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Crane Iron Works

Industrial History: Crane Iron and the Railroads

Name: Lehigh Crane Iron Co. (1839–1872)/Crane Iron Co. (1872–1893)/Crane Iron Works (1893–1899)/Empire Steel & Iron (1899–1938)
Location: Between Front & the canal; From Willow St. to Walnut St.
Year built: 1839
Built by: David Thomas & Lehigh Crane Iron Company

Erskine & Hazard of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company contracted with David Thomas of Wales to come to America and build an iron furnace using anthracite coal. The furnace, erected at Lock 36 on the Lehigh Canal, had its first run of iron on July 4, 1840. It was the first commercially and technologically successful blast furnace to use exclusively anthracite coal in the production of pig iron in America.  For a more detailed historic account, see The Crane Iron Works, History of the Counties of Lehigh & Carbon, 1884.
Given that pig iron could now be produced in much larger quantities and more cheaply than could be achieved in the small charcoal furnaces of the time, it triggered the beginning of the industrial revolution in America. Within a short period of time, the United States iron production would exceed Great Britain’s. Those who learned their trade at the Crane Iron Works would take their knowledge to other plants, allowing the infant industry to expand rapidly. Some of the finest minds in the industry got their start at the furnaces in Catasauqua and related businesses. David Thomas became known as the Father of the US anthracite iron industry and the works signaled the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Lock 36 was located about midway between Biery’s Port’s Race St. Bridge and the current Pine St. Bridge. A water wheel was erected there which drove a blowing engine consisting of alternating cylinders designed to compress air, increasing its density so that more air could be forced into the furnace than possible with a simple bellows. In addition, the air needed to be preheated to: Thomas designed heat exchangers or “stoves” that would allow the air to be heated before it was blown in the bottom using either a separate fired stove or using the heat from the hot flue gas leaving the furnace. Combined, this became the hot blast: the technology which continues to be used to this day in blast furnaces. No 2 furnace was added in 1942, No 3 in 1846.  Power for the furnaces was switched from canal water wheels to steam power with the addition of No. 3 Furnace and  a new boiler and boiler house were built.  Nos 4&5 furnaces were added in 1849, and No 6 in 1868.

Recently, the log books for the company were found and are now in the archives of the National Canal Museum in Easton.  The records show the following disposition of iron from the Crane based on canal shipment records of 1863. 

  • B. Hazard:  Son of Erskine Hazard.  Brother Fisher had a wire foundry in Mauch Chunk, but not info on his being associated with that business.
  • F. R. Bachus:  Treas of the Lehigh Crane Iron.  No info on for whom he would be purchasing
  • Abbot and Noble:  Liberty stove works, Philadelphia
  • Allentown Rolling Mill – and two other works in Allentown
  • Emerson & Co – possibly of Trenton NJ, manufacturer of edge tools
  • Wayer – unk
  • Fuller & Lord – operated Boonton Iron Works in NJ
  • Boonton Iron Works
  • Lathrop – Wm. G. Lathrop was associated with the Union Foundry in Rockaway NJ on the Morris Canal around this time
  • Composite Iron Works – of NYC, casting of architectural statues, fences, etc.  Previously NY Iron Railing Works
  • Catasauqua Manufacturing Co
  • Gould Bros – unk
  • Chase, Sharp & Thompson:  Stove and foundry co in Philadelphia
  • Stuart, Peterson – cast iron foundry in Philadelphia; stoves, hollow ware and hardware
  • John H. Murphy – iron works making hardware for the sugar plantations out of New Orleans?
  • E. B. Bertolett – unk
  • DL&W RR Co – Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (4/11/1864)
  • J. G. Blunt – steel manufacturer in Kansas?
  • W J & M Co – unk
  • J P Morris Iron Co – foundry and machine shop Philadelphia
  • Zuckerman – Jacob Zuckerman of NY filed multiple patents for improvements to sewing machines around this time
  • Bless & Drake – of Newark, NJ, manufactured flat irons for ironing clothes, the “celebrated self-heating smoothing iron”
  • Hoff & Fountaine – Hoff, Fontaine and & Abbott; general machinists and builders of engines, boilers, etc. 

