When the Navy needs new anchors and chains, it comes to Blaine.
Tucked away on Portal Way, just south of the city, the employees at Lister Chain & Forge, Inc. spend their days cutting steel round bar and shaping it into high-tensile lengths of anchor chain that will keep ships safe in the worst of seas.
It’s easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there.
The big metal building, discreetly set off the road, stands with its breezeway doors open wide and mounds of chain piled up in crates in the front yard waiting to be finished. Inside it’s dimly lit, but every few minutes, sparks fly, arcing up and away from the welding machines that are pulling the massive rods of steel together.
The workers stand back, waiting for the fire to die down and the doors to release before they pull a newly formed link from the welder and send it swinging on a carousel over to the next station to be trimmed.
The links are made of alloy steel and are bound together, one after the other, until they reach 90 feet in length. The company uses flash resistance butt weld technology to bind the ends of the heated metal together using an electric current. It’s strong, it’s fast and it’s a technology that hasn’t changed much in the 25 years since the company opened its doors in Blaine.
“It’s pretty much the same,” said Michael Stobbart, company president. “The only thing that has really changed over the years is how we use computers to measure the process. Every aspect of the chain is measured during the creation process.”
The company set up shop in Blaine in 1988 as an independently owned U.S. company, but was founded in 1911 as a blacksmith shop in Vancouver where they produced fire-welded chain for log booms and mooring systems. Its Canadian operations were closed down in 2002.
The company now makes everything from anchor to shank and the chains, depending on their size, are tested with up to 1.8 million pounds of pull before being painted and shipped to their customers. The chain undergoes multiple inspections before leaving the facility, including a break test, which makes sure the weld is secure. “It has to break on the shoulder of the link,” said Orlando McCarty, quality control manager. “If it breaks on the weld, we start over.”
Each shot, or 90’ length of chain, takes 55 hours from start to finish to build. “It’s hard work,” said Stobbart.
Most of the work the small factory does is commercial. This year, they have close to 30 contracts to fulfill, and many of their products go to the Navy and Coast Guard when complete.
“Those navigational buoys you see sitting out in the harbor and everywhere else in the U.S. – those mooring chains are made by us,” Stobbart said. “The skills we use to manufacture the chain are particular to us and us alone in the U.S. There’s no one else who does what we do.”
Though Lister ships its chains and anchors far and wide, they see little benefit in moving their company to be closer to their steel manufacturers or clients. They think its best to stay close to home to do the work they’ve always done.
“We have 28 employees here,” Stobbart said. “They’re all skilled workers and they average around 16 years of service. There’s a knowledge base here that would take years to build up somewhere else. It would ultimately be a negative to pick up and move.”
That knowledge base is what made it possible for them to work on their latest project – a new type of anchor for the latest crop of aircraft carriers.
“It took us nine months to build,” Stobbart told Congresswoman DelBene during her recent visit to the forge.
“It weighs 30,000 pounds, and we had no protocols or processes established for it when it came in. We had to develop all of those along the way.”