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Frank R. Bryan concrete firm has deep local roots

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Can you picture a solid block of concrete covering Heinz Field from goal post to goal post and rising as high as a 24-story office building?

In the old days, Frank R. Bryan used wagons and teams of horses to haul materials and excavate streets, rail rights of way and other building sites. One of the first trucks that replaced teams of horses at Frank R. Bryan Inc. had solid rubber tires and a device limiting the speed to 7 miles an hour.
Click photo for larger image.

That's how much concrete that Frank R. Bryan Inc. produces each year at an 80-year-old plant in an industrial patch in the shadow of the Liberty Bridge on the South Side.

If you don't recognize the name, you've likely seen its trademark orange ready-mix concrete trucks with the green cabs chugging around town. On an average day, 75 of the distinctive-looking trucks make deliveries out of the plant into much of Allegheny County.

As the biggest concrete plant in the region, most of Bryan's product goes into transportation projects such as river and land piers, retaining walls, bridge decks, sidewalks, steps and streets as well as foundations and floors.

It's also the oldest concrete supplier, whose roots are an excavation company dating to 1883.

And while it's a key part of establishing the infrastructure, it's a business that operates out of the limelight.

For example, when you drive through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and over the Fort Pitt Bridge, you don't realize that Bryan supplied the concrete when they were built in the 1950s -- or that you're driving on Bryan-mixed concrete that contractors used when the tunnel floor, decks and ramps were rebuilt during the last two years.

Bryan concrete also is being used on the Port Authority's $500 million light-rail project in the South Hills.

After all these years, the company is owned and operated by the same family, the fourth generation of Bryans.

For those reasons and more, and as a change of pace, I thought you would enjoy the Frank R. O'Brien story.

O'Brien?

In 1883 when Frank O'Brien went to set up a company in McKees Rocks with one horse and a wagon, "no Irish need apply" was not uncommon in the region. People of his ilk were consigned to hard manual labor at steel mills, coal mines and railroads.

Recognizing strong anti-Irish prejudice, he changed his name to Bryan, told customers he was Welsh and even painted his wagon orange, the color of the Orange Order Protestants in Ireland to this day. The corporate color has remained with Bryan through the years.

In short order, Frank Bryan's business expanded to 125 teams of horses involved with excavating and hauling for railroads, small Sewickley area oil fields and street-building companies.

Over the next 120 years, Frank Bryan Inc. hauled building materials, dredged and processed sand and gravel for concrete, excavated Point State Park and Gateway Center, made and sold concrete and established five subsidiaries, from trucking to finished concrete products. There are 90 full-time employees today.

The company is no longer in the excavating business. Although its billing office remains in McKees Rocks, the ready-mix concrete operation was moved to the South Side after it bought the old riverfront Dravo Corp. plant in 1980.

What says loads about respect came from competitors in 1998 when Thomas Bryan Jr., grandson of the founder, fell to his death while repairing a materials storage bin at the old plant on Third Street.

The other companies organized a funeral procession of about 100 ready-mix trucks that followed the hearse from the church to the cemetery for his burial.

I toured the South Side facility last week with his two sons, Tom Bryan III and David, both Geneva College civil engineering graduates. But first I heard from "Uncle Jim" Bryan, 79, vice president and still active in the company. He remembered what's probably the oldest, active Bryan-made concrete street in use in the area.

"Valley Street in McKees Rocks," he said. "It's about 60 years old now. We laid it out, excavated it and poured the concrete."

Here's what else you learn when you visit the family's concrete plant:

Frank Bryan erected his first concrete plant in 1920 in McKees Rocks, adjacent to a stone quarry he operated in an area known locally as the "Indian Mound." Years later, when people discovered artifacts deemed to be historically important, Bryan had to close shop and move.

While South Side streets aren't the best place to drive ready-mix trucks hauling 18 tons of concrete, the riverfront location is ideal to bring in barges of gravel and sand. It would take 28 tractor-trailers to transport what a single barge can handle, and who wants more trucks?

The technology has evolved into complex formulas, quality controls and precise delivery schedules. Modern concrete plants such as Bryan's use sophisticated computer equipment to produce custom-made mixes with special liquid modifiers and plastic fibers; to analyze water content of materials; to regulate temperatures; and to mix multiple amounts, types and sizes of aggregates.

On the other hand, workers manually dumped 5-pound bags of ice into the plant mixer -- up to 20 bags for every cubic yard of concrete -- in order to cool the concrete used on the Fort Pitt Bridge deck in the peak of summer to 72 degrees when it left the plant.

The "high performance" recipe called for an exact water-to-cement ratio for high strength, low shrinkage and extra water resistance. PennDOT also required a special corrosion inhibitor to resist road salt.

Call it a concrete cocktail. And a fifth-generation mixologist is in training.

Tom Bryan III's oldest son, Justin, 20, is now a civil engineering major at Geneva. He has worked in the family business for three summers, this year as welder, laborer and concrete technician at the South Side plant.

The home of the Black-and-Gold will be the home of the Orange-and-Green for some time yet.

Plate du jour. Ray Kotewicz of Baldwin recently spotted the Pennsylvania personalized license plate WOT EVER on West Liberty Avenue. Does anyone have WILL BE?


Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

Correction/Clarification (Published Month. DD, 2000): Frank Bryan Inc. bought the old Dravo Corp. South Side plant in 1980. The name of the plant's former owner was given incorrectly in this column as published Oct. 12, 2003.

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