Firestone Canada, Incorporated

Location: Beach Road, north of Burlington Street, Hamilton, Ontario Harvey S. Firestone stands with two of his company's creations: left, a carriage tire from 1900; right, a truck tire from 1932 (click for a closer look)

Harvey S. Firestone, a young American entrepreneur, purchased a small Chicago, Illinois, shop in 1896 to sell and install rubber carriage tires. Four years later, he established the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. His first venture out of the United States brought him to Hamilton, Ontario, a fledgling industrial city with abundant water sources and transportation amenities. In 1919 he established the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Canada Limited (F.C.) as a subsidiary of his American company. The new company would manufacture tires primarily for the Canadian market, while keeping an eye out for export possibilities. A 1900-era Firestone worker tests a carriage tire (click for a closer look)

The new factory was to be located on what, at that time, were the eastern outskirts of Hamilton. In actuality, the site for the plant was in the Township of Barton, and the City of Hamilton annexed that particular acreage for the F.C. project. In addition to a factory, Harvey Firestone planned to create an "industrial neighbourhood" much like the one he had established in Akron. To that end, he bought a tract of land bordered by Burlington Street, Beach Road, Kenilworth Avenue, and Belfair Avenue, about 1,200 feet south of the future factory. Employees would have the opportunity to live near their place of work in modestly-priced family homes. "Firestone Park" proved to be a catalyst for the industrial and residential development of Barton Township and eastern Hamilton. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Canada plant, 1924 (click for a closer look)

Due to an economic recession in the rubber industries of Canada and the U.S., the plant was not completed until 1921. The first tire rolled off the line on September 15, 1922. One hundred and fifty workers were employed at what was the most modern tire factory in the world at the time. In order to secure a domestic supplier of primary materials, F.C. established Jenkes Canadian Company Limited in Drummondville, Quebec, to manufacture tire cord fabric. In May of 1928, the company added a new factory building to the Hamilton premises, increasing the plant's capacity by 40% and adding 300 new employees to the payroll. By September of the same year the company was employing 1,100 workers.

The company continued to manufacture tires for passenger cars and agricultural vehicles until the start of World War II, when it began to make tires for military vehicles. The switch necessitated a further expansion, which benefitted the company even after the war ended. However, on June 24, 1946, 1,400 workers represented by the United Rubberworkers of America (U.R.W.), Local 113, went on strike in order to gain a 40 hour work week and a wage increase of 20 cents per hour. The strike lasted 17 weeks. A second strike, which began on May 28, 1952, also lasted 17 weeks and gained the workers the first non-contributory pension plan in the country.

The company expanded further in 1953 and 1954. Four million dollars were spent to modernize all of the equipment in the plant, and to expand the product line to cover all types and sizes of tires (except extremely large industrial tires). The employee population rose to 1,400 workers.

In February of 1957, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Canada manufactured for the U.S. Air Force the world's largest air-supported "radome" (radar dome). A radome is a giant balloon-type structure (also called a "pneumatic building") that protects radar equipment from bad weather conditions. This record-breaking product measured 61 feet in diameter.

Over the next decade, F.C. continued to invest capital in the expansion and modernization of its Hamilton operations. In preparation for the expected economic upsurge in the 1960s, the parent company in Akron spent over $55 million on the improvement of its world-wide facilities. A branch tire-manufacturing plant was built in Calgary, Alberta, at a cost of almost $10 million. The Hamilton plant underwent several changes as well: a new distribution centre and warehouse was built in Stoney Creek, Ontario; the Burlington Street warehouse was doubled in capacity; and machinery was modernized. By 1964, the Hamilton factory employed over 1,800 workers, manufactured over 1,000 different types and sizes and tires, and posted annual tire sales of 12 million units, twice the number of 10 years previous. The next year, F.C. established a plant in Joliette, Quebec. Firestone tires were being manufactured in three Canadian plants, and sold through more than one hundred company-owned retail and wholesale stores and thousands of independent dealers across the country.