It is interesting to note that none of the iron from the Crane went in the manufacture of train rails (unless it was done by purchasers who blended Crane pig iron with other ores or irons in their shops).  In 1872 much of the iron leaving the plant went into foundries for making stoves (page 279)

Furnaces No 1–3 were removed and replaced with new No. 3 and No. 1 furnaces in 1880-1.   The Crane also leased furnaces at Macungie and Edge Hill in Montgomery County during the late 80’s. No. 4 Furnace was last fired in 1890, and not replaced. No. 5 was torn down and a new No. 2 erected in its place in 1908 (and rebuilt later during a surge in production during WWI). No. 3 was dismantled in 1913 and No. 4 in 1914. The 2nd No. 1 furnace was dismantled in 1922. The last furnace, No. 2, operated sporadically thru the 20’s and was dismantled in 1930.

By 1881, the company employed 400, with an additional 500 at its other operations. Superintendents of the iron works here in Catasauqua were as follows: David Thomas (1839–1855), John Thomas (2nd son of David Thomas) (1855–1867), Joshua Hunt  (son-in-law of David Thomas) (1867–1881), Joseph Hunt (son of Joshua Hunt) (1881–1887), William R. Thomas (no relation) (1887–1891), Leonard Peckitt (1891+). H. R. Hall succeeded Peckitt as superintendent (Peckitt remained as president of the Empire who purchased the Crane Iron Works in 1899) and, in 1911, Milton O. Knauss succeeded Hall.

The economic Panic of 1893 forced the Crane Iron Co into receivership; one of the “receivers” being Leonard Peckitt, who was general manager at the time. He became president in 1894. In 1899, Peckitt helped form the Empire Steel & Iron Co., of which he was elected president. The Empire acquired the Crane Iron Works, moved their headquarters to Catasauqua in 1900, and in 1908, built a new office building at 124 Bridge St.  The plant was expanded in1904 bringing its annual capacity to 130,000 tons.  Empire at that time owned furnace, mine and rail facilities in PA, NJ and West Va.  The company was purchsed by the Repolgle interests of NY, again retaining Peckitt as president.  WWI brought a surge in demand and a new furnace was added at a cost of $1M.  However, 9 months after its completion in 1921 the iron works was mostly shut down. Peckitt and Horn disposed of the Crane’s assets, including many lots and properties in the borough.

Other Site History
The land for the Crane Iron Company was purchased from the Bierys (see Biery’s Port).  Lehigh Coal & Navigation also bought 11 acres from the Faust farm to built the guard lock and canal section above Lock 36. Inn bewtween the Biery and Faust farms was the Peter Farm.  David Thomas purchased much of that farm later, expanding the industrial complex.  John Peters lived at what is now the corner of Bridge and Front Streets.  Peters moved to this location in 1823 from Heidelberg (where he was born in 1799), and bought this small farm of Andrew Hower, at first occupying a house which had been built by John Zoundt, and afterwards erected a stone dwelling. He followed weaving for nine years, and was one of the first lock-tenders for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. In 1851 he moved away, later residing in Allentown with his daughter, Mrs. Owen Schwartz.  

During the time the Crane was operating, they operated a small foundry and a boiler works near Willow.  Both were leased for a time by independent operators:  An early boiler shop was built by Daniel Milson who became a contractor for the Crane, running the boiler shop and overhaul crews as needed.  In 1908, the Crane built a new boiler shop along Willow run by Samuel McCloskey.  A fire destroyed the Crane’s first foundry in 1870; it was replaced by a larger one which Robert J McIntyre leased for a time.  McIntyre was previously foreman at the Union Foundry and later purchased  a foundry in Oxford NJ from the Empire Steel and Iron.
After the iron works  in Catasauqua closed following WWI, the property was purchased and redeveloped by the Fuller Company for manufacturing equipment for the nearby cement industry. F. L. Smidth, which acquired the Fuller Company and property in 1990, discontinued manufacturing here in 2002, but still operates a research facility north of the Pine St. Bridge.  The land was purchased by the Borough of Catasauqua in 2013.  Plans for commercial and residential redevelopment and construction of a municipal services building are underway.

The photo below shows the cinder bank along Lehigh River, looking from the west side of river by Race St. crossing. Note how low the river is.  The cinder bank property between the river and railroad is now a separate parcel owned privately.

Address: East side of Front St. between Wood and Church Streets
Name: Crane Iron Works office & first home of David Thomas
Year built: 1840+
Built by: Lehigh Crane Iron Co.

The works was located along Front St. extending west to the canal, and north and south from Willow to Pine Streets. There are several structures in this block on the east side of Front St. that remain from the Crane: the main office, storage sheds, and the “pattern house”. Front St. was laid out by Biery from Biery’s Port as far as Wood St. prior to the Crane’s construction. In 1841, the Crane extended Front St. to their office, paving it with cinders – it became know as Cinder Street. It was graded in 1853, lowering it several feet and requiring higher stoops in front of the residences between Union and School Streets.  The Crane office was at 327 Front St. This building housed the offices and the laboratory of the Crane Iron Company. From 1846-1855, a room was set aside on the second floor to house a lending library for employees.  When the offices moved to Bridge St, Red Cross offices were setup in this building.

A storage shed for the Crane was located to the right of the original office, currently the rear of the of Biery’s Port Auto Body shop. The front of the building was added on as a Texaco gas station in 1939, and later became Blocker’s Hardware Store. It now houses a dance hall.  This building may also have been the stables for the Crane earlier.

On the corner of Wood and Front was the old three story “pattern house”, used to fabricate patterns for the Crane Iron Works. Patterns were stored there as well, as the center of the floor on each floor was open to allow a crane/pulley assembly to lift the patterns to different floors. The building later housed the old Boy’s Club and is now commercial and residential space.  Other sheds bordered the Pattern House to the rear and north during its operation; these no longer exist.  In 1908, a small office stood on the north side of the Pattern House.  The 1913 Sanborn map shows a Derrick Boom Shed to the rear of the Pattern house along Wood St; this also no longer exists. 

The building that houses Blondies was built as a baitshop on the first floor with living quarters on the upper floor. It was a used record -shop in 70’s. It may also have been used by the railroad to weigh/monitor the rail cars that passed as well. In between Blondies and what was the Crane Office is the railroad bed and tunnel entrance for trains and trolleys.

The small building to the left of Blondies at the street’s edge was the borough’s first fire station, built by David Thomas. After that, it was a barber shop until the 1990’s.

First Home of David Thomas family in Catasauqua
At the SE cover of Front and Church (current site of TD Auto Sales and Service & previously Casseys Sunoco), the Lehigh Crane Iron Co, built in 1839 what would be the first home of David Thomas and his family. (See Mansion District for later home(s). His home faced the Iron Works. Until water mains were run, a well drilled on the corner next to of Thomas’s residence was the source of water for all the families who lived and worked for the Crane. David Thomas also installed a sundial here so workers would know when to come to work. In 1854, David Thomas built, and moved into, a large frame house on the corner of Pine and Second St.

Other Occupants of Home at Front and Church: John Williams
John Williams was born in Landore, Wales, in 1824, and, at the age of 8, came with his parents to America, locating near Schenectady, N. Y. At fourteen he went to work as a clerk, and then followed the rest of the family to Catasauqua in 1845. (It is believed that David Thomas was friends of the Williams in Wales.) He began work at the Crane Iron weighing the ore and limestone that was hauled by horse teams to feed three furnaces. In 1849 he was promoted to the position of Assistant Cashier, and, after the death of Owen Rice, he was promoted in 1856 to the office of Cashier. He later became an officer of the Catasauqua Manufacturing Company, was Passenger Agent for the C. & F. R. Ill. Company, was a director and later President of the Catasauqua Gas Company, Vice-President of the National Bank of Catasauqua, director of the Lehigh Valley Trust and Safe Deposit Company of Allentown, President of the Farmers’ Fire Insurance Company of Upper and Lower Saucon Townships, and President of the Fairview Cemetery Association.

