Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area

204 Church Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460

hspa@verizon.net   610-935-7646

www.hspa-pa.org   or   www.phoenixvillehistoricalsociety.org




 


Phoenix Iron and Phoenix Steel Co.

 

Please click to link to the Phoenix Steel Co. photo gallery in this web site.  The Society has many photos of the Phoenix Steel Co.  Please click here to link to a page in this web site about our Museum, which has more information about the Phoenix Steel Co.  Please note that the HSPA Museum has a Phoenix Column.

In 1790, Benjamin Longstreth established the French Creek Nail Works, which was the first nail factory in the United States.  In 1809, iron nails for the first time were made by machinery and hence were called cut nails.  In 1813, Lewis Wernwag invested in the nail works and renamed it Phoenix Iron Works.  In 1821, George & Jonah Thompson purchased the nail factory and installed the first coal fueled steam engine.  By 1824, it was the largest nail factory in the United States.  The village soon came to be known as Phoenixville.  Phoenix Iron Works grew from a small nail factory into Phoenix Iron Co. and eventually Phoenix Steel Corporation.   At its peak the business employed 2,000 workers.  By 1830, Phoenix Iron Works was one of the largest nail factories in the U. S.  It's maximum production was about three tons of nails per day.  After a fire in 1848, the nail factory was destroyed and never rebuilt.  It was located where the future Foundry Building was constructed in 1882 by the Phoenix Iron Company.

The earliest way of making iron dates back many centuries. "Bloomery iron" is iron made by mixing iron ore with charcoal and heated in a small hearth with the heat being enhanced with a bellows.  That yields very low carbon iron that doesn't melt, is ductile, and can be forged by blacksmiths.  In the 1500s, the blast furnace was invented wherein iron ore is mixed with charcoal along with lime as a flux in a high furnace while hot air is pumped in at the bottom of the furnace with large water-powered bellows.  The resulting iron was much higher in iron content and because it was much hotter and completely melted the slag floated on top giving a much superior iron product.  The iron product from blast furnaces is called "pig iron" that is brittle but can be poured into shaped cavities in sand to make products.  It has about 4% carbon.  Pig iron had to be reheated to "burn out" the unwanted carbon so that it would be malleable and could be shaped by blacksmiths without cracking.  This "bar iron" or "wrought iron" had about 0.05% carbon.  Coal was used in this process to generate the needed heat.  Very low carbon iron cannot be hardened, so it can be reheated with carbon to get about a 1% carbon content that creates a hard iron product.  In 1784, Henry Cort in England developed the "puddling" process to make wrought iron from pig iron.  The process uses a furnace where coal is burned in a separate part and the hot air is drawn over the pig iron in the main part of the furnace.  Long rods are used to oxidize out the unwanted carbon and to stir the iron. 

In the 1820s, Phoenix Iron Works needed new capital.  In 1827, Brothers David and Benjamin Reeves along with James and Joseph Whitaker added investment capital and named the enterprise Reeves & Whitaker.  In 1825, the Schuylkill Navigation Canal opened and coal could then be shipped to the iron mill from the Port Carbon area in Schuylkill County, PA.  In 1841, Reeves and Whitaker became the first firm in the area capable of extensive puddling operations after adding six puddling furnaces.  

In the late 1830's, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad came to Phoenixville.  In September of 1837, the 1932 foot long Black Rock Railroad Tunnel was completed although the railroad did not open for business in Phoenixville until January of 1842.  The tunnel was originally 19 feet wide and 17 feet high.  The tunnel was started in December of 1835.  It was the second railroad tunnel built in the United States.  In 1842, the railroad was completed to Pottsville, so then the railroad could deliver larger amounts of coal much quicker to the iron mill than could canal barges.

In 1842, a survey of the operation stated that the blast furnace had a capacity for making 1,500 tons of pig iron per year.  The refining furnace had equal capacity and the rolling mill could convert 3,000 tons of pig iron into bars per year. The mill employed 147 workers.

The 1840s represented a decade of triumph and expansion for the Reeves family, with the only major reversal coming on June 25, 1848 when the nail factory burned.  The facility was a total loss and the nail factory was never rebuilt.

As demand for railroad rails soared in the 1840s, Pennsylvania trackage alone almost quadrupled between 1846 and 1860.  The first iron rails used in the United States were imported from Europe and then they started being made in the U.S.  The iron works at Phoenixville started making iron rails in November of 1846.  The company had three blast furnaces measuring l5' x 59' by mid-decade.  In 1846, the firm changed its name to Reeves, Buck and Company, indicating a fresh source of capital had been obtained from Robert S. Buck of Bridgeton.  Reeves, Buck and Company immediately put the new funds to work erecting a major rail mill.  Other additions in 1846 included a puddling furnace, a reheating mill, blacksmith shops, a foundry, a pattern shop, and a machine shop.  More office and warehouse space was also added.  George Walters, a skilled mechanic who had been with the firm since 1838 and was now chief engineer, was credited with designing and carrying out the expansion.  

