On a picturesque day on the Susquehanna River, the Codorus makes her maiden voyage. She is no more than four tons heavy, 60 feet long and nine feet wide, but she is a sight to behold on the water. Her hull is made entirely of strong iron plate rolled thin – a first for any steamboat in America. A November 22, 1825 article from the Berks and Schuylkill Journal describes her voyage: “The Codorus taken ‘all in all’ will, as a work of art, elicit all of the praises of those who inspect her; she makes a beautiful appearance on the water and moves gracefully through it. The projection of the scheme and the completion of the boat are highly creditable to the ingenuity, science and practical skill of her constructors.” This ingenuity was partially owed to the manufacturers of the first rolled boiler plate iron, Lukens Steel Company.
In the late 1700s, America was slow to awaken to the technology available for making workable sheet iron. Inefficient, unreliable, and costly processes led the new country to continue to import iron products from Great Britain. The iron produced in the States was limited to nails, rods and small quantities of pig and rolled iron. The continued dependence on Great Britain and the stagnant development of products in the United States prompted new innovation in the iron industry. Much changed in the early 1800s that forged the way for improvements in iron products for construction.
In 1818, a small iron rolling mill in Coatesville, Chester County began to produce rolled iron plates that rivaled the best in the world. Dr. Charles Lukens and the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory, later to become Lukens Steel Company, produced rolled iron plate in sufficient quantity – the first iron of its strength and quality in the country. “At a time when most small country iron works were content with producing straps, kettles and nails, he directed the business into what was to become and remain its foremost product,” wrote Eugene DiOrio in his historical review Lukens: Remarkable Past, Promising Future. By 1825, this quality boiler plate iron was used in the first iron-hulled steamboat, the Codorus. With the order of the Codorus iron, Brandywine Iron Works solidified its prolific presence in the iron and steel industry.
The boiler plate that Lukens produced is a type of manufactured iron that is shaped by heavy rollers into thin but durable sheets. Iron ore, mined from the earth, is first melted and refined into a form called a bloom. The bloom is then rolled thin between multiple rollers of many diameters to produce the desired width and thickness of the plate. A water wheel (or steam and electricity in modern times) powers the giant rollers. The original dimensions of the machinery that produced the first boiler plate measured 18 inches in diameter and 4 feet wide. Eventually Lukens was able to manufacture plates on machinery of 4 rollers, each weighing 67, 750 pounds, 34 inches in diameter and 206 inches long. This mill became the largest plate rolling assembly in the world and remained as such for 40 years.
The history of the Lukens Steel Company dates back to 1810 when Issac Pennock established the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory in Coatesville along the banks of the Brandywine River. The river’s water power and the mill’s location near the Philadelphia to Lancaster Turnpike (later to become U.S. Route 30) made the site ideal for iron production and transportation. Eventually ownership passed to Pennock’s daughter, Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens.
It was Dr. Charles Lukens that first had the idea to expand their business to roll iron boiler plate in 1818. The iron boiler plate was a critical innovation; the larger the plate, the less need for weak welded seams in construction. Upon Dr. Lukens’ untimely death, it was Rebecca that mastered and bettered the process of rolling iron. In Robert Wolcott’s book, A Woman in Steel, Rebecca Lukens is quoted speaking of her husband’s wishes for boiler plate: “My husband had just commenced the Boiler Plate Business and secured sufficient workmen to carry it on. This was a new branch in Pennsylvania and he was sanguine in his hopes of success. It was his dying request that he wished me to continue and I promised to comply.”
Rebecca grew up observing the processes and tasks of her father’s Federal Slitting Mill. She developed a keen sense of the iron industry and business leadership. She was a young mother who not only had to deal with the conditions of the mill, but had to contend with family that was determined to write her out of the ownership of the mill. When Charles Lukens died in 1825, Rebecca had five small children and was pregnant with a sixth child. Her beliefs as an Orthodox Quaker and her fortitude helped her continue to raise her family while also running the family business. Unfortunately, her mother Martha Pennock did not support her ventures, citing the unfeminine nature of the business. “I will not dwell on my feelings when I began to look around me; there was difficulty and danger on every side,” Rebecca stated regarding her relationship with her mother and other immediate family members, as detailed in Judith Scheffler’s review of Lukens’ life. Rebecca stood fast in her position as owner and manager and fought hard to keep her growing company.
