Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Endless miles of steel track emerge from the gaping jaws of the roaring rail mill. Oper­ators in the cab above the line manipulate levers, as if pains­takingly choreographed, while red-hot rails shoot off the line, destined for the railroads of the world. What makes this scene unusual, is that it is occurs today. Far from the rusting hulks of the giant steel works of Pittsburgh, the Beth­lehem Steel Corporation oper­ates the oldest of two remaining rail mills in the United States at Steelton, just south of Harrisburg. (The other mill is owned by Colo­rado Fuel and Iron). In con­trast, there were 71 mills rolling iron and steel rails in the United States a little more than a century ago.

When Bethlehem first be­gan operation as the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1867, steel rails represented a revolu­tionary new technology, which until then had only been avail­able in America as British imports. The burgeoning American railroad system needed strong, durable rails capable of handling the in­creasing weight and speed of the evolving locomotives. Rails made from steel were not only able to handle the heavier engines, but they also lasted ten times longer than their iron counterparts.

The innovation that made the conversion to steel rails possible was the Bessemer converter, developed in En­gland by Henry Bessemer, who discovered that pig iron could be refined into steel without using fuel, and by applying a blast of air through the molten iron. The iron was poured into a tilting converter, which had a series of holes (or tuyeres) in the bottom of the vessel through which the air was forced. As the loaded converter was tipped into an upright position, the air blast was turned on. It produced a spectacular display of sparks and flame shooting out of the mouth of the converter. This “blow” burned off the carbon and other impurities, while the chemical process raised the temperature in the converter, refining the iron into steel. This revolutionary invention was brought to America by Alexander Holley, who was to become an important pioneer in the age of steel.

Born into an ironmaking family in Lakeville, Connecti­cut, Holley studied philosophy and chemistry at Brown Uni­versity. Despite his father’s wish that he pursue an aca­demic life, Holley’s first love was machinery. After gradua­tion in 1853, he stayed in Prov­idence to work for George Corliss, famous for the steam engine that bore his name. Corliss was developing a new locomotive design, and Holley couldn’t resist the opportunity to participate in the early stages. He remained active in the railroad industry for a number of years, and subse­quently became an owner of, and writer for, The Railroad Advocate. Although he enjoyed writing, he much preferred hands-on endeavors. Holley’s interests also extended into many fields, eventually lead­ing to his association with the fledgling steel industry.

During the Civil War, Holley became interested in iron­clad vessels, and in 1862 he sailed to Europe to study new developments in armament and ordnance on behalf of Edwin Stevens, a noted iron­clad designer. In London, Holley attended the Great Exhibition, where a number of new iron and steel products from numerous countries were displayed. Perhaps more im­portantly, he had an opportu­nity to visit Henry Bessemer’s plant in Sheffield, England, at which he witnessed a demon­stration of the new steel con­verter that was the talk of the exhibition. He was so im­pressed with the Bessemer that as soon as he returned home, Holley began searching for a company to purchase the American rights to the process. Through Capt. John Erics­son, who had designed the Monitor, Holley met John Winslow and John Griswold of the Rensselaer Iron Works in Troy, New York. Persuaded by Holley’s enthusiastic account of the Bessemer converter, Winslow and Griswold sent him back to England in the summer 1863 to secure an option on the American rights. After successfully negotiating a three year option on the converter, Holley returned to Troy, and on February 16, 1865, he accomplished the first “blow” of an experimental converter. Convinced of its inevitable success, Winslow and Griswold exercised their option to purchase the Ameri­can rights to the converter in mid-July.

Word of Holley’s successes encouraged the formation of the Pennsylvania Steel Com­pany, headed by a group of railroad executives, including J. Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Samuel Felton, recently retired president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, and Nathaniel Thayer of the Baldwin Loco­motive Works . The Pennsylva­nia Railroad and its executives controlled fifty percent of Pennsylvania Steel stock, capitalized at $200,000. The aim of the enterprise was to lessen the railroads’ depen­dence on English steel rails, described in the prospectus for the new company: ” … our desire to free ourselves from dependence upon a foreign market have [sic] lead to the organization of the Pennsylva­nia Steel Company, and the parties who have connected themselves with it, are deter­mined to produce upon Amer­ican soil all the principal manufactures of steel that are now, at such a serious cost for freight, commission, insur­ance, exchange, duty, etc. and often, with so much delay and uncertainty, imported from abroad.”

Samuel Felton was named president, and in January 1866 the company purchased a Bessemer license from Winslow and Griswold. In a separate agreement, the com­pany also obtained the serv­ices of Alexander Holley to design and supervise the con­struction the new plant. In return, the company agreed to build him an elegant home, and liquidate a $20,000 debt that he owed Griswold.

