Home to rich limestone reserves, Lehigh Valley companies produced more than half of the Portland cement for the United States from 1871 to 1907 and remained a major supplier for nearly 150 years. The items (minutes, books, articles, and drawings) represent this late nineteen century through the early twentieth century history. To learn more about the cement industry, see “The Cement Industry of the Lehigh Valley” essay.
The Cement Industry of the Lehigh Valley.
By David Prentice
It is hard to imagine a world without concrete. Concrete makes possible more construction on a greater scale than would have been possible with stone, brick or lime. Portland cement is the powder that, combined with sand, aggregate and water, creates concrete. It was invented in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. But in the Lehigh Valley, between 1871 and 1899, three events occurred that changed the American, and then the international Portland cement industry. First, at Coplay, a few miles northwest of Allentown, in 1871, David O. Saylor successfully manufactured Portland cement for the first time in the United States. The second event occurred in 1889 at Coplay when Jose De Navarro successfully commercialized the rotary kiln. This was followed around 1900 when the rotary kiln was adapted to use pulverized coal rather than the more expensive fuel oil. As the price of cement fell and demand rose, in part due to the successful development of reinforced concrete as a building material, a cement boom began which then spread across the United States. Cement consumption increased almost ten fold from 1890 to 1913. The title of one trade journal was "The Cement Age". Until 1907 more than half of the Portland cement produced in the United States came from the Lehigh Valley. Even after the boom had subsided, the Lehigh Valley remained the largest producing district in the United States until 1970 and remains in the top five producing districts in 2004. The rotary kiln became the standard technology for cement manufacturing internationally and remains so in 2008.
Before the 1890s cement was mainly used as a mortar in brick or stone construction. Most mortar was made from lime or natural cement. Natural cement is manufactured by burning a naturally occurring mixture of limestone and clay in kilns. The output of the kiln is ground and the resulting cement is both stronger than lime and can set under water making it very useful for constructing canals, docks and any other construction that comes into contact with water. The secret of how to make natural cement was discovered in the late eighteenth century in England, with production beginning in 1796. Natural cement production began in the United States in 1818 when suitable materials were discovered near Syracuse, N.Y., while building the Erie Canal. Indeed, most centers of Natural cement production were initially discovered while building canals. Canals provided initial demand and then a low cost means of transportation for the bulky product when complete. The Lehigh Valley was no exception as suitable materials were discovered at the Lehigh Gap while building the Lehigh Canal in 1826. In 1830 cement production for the canal shifted from the Lehigh Gap to Siegfried, Northampton County, just a few miles northwest of Allentown, when more suitable raw materials were found there. The industry continued on a small scale after canal construction was completed for the center of Natural cement production was in the Hudson Valley at Rosendale, New York. In 1890 United States Geological Survey statistics report 76.2% of cement consumed in the United States was natural cement and 37.8% of natural cement was produced in Rosendale.
Portland cement differs from natural cement in three ways. First, rather than using naturally mixed raw materials, Portland cement is manufactured with by mixing the limestone and clay materials to achieve specific chemical properties. Second, it is burnt at much higher temperature and requires more powerful mills for grinding. Third, it eventually became stronger than natural cement. Though first patented in 1824 production began on a wide scale in England in the 1860s following its well publicized use in the new sewer system in London.
Production of Portland cement in the United States began in 1871 at Coplay, about a mile south-east from Siegfried, along the Lehigh River, though on the other side of the river in Lehigh County. David O. Saylor and associates began producing natural cement there in 1866, as the Coplay Cement Company. He also began experiments to produce Portland cement and successfully did so, in 1871 being granted a patent for the first American Portland cement. The chemist for the Coplay Cement Co. was John W. Eckert, a recent graduate from Lehigh University, who had done work for the Pennsylvania Geological Survey while a student there. As well as being the first manufacturer, the Coplay Cement Co. was, importantly, one of the most durable manufacturers during the birth of the American industry. Its profitability is demonstrated by its regular investments in new kilns to increase capacity. In 1885, a story in the New York Times about the Coplay Cement Co. predicted that "it is only a matter of time when the importation of foreign cement will become a matter of history".
Other manufacturers of Portland cement (though all also produced natural cement) in the Lehigh Valley followed the Coplay Cement Co. all in Lehigh County around the Coplay Cement Co. The largest of the other entrants was the American Improved Cements Company at nearby Egypt. This was begun by Robert W. Lesley who had previously been a distributer of Coplay Cement. John W. Eckert moved from the Coplay Cement Co. to become the superintendent of this company. Entry also occurred outside of the Lehigh Valley but many of these entrants failed within a few years, either proving unprofitable or, in some cases, burning down and not being rebuilt. The ongoing success of the Coplay Cement Co., American Improved Cements Co. and a very few others, demonstrated, despite the failures, Portland cement could be made in the United States.