His wife, Emma Caroline Heilig, daughter of Rev. George Heilig, a Lutheran clergyman in Montgomery County, repeatedly declared the happiest period of her life was the season of her housekeeping on Church Street. For a while the family lived in Fuller’s Block. After David Thomas left the “Mansion” on Front Street, John Williams and family occupied it. During 1870, the Williams erected a beautiful home on Bridge Street, where they lived until their deaths, his in 1892 and hers in 1913. John Williams also built the house at 540 4th St. for his son and the double-house at the corner of 4th & Pine where his daughters and their spouses lived.
The 1913 Sanborn map shows this house as a “Hungarian Boarding House”

An ice house stood near the corner of the property into the early 1890s.  Beside it, on the corner was a small candy shop, shown on the 1896-1903 Sanborn maps.

Name: Railroads: Lehigh Valley, Catasauqua and Fogelsville, Central New Jersey, Ironton
Location: Serving the Crane Iron Works
Year built: 1855+

One of the major outcomes of the expanding iron industry was the construction of iron rails and the development of the railroad industry. The Crane built a rail system on the site of the iron works in the late 1840s to transport iron ore, limestone, coal and slag to and from the furnaces. An engine house was built at the SW corner of Front and Bridge for the maintenance of their engines. The first RR to arrive in Catasauqua was the Lehigh Valley, founded by Asa Packer, which brought coal from the north and iron ore from NJ. Tracks for the Lehigh Valley Railroad were completed in the fall of 1855 and were located on the west bank of the Lehigh River. With its arrival, the Lehigh Crane Iron Works became less dependent on the canal as a means of procuring raw materials for their furnaces, and industry expanded rapidly. By 1860, the town had 400 dwellings and a population of nearly 3000.

The next railroad to arrive was the Catasauqua and Fogelsville RR. The Lehigh Crane Iron Company, assisted by the Thomas Iron Company, sought a charter from the state for a railroad from Catasauqua to Fogelsville. After prolonged efforts by James W. Fuller I, the railroad charter was secured and construction on the Catasauqua & Fogelsville Railroad began in the spring of 1856 with the formal opening of this line during the summer of 1857. The station was located on the west side of the river, directly across the tracks from the LV RR. (See picture). The line reached Trexlertown in 1860 and Alburtis in 1864, connecting with the East Penn RR. Passenger traffic was established by Charles Chapman, sup’t and engineer of the C&F RR, in 1875. The 1907 picture shows the original station being replaced with the more familiar, newer structure.

In 1909, the Empire Steel & Iron Company created an eastern rail connection from the plant to the east of town to provide access to lands for a new proposed cinder dump. It would also provide a possible link to the LC&N railroad expansion in that area (the link along the river was damaged during a flood and could not be rebuilt) and provide a shipment connection for the Davies and Thomas Company. To cross town, a tunnel was built between Front St, underneath the company homes along Wood St, to American St, where there was a once a quarry and municipal dump. The line extended from there, across Catasauqua Creek, and onto a 24 acre site ( Kurtz Valley) that would become known as the Cinder Tip (see photo far right). 

Two spurs were created: one linking to the Crystal Ice Company and one to the Davies and Thomas Foundry, providing both with access to the Lehigh and Philadelphia Railroad connection by the Crane. This track never was extended further east or north.

In 1882, the Thomas Iron Company secured complete ownership of the Ironton RR, which hauled ore, coal, limestone and iron for the plant in Hockendauqua.

A wonderful history of the RRs in Catty “Catasauqua: Crossroads of the Anthracite Railroads”, was written by Joe Yurkos and is available on the Hopkin Thomas Project website of John McVey.