Inside a nondescript industrial building on Thornton Street, workers are tending complex machinery that turns wispy skeins of synthetic fiber into ropes robust enough to tie down a seagoing cargo ship or a Mississippi River barge.
The workers are at Samson Rope Technologies, a company that can trace its ancestry back to at least the 1880s. During that decade, company founder James P. Tolman patented a rope-braiding machine for his Massachusetts company. After he adopted the name Samson Cordage, Tolman registered a trademark that shows biblical strongman Samson grappling with a lion. The company still uses that trademark today, and outgoing CEO Tony Bon says it’s the oldest such trademark still in use.
Where there is major oil and gas activity, we’re going to be there. Where there is major shipping, we’re going to be there.
Tony Bon, CEO
The company set up a plant in Fairhaven in the late 1950s to provide rope for West Coast commercial fishing, and eventually moved that operation to Blaine before settling in Ferndale in 1979, Bon says. In 1988, the company moved its headquarters to the Ferndale plant.
Today, the plant is the source of about 200 jobs, including about 120 manufacturing workers plus sales, product testing, customer support, engineering and management.
The company concentrates on heavy-duty products for seagoing vessels and the oil industry, but also manufactures lighter-duty ropes used for recreation, rescue operations, tree-trimming and theatrical rigging.
“Our principal goal is to be in applications and markets where the performance of the rope is critical to the applications,” Bon says. “Where there is major oil and gas activity, we’re going to be there. Where there is major shipping, we’re going to be there.”
Samson also provides rope for the navies of the United Kingdom and other NATO countries.
The company established itself by developing synthetic ropes that were as strong as steel, but weighed one-seventh as much, Bon says.
Samson’s engineering staff in Ferndale works with customers to develop the custom-designed ropes. The company has been awarded a dozen patents in the 21st century alone, according to its website.
Inside the main manufacturing plant, dozens of spools of silky white synthetic fiber are mounted on a bewildering array of machinery that twists the fine fibers into cords that can then be braided together into still bigger ropes. The biggest made in Ferndale are about 4 inches in diameter.
Bon compares the braiding machine to a maypole, with a group of revolving, interlocking turntables feeding cord into the construction of the finished product, a rope heavy enough to moor a cargo ship.
We tend to be known as the best, but not the cheapest.
Tony Bon, CEO
The testing lab is full of equipment that measures the amount of stress and strain resistance in everything from the fine fibers that form the basic material to the giant ropes at the end of the manufacturing process.
The fine fibers are tested on a small pendulum array that swings weighted lengths of fiber back and forth, rubbing together. When the friction breaks the fiber, the machine notes the elapsed time.
At the other extreme is a machine that can put a test load of more than one million pounds on Samson’s heaviest ropes, stretching them until they break inside a metal cage that protects workers from the recoil.
“It sounds like a cannon going off” when a big rope snaps, Bon says.
Bon says the company keeps improving its products, so next year’s ropes will be better than this year’s.
“We tend to be known as the best, but not the cheapest,” he says.
Samson Rope Technologies
Address: 2090 Thornton St., Ferndale
Size: 125,000 square feet
Other facilities: Lafayette, La.
Owner: Wind River Holdings LLC, King of Prussia, Pa.