Cement was produced in the Lehigh Valley during this period using the English intermittent vertical kiln. A student thesis at Lehigh University provides a detailed account of manufacturing at the American Improved Cements Co. First, the raw materials, a combination of limestone and clay, are quarried. Then the materials are formed into bricks, weighing about four pounds. These bricks are then dried for about twenty-four hours. The bricks and coke are loaded into the large vertical kilns and then burnt for about 72 hours. The kiln is then let to cool down for 10 hours and the bricks removed. The bricks have been cooked to a very hard material referred to as clinker. This clinker is then ground into Portland cement. Note two features of this production process. First, the cement produced is not of a uniform quality as heating is not uniform throughout the kiln. This required sorting of the cooled clinker by hand into cements of different grades to be sold. Second, a considerable amount of labor is required to handle and prepare the raw materials for the kiln, and then unload and sort the clinker.
In 1890, the United States Geological Survey estimated that the Lehigh Valley produced 60% of Portland cement produced in the United States. However, their statistics do put this success into context. Just 3.5% of the 9.7 million barrels of cement consumed in the United States was American manufactured Portland cement. 20% was imported Portland cement, mainly from England and Germany, and the remaining 76.5% was American natural cement.
Why had the American Portland cement industry not grown faster? The first problem was that while American manufacturers used the same labor-intensive technology as the Europeans, they would have higher costs as wages were higher in the United States. Second, American Portland cement sold at a lower price than imported Portland cement because it was perceived (and in the main was) lower quality. German and English Portland cements had excellent reputations. The cheaper Rosendale cement also had an established reputation, as well as being cheaper to make. Portland cement was protected by tariffs but shipping costs were low as imported cement came across to the United States as barrels of ballast for the holds of the sailing ships that would return to Europe with American exports. These conditions made it difficult for American cement manufacturers to operate profitability.
But from 1890, production in the Lehigh Valley rose from 201,000 barrels to, by 1913, reach 27.1 million barrels out of 92.1 million barrels nationally. Simultaneously the real price of Portland cement fell from $8.43 a barrel in 1890 to $4.86 in 1902 to $3.34 in 1913 while the quality improved considerably. Natural cement and imports made up less than 1 per cent of consumption in 1913.
The successful commercialization of the rotary kiln, at Coplay, by Jose De Navarro played a critical role in these changes. It is important to note that the rotary kiln was an English invention, with the first patent being awarded there in 1877. An improved version of the rotary kiln had been patented in England in 1885 by Ransomes but still had not been successfully commercialized. It is also important to note that the first attempts to apply the rotary kiln were not made in the Lehigh Valley, taking place in Oregon and New York. But all of these attempts failed, either technically or commercially.
Jose De Navarro was an entrepreneur with a particular interest in construction. He was involved in building the Elevated Railway and Central Park Apartments in New York City. These experiences interested him in cement and, in particular, production using a rotary kiln. After some costly unsuccessful experiments at Kingston NY, because Portland cement was being manufactured successfully at Coplay, he formed a company and leased land near the Coplay Cement Co., on the site of a former natural cement manufacturer. Though production of Portland cement using a Ransome-style rotary kiln began from November 1889, it took some time to achieve both technical and financial success. De Navarro's original company failed but a new company, the Atlas Portland Cement Company, with the involvement of the president of the large New Jersey Central railroad, took over. By 1896, a story in the Wall Street Journal describes the company as finding "a market for all it can produce". The success of the firm is also demonstrated by its building a much larger plant at Northampton, just behind Siegfried, and then rapidly expanding this plant. In 1901, the Atlas Portland Cement Co. was the largest cement company in the United States – more than twice the size and probably five to ten times the size of most firms in the industry. This continued for some time, with the Atlas Portland Cement Co. providing cement for the Panama Canal, among other large projects.
Cement production in a rotary kiln occurs as follows. Raw materials are quarried, crushed and fed into a kiln which is a revolving iron tube. As the material enters and progresses down the tube it is cooked with a flame from a jet of fuel oil into clinker. The clinker is quickly cooled and mixed with gypsum before grinding into Portland cement.
Producing with a rotary kiln has two advantages over vertical kilns. First, the quality is higher and more uniform due to more rapid heating and cooling and a more uniform application of heat to the raw materials. Second, production costs are lower as mechanization eliminates most of the labor required for processing raw materials.
