Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Regina - The Motor City

General Motors Assembly Plant. Regina, SK, 1928.
(Canadian Public Domain)
If not for the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that followed, Regina, Saskatchewan may be more commonly called the Motor City today. And not the Queen City, as Reginans know it.

The Roaring Twenties was the happiest of times. World War I had ended. The soldiers were back home living it up. Stock prices were rising. People had money and were spending it freely. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic. Babe Ruth was the biggest name in sports and the best paid. There was jazz music, flappers, and bootleggers like Chicago’s infamous Al Capone. While Canada saw only two prime ministers in office in Ottawa, the United States saw as many as four presidents elected to Washington. Nearly everyone had a radio, this before TV. Trains were the way to travel great distances and to transport goods and raw material across North America.

In Canada, there was a huge demand for our homegrown raw material, wheat and lumber in particular. The third most-populated province at the time, behind only to Ontario and Quebec, Saskatchewan was riding on its own wave of prosperity with its agriculturally-based economy. Financial indicators showed Saskatchewan to be an area of unlimited potential. Third in GDP and due to soaring wheat prices by the end of the 1920s, Saskatchewan’s per capita income made it one of the richest places on earth. The capital city of Regina—named after Queen Victoria —witnessed a construction boom. The city was growing rapidly. By the end of the 1920s, the Queen City had over 50,000 residents. There were restaurants, shopping centers, and 6 downtown movie theatres .

As for the surrounding Saskatchewan countryside, the first generation of car owners on the prairies were the many prosperous farmers, who viewed their new purchases not as luxuries, but as necessities. Now they could take their products to market, visit family and friends, and sometimes just go out on a darn-good joy ride. Why not?  They worked hard. By 1928, over 120,000 motor vehicles were registered in Saskatchewan, with more than 100,000 of those cars. Based on projections, Regina’s population was expected to reach 75-80,000 by 1935.

In this environment, General Motors of Canada appeared on the scene. On June 1, 1928, they officially proposed a massive business venture for the city and the province. To meet the heavy demand for new cars in this promising province, they decided to build a car assembly plant in the northeast edge of town at Winnipeg Street and 8th Avenue, in an area called the Wholesale District (the Warehouse District today). The plans were drawn up by the Hamilton, Ontario architectural firm of  Hutton &  Souter. GM purchased 38 acres at $1,000 an acre to start it off. GM Canada’s vice-president and general manager H. A. Brown, said that Regina was a “logical distribution area” due to its location on the prairies. He also expected 12,000-20,000 cars a year coming off the Regina line once it was up and running. 

Founded in 1908 in Flint, Michigan by William C. Durant, as a holding company for Buick, General Motors had been growing steadily over the years. Later in the year, it purchased Oldsmobile. Then the next year, Cadillac, Elmore, and Oakland motor companies, among others. Half-way through 1911, Durant established Chevrolet Motor Company. Pontiac joined the mix in 1926. Up to 1928, General Motors was second in global car sales around the world. From 1931-2007, it led every year internationally, the biggest of Detroit’s Big Three. By 1928, GM Canada had already produced over 500,000 cars to date back east, mostly in Oshawa, Ontario where they had first set up their Canadian head office in 1915. Now with a plant in the centrally-located Canadian prairie city of Regina, GM would corner the market on car assembly in the country.  However,  Oshawa had probably realized that should their experiment work, then the other car companies—Ford and Chrysler in particular--would see the advantage in having a plant in Regina and copy them.  A future  “Detroit on the prairies” appeared on the horizon. The future seemed that bright.

The plant’s location in Regina was well thought out. It faced 8th Avenue which was the front street for the city’s Wholesale District. Winnipeg Street on the eastern side was the main traffic artery in and out of town. Two railroads, CNR and CPR, served the plant.  The Wholesale District was a unique multi-purpose community of offices, warehouses, and rail lines. By 1924, 22 rail lines ran in and out of Regina, the same lines that connected businesses to one another within the city. In the era before massive trucking, there were oftentimes as many as 50 arrivals and departures each day of trains carrying goods. Millions of dollars worth of groceries, dairy products, hardware, and building supplies left at a steady rate from Regina warehouses.   The area also held a network of homes, shops, restaurants, pharmacies and a school, all directly tied into to this local community. The homes were self-sufficient, one- and two-story affairs, with vegetable gardens and livestock on the property. It was one, big happy family. 

GM started construction July 10, 1928. The city and province were excited beyond belief. This was too good to be true. GM would put Regina on the map. Over 10,000 applicants applied for the new jobs. Completed within six months, at a total cost of $1.5 million, the project covered 370,000 square feet of floor space in its buildings. It would be the largest industrial plant in the province. The assembly building and offices covered more than 2 large city blocks, while the total property covered 11 city blocks. The manufacturing area itself was 800 by 400 feet, or 7 acres of floor space. The conveyor belts alone stretched a mile and a half.  Over 25,000 panes of glass went into the building of it. The roof was 35% glass and the walls 80%. A quarter-mile of rail track was spread out inside the building.

