An Urban Explorer Gone

For some, the lure of the old Gates factory is undeniable. And it was deadly for one.

When rubber prices dropped in the 1920s, Gates renamed the business the Gates Rubber Company and began making actual tires, including the Super Tread and a slew of other products. On the roof of the factory, near the water tower, Gates built a testing facility where a tire attached to a pole could roll along a circular track. But he didn't stop there. In keeping with the City Beautiful movement that was sweeping the country, he added a rooftop garden featuring grand pillars and vine-covered lattices, as well as an ornate dining area where Gates could host orchestras, socialite parties and even boxing matches.

Sales grew to more than $3 million annually. Facilities were opened in Chicago and San Francisco, and the Denver plant was dubbed the "West's biggest factory." In a newsletter, Gates opined that his company symbolized the dawn of a new day in industrialism: "Old-fashioned methods are dying, and the greedy labor-sweating employer whose horizon is no wider than the disc of a dollar is slowly being pushed to the wall. The men of the new school inject a broad humanity into their relation with the wage-earner and find their return in increased satisfaction and contentment — and efficiency."

Gates's rapid growth proved that it was possible to have a manufacturing seat west of the Mississippi. "The rise of the Gates Co. has given the West considerably more recognition than it had been receiving from Eastern leaders in automobile and rubber manufacturer organizations," the Rocky Mountain News declared in 1927. "Denver, President Gates concedes, is not 'industrially minded.' Very likely, he suggests, that's the only reason why there are not more factories here the size of his own."

Cherokee Denver plans a $1 billion development for the Gates site — once it's cleaned up.
Cherokee Denver plans a $1 billion development for the Gates site — once it's cleaned up.

By the 1930s, the complex had grown to thirty interconnected buildings over a 25-square-block area that manufactured some 120 products, including the world's first synthetic belt. During World War II, when the supply of raw rubber from Indochina was cut off, Gates went into round-the-clock war production, making everything from tires and gaskets to gas masks and TNT buckets. Newspaper stories described the complicated process of producing synthetic rubber from scratch, as "grizzled men" dumped the base materials into huge vats, "gray-haired women" stirred in chemicals and a "young girl" trimmed the still-warm products.

In the 1950s, Gates grew into a multinational corporation with dozens of plants across the Western hemisphere. When a strike by the United Rubber Workers Union in the '60s immobilized U.S. production for months, the company pushed for even greater geographic diversification, which put it at the forefront of the business trend now known as globalization.

At its peak, the Gates factory in Denver employed over 5,500 people. One of them was Egon Topp, who worked as a maintenance electrician at the plant for thirty years. Now 78 and living in Northglenn, Topp was raised in Germany, where there were few jobs for young men. He emigrated to Canada, then moved on to Denver, where he found work at Gates in 1961. At the time, the thousands of employees were divided between three shifts; as one shift clocked out, the next shift was already clocking in. It was Topp's job to make sure that the vast array of machinery was ready to start at the push of a button.

"There could not be any downtime," he explains, since any breakdowns or problems with the power generators could mean tens of thousands of dollars in lost productivity. The complex even had its own power plant. Topp's role required that he know every sector of the massive operation. The biggest was the tire division, which could produce up to 2,500 tires daily. From the rubber tires to their steel rims, everything was made at the plant.

The company kept growing — and diversifying. Under Charles Gates Jr., the company invested in Learjet, and also got into the development business in Colorado Springs. At the Denver facility, Gates created a health center complete with doctors and dentists. In 1971, the company opened a $21 million tire plant in Littleton, which could crank out 3,000 tires daily. But that facility was closed just three years later, when Gates discontinued tire production altogether. By then it had expanded into myriad products such as plastic bottles, cassettes and battery casings.

During the '80s, Gates began acquiring competitors in Europe and started a relentless push into Asia, India and China. Although the company built a new administration building at 990 South Broadway in 1985, two years later it announced that it was closing most of its manufacturing divisions in Denver, eliminating thousands of blue-collar jobs. "Soon only the belt division was left," Topp recalls. "Whole sections were shut down. They were laid off." When the union contract finally ran out in 1991, many more Gates workers simply retired, Topp included.

In 1996, what was by then known as the Gates Corporation was subsumed by Tomkins PLC, a British conglomerate, ending 85 years of family ownership. The company chose to maintain an administrative headquarters in Denver, but moved it to a new office building at the edge of the Platte Valley, which is reserved for upper-echelon management. The South Broadway facility was shuttered.

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