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Mobtown Beat

Metal Men

American Alloy Foundry Is One of a Kind

Frank Klein
THAT'S HOT: (from left) Wil Green and Bob Eagan pour aluminum into engine molds at American Alloy.

By Chris Landers | Posted 6/4/2008

Wil Green flips on a blower and flame whooshes from the top of the furnace in the center of the room. The aluminum in the crucible inside the furnace will take about a half-hour to melt. In the meantime, Green puts the finishing touches on the top half of the last hardened sand mold before helping Bob Eagan line it up with the bottom half.

The piece they're casting today is a thin one, so the aluminum will have to be hot enough to spread out to fill it without cooling. It helps that yesterday they were casting machine parts from manganese bronze--the melting point of the bronze is much higher than the aluminum, and the furnace is still warm from the day before. Eagan puts on a flannel over his T-shirt, to protect his bare arms. Green sticks with a sleeveless undershirt--by the time the aluminum reaches 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, it generates a lot of heat.

Together, the two men lift the glowing crucible from the furnace on a chain hoist and maneuver it over to the molds. They work quickly, filling the six molds with the shimmering liquid, then dumping the waste into a pot. Through the open garage door on Eden Street, it looks like school is getting out at City Springs Elementary. Green sits down to watch Judge Mathis decide a case on a small black and white television.

It's the sort of work that has been happening inside the nondescript warehouse for more than 65 years. The industry and the Washington Hill neighborhood may have changed, but American Alloy Foundry Inc. remains pretty much the way it has always been.

Harry and Charles Gunther (Eagan's grandfather and great-uncle, respectively) grew up in the metal business--their father was a foreman at the Old Central Foundry in Dundalk. When Charles Gunther got out of the Army in 1935 with a $300 bonus and no particular desire to go back to work with his father, the pair opened their own foundry on Colvin Street. Tuberculosis and a resultant collapsed lung kept Harry out of military service, but against his doctor's orders to stay away from foundry work, he helped his brother build the business until it filled carriage houses on both sides of the street. In 1942 they moved a few block away to Eden Street, in the southwest corner of Washington Hill, north of Fells Point. One of the workrooms still houses an old Army-surplus wheelabrator--a sort of tumbler for cleaning metal castings--that was moved here by the Gunther brothers when they first took over the space.

Eagan doesn't throw much away. The impurities that float to the surface of the molten metal will be skimmed off and sent to a smelter, likewise the metal dust that coats every available surface in the place. Patterns line the shelves: for parts from a machine that makes cardboard boxes, a finned oil pan for a Shelby Cobra, the little wheels that apply the glue holding the label on a can of Campbell's soup, parts to a pickle slicer, or the decorative metal work inside the city courthouse. Eagan can make all of them, and thousands more, with the forms he keeps on hand.

It's part of being a jobbing shop. Rather than making thousands of identical widgets on a production line, American Alloy takes whatever business comes its way.

"In the '70s, my dad and I were offered the opportunity to merge with another foundry that was in existence at the time, and we could've gotten bigger," Eagan says. "My dad said, `Look--I'm getting close to retirement, it's going to be up to you. What do you want to do?'

"I got to thinking about it. Having worked here from the ground up, one thing I didn't like about the business was, `Here's a pattern, with one impression of a part on it. I need a thousand of them. Now make a thousand molds.' And you came in every day and you made the exact same thing, day in, day out, and it was so boring. I hated that. Absolutely hated it.

"But as I got better, more experienced, then I started getting into the more artistic stuff, and the replication stuff. It's still making molds, but it's different. So I said, `Let's just stay small.'

"I guess at that time we probably had about 10 to 12 people working here. In the '60s we had 25. Now it's just me and Wil. But I do the jobs I want, I do the creative stuff that I really like, which is my cup of tea, but it's also why I'm still in business. Because you're not going to go to China to get one little part made. It'll take you too long. I can get it done in a day or two. . . . So I found my niche, and it's lucky I did what I did. I think had I gone the other route, I probably wouldn't be here today."

"We've never advertised," Eagan says, then revises a little. "Wait--I'm lying. We do have a web site now. But we've never had a salesman who went out and made calls. Work finds us."

One day in May, Eagan shows off the shop, while Green, who's been working with him for 11 years, sets up the molds that will shape the day's project. Packing sand around a metal pattern, Green uses a long needle to pass carbon dioxide through the sand, where it will react to the binding agents to solidify what will become, in this case, a perfect reverse image for a valve cover to an off-road racing Jeep.

"This is a fairly simple type cast," Eagan says. "There's nothing really brainiac about it. If you look on that rack there there's lots and lots of loose patterns--that's the kind of work that, foundries today, they don't know how to do it anymore, or they don't want to be bothered with it. They want something that's set up like this--where it's a no-brainer. Pack the sand in, gas it, dump it out. You can't screw it up, in essence."

Eagan started working in the foundry when he was 16. He wasn't the best of students, he says, and after slogging through summer school one year, he found that the summer jobs were mostly taken. He asked his father if he could work at the foundry-- sweeping up, that sort of thing.

"When I got out of high school," he remembers, "if you asked me what I liked to do, I liked art. I was the guy who did the bulletin boards. If you needed somebody to do scenery for a play, I'd do scenery." After high school he wanted to go to Maryland Institute and study art. More practical voices told him he should get into business, so he took business classes at the University of Baltimore. He hated it. He worked at the family foundry before and after classes.

"As a kid, I was probably like everybody else--it's dirty, in the winter it's cold, in the summer it's hot--but after I was around it long enough, and I saw what they did and how they did it, I was like, `This is kind of cool.'" Eventually he became a mold-maker's helper: "That's when I found out what mold-making was all about. Thus, I found out--this is my art."

Inside an office in the corner of the building, Eagan keeps trophies from some of his more memorable jobs: newspaper articles about a set of "remembrance bells" for Sept. 11 (American Alloy made the clappers), a bronze oarlock for the small boats under construction a few blocks away for the U.S.S. Constellation, a piece from a tattoo gun, and some pictures of a bronze eagle that sits on a bridge in Washington.

The neighborhood of Washington Hill, named for what was once the Washington College Hospital at Broadway and Fairmount Avenue, is divided into east and west by Broadway. In 1981, according to a city Department of Housing and Community Development report, the rate of serious crimes was four times higher in the neighborhood than in the rest of the city, with the area east of Broadway accounting for the vast majority of crimes. That represented a 40 percent decrease from 1970. Baltimore Police were unable to provide current crime statistics for the neighborhood by press time, but Citizens for Washington Hill Executive Director Kinji Scott says that outside of a recent increase in drug activity in one area of the neighborhood, "the community overall is still pretty stable."

Eagan remembers it as a rough neighborhood but says his business always got along. Every once in a while, someone will stop by to ask about his father--"the cookie man," who gave treats to kids on their way home from City Springs Elementary down the block, and rewarded report-card A's with a quarter. During the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., businesses were torched, but when the Eagans were able to get to their foundry, car packed with groceries for employees who hadn't been able to leave their homes in the area, American Alloy was unscathed.

Eagan says his son, who grew up at the foundry, playing in the casting sand as a child, won't be following him into the family business.

"The sad part is, there's no guarantee that the business is going to last," Eagan says. " I've been here 41 years. I can't say it will be here 41 years from now."

The biggest threat he faces, Eagan says, isn't changes in the industry but in the neighborhood. With development projects spreading from Fells Point to the south, Johns Hopkins to the north, and the Inner Harbor to the west, it's only a matter of time before someone wants to do something else with his land. Townhouses a few blocks east on Lombard Street go for $400,000 and up. In the other direction, Albemarle Square has replaced the high-rise Flag House Courts project with residential and business properties in the Jonestown neighborhood, where home sales last year averaged $365,000, seven times as much as in 1998.

If American Alloy closes, Eagan says, "it won't be because there isn't work, it won't be because it's been run into the ground. What can happen is urban development. . . . Everything is closing in and developing around me. The land is very valuable--face facts, land down here is very valuable. But the hardest thing for me to do would be to move this business."

Moving to another location would be cost-prohibitive, he says, because his old machines, currently grandfathered in by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would have to be upgraded or replaced to meet modern safety standards. He would basically have to start over with a new operation.

"I'm 57," Eagan says. " I'm not getting any younger, but I'd like to work another 10 or 12 or 15 years. I'm not in any hurry to get out of doing what I'm doing. Am I going to make it that long? That's going to be dictated by what happens with the city."

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