History of the Lorain Steel Company.
From: History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania
By: John E. Gable
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis, 1926


Second among Johnstown's steel industries is Lorain Steel Company, bearing a name from the lake shore in Ohio and subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, but conceived as a user of unfinished products of Cambria Steel plants and as distinctively a Johnstown industry as any the town boasts. Lorain Steel grew out of the development of street railway transportation and once was prepared to leave Johnstown, bag and baggage, because its own means of transporting raw and finished materials was blocked and checked.

Like Cambria, Lorain went through a lot of hard knocks before brilliant invention, skillful workmanship and sound business abilities brought their rewards.

Mr. A. J. Moxham, then a resident of Louisville, Ky., had an idea. The low "T" rail then being laid on public highways for street railroads with their small and light horse drawn cars was too narrow for other vehicles to ride upon and it made jolty and dangerous crossings. Mr. Moxham wanted a tread on the street car rails. Such a rail would sell readily, he believed, for the street railway industry was spreading rapidly and a better rail would be of service in reducing objections to trolley lines. Mr. Moxham was associated with Tom L. Johnson, creator of cheap transportation in Cleveland, and Mr. A. V. du Pont. They formed the Johnstown Steel Street Railway Company, March 7, 1883, for the manufacture of girder rails and switch work for street railways.

Mr. Moxham took the idea of tread bearing rail to Cambria Iron Company, which agreed to roll this forerunner of the modern girder rail. Cambria mechanics and rollers, after repeated attempts, were ready for quantity production of such a rail. With their usual disregard of official or scientific terms, they designated this as the "Jay Bird." Mr. Moxham established a Main Street office and residence here, and a small force of men, at an unroofed plant on Center Street, began work with a hydraulic jack bending Cambria rails to suit the various specifications of street railway builders in turning short corners on city streets. Where the Pennsylvania freight station now stands the Moxham workmen turned out the first street railway switchwork for the Johnstown trolley lines. In the fall of the year the plant was moved into the old wire mill, on the present site of the Swank Pottery, Woodvale. The machine shop work was done at the establishment of John McKenna on Portage Street. The old barb wire mill housed the industry until 1886, when a new plant in Woodvale was occupied. Business was growing rapidly, and in 1888 a part of the VonLunen farm in Moxham was purchased as a site for a rolling mill. More capital was brought into the industry and its name was changed to the Johnson Company, December 7, 1888. In the following spring, May 31, 1889, the Woodvale plant was ruined in the flood, but the company was able to build a new plant on the Moxham site and continue the production of switches in increased quantities.

The progress of the industry after that was uninterrupted. Mr. E. B. Entwisle, the first general manager, and others of the early organization, remained year after year. The rolling mills were completed. The use of electricity as a motive power for street cars rapidly supplanted horses, heavier cars demanded heavier rails, and poles and wires for the transmission of electricity called for greater tonnages of steel and many adaptations or new devices in switches and rails Instead of rails four inches high, rails of 10 1/2 inches were in demand. Types of street paving had changed, too, with block and brick on the ties of the railway tracks. The Johnson Company kept pace with the demand for higher rails without sacrificing old rails by making chairs to place under the low rails. An old English drop hammer did the work. Then electric welding became possible and the company undertook to weld the chairs on rails with the standard girder head, but with a bulb vase, thus saving the weight of expensive steel and the cost of applying separate chairs. But about the time this new process had been perfected the panic of 1893, together with the rapid reduction in the ordinary cost of making steel and the threat of changes in tariff policies, knocked down the market price of girder rails from $90 and $120 a ton to $20 and $30 a ton. Steel became so cheap that added weight of rails meant little. The steel was worth less than the cost of welding. However, the old drop hammer had made enough money for its owners to enable them to forget the flood and also to withstand the losses incurred in the welding experiments, the results of which were not by any means a total loss.

Ferndale bottom lands, about the best available sites for heavy industry in the Johnstown district, were bought for a furnace and steel works plant. The Johnson Company wanted to supply its own steel. Nothing was lacking except transportation facilities. For its own use it had constructed the Johnstown & Stonycreek Railroad to the Moxham plant, but no connection had been possible with the Pennsylvania Railroad. It would hardly be unfair here to recall that the Pennsylvania Railroad at that time was directly or indirectly interested in several steel plants, that it went to great lengths to retain some control of coal mining and other heavy tonnage industries, and that it naturally did not encourage any traffic arrangements here which would favor the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operating over its branch lines from Rockwood. Neither would it be unsafe to say that Cambria did not wish to lose a good and growing customer and at the same time acquire a rival in the making of raw steel in its home territory. Both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Company were factors in politics. Cambria was dominant in Johnstown, its plants were growing, it had no serious competition in the field of labor, and it did not then feel or acknowledge the need of a connecting railroad. It had, in fact, great possibilities of its own in its plant railroads for a future belt line encircling the entire industrial and residence district, and admitted facts in its history indicate that it long had adhered to a policy of cooperation with the Pennsylvania Railroad so long as that policy was mutual, but was determined to control the situation for its own interests regarding any future invasion of Johnstown by a trunk line rival of the Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Cambria was ambitious to be and remain more than a producer of unfinished materials. It had no rivals then which it really feared because of size or financial power. Pittsburgh was making steel in great quantities but finishing little. It supplied dozens of other industries, but that was not the Cambria idea. The same old fight is still going on today, sometimes in reverse, but that merely means that the other fellow is striking the first blows. Henry Ford, for instance, has built up his gigantic automobile industry on cheap steel, but long ago set out to make his industry independent in both steel and in coal, and has even undertaken to own his own system of transportation. The Ford battle against the general steel industry, perhaps, is not unlike the fight of the Johnson Company with Cambria, and the key to the battle was the railroad, or the Johnson Company so believed.

The little Johnstown row was perhaps a big thing, much bigger than the question whether an industry would continue to grow here or merely elsewhere. The Johnson engineers looked about for the best location of their plant with respect to transportation. They determined the facts in favor of the Great Lakes, with water transportation to tidewater and to Chicago and with short rail hauls to the growing cities, railroads and agricultural and mining communities of the Middle West. As a lake port, they selected Lorain, Ohio. Money earned in Johnstown was expended there in blast furnaces. Other funds were raised. The rolling mill equipment in Moxham was loaded on cars and shipped to Lorain, leaving here only the rolling mill shed and the switch works, and these, too, were to be taken away.

The managers of the new industry had taken great interest in civic and community affairs, especially in the housing of employes and in street and other improvements. Many of its men went to Lorain, but some, including men with fine records for loyalty and ability, could not go. So good was the record of labor at the Moxham plant that the company finally decided to maintain a works here. The tonnage of steel required by the switch works was not heavy. In May, 1898, the name became the Lorain Company for both Lorain and Johnstown plants. Soon thereafter Lorain Company became a subsidiary of the Federal Steel Company, and Federal Steel, in turn, was absorbed in United States Steel Corporation, February 11, 1901. The products of the Johnstown plant were still further specialized and the denial of railroad connections to the Johnson Company in a few years had brought here a unit of the greatest steel combination on earth under an Ohio name.

Return to [ PA History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ]

All pages copyright 2003-2012. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy