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Phoenix Iron Company records

Accession: 0683


The Phoenix Iron Company began in the late eighteenth century as a manufacturer of cut nails. It later became a major producer of railroad rails and iron and steel structural members. This small collection of records includes incoming correspondence chiefly relating to orders for and deliveries of iron for railroads.


  • 1844-1875



335 item(s)

Historical Note

The Phoenix Iron Company began in the late eighteenth century as a manufacturer of cut nails. It later became a major producer of railroad rails and iron and steel structural members. As the Phoenix Steel Company, it remained a specialty producer and did not engage in backward or forward integration around the turn of the twentieth century like the larger steel companies.

The operation at Phoenixville began in 1790 when Benjamin Longstreth built the first nail factory in the United States at this site. In 1813, he sold it, and Lewis Wernwag (1769-1843), a pioneer bridge builder in the United States, acquired a part interest and named it the Phoenix Iron Works. Wernwag was responsible for the invention and improvement of nailmaking machinery. In 1821, Jonah and George Thompson, Philadelphia merchants, bought the plant. By 1825, it had become the largest nail factory in the United States. In 1827, Benjamin Reeves (1779-1844) and his brother David (1793-1871), nail manufacturers in New Jersey, purchased the plant and formed the partnership of Reeves & Whitaker, with Joseph Whitaker (1789-1870), James Whitaker, and Francis Leaming. In 1840, the company built its first blast furnace to use anthracite, and in 1846 first produced railroad rails.

In 1846, Reeves formed a second partnership, Reeves, Abbott & Company, which constructed a large rolling mill at Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River. Together, the two plants produced one-eighth of all iron rolled in Pennsylvania. Both John Griffen and John Fritz received their early training at Safe Harbor. It was incorporated as the Safe Harbor Iron Works on May 5, 1855. During the Civil War, the plant manufactured Dahlgren guns, but the works were badly damaged by a flood in 1865. They were operated on a reduced scale from 1877 to 1894, when they were abandoned.

Reeves & Whitaker dissolved upon the withdrawal of Whitaker in 1847; the new firm of Reeves, Buck & Co. was formed, with Robert S. Buck as partner. In 1855 it was incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Co., with David Reeves as president and his son Samuel J. Reeves (1818-1878) as vice president. David Reeves started the first structural shape mill in the United States in 1855 and began the fabrication and design for bridges. In 1861 the company commenced manufacture of a cannon invented by John Griffen (1812-1884), who was for many years superintendent of the Phoenix Iron Works; this gun was an important weapon during the Civil War. In 1862, Samuel J. Reeves invented the Phoenix column, the first hollow-wrought iron column to be patented; it became widely used in buildings and bridges throughout the country and was one of the company's best known products.

In 1871, Samuel J. Reeves succeeded his father as president and in the same year began erection of the largest rolling mill in the world; this building served as a model for the Centennial Exhibition building erected in Philadelphia in 1876. However, the huge works lay idle during much of the depression of 1873-1879. Samuel J. Reeves died in 1878 and was succeeded by his son David (1852-1923), who secured large contracts for structural shapes for the New York City elevated railroads. In 1884, the company began its transition to steel and started rolling steel shapes for naval cruisers; in 1889, the first steel was poured. In 1901, it installed the first fully electrically operated rolling mill traveling tilting table in its structural mill. David Reeves was succeeded as president in 1923 by his son Samuel J. Reeves (1880-1944).

After the younger Reeves' death in 1944, the plant changed hands several times and became engaged in types of steel manufacture other than the structural shapes for which its mills were originally designed. In 1949, it was completely shut down and then acquired by the Barium Steel Corporation. It was reorganized as the Phoenix Iron & Steel Company on September 6, 1949 and reopened on January 14, 1950. In 1955, it absorbed two other Barium subsidiaries, the Central Iron & Steel Company of Harrisburg and Chester Blast Furnace, Inc. The Barium Steel Corporation was sold to Stanley Kirk in 1959 and broken up. The Phoenix operation was reorganized as The Phoenix Steel Corporation.

Phoenix could not survive the crisis that hit the American steel industry in the 1970s, and the entire plant shut down in 1987. In 1988, the Phoenix Pipe & Tube Company was organized to operate the seamless pipe mill set up in 1956. The remainder of the site was cleared for development in 1989 to 1990.

Scope and Contents

This small collection is composed of records of the Phoenix Iron Company of Philadelphia (successors to Reeves, Buck & Co.), with works at Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. It includes incoming correspondence, chiefly relating to orders for and deliveries of iron for railroads, and addressed to Samuel J. Reeves (Vice President and Treasurer), James Millliken (Secretary), Robert B. Aertsen (Assistant Treasurer), John Griffen (General Superintendent at Phoenixville), and George Walters (Chief Engineer at Phoenixville). Also included are bills, Civil War prize-money certificates on cotton captured at sea, scale drawings, and calculations. The 335 items are arranged chronologically.

Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

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Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Phoenix Iron Company records
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Revision Statements

  • 2020: Laurie Sather

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA