Phoenix Iron Works: Wikis


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Mid-19th Century engraving of the Phoenix Iron Works

The Phoenix Iron Works (1855: Phoenix Iron Company; 1949: Phoenix Iron & Steel Company; 1955: Phoenix Steel Corporation), [1] located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, was a significant manufacturer of iron and related products during the 19th century and early 20th century. Phoenix Iron Company was a major producer of cannons for the Union Army during the American Civil War. The company also produced the Phoenix column, a significant advance in construction material.

Phoenix Iron Works is a core component of the Phoenixville Historic District, a National Register of Historic Places site and in 2006 was recognized as a Historic Landmark by ASM International.



Originally founded in 1790 to produce nails and purchased in 1812 by New Jersey industrialist Robert Waln, the Phoenix Iron Company (later renamed the Phoenix Iron Works) produced pig iron, wrought iron, and other iron-related materials and end products. As the complex grew, it featured a huge blast furnace and puddling furnace, an adjacent iron foundry, warehouses, ancillary buildings, and associated equipment. In 1825, the company was the first to successfully generate steam through the burning of anthracite coal to heat water. Other innovations soon followed, and engineers at the foundry invented a power-driven rolling method to weld and forge wrought iron, a process that enabled the iron company to begin producing cannon for the United States Army.[2]

The company declined as the steel and iron industry of western Pennsylvania waned in the late 20th century. By 1984, production in Phoenixville had ceased. Most of its buildings were dismantled. Only the old foundry and company office buildings remain from the once sprawling complex. The foundry building and the office building have been restored and put to other uses.

By 1986, the new management of renamed Phoenix Steel Corporation announced plans to close one its only remaining production plants in Claymont, Delaware. The rolling mill closed and all production of steel came to an end in 1987. In March 1987, Phoenix made its last shipment of steel and laid off its remaining production and maintenance employees. Throughout 1987 a number of investors approached Phoenix about acquiring the Claymont mill with Phoenix's efforts to sell the mill succedingin 1988 when CITIC, a state-owned investment company of the People's Republic of China offered to buy it for $13 million and Phoenix accepted. Phoenix's Claymont mill was formed into a new corporation, CitiSteel, to operate the facility. CitiSteel refurbished and modernized the plant, spending $25,000,000 to convert Claymont from a "specialty mill" producing a number of different low-volume, high-cost steels for specific uses to a "minimill" using technologically advanced equipment to mass produce a few types of steel at high volume and low cost. [3]

In 1998, the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO) took ownership of the building. Under the guidance of the National Park Service, PAEDCO undertook exterior renovations and constructed a visitor's center. The Hankin Group acquired the Phoenix Foundry property from PAEDCO in 2006 to create an 18,000 square feet event space. [4]


The Works produced many significant products during its history, the two most notable were the Griffen Gun and the Phoenix Column. Other products included iron for fashioning rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad and other eastern railroad lines, wrought iron for fencing and home decorative usage, and similar applications, as well as steel products. The Eiffel Tower in Paris used puddled iron imported from Phoenixville.[5]

3-Inch Ordnance Rifle

Griffen gun

In 1855, the foundry began producing 6# smoothbore artillery pieces known as Griffen Guns for the inventor, John Griffen. Hundreds were turned out before production shifted in 1861 to other Griffen designs.[6] Daniel Reeves, owner of the company at the time, invested considerable capital in equipment and processes to modernize the factory and make it one of America's leading producers of iron and steel.

During the Civil War, the factory churned out over 1,000 Griffen-designed 3" Ordnance Rifles, giving it the largest market share of the over 1,400 pieces eventually used by the Army (see Field Artillery in the American Civil War). The wrought iron barrels weighed 820 pounds and were produced using the company's unique rolling process, making them extremely durable and highly resistant to bursting, a problem that plagued many of Phoenixville's smaller competitors that used cast iron gun tubes. At its peak, the factory was producing 50 3" Ordnance Rifles a week.

Many of the Phoenixville-produced rifled guns are still extant in private collections, municipal parks, and at battlefields across the country. A number are on the Gettysburg Battlefield, as well as in other locations in Pennsylvania. They are easily recognizable by the inscription PIC stamped on the muzzle of the gun tube (for Phoenix Iron Company).[7]

An arc of Phoenix Columns adorns a plaza outside the old foundry building.

Phoenix column

The "Phoenix Column" (patented by Samuel Reeves in 1862 during the Civil War), was a hollow cylinder composed of four, six, or eight wrought iron segments that were riveted together into a single column. The result was much lighter and stronger than the usual solid cast iron columns of the day[8] and advanced the ability to build massive structures without the usual brutally heavy and load bearing walls. Taller and taller buildings could now be built on narrow urban plots, helping facilitate the creation of the skyscraper and high stress load bearing bridges.

Phoenix Bridge Company

The success of the Phoenix column led to the formation of a construction subsidiary. Initially it was named Clarke, Reeves & Co., then the Phoenixville Bridge Works, and finally the Phoenix Bridge Company. The firm ultimately built some 4,200 bridges, primarily wrought iron truss railway bridges.[9] Phoenix Bridge was involved with the construction of the Manhattan Bridge, the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg and reached an international market with projects as far away as Russia and China.[9] In 1900 the Bridge Company was awarded the contract for the Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence River.[10] The 1907 collapse of that bridge during construction was blow to its reputation.[9] Phoenix Bridge eventually closed in 1962.[8]




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