The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration

Phoenix Steel Corporation Records, 1827-1963 (bulk 1856-1949)

INVENTOR NAME: Phoenix Steel Corporation

Hagley Museum & Library
Manuscripts & Archives Department
P.O. Box 3630
Wilmington, DE 19807-0630

77.3 linear ft.
The Phoenix Steel Company began in the late 18th century as a manufacturer of cut nails. It later became a major producer of railroad rails and iron and steel structural members. It remained a specialty producer and did not engage in backward or forward integration around the turn of the century like the larger steel companies.

The operation at Phoenixville began in 1790 when Benjamin Longstreth built the first nail factory in the United States at this site. In 1813 he sold it, and Lewis Wernwag (1769-1843), a pioneer bridge builder in the United States, acquired a part interest and named it the Phoenix Iron Works. Wernwag was responsible for the invention and improvement of nailmaking machinery. In 1821 Jonah and George Thompson, Philadelphia merchants, bought the plant. By 1825 it had become the largest nail factory in the United States. In 1827 Benjamin Reeves (1779-1844) and his brother David (1793-1871), nail manufacturers in New Jersey, purchased the plant and formed the partnership of Reeves & Whitaker with Joseph Whitaker (1789-1870), James Whitaker and Francis Leaming. In 1840 the company built its first blast furnace to use anthracite, and in 1846 first produced railroad rails.

In 1846 Reeves formed a second partnership, Reeves, Abbott & Company, which constructed a large rolling mill at Safe Harbor, Pa. on the Susquehanna River. Together, the two plants produced one-eighth of all iron rolled in Pennsylvania. Both John Griffen and John Fritz received their early training at Safe Harbor. It was incorporated as the Safe Harbor Iron Works on May 5, 1855. During the Civil War, the plant manufactured Dahlgren guns, but the works were badly damaged by a flood in 1865. They were operated on a reduced scale from 1877 to 1894, when they were abandoned.

Reeves & Whitaker dissolved upon the withdrawal of Whitaker in 1847; the new firm of Reeves, Buck & Co. was formed, with Robert S. Buck as partner. In 1855 it was incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Co., with David Reeves as president and his son Samuel J. Reeves (1818-1878) as vice president. David Reeves started the first structural shape mill in the United States in 1855 and began the fabrication and design for bridges. In 1861 the company commenced manufacture of a cannon invented by John Griffen (1812-1884), who was for many years superintendent of the Phoenix Iron Works; this gun was an important weapon during the Civil War. In 1862 Samuel J. Reeves invented the the Phoenix column, the first hollow wrought iron column to be patented; it became widely used in buildings and bridges throughout the country and was one of the company's best known products.

In 1871 Samuel J. Reeves succeeded his father as president and in the same year began erection of the largest rolling mill in the world; this building served as a model for the Centennial Exhibition building erected in Philadelphia in 1876. However, the huge works lay idle during much of the depression of 1873-1879. Samuel J. Reeves died in 1878 and was succeeded by his son David (1852-1923), who secured large contracts for structural shapes for the New York City elevated railroads. In 1884 the company began its transition to steel and started rolling steel shapes for naval cruisers; in 1889 the first steel was poured. In 1901 it installed the first fully electrically operated rolling mill traveling tilting table in its structural mill. David Reeves was succeeded as president in 1923 by his son Samuel J. Reeves (1880-1944).

After the younger Reeves' death in 1944, the plant changed hands several times and became engaged in types of steel manufacture other than the structural shapes for which its mills were originally designed. In 1949 it was completely shut down and then acquired by the Barium Steel Corp. It was reorganized as the Phoenix Iron & Steel Company on September 6, 1949, and reopened on January 14, 1950. In 1955 it absorbed two other Barium subsidiaries, the Central Iron & Steel Company of Harrisburg and Chester Blast Furnace, Inc. The Barium Steel Corporation was sold to Stanley Kirk in 1959 and broken up. The Phoenix operation was reorganized as The Phoenix Steel Corporation.

Phoenix could not survive the crisis that hit the American steel industry in the 1970s and the entire plant shut down in 1987. In 1988 the Phoenix Pipe & Tube Company was organized to operate the seamless pipe mill set up in 1956. The remainder of the site was cleared for development in 1989-90.

The records of the Phoenix Iron Company are concentrated in the 1856-1947 period. There are no records covering the early operation of the site by Wernwag or the Thompson brothers, and very little from the period after the sale to the Phoenix-Appollo Steel Company.

The operations of Reeves & Whitaker; Reeves, Buck & Company; and Reeves, Abbott & Company are represented only by account books, which show the financial aspects of transactions but give little operating detail. The Spring Mill Furnace is represented by accounting blotters for the period of David Reeves' lease (1855-1866). The records do permit identifying major customers and amounts paid for orders of nails, railroad rails, etc.

The records of the Phoenix Iron Company includes minutes (1856-1929); stock ledgers; brief of title papers and property maps; legal and financial correspondence and tax papers. Account books (1856-1938) are incomplete. A works diary (1870-1879) is primarily concerned with weather, but includes observations on events of the day during the troubled period of the late 1870s. A notebook of Isaac Reeves is primarily devoted to geometrical and engineering formulas, with a few notes and sketches on minor construction projects around the works.

Patent papers include original patent letters, correspondence and a few drawings. The patents are those obtained by members of the company for improvements in the manufacture of structural iron, for railroad turntables, rails, and fittings, plus domestic and foreign patents for the Griffen gun. Engineering records include specifications and handbooks, including an illustrated handbook on Phoenix Column construction. From the 1950s there is a survey for the construction of the seamless tube mill.

A discharge register (1901-1930) gives names of employees discharged, with date, department and cause.

Shop order books (1860-1937) are simple lists of orders for parts. Shop improvement ledgers (1899-1940) show costs of additions and modifications to plant.

Correspondence includes the following series: managers (1881-1929); shop (1898-1948); safety (1916-1937); steel plant (1897-1947); and new mill (1897-1947). It is almost entirely concerned with product orders and typically take the form of ordering the shop to produce a particular component, many of which are for use within the plant. Most of the letters contain sketches of the part to be produced. Inbound letters (1888-1937) are from customers and suppliers and are chiefly concerned with machinery for use within the plant.

A series of inter-office correspondence and memos (1941-1960) covers the company's period of decline under Barium ownership. Much of the correspondence concerns steel being supplied to the Phoenix Bridge Company as well as that company's bridge projects. There are reports of stocks on hand, jobs completed or pending wages paid, along with notes on salaries and pensions. The Barium period is represented by printed annual reports of the Barium Steel Corporation; the BARIUM NEWSLETTER; some minutes of management meetings; production and cost statistics; and progress reports. There is some discussion of competition
SUBJECTS:  Industry & manufacturing
:: Home :: About Us :: Centerpieces :: Events :: Resources :: Video & Audio ::
:: Press Room :: Blog :: Newsletter :: Site Map :: Facebook :: Flickr :: Twitter ::