The owners had already selected a one hundred acre site south of Harrisburg, Dau­phin County, for the steel mill. The site provided close prox­imity to transportation sys­tems, especially the Pennsylvania Canal and the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition, the accessibility of the rich ore mines at Cornwall, Lebanon County, only twenty-six miles away, and the ready availabil­ity of limestone and coal made the area south of Harrisburg an ideal site. Although the company tried to move quietly, negotiations for the purchase of the land soon became pub­lic. When it appeared that the owners of the proposed site, Rudolph and Henry Kelker, might be reluctant to sell their patrimony, other towns ag­gressively competed for the new mill. Fearing that they would lose Pennsylvania Steel to some other region, a group of Harrisburg citizens mounted a fund-raising drive to purchase the land from the Kelkers so they could give it to the steel company, thus insur­ing its location. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported that the enterprise would “soon put to rest the pretentions of Pitts­burgh of being the great center of iron and steel manufacture in this country.” The drive raised $24,577, the Kelkers finally agreed to sell the prop­erty, and on January 8, 1866, the land purchased by the citizens was deeded over to The Pennsylvania Steel Company.

Ground for the new plant was broken in May 1866. The extensive plant was to include the Bessemer converter house, machine shop, blacksmith shop and a rail mill. Plans were also drawn up for the town, to be named Baldwin in honor of Matthew Baldwin, founder of the locomotive company. (The name was subsequently changed to Steel Works in 1871 and finally to Steelton in 1879). Homes and boarding houses were under construction for the new work­ers. The converter and ma­chinery were ordered from England, and prospects for the new mill seemed excellent!

However, in December 1866 the steamer Indus, carrying the converter, sank off the cost of Ireland. Unwilling to face an interminable delay, Holley rushed to have replacement machinery fabricated in Amer­ica. As a result he was able to bring the first Bessemer con­verter into operation at the Pennsylvania Steel Company on May 25, 1867, just a year after the initial ground­breaking.

Unfortunately, the rail mill had not been completed by that time. Anxious to begin rail production, the owners shipped the first steel to the rail mill at the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown and, as a result, Cambria gained the distinction of rolling the first order of steel rails in the United States. These circum­stances also brought Holley together with brothers John and George Fritz, two pio­neers in the American steel industry, and the three worked cooperatively at Cambria to solve many of the problems presented by rolling steel rails. When the rail mill at Steelton began operating on May 15, 1868, Holley and the Fritzes had worked out the major problems, and the mill ran successfully from the outset. With the exception of brief shutdowns, that mill and its successors have been running at Steelton ever since.

Alexander Holley left Penn­sylvania Steel shortly after the rail mill began operation, satis­fied that the company was assured success. Despite the brief period that he was associ­ated with the company, he had earned the respect of manage­ment and labor alike. Holley’s practice of rolling up his sleeves and working alongside the men in the mill won them over. When he was preparing to leave, the men collected $500 among themselves to give him a suitable gift: a miniature Bessemer converter designed by C. T. Amberg, a draftsman at the works, and crafted in silver by a Harrisburg jeweler. The base of the presentation piece actually contained a specimen from the first steel rail made at the Pennsylvania Steel Company.

Initially, the major product of the Pennsylvania Steel com­pany was rails. Tn 1872, a facil­ity was added for the fabrication of frogs and switches, and the company inaugurated a period of rapid expansion. The first blast fur­nace was constructed in 1873, and a second added in 1875. By 1880, Pennsylvania Steel claimed distinction as one of the largest steel works in the country, with one Bessemer running at capacity and an­other under construction, two blast furnaces, a forge shop, blooming mill and rail mill. In 1887, the company built a tidewater facility at Sparrow’s Point, Maryland, eleven miles south of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay, to process foreign ore into pig iron, which would be shipped to Steelton for processing. Within five years, however, Sparrow’s Point became an independent steel plant in its own right.

Rapid growth continued at Steelton with the addition of two blast furnaces in 1884, and by the 1890s the Bessemer converters had been sup­planted by open hearth fur­naces. In 1890 a steel fabricating division was estab­lished. The “Bridge and Con­struction” division built bridges, docks, and building superstructures. In the vast building that housed it, sec­tions of the bridges were parti­ally assembled to insure proper calibration. Among the bridges constructed at Steelton were the Queensboro (Black­well’s Island) Bridge in New York (1903) and the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge (1933- 1937). The division was also responsible for the superstruc­ture of the New York City Municipal Building (1910), a substantial portion of the U.S. Navy’s Lakehurst dirigible hangar (1919) and the South Office Building of Pennsylva­nia’s capital complex. In 1901 a steel foundry was added, followed by a new frog and switch complex in 1902. By 1916, 3,500 gross tons of frog and switch products were being produced each month.

