremely talented and skilled workers, and it angers us tremendously that some alternative use or scenario for the operation has not apparently been considered,” McKnight said.

Allison said he is sad to see the Sproul plant close.

“It was always a great plant. It is unfortunate. They had great employees,” Allison said.

Both Sproul and Clays­burg prospered with the employment these plants provided.

Through the years, the production of silica brick at Sproul and Claysburg accounted for much of the town’s employment. In 1946, combined employment at both plants was 714. In the mid-1950s, the number had fallen to 350 workers, Allison said.

As technology advanced in the refractory industry, the need for silica brick tremendously diminished in the late 1950s. In 1958, rosters showed 190 working at Claysburg and 12 at Sproul.

The transition from coal burning bricks to natural gas in 1952 resulted in the loss of 100 jobs at Claysburg.

Because of closing other silica plants, employment increased in 1959 with Claysburg showing 458 employees and 220 at Sproul. However, Sproul closed in 1960 from manufacturing silica brick but fortunately reopened in 1962, manufacturing refractory specialties or mortars and castables, Allison said.

The Claysburg plant continued operation with many peaks and valleys in employment through the 1960s and 1970s with a peak employment of 325 during that period. The recession of 1982, the decline of major integrated steel, imports of steel, imports of silica brick and major workers’ compensation costs were the final blow for the Claysburg plant’s silica production in 1984. The Claysburg plant closed in 1987, Allison said.

General Refractories had merged in the 1990s with AP Green, another refractory company. Later, there was another merger of refractory companies of AP Green, Harbison Walker and North American Refractories. In January 2015, the name of the Sproul plant was changed to Harbison Walker.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.