Historical Markers
John F. Fritz [birthplace] Historical Marker
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John F. Fritz [birthplace]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
PA 41, 2.8 miles SE of Cochranville

Dedication Date:
August 16, 1954

Behind the Marker

"I can truly say it was the most unattractive place I had ever been in. The streets were of clay . . . and organic matter; the sidewalks, with few exceptions, were of boards or plank.... Cows, hogs, and dogs all ran at large.... I should have been amused if I had not been there to stay."
John Fritz's recollection of Johnstown upon his arrival in 1854.

Oil on canvas of John Fritz.
John Fritz, by Paul Hercher, 1898.
With excellent transportation and ample raw materials, markerJohnstown was the perfect location for a large-scale iron works - or so a group of Philadelphia investors believed. But their Cambria Iron mill was losing money at a frightening pace.

In the 1850s, John Fritz, working alongside his talented brother George, transformed the struggling venture into one of the country's strongest iron enterprises. In his markerlater career at markerBethlehem Iron, Fritz built a modern Bessemer plant for making steel rails and a state-of-the-art plant for making battleship armor. When he died at the age of ninety-one in 1913, Fritz had received numerous national and international awards for his contributions to the iron and steel industry.

Fritz first came to Johnstown in 1854 as a relatively young (he was then thirty-two) but already seasoned mill engineer. Born and raised on the family farm in Chester County, he had apprenticed to a blacksmith, and in his early twenties landed a job at the Norristown Iron Company. Fritz immersed himself in learning about the mill's rolling machinery during the day, and after supper gathered from the English and Welsh workmen the craft secrets of making wrought iron by the marker "puddling process." He then helped put up a new blast furnace at the Safe Harbor works on the Susquehanna River. (Safe Harbor, badly named, gave Fritz a nasty case of malaria.) He returned briefly to Norristown to construct an anthracite furnace, before taking the job in Johnstown.

Cambria Iron and Steel Works, Johnstown, Pa.
Cambria Iron and Steel Works, Johnstown, PA, circa 1880.
When Fritz arrived, the rail rolling mill at Johnstown was in dire need of attention. Rails kept coming through the Cambria rolls with cracked heads and torn flanges. Fritz and his brother George studied the rolling mill with great care. In Cambria's standard two-high mill, a skilled "roller" sent an iron "pile" between a pair of rolls with grooves that formed it into shape. On the other side, a skilled "catcher" sent the pile bumping back over the top of the upper roll. The roller then fed the once-rolled pile into the rolls" next, slightly smaller set of grooves. The back-and-forth process repeated itself, an intricate dance between the roller and catcher, until the rail was fully formed. On each pass, as the Fritz brothers noticed, the rail cooled down: if only it could be rolled also on the return pass, instead of idly clattering over that top roller, it would remain malleable and cracking might be avoided.

At first, the moneymen behind Cambria flat out rejected Fritz's proposal to build a new mill with three twenty-inch-diameter rolls. They had never heard anything like this. But Fritz badgered the investors until they saw that if the rails were rolled while going both forward and backward, the mill would produce better rails and more of them. Finally, they gave Fritz the go-ahead. Fritz designed the three-high mill as strong as possible and entirely dispensed with the usual "breaking pieces" and other intentionally weak spots. The mill manager was certain there was a mistake. No, Fritz said, "I would rather have a grand old smash-up once in a while than be constantly annoyed by the breaking of leading spindles, couplings, and breaking boxes." "By God, you'll get it," said the manager.

Image of the Kelly Converter, 1860s.
Illustration of an early Kelly converter from the Cambria Iron Works.
In July 1857, Fritz revolutionized American rail rolling. On July 3, the Cambria works went down for a summer break to rip out the old rail mill, construct the new one, and install a powerful engine to drive it. By July 29, the installation was ready. That morning Fritz gathered with the owners and a select few workmen. Patrick Graham heated a bar to order, and then Thomas Lapsley sent it through the rollers. The novel set of three rolls worked well, in fact amazingly. "You can judge what my feelings were as I looked upon that perfect and first rail ever made on a three-high mill," Fritz wrote in his Autobiography. Two more rails were rolled that day, before a bearing went out on the new driving engine.

Delighted with the results, one of the Philadelphia investors handed Graham a $10 bill as a bonus and gave Lapsley $20. Two days later, after having rolled some fine rails, a fire wiped out the entire new rail mill. By then, however, the moneymen had seen Fritz's success. The mill was quickly rebuilt. Soon, rail mills across the country installed similar three-high machinery.

Fritz himself went on to Bethlehem in 1860, while brother George stayed in Johnstown, developing a blooming mill that was also widely adopted around the country. When Cambria installed its Bessemer steel mill in the 1870s, it already had the top-flight rail mill it needed to be a big success. As one iron man memorably put it, "Cambria was the cradle in which the great improvements in rolling-mill practice were rocked."
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