Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Industrial Development in Richmond

Once the Ford Motor Company decided to build a new plant in the San Francisco Bay area, several other factors influenced the development of the plant. There was the effort on the part of the City of Richmond, California, to develop its industrial infrastructure, and more particularly the effort by Fred Parr to lure the Ford Motor Company to Richmond. Once Ford decided to build at Richmond, two other streams of development converged along Richmond's waterfront: the experience of Ford's engineers in laying out automobile assembly lines and the masterful expertise of Albert Kahn and his architectural firm in designing factory buildings to house automobile assembly lines.

Richmond, California, is located in Contra Costa County, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. In the nineteenth century, San Francisco developed on the peninsula that forms the south end of the Golden Gate, the entrance into the San Francisco Bay. Cities like Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda (which are in Alameda County) grew up on the east side of the bay, becoming especially prominent with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Contra Costa County is located north of Alameda County and south of the arm of the bay that is the mouth of the San Joaquin River. Prior to 1900, most of Contra Costa County was agricultural or undeveloped land. Much of the area that would become Richmond was farmland that had been Mexican land grants prior to 1848. There were a few small landings along the shoreline where farmers could ship their produce and where miners or merchants heading into the gold country could procure provisions. One of the most important of these was Ellis Landing, located at the north end of what is now Richmond's Harbor Channel.

In 1895, A.S. Macdonald acquired much of the Mexican land grant that is now Richmond. He began negotiating with the Santa Fe Railroad to establish a railroad and ferry terminal at Point Richmond that could provide a railroad link to San Francisco, arguing that it was closer than the terminals at Oakland or Alameda. The Santa Fe's new facility went into service in July 1900, spurring commercial growth near Point Richmond. Macdonald, however, intended the commercial center for the town he was developing to be a few miles inland. He platted commercial lots along his city's main east-west thoroughfare, named Macdonald Avenue, and platted residential lots around the core. Macdonald and other developers offered businesses and workers incentives, like housing and transportation, to locate near the area he intended to be the city's center. The City of Richmond incorporated in 1905. Municipal government was first located at Point Richmond, but it moved to new quarters in downtown Richmond in 1917.

At about the same time, developers began to more intensively undertake harbor improvements for Richmond. In 1905, H.C. Cutting purchased 400 acres of marshy land around the old Ellis Landing. He then formed the Point Richmond Canal and Land Company to cut a channel through the swamp toward the northwest, using material excavated from the channel to begin filling the swamp. That dredge cut has been improved over the years and is now known as the Santa Fe Channel. In 1910, the City of Richmond began working to help improve the harbor, securing the assistance of the federal Rivers and Harbors Committee to study the harbor while at the same time contracting with a San Francisco engineering firm to do so. Both studies were completed in 1912, and both recommended similar improvements, which formed the basis for the Inner Harbor as it exists today. There were to be three components that required dredging: 1) an entrance channel extending from deep water in the San Francisco Bay eastward along the south side of the Richmond peninsula to the north side of Brooks Island, 2) a rectangular basin running along the Richmond waterfront from Brooks Island to Point Isabel, and 3) a 600' wide channel extending from the entrance channel, adjacent to Brooks Island and Point Portrero, roughly northward to the vicinity of Ellis Landing. The latter channel is now called Ellis Channel or the Harbor Channel.

Congress did not authorize federal construction of the improvements until 1917. During the intervening five years, the municipal government and other local parties began paying for dredging to improve the Harbor Channel and for construction of bulkheads along the channel behind which to place the dredged fill. Federal dredging and filling lasted from 1917 to 1933, with new fill expanding the areas of improved ground on both sides of the channel during that period. By the early 1930s, there were several manufacturing and transportation facilities along the Inner Harbor, including two municipal shipping terminals (one equipped for handling sugar and one for handling general cargo), a few private docks, the Filice and Perrelli cannery, and the Ford Motor Company's Richmond assembly plant. The latter two facilities began operating in the early 1930s. They were in part the fruits of Fred Parr's efforts to promote the development of new land, created by dredge fill, for industrial development along the Inner Harbor's waterfront.

Fred Parr was bom in 1885 on a ranch near Visalia, California. His father died when he was still a teen, so before he had completed high school his mother sent him to business school in San Francisco. After completing a course in business administration, he went to work as a bookkeeper in the San Francisco business, E.J. Dodge Company, of which former California governor J.N. Gillett was president. Noticing that most steam schooners delivering lumber to San Francisco from the Pacific Northwest returned empty. Parr started a business predicated on the improved rates he could obtain for cargo shipped on the schooners' return trips. He built his business during World War I into the Parr-McCormick Steamship Line, of which the E.J. Dodge Company was a major investor. At the same time. Parr became involved in developments on Oakland's inner harbor, working with the Corps of Engineers to accomplish some dredging for a deep-water channel, building a terminal to provide Oakland with steamship service, and participating in the political moves that led to the Port of Oakland and its governing commission being independent of the Oakland City Council.

Seeing what an effective operator Parr was, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce asked him to speak in Richmond about that city's potential for expanded harbor facilities. In response to his remarks, Richmond's mayor asked Parr to manage and operate the city's municipal docks, which were small and received little business. Parr proposed instead that he head the implementation of a comprehensive plan to expand Richmond's harbor facilities. Parr's plan featured his commitment to acquire 100 acres on the Richmond harbor, to coordinate efforts by the city to get the Corps of Engineers, finally, to dredge the channel to the Richmond harbor and make it suitable for ocean vessels, to fill waterfront areas and make them suitable for industrial development, to expand railroads, streets, and utilities into the harbor area, to lobby the legislature to allow cities to make lease agreements with fifty-year terms, and to bring industries of national scope to Richmond. In implementing the plan, he formed the Parr-Richmond Terminal Company, which built a large terminal facility in cooperation with the City of Richmond.

Parr secured the first of the promised national developments in 1926 when he read a notice in a newspaper that Ford was looking for a site on which to build a new assembly plant in the Bay Area. He first contacted Charles Bulwinkel, Ford's assistant manager in San Francisco to learn the company's site requirements, which were: approximately 50 acres of land; entire lot in one parcel with no intervening streets; location on the waterfront with service by deep-water channel; service by both the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads; and streets, sewers, and public utilities serving entire lot. Ford wanted to have all of those improvements made to the site without cost to the company. Parr and Richmond mayor W.W. Scott traveled to Detroit to meet with company officials to assure them that the proposed site in Richmond would meet Ford's specifications. Parr had paid $90,000 for the land, which included about 50 acres of dry land plus some property extending into the bay and channel. After convincing Ford company officials of the suitability of the site, he proposed a sale agreement. He asked for Ford to pay $2,500 as a down payment. He would then make all the improvements necessary at no cost to Ford. When Ford was satisfied that the site was ready, he would pay Parr the balance of what he had paid. Parr asked that Ford pay interest on the balance until the transaction had been completed, but company officials informed him that Henry Ford never paid interest. According to Parr's account, he tried to secure some other means of payment from the company for the time during which he was carrying the price of the land, but Ford would not compromise. Wanting to secure the deal. Parr agreed to Ford's terms.

Even though Parr had sold land on the east side of the Ellis Channel to Ford in 1926, that company had not yet built its new plant in 1929 when Parr sold another parcel of reclaimed land to the Filice and Perrelli Canning Company. Gennaro Filice and John Perrelli had emigrated to California from Italy in 1908. They and members of their families worked in canneries near San Jose and Gilroy until 1914, when they formed their own business to grow and can tomatoes. The next year, they leased a small cannery at Gilroy, and they incorporated the Filice and Perrelli Canning Company in 1918. They leased another cannery in San Jose in the 1920s. Near the end of the decade, they bought land in Oakland on which to build their own facility, but then Fred Parr contacted them, offering to trade land in Richmond for the Oakland property. Filice and Perrelli made the swap early in 1929 and began building their new fruit cannery, which was ready to begin canning that year's crop. Filice and Perrelli canned cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, and figs, as well as fruit cocktail, a product developed by the University of California in the 1930s. Filice and Perrelli operated the cannery until they sold it to California Canners and Growers (Cal-Can), a growers cooperative who closed the cannery around 1970. The City of Richmond purchased the building for use as offices and warehousing.