In 1916, Congress passed the Hepburn Act, forcing the railroads to sever their finan­cial ties with the steel industry. The commodity clause of the Hepburn Act prohibited a railroad from owning shares in a company whose goods it transported in a commercial capacity. On Friday, July 7, 1916, the headline in the Har­risburg Patriot screamed “Sch­wab Now Owns Plant at Steelton!” Pennsylvania Steel and its subsidiary, the Mary­land Steel Company at Spar­rows Point, had been sold to the Bethlehem Steel Company of Bethlehem, Northampton County. Bethlehem Steel im­mediately launched a fifteen million dollar expansion at the mill, adding two blast furnaces in 1916-1917, and new Koppers coke ovens in 1917. By the end of World War I, the mill at Steelton had grown to 600 acres and extended almost four miles along the Susque­hanna River.

During World War II, the Steelton plant geared up for war production, supplying huge turbine shafts, propeller shafts, and stern frame casting for the shipbuilding divisions of Bethlehem Steel. The rail mill continued at full capacity, and the open hearth furnaces roared day and night to keep up with wartime demand. As the company grew, so did the town. Prior to the establish­ment of Pennsylvania Steel, the area had been largely un­developed, with the exception of a few farms. Despite the construction of the Pennsylva­nia Canal along the Susque­hanna River in 1825, in 1866 only twenty or so families lived in the area that now encompasses Steelton. By the 1890s, there were 10,000 residents of the town, half of whom were employed by Pennsylvania Steel. By the opening of this century, the canal ceased to function as a transportation system, serving instead as a water source for the mill.

The meteoric rise of the steel industry is closely tied to Steelton’s – and Pennsylvania’s – diverse ethnic heritage. The first influx of workers to the emerging industrial town were largely white settlers from England, Ireland, Germany and rural areas of Pennsylva­nia. In the 1880s there was a tremendous increase in black migration from the South, followed during the next dec­ade by an influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. This wave of immigra­tion marked a turning point in the community’s history, and exerted a tremendous influ­ence on its residents. Al­though no resident of Steelton in 1880 had come from south­ern or eastern Europe, by 1910 more than one-third of the town’s population claimed that heritage, and one-third of the 9,000 workers at Pennsylvania Steel were foreign born. In contrast, the workforce at the mill had only been 2,800 in 1886.

Earlier immigrants had captured many of the skilled jobs at the steel mill, so that subsequent surges of black migration and European immi­gration often had to fit into less skilled, poorer paying jobs. Many of these jobs were also physically hazardous. For example, and unloader at the blast furnace faced a physically demanding job, and at the same time was exposed to gritty choking dust. Many of the unloading jobs went to blacks and the recently arrived immigrants.

The ethnic backgrounds of workers often determined not only their jobs in the mill, but where they lived in the com­munity. Steelton’s West Side became the “foreign” section, with ethnic groups clustered in different neighborhoods. Row houses and boarding houses constructed by the company adjacent to the mill (and, un­fortunately, on the flood plain) housed many of the immigrant newcomers, particularly Bul­garians, Serbs and Croatians. Italians, Slovenes and blacks lived on the hill above the canal in their own enclaves.

The isolation of the various ethnic groups proved to be an unexpected source of strength; strong family and kinship ties provided an important support system for newcomers. Many of the men arrived alone, leav­ing families in their native lands until they could afford to send for them. To save money, two men who worked on op­posite shifts at the mill might share a bed in the boarding house. Saving money to send for their families was the goal, and the trip to Joseph Jiras’ steamship office to book pas­sage for wives and children was eagerly anticipated.

Churches, synagogues and fraternal organizations became cultural and social centers for ethnic groups, providing them with a strong sense of commu­nity in a new and unfamiliar land. In many cases, the churches provided English language and American his­tory classes for the new arriv­als. Today, many of those same institutions preserve and pro­mote the ethnic heritage of their forbearers, now teaching the language of their ancestors – instead of English.

To this day, Matthew Mavretic shows with reverence the photographs of his grand­father and his parents, who emigrated from the village of Verskovac in the Vivodina region of Croatia, now part of Yugoslavia. A small picture shows his parents, Matija Mavretic and Bara Muzar, on their wedding day. Less than two weeks after their marriage on February 4, 1920, they took out passports, and on March 31, 1920, they sailed to Amer­ica on an Italian ship, the Belvedere. After they were processed at Ellis Island, they set out for Steelton, where Matija’s father (who bore the same name) was already work­ing at Bethlehem Steel as a carpenter. Young Matija started as a laborer at the mill, but was able to move into an instru­ment repair job because of his skill at fixing machinery. His first born son was also bap­tized Matija, but his certificate was anglicized to Matthew. Jn 1944 at the age of 17, Matthew followed his father and his grandfather into the steel mill, beginning as a laborer in the coke oven department. In many ways the Mavretic fam­ily represents the continuity of the work force at the Steelton mill over several generations.