Some of her first tasks were to improve the mill’s working conditions and efficiency. In his historical review DiOrio said of Rebecca: “Intelligent and practical, Rebecca Lukens proved to be a shrewd business manager and a sharp judge of character, developing among other talents the knowledge about when to extend the warehouse. Perhaps the most important was her ability to determine prices for her products – high enough to make a profit, yet not so high as to outweigh the market.” Rebecca embraced her role as leader and began to make the changes that would prove to be invaluable to Lukens Steel’s growth into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
On January 6, 1994, the 200th anniversary of her birth, the Pennsylvania Legislature and the City of Coatesville named Rebecca Lukens as America’s first woman industrialist as she was responsible for much of the success and prolific output of Lukens Steel. The old era of the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory ended on December 10, 1854 with the passing of Rebecca Lukens. In 1859, the mill was renamed the Lukens Rolling Mills honoring Rebecca and Dr Charles Lukens, and later Lukens Steel Company. The business remained in the family under the supervision and management of Dr. Charles Huston, her son in-law. Huston maintained Lukens drive to be the best in the industry and many promising developments occurred as Lukens moved into the modern era.
It was a Lukens tradition to have the largest plate iron in the country and Huston and his business partner Charles Penrose Jr., a cousin of Rebecca, intended to keep it that way. In 1870, a new steam-powered mill was added to replace the water powered mill and further increase output. A puddling mill, which refines the iron ore into the form used for rolling, was added to reduce Lukens’ dependence on outside suppliers. Consistently and continuously through the years Lukens added on and improved upon the rolling mill, until the largest 206 inch mill with a capacity of 500,000 tons a year was established in 1919. Eventually, other improvements like an electric furnace to replace the open hearths and the addition of the 140 inch mill enabled Lukens to stay in the lead.
Over the years Lukens contributed iron and steel plates and products to the military, engineering and skyscraper industries. In 1942, the United States Navy presented its Navy “E” award to Lukens in appreciation for the steel used in production of war materials. The nation also bears the mark of Lukens steel, from the steam locomotives of the past to the St. Louis Gateway Arch to the Walt Whitman Bridge of the present. In 1968, 152 steel “tree” beams, or arched support columns, produced by Lukens were used in the construction of the World Trade Center because of their immense weight-bearing capacity. Finally, in 1985, Fortune recognized Lukens Steel Company as one of the 500 largest industrial corporations.
Steamboats have disappeared from the Susquehanna and rusted factories now dominate the landscape of South Coatesville. Traveling on Buck Run Road to South First Avenue, one passes through the heart of what can be remembered as one of the greatest iron and steel empires in Pennsylvania and the United States. Passersby may not fully appreciate the scope of the landscape before them. The jumble of power lines, railroad crossings and seemingly run-down factories gives a sense of abandonment. Although some of the Coatesville mill buildings are no longer in use. In 1998, Lukens was purchased by Bethlehem Steel. The Coatesville mill operations are now owned, and continue to operate under ArcelorMittal steel. The Coatesville mill operations are the oldest and longest continuously operating mill in the country.
In April 2010, the relevance of Lukens Steel in Coatesville was renewed. The steel “tree” beams from the fallen World Trade Center towers made their journey back to the city on a fleet of flat-bed trucks guided by the American Flag. On the ninth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the steel was celebrated in remembrance of the day and in commemoration of the innovation of those from Lukens Steel Company. For it was in Coatesville, Pennsylvania that one strong woman and her family began rolling thin but durable boiler plate iron that forged the way for iron and steel use in America.
The Center would like to thank Sam Radziviliuk of the Greystone Society, National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville for his assistance with this article.