Foundations of Construction: Brickyard launched highway, waterway, infrastructure leader       

Image caption “Kiewit sign indicating the west entrance to their active bridge construction site at Kingston’s Waaban Crossing,” © Susanna McLeod, December 6, 2022

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The company’s logo is low-key but recognizable at projects across the United States and Canada,. Black lettering on a yellow background features a small emblem with letters “PKS” and “Kiewit since 1884.” Most recently completing Kingston, Ontario’s Third Crossing, the Kiewit Corporation grew from a small brickyard in the late 1800s in Omaha, Nebraska into an international construction powerhouse.

Emigrating from the Netherlands in 1857, John Kiewit settled in the American mid-west and learned the techniques of brickmaking. Opening a brickyard, Kiewit’s sons Pieter and Andrew joined him in production and masonry. The younger men formed Kiewit Brothers in 1884, and five years later “was awarded it’s largest masonry contract, the 7-story Lincoln Hotel,” said

Entering general contracting, the brothers then ended the partnership in 1904; Pieter Kiewit ran the business alone until his sons Ralph, George and Peter joined him as partners.

Receiving their first million-dollar project in 1924, many more massive projects racked up on the schedule, including Omaha’s Union Station in 1929. The company re-organized into Peter Kiewit Sons, Ltd. in 1931, and changed policy to enable managers to purchase stocks. “This philosophy of employee ownership would become a major factor in the company’s future success,” noted

During the 1930s Depression, construction demand slumped. Rather than accepting the situation, Kiewit executives opened a second office to bid on construction contracts in the western US. Sales grew dramatically during WW2 years starting in 1939. The successful bidder on an American government contract, Kiewit built hundreds of barracks and other facilities at Fort Lewis, Washington, according to New Netherland Institute.

In short order, “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doubled the size of the contract,” from $7.5 million to about $15 million. The contract confirmed the company’s abilities; Kiewit received military contracts for projects across the country, including missile facilities for Minute Man and Titan missiles. Keeping equipment and workers in use during winter months, the company opened a coal mine in Wyoming.

Announced at the 1946 annual shareholder meeting, Peter Kiewit (b. September 12, 1900) wanted Kiewit “to be the best—not the biggest—contracting organization on earth.” Being the best included worker safety. By 1948, Kiewit mandated that jobsite workers must wear hard hats. Three years later, “full-time safety managers are assigned to all major projects,” said Kiewit Corporation’s Our Story.”

Building railway and rapid transit facilities, and transportation systems, the Kiewit enterprise “built more lane-miles of the interstate highway system than any other contractor.”

The firm also added water-related assignments to their agenda, constructing dams on the Colorado and Missouri Rivers along with other large contracts. Kiewit came to Canada in 1941 to build a pipeline from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to the Alaska’s coast. Eight years later, the company opened its first Canadian office in Vancouver, BC.

In 1968, Kiewit was awarded one of its first contracts in Ontario. The job required excavation of millions of cubic metres of material at Welland Canal, a detour around Niagara Falls for shipping between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The company was hired in 2010 to work on northern Ontario’s Lower Mattagami River hydroelectric power project.

Combining with Leo Alarie and Sons Construction Ltd. of Timmins, Ontario, the Kiewit-Alarie Partnership rebuilt the Smoky Falls Generating station plus several new stations along the waterway. The work increased capacity from 486 to 924 MW and “the province’s energy generation capacity to power up 440,000 additional homes,” said Kiewit Corporation. (Alarie and Sons is a subsidiary of Aecon Group.)

Kiewit’s versatile teams moved from waterworks to railway infrastructure in 2014 with the Kitchener-Waterloo Light Rail Transit system. That same year, the company began “rebuilding the Turcot Interchange, an essential transportation link within the city of Montreal, Quebec, with more than 300,000 vehicles per day in traffic volume.”

Stepping down as president of the company in 1969, Peter Kiewit selected Bob Wilson as his replacement while he remained chairman of the board. Ten years later, Walter Scott Jr. was appointed president. When Peter Kiewit died on Nov. 2, 1979, Scott settled into the chairman’s seat.

In 2019, Kiewit was awarded the contract to build Kingston’s Third Crossing (now named Waaban Crossing) spanning the Cataraqui River. Planning the two-lane bridge with sidewalk required sensitive attention to the surrounding areas.

Work with an historical treasure, “development of the project has required extensive coordination with Parks Canada, who is responsible on behalf of the Federal government for managing the Rideau Canal as a National Historic Site,” noted Kiewit. “Parks Canada is also responsible for protecting the canal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” Environmental needs and protecting wildlife habitats were crucial considerations.

Construction on Kingston’s signature Waaban Crossing proceeded through the Pandemic, weather delays, and complications. Kiewit’s contract finished on time and on budget. Reinforced by nearly 140 years of construction knowledge helped.

© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.


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