In April of 1973, it was clear to the F.C. directors that radial tires were becoming the new standard on cars and trucks. They expanded the Hamilton operation so that they could manufacture radial tires, in addition to the bias-ply tires that were still fairly popular, and still being made in Calgary. The directors hoped to focus entirely on radial tire production by the 1980s. In 1974, a factory dedicated to the manufacture of radial tires was planned for Whitby, Ontario, costing $30 million. Striking workers remove obstacles from the tracks to allow a Stelco-bound train through

On February 28, 1974, twelve hundred production workers at the Hamilton plant went on strike. Their demands included a cost-of-living escalator clause, which would stipulate that for every jump in the Canadian Cost of Living index, the workers' pay would increase by a certain amount. From the beginning, the strike was destined to be a long one; the union rented trailers in which the picketers relaxed between walkabouts. Three buildings were targetted: the main plant on Beach Road, the Burlington Street warehouse, and the Stoney Creek warehouse. A few months into the strike, the union asked consumers to boycott Firestone products, and workers began to picket at the nine retail Firestone outlets in Hamilton. Other North American Firestone workers showed their support by threatening to take a wildcat (illegal) strike themselves if Hamilton management did not settle by July 15. Calgary and Joliette workers walked off the job, for reasons similar to those of the Hamilton workers. The strike finally ended in October, 1974, after eight months. The workers received a wage increase of $1.15 an hour, and a cost-of-living escalator clause.

In 1975, the name of the company was changed from the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Canada to Firestone Canada, Incorporated

In November of 1975, a young Firestone Canada worker in Hamilton was killed when a 2,000-pound earthmover tire rolled on top of him. The company was found guilty under the provincial Industrial Safety Act of not providing proper precautions for its employees, and was fined $3,000. It later won an appeal in the Ontario Supreme Court.

The Calgary plant, which had been producing car and truck tires since it opened in 1960, was closed in May of 1978, putting 400 employees out of work. The high demand for radial tires - which the Calgary plant did not produce - in addition to overcapacity, prevented the factory from being cost-effective. In fact, the company itself was in the process of being restructured. All five of the major tire-manufacturing companies (Firestone, Goodyear, Uniroyal, Goodrich, and General) were suffering from poor profits and slow growth. Adding to the company's frustrations was a $23 million tire recall in October of 1978.

Despite these setbacks, Firestone Canada's subsidiary, Decor Metal Products, purchased a new plant in Midland, Ontario, in 1979, for the purpose of manufacturing metal seatbelt trims. Decor now had three plants in Midland, and one in Pentenguishene, Ontario. Firestone Canada had, itself, a total of almost 7,000 employees across the country in 11 manufacturing plants, making such products as tires, steel, and textiles.

During the 1980s, both the American and Canadian Firestone companies became more streamlined. The Whitby, Ontario, plant was closed, and 700 workers were left unemployed. Even Akron, Ohio, the birthplace and headquarters of the Firestone operations, was not protected from the consequences of the lagging auto industry; the plant in that city closed, as well. The Hamilton plant, however, was set for another round of expansions, this time to focus on tires for big trucks, tractors, and large construction equipment, for the export as well as the domestic market. The rationalizations paid off; by 1982 profits increased for F.C.

That same year, the federal government offered the company a $15 million grant to modernize the plant further, as long as the company would match the funds. The announcement was made at the company's 60th anniversary celebrations. From this point on, the Hamilton plant would specialize in all non-automotive tires, while the Joliette plant would handle radial car and truck tires.

Also that year, Firestone Canada opened the Firestone Training Centre on Upper James Street in Hamilton. Here, at the only facility of its kind in the country, students could take courses in all aspects of the company's retail service, using the latest in computer technology. Firestone Canada's Hamilton workers react to the news of their plant's closing in 1988

The next few years were difficult for F.C. and its employees. The parent company, Firestone Incorporated of Akron, was planning a massive corporate restructuring that would involve plant closings and the narrowing of product lines. The Hamilton plant's 1,300 employees were constantly concerned about losing their jobs if the plant was closed down. In mid-1987, three of the U.S. plants were closed in quick succession. On July 15 of that year, the employees received the news they'd been fearing: the Hamilton plant and the Stoney Creek warehouse (but not the Burlington Street warehouse) were to close in January of 1988. The demand for bias-ply tires had diminished faster than the directors had anticipated, and, even with the $15 million grant from Ottawa, the Hamilton plant was not able to keep up with the changes in the market.

The parent company itself was taken over by Bridgestone Corporation of Tokyo in February, 1988. This acquisition included Firestone Canada and the Joliette and Woodstock operations, but the deal occurred too late to save the Hamilton plant. The next month, however, a Toronto businessman acquired the Hamilton facilities, but not the employees, most of whom had found other work. In February, 1990, the last direct links between Firestone and Hamilton were broken: the Burlington Street warehouse was closed, and Firestone Canada's (now Bridgestone/Firestone Canada, Incorporated) headquarters were moved from Hamilton to Mississauga, Ontario.

Today (July, 2000) three Firestone retail outlets remain in Hamilton: on Main Street West, Main Street East, and Fennel Street East. Part of the Beach Road plant is being leased by Dofasco, Incorporated



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