Iron and Steel Industry From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY. Location has been Cleveland’s potent metallurgical advantage since the mid-19th century, when its situation on Lake Erie at the convergence of numerous railroad lines made it an ideal meeting place for iron ore and coal. In 1858 an article in the CLEVELAND LEADER claimed that Cleveland enjoyed advantages even greater than Pittsburgh for the manufacture of iron: “With [the cost of] transportation added, iron can be made $7 a ton cheaper in Cleveland than made at Pittsburgh and brought here. . . . Would it not be wise to start blast furnaces in Cleveland?”
In 1860 just 374 men were working in 3 bar and sheet iron establishments in Cuyahoga County. Twenty years later, the primary iron and steel industry in Cleveland employed almost 3,000 (about 200 of these “children and youths”) in 10 establishments. By 1900 that number had more than doubled; Cuyahoga County, which produced 968,801 tons of iron and steel in 1900, ranked fifth nationally (behind Allegheny County, PA, Cook County, IL, Mahoning County, OH, and Jefferson County, AL) in iron and steel production. The industry’s foothold in Cleveland was assured with the discovery in 1844 of iron ore in the Lake Superior region of Michigan. Because the Lake Superior ore districts were geographically isolated, without coal or major markets nearby, iron ore could not be smelted to pig or bar iron and sold at a profit. The only profitable way to exploit the ore was to transport it in bulk to distant blast furnaces on the lower Great Lakes–to places like Cleveland, Chicago, and Ashtabula, OH. The opening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal in 1855 marked the beginning of ore shipment in quantity, and the movement of this raw material is the same today as it was then: ore mined in the Lake Superior region is carried by rail to the shipping ports, then by ship to lower lake ports, where it is rehandled into railroad cars for the trip to the blast furnace.
Clevelander SAMUEL LIVINGSTON MATHER† (1817-90) is usually credited with opening the rich iron ore resources of the Lake Superior region, which brought Cleveland to its position of supremacy in the iron industry. Mather was the driving force behind the Cleveland Iron Mining Co., one of the most important early mining companies on the Marquette Range and one of two “parents” (the other was the Iron Cliffs Co.) of the CLEVELAND-CLIFFS INC. Cleveland-Cliffs was the leading iron mining company on the Marquette Range when it was incorporated in 1891, a position it still held a century later. Mather, together with other Cleveland industrialists at the helm of such companies as M. A. HANNA CO. and PICKANDS MATHER & CO., dominated the ore trade on the Great Lakes, controlling 80% of the ore vessels plying the lakes and massive tracts of ore-rich land.
The manufacture of iron products preceded the basic industry, with railroads providing the impetus for Cleveland’s early forges and foundries. The CUYAHOGA STEAM FURNACE CO., incorporated in 1834 by JOSIAH BARBER†, RICHARD LORD†, and others, was among the earliest of such enterprises; by 1853 its Ohio City works was turning out two locomotives each month. In 1852 WILLIAM A. OTIS† and John N. Ford established the Lake Erie Iron Works in Ohio City to forge axles for railroad cars and locomotives, and heavy shafts for steamboats. In 1853-54 the Forest City Iron Works erected a rolling mill on the lakeshore at Wason (East 38th) St., producing the first “saleable manufactured iron” (boiler plate) in May 1855. That year, the Railroad Iron Mill Co., established by Albert J. Smith in partnership with others, erected a plant in the same location to reroll worn rails.
HENRY CHISHOLM† (1822-81), an immigrant Scottish construction contractor, was Cleveland’s pioneer ironmaster. Chisholm, with , built a rolling mill in 1857 at NEWBURGH, 6 miles southeast of PUBLIC SQUARE, to reroll worn rails. Two years later, taking advantage of new transportation routes, including the Sault Ste. Marie Canal and the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad, the firm invested in a blast furnace, feeding it with Lake Superior iron ore and coal from the Mahoning Valley (later Connellsville coke). Following an infusion of capital from Andros B. Stone, the enterprise expanded rapidly, reorganizing as the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. in 1864. In 1868 the company installed a pair of Bessemer converters, the first such installation west of the Alleghenies and only the third successful one in the nation. Cleveland Rolling Mill became a major integrated producer of pig iron, Bessemer steel, and steel products, employing a work force of more than 8,000 at the height of its independent existence in the late 1890s.
Another important 19th-century Cleveland steelmaker was CHARLES AUGUSTUS OTIS† (1827-1905), whose father had established the Lake Erie Iron Works. Otis, who studied steelmaking in Europe, organized the Otis Iron & Steel Co. in 1873 and hired Samuel T. Wellman to oversee construction and serve as chief engineer and superintendent of its Lakeside Works on the lakefront at Lawrence (East 33rd) St. Wellman installed the first commercially successful basic open-hearth furnace in the U.S. (which soon eclipsed the Bessemer process) in 1886 and introduced mechanized charging, contributing to Otis’s rise as one of the nation’s most dynamic small producers.
By 1884, according to the annual report of the Cleveland Board of Trade, there were 147 establishments in Cleveland devoted to the manufacture of iron and steel and their products. Representing a combined capital investment of $21.5 million and an average work force of 14,000, these businesses produced products having a total value of $25.2 million. In addition to 11 manufacturers of iron and steel products (the primary industry) employing 5,665 workers, these figures included 30 establishments producing hardware and tools (employing 2,292), 4 producing sewing machines (1,110), 48 producing boilers and machinery (1,333), 13 foundries (1,217), and 9 producing nuts, bolts, and other fasteners (960).
By 1880 the annual output of the Superior mines had risen to almost 2 million gross tons. Cleveland’s strategic position as both a final destination and a transshipment point for iron ore underscored a vexing problem–how to unload it efficiently–that was solved by two Cleveland inventors. Until 1867 ore was unloaded entirely by hand labor. Between 1867 and 1880, portable steam engines were used to hoist tubs of ore out of the hold, but laborers still had the back-breaking job of filling the tubs by hand and wheeling the ore to the dock. In 1880 ALEXANDER E. BROWN† (1852-1911) developed a mechanical hoist consisting of 2 towers supporting a cableway; a steam-powered rope trolley suspended from the cableway traveled out over the vessel’s hold and carried hand-filled tubs of ore back to the dock. In 1899 GEORGE H. HULETT† (1846-1923) eclipsed Brown’s invention with his own. The Hulett unloader (see HULETT ORE UNLOADERS), consisting of a large-capacity grab bucket suspended from a stiff vertical leg mounted on a walking beam, did away with hand shoveling entirely. It drastically reduced labor costs and unloading times, and led to larger boats especially designed to accommodate the Huletts. By 1913 Hulett unloaders dotted Cleveland’s river and lakefront and could be found at almost every port on the lower Great Lakes.
Signaling the growing dominance of large firms, in 1899 the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. was absorbed into the American Steel and Wire Co. of New Jersey, which was itself absorbed into J. P. Morgan’s giant U.S. STEEL CORP. combine when it was organized 2 years later. U.S. Steel substantially augmented its Cleveland facilities in 1907-08 with the construction of wire and strip mills on the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL south of Harvard Ave. Galvanizing and barbed fence departments were added later, and by 1932 the Cuyahoga Works was one of the largest wire mills in the country and boasted the world’s largest cold-rolling plant.
Two new plants established in the early 20th century would provide the foundation for the modern steel industry. In 1909 ore merchant Dalliba, Corrigan & Co. began construction of 2 blast furnaces on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River that became the nucleus of one of the nation’s important independent producers, the CORRIGAN-MCKINNEY STEEL CO. Between 1913 and 1916, Corrigan, McKinney built 2 additional furnaces and a steel works for the production of blooms, sheet bars, and billets. The problem of industrywide integration led the company to add merchant mills for the production of finished steel products in 1927. In 1935, under the aggressive leadership of chairman TOM M. GIRDLER† (1877-1965), the REPUBLIC STEEL CORP. acquired Corrigan, McKinney and moved its headquarters from Youngstown to Cleveland. Republic continuously enlarged the plant, making it the largest of the company’s 6 basic steelmaking plants and one of the 10 largest in the country.
Otis, meanwhile, greatly expanded its capacity with the construction in 1912 of a new Riverside Works on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. (The plant was immortalized in 1929 when Otis hired a young photographer, MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE†, to document the drama of steelmaking for a company promotional book.) With the acquisition of the adjacent Cleveland Furnace Co. shortly after World War I, Otis became a completely integrated steel company, and on the eve of the Great Depression the company boasted a capacity of one million tons. In 1942 the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. of Pittsburgh (see JONES AND LAUGHLIN STEEL CORP. (CLEVELAND WORKS)), eager to enter the Midwest market, acquired Otis. J&L invested heavily during the next 2 decades, adding a new blast furnace (“Susan,” largest in the Cleveland district), 4 new steel furnaces, and other facilities.
The American steel industry historically has had a volatile relationship with labor, adopting from the beginning a staunch antiunion stance. In the 1880s the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. endured a series of violent strikes in response to wage cuts and recruited Polish and Czech immigrants to replace striking workers (see CLEVELAND ROLLING MILL STRIKES). In 1937 Republic’s irascible Tom Girdler proclaimed that he would shut down the company’s mills and “raise apples and potatoes” before he would recognize a union. The bloody LITTLE STEEL STRIKE that year left 12 dead at Republic plants in Chicago and Youngstown. Not until 1942, at the order of the War Labor Board, was the CIO successful in organizing Republic workers.
Thanks to pent-up consumer demand, the industry enjoyed a long period of postwar prosperity. But by the early 1970s Cleveland’s steelmakers, like those nationwide, grappled with the problems of inflation, record imports of foreign steel, increasingly stringent environmental regulations, lagging productivity, and rising labor costs. In 1979 U.S. Steel abandoned its historic Central Furnaces plant, established by the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. in 1881 for the production of pig iron. Five years later, the steel giant closed 6 plants, including its Cuyahoga Works in Cuyahoga Heights, after the United Steelworkers of America rejected concessions demanded by the company. The city’s two remaining integrated producers, Republic and Jones & Laughlin (the latter a subsidiary of LTV following a 1968 takeover), faced difficult conditions in the early 1980s as economic recession and the decline of the domestic automobile industry caused steel demand to plummet. In June 1984 Jones & Laughlin merged with Republic to form the LTV STEEL, with headquarters in Cleveland. Two years later, LTV had run up losses totaling nearly $1 billion, forcing it to file for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.
With increased demand for its products, especially flat-rolled steel supplied to the automotive, appliance, and electrical equipment industries, LTV rebounded. Since 1984 the company has made more than $1.1 billion in new capital investments at its Cleveland Works. The centerpiece of its modernization efforts is a direct hot-charge complex, completed in 1993, which enables LTV to convert molten steel to a coil of hot-rolled steel in a continuous process. In 1994, with 2 integrated steel mills (at Cleveland and Indiana Harbor, IN), Cleveland’s only remaining integrated producer ranked as the nation’s 3rd-largest steelmaker and 2nd-largest producer of flat-rolled steel. Working at 99% capacity, the Cleveland Works in 1994 produced 4.8 million tons of raw steel. With 7,100 full-time employees, LTV was Cuyahoga County’s 2nd-largest nongovernmental employer.
Exemplifying the massive changes that have swept the industry in recent years, M. A. Hanna, an old-line mineral resources company whose history is rooted in iron mining, has transformed itself into a company focused on rubber and plastics. In 1986, meanwhile, a new steel fabricating company bought the former Cuyahoga Works of U.S. Steel, along with rights to the historic “American Steel & Wire” name, and resumed production as a non-union shop. A unit of Birmingham Steel Corporation of Birmingham, Alabama, since 1992, American Steel & Wire makes rod and wire for sale to the fastener industry.
The iron and steel industry continues to be an economic mainstay of Greater Cleveland. In 1992, the primary metal industries in Cuyahoga County employed 14,690 while almost twice that number (27,978) were employed in the manufacture of fabricated metal products.
Carol Poh Miller
Paskoff, Paul F., ed., Iron and Steel in the Nineteenth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography. New York: Facts on File, 1989.
Pendry, William R. “A History of the Cleveland District of the American Steel and Wire Co.” Cleveland: American Steel & Wire Co., 1937. Mimeographed.
Seely, Bruce E., ed., Iron and Steel in the Twentieth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography. New York: Facts on File, 1994.
Wellman, S. T. “The Early History of Open-Hearth Steel Manufacture in the U.S.” Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 23 (1902): 78-98.