In 1855, the Phoenixville enterprise was reorganized and incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Company with David Reeves, founder, as president and his son Samuel as vice president and treasurer.  The sale of stock provided capital funds.  In 1855, Phoenix Iron Co. became the first iron mill in America to roll iron beams and plates.  By the 1850's, Phoenix Iron Co. was the largest employer in Chester County with more employees than the next 75 businesses combined.

The 1850s were also characterized by success, with the Reeves operations stretching from Phoenixville to Safe Harbor in Lancaster County to Bridgeton, NJ to Johnstown, PA.   Reeves, Buck and Company had the most substantial rolling mill in the state, and in certain products such as rails achieved total vertical integration.  They had total control of the production process--from ownership of iron ore and anthracite coal to the production and sale of iron rails.  Furthermore, they turned out more product with less fuel and labor than any of their competitors.

The new direction for Phoenix Iron Co. in the mid 1850's involved an emphasis on the fabrication of structural iron beams, with nine-inch deep I-beams being produced at Safe Harbor.   By mid-century the expanding Phoenix Iron Works threatened to overwhelm the modest village of Phoenixville, whose population had doubled from 809 in 1840 to l,680 in 1846.  By 1848 the population doubled again to 3,337.   The Reeves could see only one solution to the pressure placed on the existing supply of local housing, and that was to build company housing on land the firm already owned.   At the end of the decade about 100 modest frame structures were erected, which became known as "Puddler's Row" and "Nailer's Row."  Some of the "Nailer's Row" houses have endured and still can be seen as pictured between the north side of Bridge Street and the French Creek.

The creation of company housing at Phoenixville is significant because such accommodations gave the firm greater leverage and thus control over their workers.  This arrangement gathers even more meaning when it is noted that wages paid at Phoenix Iron were consistently low in comparison to other iron works in the region.  Furthermore, management's attitude toward labor was consistently repressive.   In brief, if the Reeves were determined to rule their workers with an iron hand, and company housing could serve as a means to that end.

John Griffen who was named superintendent at Phoenix Iron Co. in 1856 made significant contributions to the firm.  He had an extensive background that included work at the Norristown Iron Works and at Safe Harbor in Lancaster County, and continued his role as an innovator earning patents for improvements in rolling massive wrought-iron beams that were used in commercial and industrial projects.  However, his place in history was secured by the invention of the 3 inch ordinance rifle that is sometimes called the Griffen Gun.  It was patented in 1855 (patent # 13,984).  An original 1855 model rifle without a serial number since it never saw military service is in Reeves Park in Phoenixville.  The spirally wrapped 3 inch rifle (76 mm) was made from rolled iron rods.  Previously cast iron or brass was used in rifles.  Those guns were adversly affected by heating during firings and barrel distoration became dangerous for continued use.  The Griffen Gun was designed and first produced while John Griffen was still at Safe Harbor.   The United States Army tested the gun at Fort Monroe, VA in 1856 and 1857 and were pleased with its performance.  It could fire exploding shells that were at that time a problem for the Army and Navy and would continue to be so for several more years.   The government  purchased about 940 guns or 3 inch rifles from Phoenix Iron Company between 1861 and 1865.  That was about half of the Union Army guns used during the Civil War.  The last rifle was produced in January of 1867.  The original gun or rifle was called the 1855 Griffen Gun and it underwent some changes in 1857 and again in 1861.  Its weight was reduced and the barrel inside diameter was decreased to 3 inches.  The 1861 Model barrel was 69 inches long and rifled.  The rifle weighed 816 pounds, which was more than 200 pounds lighter than brass guns.  It's name was the 3 inch Ordnance Rifle Model 1861.  The cost ranged from $330 to $350 per rifle during the civil War.  The maximum range for the muzzle-loading gun was 1830 yards using a typical 8 or 9 pound shell which had a velocity of about 1,215 feet per second using a one pound powder charge.  The guns gave good publicity to John Griffen and the Phoenix Iron Company.

                

The Civil War years brought contracts for the highly successful 3 inch Ordnance Rifle, yet the success of the rifle probably does not compare with the firm's greater claim to historical significance: the invention, fabrication, and sale of the famous Phoenix Column.  It was invented by Samuel Reeves in 1862. The Phoenix Column is hollow and circular and made up of four, six, or eight wrought-iron segments that are flanged and riveted together.  A drawing of them is on the left.  Reeves had created a device that would greatly facilitate the construction of tall buildings by eliminating the need for brutally heavy and thick load-bearing walls.  The Phoenix Column also had structural applications in bridges, buildings, viaducts, and elevated lines.  A famous architect, Alan Burham, argued that its real advantage over the cast-iron column was that wrought iron could be riveted which was a feature that became important in the 1880s when designs for taller and taller buildings on narrow urban lots had to address windbracing.  Connections between riveted steel columns and beams were sufficiently rigid that windbracing became a relatively simple task.  The idea behind their invention was the tall iron masts being used in some British ships.  They were made from 4 to 8 sections of curved iron or later curved steel and riveted together to form a pipe that was very strong.  They were from 3 5/8" to 14 3/8" in diameter and between 10' and 36' long.  They were from 1/8" to 1 3/16" thick.  They were made of iron until 1890 when they were made from steel.  They ceased making them in 1919 because of competition from steel I-beams and steel wide flange beams.

In the 1860s, Phoenix Iron Co. had about 1,200 workers.  In the late 1800s, Phoenix Iron Co. was the largest employer in Chester County.  Phoenix Iron Co. started making steel in 1889.   Before then their products were made of iron.

Phoenix Columns were used in the Second Avenue Elevated Line and in the New York City Metropolitan Elevated extension from 83rd Street to 159th Street.  They were used in an engineering wonder known as the Kinzua Viaduct to transport trains over the Kinzua Valley in Northwestern Pennsylvania.  They played a vital role in noteworthy buildings in New York City, including the R. G. Dun Building, the World Building which was also known as the Pulitzer Building, the Commercial Cable Building, and Madison Square Garden.  In Philadelphia, Phoenix Columns were used for structural support in the Frankfort Arsenal Rolling Mill, the pump room at the Philadelphia Fairmount Waterworks, City Hall, and the Public Ledger Building at Sixth & Chestnut Streets.  Phoenix Columns were used in bridge work for compression trusses and for structural supports.  They were used for shoring up sections of mines.   Phoenix Columns displayed an extraordinary ability to withstand heavy loads.  An interesting use of Phoenix Columns was in Chicago in the Old Colony Building that was built in 1893 and 1894.  It was a 17 story building that was the tallest building at that time in Chicago.  Sometimes Phoenix Colums were used for vertical support and steel I-beams were used for floor trusts.  Phoenix Columns would have been used to build the never financed or built 1,000 foot high observation tower that David Reeves envisioned for the Centennial Exposition, described in Scientific American on January 24, 1874.

The Calhoun Street bridge from Morrisville to Trenton was made with Phoenix Columns.  There are now about 40 bridges still in use that were constructed with Phoenix Columns.   From 1868 to 1893, about 800 bridges were built with Phoenix Columns.

In 1910, Phoenix Iron Co. had the largest Open Hearth steel furnace in the world with a 150 ton capacity.  In 1913, Phoenix Iron Co. had the first electriclly operated continuous steel furnace.  In an open hearth furnace, pig iron as well as scrap iron and steel are melted by a hot gas flame drawn over it by a chimney draft.  During the process high quality iron ore is added.   Alloy minerals can be added such as nickel to make alloy steels.  The resulting steel is then poured into ingot molds.  The ingots are subsequently heated in "soaking pits" with hot air for tempering before the steel ignots are rolled into slabs. 

In 1949, the company was renamed the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company and in 1955 the name was changed to the Phoenix Steel Corporation.  Phoenix Iron Company employed up to 2,500 workers during the two World Wars.  After World War II,  Phoenix Iron and Steel Company and its new name Phoenix Steel Corporation began to decline from increased domestic and foreign steel competition as well as from increased competition from aluminum and reinforced concrete products.  Phoenix Steel Corporation eventually closed and the last steel heat was done on November 18, 1976.   



The Foundry Building is pictured above as it looked in 2010 after its restoration. The rebuilt Gay Street Bridge is visualized in the background.  The 14,000 sq. ft. Foundry Building was completed in March of 1882 at the Phoenix Iron Company plant that covered over 130 acres in Phoenixville along both sides of the French Creek.  The Foundry Building houses a very large wooden crane that may be the only large wooden crane still in place in the United States.  The Foundry Building is now the home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center.   Please click to link to their web site, www.phoenixvillefoundry.org.

Phoenix Iron Co. and Phoenix Steel Co. Documents:   The Society has close ties with the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, PA and The Hagley Library in Greenville, Delaware, which houses papers of the Phoenix Iron & Steel Company and the Phoenix Bridge Company.

 

Please click here to link to an article and photos about the sign dedication in October 2005.


A source for part of this article is Without Fitting, Filing, or Chipping, by Thomas R. Winpenny,  Canal History and Technology Press, 1996.  Another source is the Annals of Phoenixville And Its Vicinity by Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker, reprinted in 1976 from the original edition that was published by Bavis & Pennypacker in Philadelphia in 1872.

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