Historical Markers
First Steel Rails [Steel] Historical Marker
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First Steel Rails [Steel]

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Opposite steel mill (old PA 56), Johnstown

Dedication Date:
August 1947

Behind the Marker

Early iron T-rail track laid on stone "sleepers" from the Camden Amboy railroad in New Jersey.
Early iron T-rail track laid on stone "sleepers" from the Camden Amboy...
The Pennsylvania Steel Company never expected another company to snare the prize of rolling the first steel rails, let alone from its steel! But then, nearly nothing about its first Bessemer steel mill went according to plan.

The story of the first American steel rail "rolled on order" begins in Harrisburg, for it was there that the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), having put down iron rails across the state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in the 1850s, decided to build itself a brand-new steel mill. PRR picked a hundred-acre site at Harrisburg squarely on its main line. Industry wags said that the location lacked large deposits of iron ore, coking coal, or other customers. Still, the PRR could carry everything it needed for steel making to the Pennsylvania Steel plant, and carry everything from it to boot.

General view of the Pennsylvania Steel Works.
Pennsylvania Steel Works, circa 1880.
In 1865, the PRR hired one William Butcher, an engineer from Sheffield, England, who was also involved with a steel mill in markerPhiladelphia. That venture failed soon enough, but not before Butcher had ordered from England a shiny new Bessemer converter and all the machinery needed for a steel mill. When the steamship carrying these prizes sank off the Irish coast in December 1866, the railroad men were back where they started.

Things at Harrisburg finally got moving when Alexander Holley arrived in January 1867. Holley was the technical brains behind the entire Bessemer project in the United States. He entirely designed all but two of the country's thirteen pioneering Bessemer mills. The one mill he had nothing to do with promptly failed. His genius as an engineer was getting the entire Bessemer process to work, again and again - from the raw molten iron through white-hot steel to perfectly rolled rails. His description of a marker Bessemer blow is a literary marvel. At Harrisburg, Holley expanded on his first-ever Bessemer installation in Troy, New York. It happened that ingots of Bessemer steel were ready before the rail mill was ready for them.

At this time marker Cambria Iron had no steel mill, but there was probably no better rolling mill in the country. In 1857 the legendary markerJohn Fritz had built a novel "three-high" mill for rolling rails, and after his departure to markerBethlehem Iron his brother George took charge and built a set of blooming mills that reduced the massive square ingots to perfectly formed rails. (Don't ask how George, a rolling mill man, lost all the fingers on his right hand.) And perfect rails were what the railroad men wanted.
Men cutting and laying steel rails
Men cutting and laying steel rails

Pennsylvania Steel shipped its newly minted ingots of steel halfway across the state, up and over the Alleghenies to Johnstown, also located on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line. It fell to George Fritz and Alexander Holley to roll them into rails. The Cambria iron mill at Johnstown, while soundly built, was no match for steel. Coupling boxes broke, rolls split open, steam engines strong enough to sculpt iron bars into rails stalled out on the first pass of steel. "There is an inherent cussedness about rolls, which, so far, no man has been able to find," wrote Holley.

Some time in August 1867 the wayward pieces came together. Pennsylvania Steel shipped out high quality steel ingots, eight and a quarter inches square. At Cambria, George Fritz's blooming mill reduced these to large bars to six and a half inches square. Then a three-high mill based on John Fritz's pioneering design formed them into rails. The first rail was lovingly measured to spec: exactly 4.5 inches high, with a "flange" 4 inches wide, a bulbous "head" 2 .53125 inches wide, and the connecting "web" .640625 of an inch; it weighed 67.01 pounds per foot. The new process worked so well that Holley adopted it for the main Pennsylvania Steel plant as well.
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