The steel company played a prominent role in the everyday Life of the community. As was common in many company towns, a portion of each work­er’s paycheck was given in credits at the company store. In many cases, the workers lived in housing provided by the company. In the 1880s Pennsylvania Steel built more than five hundred homes for its workers. The company also built schools for the commu­nity, and at one time paid the salary of the superintendent of schools. Mill superintendents presided over the borough council from 1887 through 1895.

Paternalism best describes the attitude of the company in the nineteenth century to­wards its employees and the community. Management believed that it provided the workers with all they needed, in return expecting that the employees remain loyal, and be grateful – if not indebted­ – for what the company offered. However, in July 1891, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW), in an attempt to gain membership at the mill, proposed new wage scales to the company. Samuel Felton, mill superintendent, indicated that the company would con­sider their demands but, in­stead, ordered the plant closed on July 21. Belatedly, the work­ers decided to strike. Town officials cooperated with the company by closing all the hotels and taverns, and the local sheriff deputized bosses and foremen to maintain order in the community.

Strikers held a “parade” the following day, which resulted in the doubling of the security forces to twenty-five deputies, who were placed at various bridges and entrances to the works. The strikers retaliated by posting their own sentries, who tried to make certain that no workers broke the strike. By July 24, the chief burgess was appealing to the borough council to augment the police force. The Harrisburg Morning Call reported that fifteen Pin­kerton detectives had reported to the works for duty. Gradu­ally, some of the laborers re­turned back to work, and the company brought in workers from the Sparrow’s Point mill. Tensions mounted. One of the deputies, a former union member, came close to spark­ing the violence that many feared. Walking through town brandishing a revolver, he made a number of drunken threats before he was sub­dued. Fortunately, the situa­tion was defused, but the events foreshadowed the vio­lent confrontation which oc­curred at the Homestead Works near Pittsburgh the following year that became a milestone in American labor history.

The arrival of the president of the Amalgamated, William Weihe, on July 29 buoyed the strikers, but their hopes were dashed two days later by his declaration that the strike was illegal! By the following day, many of the strikers were being fired and forced to leave their company housing. Labor had suffered bitter defeat in its first skirmish with the steel company.

During the nationwide Steel Strike of 1919, a local walkout was called, but the plant never shut down com­pletely, and the union was still unable to establish itself at the mill. No union would be rec­ognized at Steelton until 1939, when the United Steelworkers Local 1688 was founded. (It continues to represent the two thousand employees at Steelton today.)

Today’s Steelton is a com­munity with a rich and varied cultural and industrial heritage unrivaled by many Pennsylva­nia communities. Although the steel industry has experi­enced an abrupt decline in its fortunes, Bethlehem Steel in Steelton combines modern technology and time-honored craftsmanship to continue the tradition of quality established by the pioneer Pennsylvania Steel Company. Although the open hearth furnaces tapped their final heat in 1970, three ultra-high power 150-ton basic electric arc furnaces provide the steel for rails, trackwork, pipe and other steel products today. Bethlehem Steel’s Steelton plant – and its man­agement and labor forces­ – looks forward to its sesquicentennial anniversary in 1992 of the mill where “the age of steel” began. The com­pany shares with the men and women of many cultures and backgrounds the legacy of this extraordinary steel town on the Susquehanna.


In January 1989, the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation initiated a statewide survey of sites associated with the iron and steel industries to identify proper­ties significant to the Common­wealth’s industrial heritage. This survey will result in the nomina­tion of historic sites, buildings and structures, including the complex al Steelton, to the Na­tional Register of Historic Places, and in the publication of a history of the iron and steel industries in Pennsylvania.


For Further Reading

Bodnar, John. Immigration and Industrialization: Ethnicity in an American Mill Town, 1870-1940. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Hoerr, John. And the Wolf Fi­nally Came: The Decline of American Steel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.

McHugh, Jeanne. Alexander Holley and the Makers of Steel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univer­sity Press, 1980.

Warren, Kenneth. The American Steel Industry, 1850-1970: A Geographic Interpretation. Pittsburgh: University of Pitts­burgh Press, 1988.

Yetter, John. Steelton, Pennsyl­vania: Stop-Look-Listen. Har­risburg: Triangle Press, 1979.


Diane Kallman of Carlisle serves as a historic preservation special­ist for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bu­reau for Historic Preservation, where she is currently working on the statewide industrial heritage survey. She received her bachelor’s degree in American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and her master’s degree in American Studies from the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg.