MK designed and constructed major infrastructure throughout the world and was one of the consortium of firms that built Hoover Dam, San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and many other large projects of American infrastructure.
MK's origins date to 1905, when Harry Morrison (1885–1971) met Morris Knudsen (1862–1943) while working on the construction of the New York Canal (Boise Project) in southwestern Idaho. Morrison was a 20-year-old concrete superintendent for the Reclamation Service; Knudsen was a forty-something Nebraska farmer (and Danish immigrant) with a team of horses and a fresno scraper.
Their first venture together was in 1912, on a pump plant in nearby Grand View for $14,000; they lost money but gained experience. MK earned some revenue in 1914, when they constructed the Three Mile Falls Diversion Dam, south of Umatilla, Oregon. For several years, the firm built irrigation canals, logging roads, and railways; they incorporated in 1923, the year gross revenues topped $1 million. MK reached a significant milestone with its joint venture in the construction of Hoover Dam (1932–35).
World War II
During World War II, MK built airfields, storage depots, and bases throughout the Pacific, and built ships along the West Coast. Japanese forces captured 1,200 workers, including many MK employees, stationed on Midway and Wake Islands in late 1941. After the war, MK expanded into a variety of international construction fields.
MK won contracts for many domestic and foreign Cold War projects. It built the locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Distant Early Warning Line system, Minuteman missile silos, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and over 100 major dams. Morrison was featured on the cover of Time magazine on May 3, 1954, and the article claimed Morrison was "the man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth."
In the 1950s it was involved in the construction of the Rimutaka Tunnel in New Zealand, the longest rail tunnel in the southern hemisphere. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, MK was involved in the construction of the Hamersley & Robe River and Mount Newman railways in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
From 1962 to 1972, MK managed a joint venture to serve the U.S. military as civilian contractors for infrastructure in the Vietnam War; in 1971, they constructed 384 of the infamous "tiger cage" cells of Côn Sơn Prison. The group was called RMK-BRJ and included Raymond International, Brown & Root, and JA Jones Construction Company.
MK was also involved in the construction of rail projects such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension (MK also built 80 C2 cars for BART in 1994) and the single track Apoera-Bakhuys Railway in Suriname (1976–1977).
Morrison–Knudsen established a separate rail division, MK Rail, in 1972. MK built the Caltrans California Cars (1994–96) as well as other rail passenger cars and light rail. It also built locomotives, originally under its own name and later under subsidiary MK Rail from 1994 to 1996, such as the MK5000C and the F40PHM-2C. MK also rebuilt locomotives, including the four Delaware & Hudson ALCO PAs. Its Australian operation, based in Whyalla, South Australia, rebuilt 17 CL and eight AL class locomotives for Australian National and six DE class locomotives for BHP in the 1990s. It rebuilt four Southern Pacific U25Bs with a Sulzer V-12 prime mover. These locomotives, designated M-K TE70-4S, operated from 1978 to 1987.
MK was also one of the largest passenger railcar builders, located at the former Erie Railroad shop in Hornell, New York, overhauling and rebuilding many New York City Transit subway cars between 1984 and 1992 including R26/R28s, R29s, R32s (Phase I & II), some R36 World's Fair cars (pilot program), R42s, R44s, and R46s. It also overhauled NJ Transit's Arrow I series cars, converting from electric MUs to push-pull coaches, and SEPTA's Silverliner II and III series electric commuter cars in the late 1980s. The CTA 3200 series and Metro-North M-6 "Cosmopolitan" cars were built by MK in 1992–1994.
Morrison–Knudsen spun-off MK Rail in 1993; it became a publicly traded company in 1994. After Morrison–Knudsen's bankruptcy in 1996 the company renamed itself MotivePower, Inc. The company merged with Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1999 to form the Wabtec Corporation. MotivePower is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Wabtec.
By the 1990s, Morrison–Knudsen had been led into some risky non-core areas by Boise native William Agee, who became CEO in 1988 and was ousted by the board of directors in February 1995. MK had announced a loss of $310 million for fiscal year 1994, and a leak of an intended Agee resignation drew broad media attention which resulted in Agee resigning earlier than originally planned. The company had been in financial difficulty for several years, and declared bankruptcy that same year. It was purchased by Washington Group in 1996 for $380 million.
For several years after the 1996 merger, the company continued as Morrison–Knudsen. Growth by acquisition brought it into the top tier (by size) of American construction firms. In 1999, MK acquired the government-services operations of Westinghouse Electric Company, becoming a science and technology services leader.
The company expanded its market leadership in 2000 by acquiring Raytheon Engineers & Constructors, which owned engineering giant Rust International of Birmingham, Alabama, to produce one of the largest companies in the industry.
Following the acquisition, the MK's corporate name changed to Washington Group International in July 2000. Issues with the Raytheon acquisition caused WGI to declare bankruptcy in 2001 – virtually eliminating all shareholder value, but later successfully exited it.
WGI was acquired by rival URS Corporation of San Francisco in 2007, which was acquired by AECOM of Los Angeles in 2014. With a greatly diminished presence in Idaho, the last positions in Boise were eliminated in 2015.
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