Alcoa, Inc. (Aluminum Company of America)

Organized as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888, the company changed its name in 1907 to the Aluminum Company of America and began using the acronym ALCOA in the early 1900s after applying the acronym to company-owned sites in Tennessee. The company officially changed its name to ALCOA, Inc., in January 1999.

In 1909 ALCOA began purchasing riparian rights along the Little Tennessee River in a search for cheap power. Building a network of dams, ALCOA chose North Maryville as a plant site in 1913. It reincorporated the community as the town of Alcoa in 1914, purchased 750 acres of land, and built a smelting plant. Thus, Alcoa joined other planned industrial communities in Tennessee.

In 1919 ALCOA purchased the Knoxville Power Company, which held the rights to the power potential of dams on the Little Tennessee River. After World War I ALCOA expanded its facilities with a rolling mill, a sheet mill, and plans for a 7,500-acre city. These plans included workers' housing and schools, which, like the facilities of most company towns in Tennessee, were racially segregated.

City government was tied directly to company management, with Victor Hultquist, ALCOA's construction superintendent, serving as city manager until the 1950s. Alcoa recruited no other outside investment, nor were others interested in coming to a one-company town. The lack of economic diversification bound the fortunes of Alcoa's citizens to those of the company.

During the depression, ALCOA kept production at 1920s levels, cutting workers' hours to thirty per week to maintain employment. The company also reduced rents in company housing. Nevertheless, a wave of violent strikes erupted in Alcoa in the late 1930s in response to collective bargaining legislation. Hultquist hired a police force to suppress the strikers, and Governor Gordon Browning sent in the National Guard in July 1937. The strike ended quickly, and workers returned to the factory.

World War II brought prosperity to ALCOA, and the Tennessee operations expanded accordingly. The North Plant, constructed in 1940-41, covered sixty-five acres and employed twelve thousand workers, making it one of the largest plants in the world. In the postwar years, the company initially prospered due to strong demand for aluminum and related products. ALCOA's national image, however, suffered in the late 1940s and 1950s as a result of the hard-line stance taken toward labor unions. In addition, ALCOA no longer dominated the aluminum market, and the Tennessee Valley Authority challenged ALCOA's hydroelectric power business.

In response, the company released its paternalistic grip on the town of Alcoa. The company continued and expanded its practice of donating land for parks, schools, churches, and municipal buildings. The company also provided funds for the development of an airport in Blount County and continued to sell property in the public's interest, including additional land to the City of Knoxville for airport expansions. In order to improve company-town relations, ALCOA also provided Alcoa residents with recreational facilities, a retirement club, and tuition support at local universities.

By the 1950s the company had dispensed with company housing, selling houses to renters and Alcoa workers. ALCOA also transferred its electric and water utilities to the city in 1955 and 1960 respectively, thereby placing ALCOA's former power monopoly under the control of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Over the last thirty years the evolving world market for aluminum, the demands of labor, modern transportation, and the environmental movement have worked together to reshape the policies and products of the corporation. In 1997 ALCOA was Blount County's largest manufacturing employer with 2,050 workers.

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  • Article Title Alcoa, Inc. (Aluminum Company of America)
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018