Port Costa brickyard closing, ends historic run(PORT COSTA, California) – Just southeast of this small town on the Carquinez Strait, earth-moving machines scurry to and fro, like ants on a hill above the old Port Costa brickyard. They’re terracing and landscaping the hill, which was once mined for shale. The reclamation project is the brickyard’s final act.”It’ll be like we were never here,” said Carolyn Phillips, the administrative assistant who runs the brickyard office at the front gate.The century-old brickyard is closing, a casualty of high energy prices and a changing global economy, ending a long chapter of Contra Costa’s industrial history.On the plant grounds in “Brickyard Canyon,” below, a lone crane on Wednesday piled up scraps of sheet metal and other debris from demolished buildings surrounding the plant’s 176-foot-long rotary kiln, which operations manager Ralph Aguilar likened in appearance to a Gatling gun.”Aren’t too many of these around anymore,” Aguilar said.It has been four years since the giant kiln cooked up its last load of expanded shale lightweight aggregate, which is used in structural concrete, especially in high-rise construction. Lately, “we’ve just been crushing and screening current inventories,” Phillips said. When Dallas-based Texas Industries, the brickyard’s owner, finally pulls out — the Dec. 1 target date has come and gone — it will be an epilogue to the demise of a once-thriving family business.”Brickyard” has been a misnomer for some time, anyway.”We haven’t done brick for 15 years,” said Phillips, one of only a handful of people still working at the plant, where she remembers about 35 workers toiling in headier times, loading a truck every quarter-hour.Aguilar started off as a brick stacker 22 years ago, working his way through a number of jobs including lead rotary kiln operator. He and Russ Santos, who has been at the plant for 39 years, described long-gone houses along the plant road, a company town where plant workers lived; a restaurant; and an old fish cannery from the days of commercial fishing in the Carquinez Strait.”There’s a lot of history here,” Aguilar said.The corporate perspective is less sentimental.”It’s just a business decision to close,” said TXI spokesman Frank Sheets. “We’re not leaving the market. We’ll continue to service it. It’s just more cost-effective to service it out of our other facilities.”TXI owns aggregate plants in six states and also has steel, real estate and aviation interests.Phillips said a major factor in the brickyard’s closing was the cost of natural gas, which cost about $250,000 a month before the kiln closed in 2001.As late as 1986, Rock Products magazine described a bustling Port Costa operation with raw materials and product coming and going by barge, rail and truck, and optimistic, energy-saving experiments with rice hulls as fuel and a state-of-the-art mantle burner retrofitted onto the rotary kiln.But Chuck Mossina, who stacked bricks at the yard as a young man, says that by the mid-1980s, the brickyard was already two decades into a downward spiral. It began right after Homestake Mining of Lead, S.D. bought what was then Port Costa Brick Works in 1964.Until then, the brickyard was a healthy business, though with a low profit margin, said Mossina, 54, today a Richmond attorney. “A very well, conservatively run family business.”Three families — Berg, Ferrario and Shibley — owned the plant, said Mossina. His dad, Lawrence “Lou” Mossina, worked there from 1922 to 1972, including 20 years as plant vice president. The elder Mossina died in 1988. Chuck Mossina’s mom, Teresa Mossina, 90, still lives in Port Costa.”My dad was vice president, but he didn’t sit behind a desk,” Mossina said. “He would do welding and machining. Today you’d call it a hands-on operation.”The elder Mossina, from Italy’s Piemonte region with no formal education but a natural genius for engineering, revolutionized the “palletization” of bricks. The process called for stacking 500 common bricks, which weigh six pounds apiece, into what became the standard, 11/2-ton pallet. “It was the forerunner of containerization.”In his father’s day, as many as 100 men with “nerves of steel” worked at the plant. During a spill, men would reach into the kiln, where the temperature was often more than 1,800 degrees, with long forceps to extract the spilled bricks. Accidents were rare at the plant, although his father remembered two fatal ones: a man run over by a truck, another buried under a hopper-load of clay.”The brickyard is a reflection of the brawn of America,” Mossina said. Throughout Northern California, “there was a time when the good bricklayers would only lay Port Costa bricks.”Homestake — best known for its namesake gold mine, closed in 2002 but once the most productive in the Western Hemisphere — increased brickyard management from six to 36.”A big company comes in,” he said. “They were going to go big time, but they just didn’t do it right.”Homestake eventually sold the brickyard. At one time a Swiss company owned it before it ended up as TXI Pacific Custom Materials.Mossina, who lived on the plant grounds until he was 7, keeps historic photographs, clips and a trove of memories, his own and his parents’. During World War II, the plant supplied the Navy with bricks to line the boiler rooms of ships, using inmates from Folsom prison for labor, he said. He remembers the day in 1959 when lightning struck the 150-foot chimney of the Hoffman kiln, toppling the top third and sending bricks flying in every direction. “At first, my dad thought it had been hit by a plane,” he said.And he remembers stories his parents told of the plant during the Depression.”It was known in the hobo community,” Mossina said. “The brickyard was a warm place to sleep. Mom said, in the Depression years, near the drying rooms, there’d be 200 men sleeping there every night.”In 1930, Lou Mossina briefly returned to Italy with a bit of money he had saved to buy some land, as Italian immigrants of the day often did, Chuck Mossina said. But his father found he didn’t want to be a farmer, and so he returned to America.Back in New York, waiting for a train West, his father overheard two hobos talking.”You’re going to California?” one hobo said to the other. “Listen, there’s a brickyard. It’s an hour out of Sacramento. It’s a warm place to sleep. And the foreman won’t kick you out.””That (foreman) was my dad,” Chuck Mossina said. Sheets, the TXI spokesman, would not say what the company intends to do with the brickyard property.The Port Costa brickyard plant grounds, approximately 44 acres, is zoned heavy industrial and carries the same designation in the county General Plan. Most of the 125-acre uphill portion, including the shale quarry, is designated agricultural.”I have no idea what they’re planning,” said Bob Drake, a principal planner with the Contra Costa County Community Development Department.The East Bay Regional Park District owns adjacent land but has not had any discussions with the property owner, said the park district’s acquisition manager, Nancy Wenninger.To longtime resident Bill Ligon,, Port Costa’s industrial heyday came to an end long ago, when Associated Oil took down its oil tanks on the hill immediately south of town sometime after 1950. Ligon looks to the day the last brickyard truck rolls through with some trepidation.The truck traffic “keeps the road up,” Ligon said. Without it, “they might stop fixing it.””Somebody ought to raise hell,” Ligon said. “I hope the parks get it.”Tom LochnerCONTRA COSTA TIMES
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