Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

A woman in early nineteenth century America harbored limited expectations for her role in society. The story of Rebecca Lukens (1794-1854) and her successful leadership of the country’s oldest steel company, however, is remarkable even for the twenty-first century. Not only did she survive as a widow with six children, she was a brilliant businesswoman who guided her company through some of America’s most troubling economic times.

Born Rebecca Webb Pennock on January 6, 1794, in West Marlboro Township, Chester County, she was the eldest surviving child of Isaac Pennock (1767-1824) and Martha Webb Pennock (1765-1844), both from Quaker families. Rebecca’s fa­ther abandoned a family tradition when, in 1793, over the strong objections of his father, he left farming to make wrought iron that was fashioned into barrel hoops, wheel rims, spikes, and blacksmith iron. In 1810, he partnered with Jesse Kersey (1768-1845), a Quaker minister, to establish the Brandywine Iron and Nail Company. Pennock converted a water-powered sawmill to an iron rolling mill along the Brandywine River in what is now Coatesville, Chester County.

Rebecca’s early life – in her own words, a “perfect upbringing” – allowed her to be “wild and happy and joyous as youth could make me.” While at boarding schools in West Chester and Wilmington, Delaware, she took her education seriously in a variety of studies, from popular literature to Shakespeare, and was especially interested in chemistry and French. While visiting Philadelphia with her father, she met Charles Lloyd Lukens (1786-1825), a Quaker physician, whom she married in 1813. Charles and Rebecca Lukens became the parents of six children, Martha, Elizabeth, Charles, Isaac, Isabella, and Charlesanna.

Charles Lukens stopped practicing medicine to take over his father-in-law’s Federal Slitting Mill. Isaac Pennock promised to bequeath the mill to Rebecca, convincing Charles to continue operating it. Lukens’ interest in chemistry led to improvements in wrought iron and the mill became the first in the United States to produce boilerplate steel.

An educated Quaker woman was not unusual in the nineteenth century, but what was truly remarkable was that a woman competed in the iron and steel industry, an arena dominated by men. Had her husband not died in 1825, Rebecca might have led a traditional life. Having first lost both her son Charles and her father in 1824 and then becoming a widow the following year at the age of thirty, it became a question of family honor – and survival. To her advantage, Rebecca’s education and experience assisting her husband while he was alive would be a key.

It was Charles Lukens’s dying wish that Rebecca continue the business, but to survive, she needed to immediately overcome her grief. The company faced mounting debts and the mill and farm were in poor repair. Although her husband had intended to bequeath everything to Rebecca, her own mother, Martha Pen­nock, concerned for her other children, refused to issue a clear title to the property because of money owed for investment loans, interest, and rent. Ownership remained tied up in the estate of Rebecca’s father for another twenty years.

Charles Lukens’s last gift to his family was a contract to provide sheet iron to Quaker John Elgar (1780-1858) of York, York County, to build the first iron hulled steamboat in the United States, the Codorus. Friends supplied iron blooms on credit, workmen remained loyal, and Charles’s brother Solomon Lukens (1795-1876) took over as mill foreman. With a new baby, Rebecca rolled up her sleeves to save her family legacy. In 1825 and 1826, the sixty-foot, steam-powered Codorus tested navigation on the Susquehanna River north to Bingham­ton, New York, and although the shallow, rock-strewn river proved impractical for travel by steamboat, she established the company as a reliable manufacturer of quality metal. Lukens, who proved to be shrewd, intelligent, and practical, kept her promise to her late husband and became America’s first woman to lead a large company.

New steel and iron markets emerged in the 1830s and with the completion of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, near the Lancaster Pike, Lukens boilerplate found its way into steamboats on the Mississippi River, riverboat companies in New Orleans, and Baldwin locomotives on the Pennsylvania Rail.road. By 1834, Lu.kens had completely updated the mill, includ­ing new furnaces, a larger mill house, and housing for her workmen. She also opened a warehouse, store, and freight agency in Coatesville. Her struggle was far from over, though. A relatively expensive lawsuit which threatened the mill’s water supply consumed an entire year to successfully defend in court.

The industrial boom came to a grinding halt with the Panic of 1837. Construction companies went bankrupt, rail and canal projects stalled, and many land speculators went bust. Unemployment touched all areas of the country and food riots rocked large cities. It was the end for many fotmdries and mills. Lukens managed to keep her workers busy, if not rolling iron, then by repairing equipment, working at the family’s mansion and around the farm, or keeping morale buoyed wit:h optimistic forecasts of better days ahead.

In 1840, Joseph Bailey (1796-1883), who had married Rebecca’s sister-in-law, Martha Lukens Bailey (1796-1857), succeeded foreman Solomon Lukens. In 1842, Abraham Gibbons Jr. (1812-1895), an ac­complished businessman, husband of Rebecca’s eldest daughter Martha, became a partner in the company. In 1844, Rebecca Lu.kens again had to defend the title to the mill when her mother died and left an estate riddled with ambiguity. Large cash payments finally satisfied the obligations, and with a free and clear title in hand, Lukens felt motivated to improve and expand the mill. In 1847, satisfied with the ability of Gibbons to run the company, Re­becca retired from active management. The following year, Charles Huston (1822-1897), married to daughter Isabella, became Gibbons’s partner. Huston, like Rebecca’s late husband, was a Philadel­phia physician who applied his interest in chemistry to the science of metallurgy.

While overcoming many obstacles, Re­becca Lukens held fast to her Quaker principles, even when the cost was expensive. Her pacifist beliefs led her to refuse to deliver boilerplate to the Boston Navy Yard. She financially supported Solomon Lukens in his missionary work among Native Americans, including when he served as superintendent at the Friends Indian School(Tunesassa),1849-1852,Quaker Bridge, New York. She also encouraged abolitionism and spoke out for a woman’s right to vote. Her restless drive, even near the end of her life, was apparent when the remarkable woman wrote, “I am far from satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish.”

Rebecca Lukens died on December 10, 1854, and was buried in Fallowfield Burial Ground three miles south of Coatesville. To honor her, the mill was renamed the Lukens Rolling Mill and in 1890 incorpo­rated in Pennsylvania as the Lukens Iron and Steel Company. By 1917, Lukens Steel, Inc., was trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The company remained a viable force in the industry until 1998 when it was bought out by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Bethlehem Steel filed for bank­ruptcy in 2001 and final assimilation of the Lukens Steel name was completed by International Steel Group (ISG). In 2005, ISG merged with Mittal Steel, currently the world’s largest steel company.

The former Lukens site along the Brandywine River was designated a Na­tional Historic Landmark in 1994. Visitors can still see the former residence of Re­becca Lukens, the Brandywine Mansion, now marked with a state historical marker; the homes of Lukens family members; the former Lukens executive office building, erected in 1902; and the exteriors of the for­mer mill buildings which will become part of a National Steel and Iron Heritage Mu­seum. For more information about these attractions, write: Lukens Historic District, 50 South First Ave., Coatesville, PA 19320; telephone (610) 383-7707.