Historical Markers
First Cement Historical Marker
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First Cement

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Opposite Coplay Cement office bldg. at Coplay

Behind the Marker

Portrait of David O. Saylor, head and shoulders, wearing a suit.
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David O. Saylor, President of the Coplay Cement Company, Lehigh County, PA,...
Concrete, a mixture of cement, sand, and rock, is one of the most widely used and versatile materials used to make highways, bridges, and buildings, among innumerable other applications. Modern cement was developed in the nineteenth century through the application of new chemical concepts and systematic experimentation. Concrete has been one of the most useful and versatile construction materials ever invented. Roman builders used cement extensively, but the secret of its composition and manufacture were lost.
General view showing  cement kilns.
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Vertical portland cement kilns, Coplay Cement Company, North Main Street, Coplay,...

Cement is made by intense heating of a mixture of limestone and clay or shale. The resulting material is then ground into a fine powder. Throughout most of history, before the development of modern analytical chemistry, rocks containing both ingredients usually were used as the raw material. These cement rocks produced so-called natural cements, which were improved by persistent experimentation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. By the 1860s, the United States was using 600 million pounds of natural cement per year.
Alpha Portland Cement Company, quarry workers pose for this photograph, in the pit near Martin's Creek.
Alpha Portland Cement Company quarry workers posing for a photograph in the...

In 1866, an Allentown businessman, David O. Saylor, along with two associates, founded the marker Coplay Cement Company. The company exploited a formation of cement rock on the west bank of the Lehigh River just north of the village of Coplay. To produce cement, Saylor constructed two small kilns and a grinding mill. Although his business was successful, Saylor became concerned about the appearance of a new British cement in America. This material, called portland cement, because it made stones resembling those quarried near Portland, England, was different from natural cement because it had a definite chemical composition and was burned at higher temperatures. It was soon recognized to be a superior building material.

For technical expertise, Saylor drew upon the recently established Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem. A chemical analysis of the Coplay cement rock showed that it was similar in composition to portand cement. With the help of a former Lehigh student, John N. Eckert, Saylor in 1871 was able to make portland cement. Although he was granted a patent for his process, Saylor was unable to prevent others from going into this business. His cement received considerable publicity and an award at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Two years later the noted engineer James Eads specified portland cement for use in the jetties he was building at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Image of the Lock and gates, construction not yet completed.
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The Panama Canal's Gatun Lock and Gates, circa 1912.
Image of rotary cement kilns inside of a factory.
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Rotary cement kilns under construction at the Keystone Portland Cement Company,...

When Saylor died in 1884, the Coplay plant was producing about 30 million pounds of portland cement per year. Because of Saylor's pioneering efforts and the availability of raw materials, including nearby coal mines that provided fuel for the kilns, the Lehigh Valley became the center of American portland cement manufacture. At the turn of the twentieth century, as the production of portland cement surpassed that of natural cement, the Lehigh Valley accounted for three-quarters of the newer type.

At the same time two new technologies were emerging that would lead to rapid growth of the industry: reinforced concrete and the automobile. Concrete when reinforced with steel rods made an ideal material for bridge and building construction. And the coming of the automobile led to massive road and bridge building activity that consumed unprecedented quantities of cement. Because the requirements for cement manufacture–limestone, clay or shale, and cheap fuel–were widely available in America, and because cement was expensive to ship, the industry soon diffused throughout the country. Although the Lehigh Valley industry remained healthy, by the 1920s its share of the market had dropped to 25 percent.
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