Historical Markers
Phoenix Iron Company Historical Marker
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Phoenix Iron Company

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Main St., Phoenixville, near municipal parking lot and P.I.C. site

Dedication Date:
October 29, 2005

Behind the Marker

Engraving of Phoenix Iron Works, including community buildings.
Engraving of Phoenix Iron Works, Phoenixville, PA, circa 1856.
When the Phoenix Steel Corporation closed its doors steel in 1987, it ended a history of continuous iron and steel production that dated back almost 200 years.  After emerging as an important producer of iron rails in the 1840s, the Phoenix Iron Company in the mid-1800s had introduced revolutionary new designs in American cannons and iron building and bridge construction, and created a subsidiary, the Phoenix Bridge Company, that became one of nation’s most prolific bridge builders.

The history of the Phoenix ironworks started in 1790, when Benjamin Longstreth erected a rolling and slitting mill near the Schuylkill River in Chester County, PA, that he named the French Creek Nail Works. The works’ principal product remained nails for almost sixty years, despite multiple changes in ownership.  After investing in the operation in 1813, Lewis Wernwag changed the name to the Phoenix Ironworks. In 1827 new owners of the works erected puddling furnaces and a new rolling mill, which increased manufacturing capacity grew to 32,000 kegs of nails per year by 1841.
Image of Samuel J. Reeves, head and shoulders.
Samuel J. Reeves, President of the Phoenix Iron Company, circa 1880.

Retooling its works during the great railroad boom of the 1840s, the owners erected three anthracite coal furnaces, reorganized as Reeves, Buck and Company, erected a new rail mill, and began to manufacture rails.  Likemarker Robesonia Furnace in nearby Berks County, and markerLackawanna Iron Works in Scranton, the firm soon became a major producer of iron rails, with a capacity of almost 9,500 tons annually in 1850. In 1855, the company reorganized again as the Phoenix Iron Company and expanded into the fabrication of iron structural shapes and beams, in growing demand by the booming iron bridge and building industries. 
Detail view of patent.
The Patent for Phoenix columns used in bridge construction.

  During the Civil War, the Phoenix Iron Works became a major producer of cannons for the Union Army.  Before becoming superintendent of the Phoenix works in 1856, John Griffen had developed a spirally wrapped, wrought-iron cannon that overcame the problem of exploding cannons at the Safe Harbor Iron Works in Lancaster County, PA. Between 1861 and 1865, the United States Army and Navy ordered some 1,400 “Griffen Guns.” 

During the war, Samuel Reeves, one of the firm's leaders, also invented the “Phoenix column,” a hollow, multi-segment wrought iron column.  Significantly lighter and stronger and lighter than the solid, cast-iron columns currently in use, the Phoenix column would revolution American engineering by enabling the construction of taller buildings and stronger bridges. Recognizing the advantages of the Phoenix column, engineers used it in the construction of New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1879 the monumental markerKinzua Viaduct in 1882, and elevated train lines and tall buildings across the country. Engineers even proposed using Phoenix columns in a 1,000-foot-tall observation tower, never built, for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Kinzua postcard
Kinzua postcard

Recognizing the future expansion of railroads across the American west, Samuel Reeves also moved the Phoenix Iron Works into bridge building, which provided another market for the company's structural iron production and diversified the company in case of downturns in demand for iron rails or structural shapes. In 1868, Reeves established a company subsidiary, the Phoenix Bridge Company (originally called the Kellogg, Clarke and Company) that fabricated and erected hundreds of railway bridges and viaducts in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. The company specialized in producing low-cost, standardized, reliable bridges that could be ordered from a catalogue and erected quickly on site. Most of these were modest spans, but Phoenix Bridge also erected some larger and more spectacular bridges, including the Girard Avenue Bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg.
General view of the complex from NE corner, looking west.
Company yard and buildings, Phoenix Steel Corporation, Phoenixville, PA, circa...

By the early 1900s the company had successfully moved into steel production, but sales of bridges soon declined, in part due to a string of catastrophic failures of Phoenix bridges under construction, including the 1907 collapse of a bridge in Quebec that killed seventy-five workmen. The Phoenix works also encountered a formidable competitor, the United States Steel Company, organized in 1901. The growing use of reinforced concrete in bridges further reduced sales of metal bridges. The two World Wars temporarily increased sales of structural steel, but did not stave off the end. In 1962 the bridge company went out of business. The parent company struggled on, but, like much of the Pennsylvania steel industry during the late 1970s and 1980s, it too died, and the Phoenix works ceased production in 1984.

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