However, it is important to stress that the adoption of the rotary kiln was not the sole reason for the explosion of the American cement industry. Demand for cement was also increasing internationally. In the 1880s the commercially successful passenger elevators were developed, enabling the construction of skyscrapers with skeleton frames of concrete walls around steel or iron frames. Stronger Portland cement, initially in Germany, made reinforced concrete construction practical and by the 1890s the range of uses for reinforced concrete had expanded considerably and therefore the demand for cement. As cities grew so did the demand for fire control, which concrete buildings assisted with. Though these demand factors are important, the fall in the real price suggests the cost-reducing effects of the rotary kiln were greater than the demand increasing effects on price. The increase in quantity is determined by both the increase in demand and supply.
The Lehigh Valley had three advantages that contributed to its playing a central role. First it is relatively near three major centers of population: New York and New England, Philadelphia and Washington DC. Second, it is relatively near Lima OH, the main source for fuel oil required for the rotary kiln. The third, possibly critical, advantage is that the raw materials of the Lehigh Valley are relatively simple to work with as they closely match the chemical composition required for Portland cement and are free of impurities that prevented, for example, large-scale production of Portland cement in the Rosendale area.
Some other manufacturers within the Lehigh Valley and at other locations where oil was cheap, such as in Ohio and Southern California, also adopted the rotary kiln. But, with the rise of Rockerfeller's Standard Oil, the price of oil rose and was expected to rise further. The third event that enabled the rotary kiln to diffuse across the United States was the adaptation, by the engineers Hurry and Seaman at the Atlas Portland Cement Co., of the rotary kiln to burn with cheap pulverized coal instead of a fuel controlled by a monopolist. The patent for this invention became known as the Hurry-Seaman patent. Now the rotary kiln could be used outside of southern California and the central northeastern states, and the industry diffused rapidly throughout the U.S. and internationally.
The most rapid expansion occurred in the Lehigh Valley with a set of plants forming what became known as the cement belt. The belt began in the west at the Ormrod plant of the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. To the east of Ormrod was the set of plants in Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, including Coplay. To the east of these plants was the set of plants around Northampton, Northampton County, just across the Lehigh River from Whitehall, including the large new plant of the Atlas Portland Cement Co. The next set of plants was again across to the east around Upper Nazareth Township. The eastern end of the belt then frays around Easton. North-east of Easton, on the west bank of the Delaware River, still in Northampton County, there were to be three plants. Across the river from Easton were the three sets of plants in Warren County, New Jersey. The easternmost plant was that of the (Thomas) Edison Portland Cement Company, near Stewartsville. Thomas Edison made his own contribution to the cement industry during this period in developing much larger kilns which, again, quickly diffused beyond the Lehigh Valley.
Phillip Anderson aptly compares the Lehigh Valley during this period to Silicon Valley. Critical innovations occurred there. The enormous increase in output accompanied by falling prices and increased quantity and quality foreshadowed similar patterns in consumer goods from automobiles to computers. In addition, fierce disputes developed over intellectual property rights. And employees left firms to start up new firms nearby which are bought up by outside investors and then move on again.
The fiercest dispute over intellectual property occurred over the Hurry-Seaman patent. Other firms in the Lehigh Valley and beyond naturally attempted to invent around it. The Atlas Portland Cement Co. naturally attempted to enforce their intellectual property rights. Just before a court case against one of the other Lehigh Valley companies, Alpha Portland Cement Co., was to begin, they settled out of court by forming a holding company to administer and license the patents. Other companies further afield, such as the Sandusky Cement Company, did not join the holding company and were sued. Finally, in 1912 after "two thousand pages of record and six hundred of argument" Judge Baker ruled in "Atlas Portland Cement Co. et al v. Sandusky Portland Cement Co." that the patent could not be enforced as the principle was general and familiar enough for others to invent themselves.
The Alpha Portland Cement Co. is a particularly good example of a firm with multiple connections to many of the leading firms that developed in the Lehigh Valley. Though there are different accounts of their exact roles, it is clear the two founders of the plant at Alpha NJ were Amable Bonneville and Thomas Whittaker. Amable Bonneville had previously been connected with Portland and natural cement plants at Coplay and Siegfried and the Atlas Portland Cement Co. After starting the Whittaker Portland Cement Co., he moved on to assist the development of Vulcanite Portland Cement Co., also in Warren County, and the Bonneville Portland Cement Co. at Siegfried, before his death in 1895. Thomas Whittaker continued with his cement company until 1895 when he sold it to the new Alpha Portland Cement Co. headed by George Bartol from Philadelphia. While Thomas Whittaker died soon after this, his widow, Catherine Whittaker, co-investor, George Ormrod, and Plant Manager, Charles Matcham, joined General Harry Trexler, one of Allentown's leading businessmen, to start the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. The Alpha Portland Cement Company was then sold again to investors from Pittsburg. Bartol moved to Nazareth to form, with William Schaffer, the Dexter Portland Cement Company. Schaeffer had previously been connected with the first plant at Nazareth, the Nazareth Cement Company, and would go on to start a third company at Nazareth, the Phoenix Portland Cement Company. Meanwhile the Alpha Portland Cement Company bought out a struggling Portland cement company nearby at Martins Creek. The president of this company, George Roydhouse went on to develop the Bath Portland Cement Company at Bath, PA, (which was bought out by the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. in 1925) with Fred B. Franks, who went on to be involved with the last new plants in the Lehigh Valley: the Keystone Portland Cement Co. at Bath in 1928 and the National Portland Cement Co. at Brodhead in 1935.
Unlike Silicon Valley, many of the key innovators, such as David Saylor, Jose De Navarro, Amable Bonneville and Thomas Whittaker were older men with business careers behind them before entering the industry, rather than young men straight from college or graduate school. This reflects in part that university education was not as widespread as by the 1960s but also that cement was still a process industry requiring considerable capital to enter. One could not operate a cement plant, with quarry, rotary kiln and grinders from a garage. That being said the cement industry did go through a speculative stage, complete with dodgy promoters, but this mainly took place outside of the Lehigh Valley. Money was still made in the Lehigh Valley though. The Philadelphia Inquirer in May 1899 ran a story about the boom in Lehigh County. The price of rural land is described as having doubled from $75 an acre to $150 an acre and a similar story in April 1900 about the boom in Northampton county features even greater increases in land prices!
Like in other industries, cement companies imported their workforce from Central and Eastern Europe. Working in a cement plant with quarrying, with explosives, grinding, burning, and more grinding could be dangerous. Nevertheless the industry in the Lehigh Valley does not appear to have been systematically unionized until the 1930s. Kim B. Clark, in his study of unionization in the cement industry, suggests this reflects a reluctance of the first generation of workers to join unions but also a lack of interest by traditional craft based unions to organize the industry or even support industrial action. Once a second generation arrived and conditions changed in the 1930s the Lehigh Valley quickly unionized as did much of the industry.
While the American Portland cement industry never became concentrated the way steel, oil or car industries did, nevertheless Lehigh Valley firms such as Atlas, Lehigh Portland and Alpha Portland, in varying degrees, built new plants across the United States or purchased existing ones to create chains of plants. As we have already seen Lehigh Valley firms could not retain control of their innovations the way a Microsoft could. Furthermore the decision taken by the industry in the 1900s to adopt standardized products removed any advantage brands such as Atlas may have had and led to the regionalized markets characterizing the cement industry today. Beyond Eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley plants mainly shipped to New York, southern New England, Maryland and Washington DC. With such a market, the Lehigh Valley remained the largest producing district in the United States until 1970, when passed by the set of plants around Los Angeles. Peak production was probably around 40 million barrels (6.8 million metric tons) around 1927. Over time the smaller plants found their plants or quarries to be uneconomical in the long run and shut down. Investment ceased in the larger plants of Alpha, Atlas and the Lehigh Portland Cement Companies, and older capacity started to be scrapped as early as 1907. After 1913 just four more plants were built in the Lehigh Valley – two at sites that had been purchased but not developed in the 1900s.
Though shipments boomed again after World War II, nearly reaching the 1927 peak in the mid-1950s, investment did not recover. Only seven of the sixteen plants in the Lehigh Valley had installed new kilns by 1958. Most of the remaining plants shut by 1970 and by 1983 only five fully integrated plants remained in the Lehigh Valley. The New Jersey plants had shut by 1942. The Lehigh Portland Cement Co. plant at Ormrod shut in 1958, the Coplay Cement Co. at Coplay plant in 1979 and the Universal Atlas plant at Northampton in 1981. This occurred as part of a general shakeout in the American industry with about the number of plants shrinking by one third from a peak of 186 in 1967 to 122 in 1989 after being hit by higher fuel prices, tighter environmental regulation and increased competition from imports. Like the rest of the American cement industry, the Lehigh Valley firms became foreign owned. In 2008, just four integrated cement plants remain in the Lehigh Valley– at Cementon (Lafarge), at Nazareth (Essroc), at Bath (Keystone) and at Stockertown (Buzzi Unicem). Lehigh Portland Cement retained its head offices at Fogelsville until 2008.
Peter Collins (2004) Concrete: The Vision of a New Architecture, McGill-Queens University Press. Montreal. Quebec, Canada.
Thomas F. Hahn and Emory L. Kemp (1994) Cement Mills Along the Potomac River, Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology, Morgantown WV.
Earl J. Hadley (1945) The Magic Powder, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York NY.
Robert W. Lesley, John B. Lober and George S. Bartlett (1924) History of the American Portland Cement Industry in the United States, International Trade Press, Chicago IL.
United States Geological Survey (various) Minerals Yearbook of the United States, GPO, Washington DC.