Once-Great Industrial Crane Company Now Dismantled

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (AP) — At its peak, more than 1,000 people worked at Lift-Tech International, a quiet company in Muskegon Heights that built some of the most sophisticated industrial hoists and cranes in the world.

Now all that's left is rubble.

On June 30, 2010, the company closed its doors forever, leaving a gaping hole not only in the landscape it dominated for almost 120 years, but also in thousands of lives.

Not to mention local manufacturing lore.

Lift-Tech's cranes helped build the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were crucial to the steel mill industry in Gary, Ind., and closer to home, at the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant. During the Vietnam War, Lift-Tech's overhead cranes were needed to build U.S. Navy warships.

And every Boeing Co. manufacturing plant still relies on Lift-Tech's gantry cranes — built in Muskegon Heights — to lift and install jet engines.

"Lift-Tech was an institution," says Jack Wolffis, 65, of North Muskegon, who worked for 47 years in the shop.

"We didn't get a lot of publicity like some of the other shops in town. We kind of operated under the radar," he says, "but our work was well known by the people who needed us. We were well respected."

Even so, Lift-Tech couldn't survive in an increasingly harsh global economy. In 2009, its parent company, Columbus McKinnon, which has its headquarters in Amherst, N.Y., posted a $78.4 million net loss for the year. A company spokeswoman announced that in an attempt to control costs, Columbus McKinnon was going to consolidate its manufacturing facilities — and close the Muskegon Heights plant.

At the time, Lift-Tech employed about 200 workers, many of whom had been on the job for 20 years or more. One of them was Wolffis, who started at Lift-Tech the summer he graduated from high school in 1963. He was one of the company's last employees, on the job until the last day.

"It's sad, really," Wolffis says. "I can remember when I started here ... what a company this was, what a town this was."

When times were good, Lift-Tech had three shifts going, day and night, just to keep up with orders. So did the other manufacturing plants, all within walking distance of Lift-Tech in Muskegon Heights: Morton Manufacturing, Bennett Pump, Universal Camshaft, Browne-Morse, Campbell Wyant and Cannon and the Norge.

Business was booming up and down the street.

"You could get mad at your boss in the morning and quit," says Bill Rake, 71, of White Cloud, "and by afternoon, you'd have another job. All you had to do is go to one of the shops on Broadway, and you'd be hired that day."

By some estimates, as many as 30,000 employees traveled to and from work every day on Broadway Avenue when the plants were in full production. There was such a traffic jam, the union at Lift-Tech negotiated an unusual starting time — 6:24 a.m. — so workers could beat the shops that had a 6:30 a.m. shift. The company even posted traffic guards along the route to help workers get across the road.

"Remember that?" asks Joe Grega, 72, of Cloverville who put in 39 years at Lift-Tech before retiring. "Those were the days."

Now the only thing tripping up those interested in crossing the street are the cavernous potholes that riddle Broadway, where not one of the seven plants still stands. No matter, Wolffis, Rake, Grega and a handful of other former Lift-Tech employees just can't seem to stay away.

It was a 'family'

Every Thursday afternoon, the guys meet for a beer at the Muskegon Heights Eagles, directly across from the land where Lift-Tech once stood. A hangout left over from their working days, the Eagles is the perfect place to survey the situation.

Their meetings are part reunion, part wake.

For months, a demolition crew from Wisconsin has been taking apart the 441,000-square-foot building, brick by brick, steel girder by steel girder. Even the company's cornerstone, placed in 1891 when Alton J. Shaw started the ShawBox Crane Co., has been removed.

Bill Sklenar, 77, of Norton Shores has chronicled the plant's dismantling from beginning to end, sometimes taking pictures every day on the 23-acre piece of land that stretches from Broadway Avenue to Sherman Drive.

"It's sad for me. I spent half my life, more than half my life here, and now, it's gone. It's like it didn't even exist," Sklenar says.

A machinist, Sklenar worked 49 years at Lift-Tech, bringing in enough money to support his family and send seven kids to school. Sklenar can't bear the thought that people might forget Lift-Tech now that it's physically out of sight. So he plans to put his photographs into a scrapbook for his children and grandchildren, so they know where - and why it's so important - he went to work every day.

Work someplace that long, Sklenar says, and it becomes part of you.

"Sometimes, I even dream about it," he says.

He's not alone in his emotional attachment.

Rake, who was employed at Lift-Tech from 1965 to 1983 as a fabrication welder, says it was "the best place I ever worked" - and not just because the pay was decent and working conditions were some of the safest in town. Co-workers liked each other, too.

"I knew these guys better than I knew my family," Wolffis says. "I mean, work 47 years someplace, and this is it. This is your life. This is family."


Information from: The Muskegon Chronicle, http://www.mlive.com/muskegon