The legacy of General Electric in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls is complicated and controversial.
In the beginning, in the 1940s and 1950s, GE brought thousands of jobs to the region, giving some residents a chance for a lifelong career and jobs for their sons and daughters.
In 1957, the two GE plants combined employed 1,800 and formed the economic base for Hudson Falls and Fort Edward.
But as time went on, GE began to take more and more away. It closed its Hudson Falls facility, moved those jobs to Fort Edward and gradually moved more and more jobs out of the region until finally moving all production and inspection to Clearwater, Florida, earlier this year.
What was once the thriving Hudson Falls plant has been reduced to rubble. The largest building on the site was recently demolished.
“The next stage of work, which will likely be performed this winter, will involve the removal of the remaining building slabs and excavation of soils from beneath the former manufacturing buildings,” said Joan Gerhardt, vice president of Behan Communications and a spokeswoman for GE.
Remediation is expected to take approximately two years to implement. Once the soil excavation is completed, the areas will be filled in with clean material and covered with vegetation.
The company still maintains the site and continues to treat the water because of contamination.
Gerhardt said the new water treatment building at the corner of Lower Allen and John streets should be completed later this month. Then, water treatment equipment will be relocated from the existing facility on Sumpter Street to the new building. The entire project should be completed by summer 2017, she said.
The Sumpter Street building will then be demolished as part of a comprehensive environmental cleanup of the site.
“The site is a Superfund site and will always be classified as a hazardous waste site. It will not be usable for any purpose whatsoever,” said Village Attorney William Nikas, a lifelong resident of the village.
Like many others, Nikas remembers the good old days but also harbors bitterness over the closing.
“When the plant was active, hundreds of people thrived on excellent pay and benefits, which supported the economy throughout the area,” he said. “Now, there is no visible change other than less traffic during shift changes. However, the closing has had profound impacts on our community that are felt but not seen.”
“I believe the root cause of many house foreclosures, empty downtown buildings and closed businesses can be significantly related to the loss of millions of dollars of GE employee wages which previously benefited everyone locally,” Nikas added.
Fort Edward Mayor Matthew Traver, whose village got 30 additional years out of GE, shares the same feelings.
“As many people expected, once the dredging was completed they would leave, and that’s what they did,” he said. “To just take off like that, it’s not just not right. They took advantage of us and walked away.”
GE is maintaining control of the Fort Edward facility, which is located next to the Washington County Municipal Complex, but has no specific plans.
The company’s legacy also includes serious pollution of the Hudson River with PCBs that resulted from the process of making capacitors at the two sites. A federally funded dredging project has been completed, but some environmental groups feel the river is a long way from being clean.
A long history
Prior to the building of the Fort Edward plant in 1942, the site was the Washington County Fairgrounds and included a horse track and stands.
The factory was built to produced selsyn motors for the war effort. The motors were used in the gun turrets and other parts of B-17 bombers, which led to the high school teams being nicknamed the “Flying Forts,” the plane’s nickname.
GE itself dates from 1892 when it was formed and headquartered in Schenectady from a merger of Edison General Electric Co. of Schenectady and Thomson-Houston Electric Co. of Lynn, Massachusetts.
The end of the war did not mean the end of manufacturing at Fort Edward, with the facility transitioning to production of capacitors. Demand for various products was so high that GE purchased the former Union Bag and Paper Corp. in Hudson Falls. By 1957, the Fort Edward and Hudson Falls plants together had approximately 1,800 workers on their lines.
Both facilities produced PCBs in the manufacturing process, and the PCBs were legally discharged into the Hudson River. PCBs were later identified as dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals, and in the 1970s the EPA banned their discharge into navigable waters under the Clean Water Act.
The PCB problem became worse in 1973 when the Fort Edward dam was removed from the upper Hudson River, causing large amounts of PCBs to flow into the lower Hudson.
In 1986, GE announced it would close the Hudson Falls plant and transition the jobs to Fort Edward.
In 2002, the EPA called for dredging a 40-mile stretch of the river, and that dredging was completed this year.
Three years ago, with the workforce dwindling, GE announced it would move the last of its Fort Edward jobs to Clearwater, Florida, and even though it took almost a year longer than expected, the company officially closed the plant several months ago.
“Fort Edward has a long history,” said Village Trustee Peter Williams. “We had the canals, and we were prosperous, then the railroads took that away. We had the paper mills and then GE. We have gotten through losing places before, and we will get through this time. We will do with what we have.”