December 11, 1928, the day the plant opened, Regina’s Morning Leader wrote… “Five months ago came the most important announcement for Reginans since the war…the decision of General Motors of Canada, Limited to locate a western headquarters assembly plant in the capital of Saskatchewan. The announcement meant a giant industry for Regina. It meant the employment of 850 workers. It meant the coming of other industries…and other workers. Since that time a dozen new industries have located in Regina. Nearly 50 factory and warehouse buildings have been constructed here in 1928. Building permits total more than for any twelve months since the cyclone year. The year has been one of unusual importance to Regina, and important development hinges about the coming of General Motors.” 

Ready for the meticulous work of manufacturing cars, the plant saw its first all-Saskatchewan-built Chevrolet car roll out on December 11, 1928. It was no mediocre Chevy. It was powered by the very first Chevrolet six-cylinder engine ever made in Canada. The plant general manager, US-born and raised 42-year-old  Harry J Aughe, could not have been more proud.  He had headed West from GM Oshawa to oversee the Regina project. He had been previously-employed in Detroit by the treasury department of Chalmers Motor Company, a once-thriving auto company that had built luxury roadsters. According to information that I received from Aughe’s grandson, Peter Black, living in Connecticut,  Aughe enjoyed Saskatchewan and developed quite a love for the native Indians, inviting a number of them to the plant’s opening.  

For the next year and a half, two shifts of 850 employees in a non-union environment--the unions didn’t arrive until almost ten years later--wheeled out 150 cars per day, a rate of one every 4 minutes.  Cars were then shipped to parts of all four western provinces. Everything was moving full steam ahead, until October, 1929. Then it happened. On the 28th, the Stock Market lost $16 billion dollars, as investors panic-sold their stocks, followed by another $14 billion worth of selling the next day. The Market could not recover, ushering in the infamous 10-year-long Great Depression that affected all Western economies. Banks collapsed, prices of goods bottomed out, and manufacturing came to a standstill, the North American car industry included.  The prairies were especially hard hit by a decade of drought and plummeting grain prices. Thousands of people left Saskatchewan, never to return. 

Regina’s GM assembly plant couldn’t escape the financial climate and closed its doors in August, 1930. They reopened in March 16, 1931 with a cut staff, adding Oldsmobiles, McLaughlin-Buicks, Pontiacs, and Maple Leaf trucks to its assembly line. H. A. Brown had arrived from Oshawa ten days before to supervise the reopening of the plant. “We have not lost faith in the Regina plant nor the West,” he informed the Leader-Post newspaper. “We are still of the opinion that Regina is the logical place for our plant.” But he would not predict how long the plant would stay open because GM would probably lose money for several months in the start-up. Plant general manager Harry J Hauge told the Leader-Post  that all the 200 men working when the plant closed in 1930 would be rehired, plus another 150 in a month. The plant started up all right, but closed again by the end of the year. It only got worse.

The plant didn’t open again until 1937, when it first appeared that the economic conditions had improved somewhat. Oshawa saw a “new faith in Regina,” as they called it.  Due to changes in manufacturing vehicles in Detroit and Ontario over those 6 years, equipment was updated to the tune of $700,000, including a better ventilation system that was necessary for the 500 new employees on the floor. It took 3 months for 400 men to finish the work, where $175,000 went into labor and $525,000 into materials. Overall payroll would be $50,000 per month. Plans were to build 10,000 cars and trucks for the 1938 year to supply the 4 western provinces. Coming off the line would be 2 types of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac cars, plus one line of trucks and one line of Buicks. They would now ship as far west as Victoria and as far east as Winnipeg. The plant was divided into two divisions. One for the chassis, the other for the body. Mid-1939, the plant closed again then reopened October 24 for the 1940 production year, with only 100 men on the job. This number increased daily until 550 men worked the floor building Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and Maple Leaf and Chevrolet trucks.

By 1941, the Great Depression was a horror from the past. Now two years into World War II, the Dominion of Canada took the plant over and turned it from civilian to military production, where anti-tank gun carriages, Oerlikon gun parts, 2-pound anti-tank guns, and 6-pound anti-tank guns were being assembled. After the war, the Department of National Defense used some of the buildings until 1967, when the province took it over and rented it out to several companies. 

I have been fascinated by the General Motors Assembly Plant for a number of years. My parents bought a house on Edgar Street in 1957, within walking distance of the site. Also, I worked in the Warehouse District for Bapco Paints back in the early 1970s. I know the area. Now living in Ontario, I went back to Regina in 2010 for a family reunion. It was gratifying to see things were hopping on the busy roadway corner of Winnipeg and 8th.The old GM Plant looked great.  The main office building stood strong and majestic with the old GMC letters still visible on the front stone overhead.  It was occupied by a number of businesses. Many of the smaller outbuildings still stood, but the water tower had been long gone.  Nothing has changed in the 3 years since, according to my family and friends residing there.

What would Regina be like today had the New York Stock Market not crashed in 1929? Would we see General Motors or Detroit’s Big Three of Ford, GM, and Chrysler running the province’s economy as it does in Detroit? Would that be good or bad? As I’ve seen out East over the years, many of the Ontario car towns, such as Windsor, Oshawa and St Catharines, are too tied into vehicle production to survive when the economic downturns and temporary and full-scale plant shutdowns come. Mass unemployment is a result.  Diversity is probably still the best.

Regina’s General Motors Assembly Plant is one of those dots in history that leaves you wondering, “Oh, what might have been.” What if  it had succeeded? Would it have benefited the city and the province? We’ll never know unless another car company attempts such a venture again in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment