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Edgar Thomson, the plant that made us the Steel City, chugs away at 125

Tuesday, August 22, 2000

By Len Boselovic, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Braddock has a peculiar way of testing men under fire.

In 1755, its subjects were a young Virginia militia officer named George Washington and a foot soldier named Daniel Boone. The two colonists were part of British Gen. Edward Braddock's expeditionary force invading Fort Duquesne. They were ambushed by the French and Indians in what became known as Braddock's Field.

 
  Edgar Thomson Works in 1875.

Braddock didn't survive the test. Washington and Boone went on to bigger and better things.

More than 100 years later, William Coleman toured Braddock's Field, both as an amateur historian searching for artifacts from the battle and as an agent for Andrew Carnegie. Coleman convinced the Scottish immigrant that about 100 acres of the rolling farmland and timberland along the Monongahela River would be an ideal site for his visionary steel plant.

Like Washington and Boone, Carnegie survived adversity at Braddock's Field. His Edgar Thomson works made Pittsburgh the Steel City.

Today marks the 125th anniversary of steel production at Edgar Thomson, known as "E.T." On Aug. 22, 1875, a mild summer Sunday by contemporary accounts, E.T.'s hulking Bessemer converter produced the mill's first heat of liquid steel, destined to become 2,000 steel rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The mill still stands today, a survivor of the depression that ravaged the Steel City in the 1980s. Those cataclysmic days prompted many in Pittsburgh to seek economic security from computers, biomedicine and other New Economy businesses. However, industries old and new can learn something from Carnegie's venture in Braddock's Field. The project was launched at a time when the nation was enduring a severe recession prompted by the banking crisis of 1873.

"It was a most inauspicious moment to begin the construction of a new steel mill in the congested and depressed Pittsburgh area," wrote Joseph Frazier Wall in his biography of Carnegie.

In such tough times, Carnegie proceeded full-speed because of what Wall called his "unwavering, optimistic faith in America's economic growth and development."

"Few American manufacturers were so eager to break with tradition and to embrace the new as Carnegie," Wall wrote.

But more than optimism built Edgar Thomson, named after the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which Carnegie hoped would be a big customer of the mill.

Carnegie was an assiduous student of the industry. He realized more railroads and bridge makers were asking for steel instead of iron, its less refined cousin. He knew the Bessemer process reduced the cost of making steel, so Carnegie visited Bessemer mills in England to study the technology.

With money tight, suppliers were eager to provide equipment and material for the mill at reduced prices. Labor also was cheap. So was the land, since it was outside the boundaries of Pittsburgh's industrial district. Wall estimated E.T. was built for about $1.2 million, including the land and tenement housing for the workers.

Carnegie surrounded himself with the best people available. To build E.T., he hired Alexander Holley, whom Wall describes as a Renaissance man "who could have had a brilliant career in any field that interested him." Holley chose steel and became an expert in the new technology, erecting Bessemer furnaces at Jones & Laughlin in Pittsburgh, Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem and the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown.

By the time he went to work for Carnegie, Holley had made myriad design improvements to Bessemer's mill.

The result was, "according to the testimony of experts, the most perfect establishment of the kind in the world," reported an account in the Sept. 6, 1875, Pittsburgh Daily Gazette.

E.T.'s technological superiority notwithstanding, Wall believed that Holley's greatest contribution was finding someone to run the mill. Capt. William Jones, a Civil War veteran, had worked with Holley at Cambria Iron. Jones sided with a faction at the rival mill that favored increasing wages. When the opposing faction won and reduced pay, Jones went to work for Carnegie as general superintendent. He brought more than 200 seasoned Cambria steelmakers with him, Wall wrote.

Carnegie's new mill was capable of producing 225 tons of steel rails per day, "an amount that will exert a perceptible influence on the markets of the world," the Daily Gazette reported.

"Pittsburgh owes a debt of gratitude to the men who in these hard times could and did put $1,500,000 capital into a Bessemer steel mill, making it the most perfect in the world," the paper concluded.

Over the next 125 years, E.T. would make millions of tons of steel. It has put food on the tables of thousands of families, many of them the second or third generation of their families to work at the mill. A $250 million continuous caster, which converts liquid steel directly into slabs, was installed in 1992, giving Carnegie's legacy a new lease on life.

Last year, E.T. produced 2.8 million tons of steel, or 23 percent of U.S. Steel's production. It employs about 900, vs. peak employment of 5,000 during World War II.

Today's anniversary won't be marked by any company ceremony and comes at an interesting time for U.S. Steel. The nation's biggest steel producer is a few weeks away from acquiring Slovak steelmaker VSZ. It will be U.S. Steel's first wholly owned offshore venture in a decade.

And the steel producer is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the formation of U.S. Steel, which was chartered in New Jersey on Feb. 25, 1901.



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