Rivers of Steel exhibit highlights the rise and fall of iron and steel at Jones & Laughlin

Ken Kobus is proud to be a third-generation steelworker, saying, “The mill was always in my life, even as a baby.”

He began working at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. in 1965, spending most of his time at the Hazelwood Coke Works. He worked there from December 1966 until the plant closed in 1998. His father had worked at the Jones & Laughlin Pittsburgh Works for 37 years and his grandfather started work at J&L in 1906.

Through this life-long connection with J&L, Kobus has amassed a vast knowledge of its history and steel-making techniques, along with personal stories and photographs. Many of Kobus’ photographs and other items, such as his hard hat, are now on display as part of the Rivers of Steel exhibit entitled “J&L: A Pittsburgh Icon.”

An industrial giant

For more than 125 years, Jones & Laughlin Steel was the symbol of industrialized Pittsburgh — dominating the landscape of the city, physically and emotionally. Its history spans from the development and expansion of ironmaking in the 1850s, through the boom of the 20th century and finally to the decline of the industry in the 1980s.

The mill resided at the head of the region’s blue-collar persona: strong, determined, persistent in presence and willing to adapt to survive. Using photographs, archival documents, artifacts and personal stories, the exhibit tells the story of an incredible and resilient company and the region that it helped to create.

Founded in Brownstown, now part of Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood, in 1850 by two German immigrant ironmasters, Bernard and John Lauth, J&L had its beginnings in puddling and heating furnaces.

In 1853, Benjamin Franklin (B.F.) Jones joined the Lauth brothers to help them begin a rolling mill. Banker James Laughlin came on in 1856 to assist with financing for the mill. The Lauth brothers sold their interest in the business to Jones and Laughlin in 1861.

When the company was first established, the Lauth brothers processed pig iron into wrought iron through a laborious process known as “puddling” — literally cooking and working the iron. It required a lot of skill and time to puddle iron since only small batches of wrought iron could be produced at a time. The iron would later be rolled into desired shapes.

At the time of the Civil War, J&L was the largest producer of iron railroad rails and provided iron for ships, firearms, munitions and other military material. After the war, railroads switched from iron to steel, which would last years rather than months.

By 1895, J&L had largely stopped puddling iron due to its expanding steel business. The Bessemer process, a faster way of producing large amounts of steel, was first introduced into the United States in the late 1860s. J&L built a small Bessemer plant in the early 1870s, but abandoned it due to poor production. The company later built a second, improved Bessemer converter in 1886.

Cold rolled iron

During the mid-1850s, J&L, with fewer than 25 employees, was producing seven tons of iron per day. The most notable of its achievements was the development of the process of cold rolling.

Kobus says the beginning of cold rolled iron came about accidentally.

“To make a roll at that time you would have to mold the iron hot,” he says. “One of the men on the rolling train dropped his tongs into the rolls and when the tongs came back out they had a shine and a polish to them.”

The Lauth brothers began to experiment with the process and eventually perfected a method of rolling a stronger, and for many purposes, better product.

“Cold rolled products kept very accurate dimensions,” Kobus says, which was important for shafting and machinery.

George H. Thurston in his book “Pittsburgh and Allegheny in the Centennial Year” (1876), claims that cold rolled iron had “75 percent more effective strength than the same size of turned iron, and is made nowhere else in the world but by this firm at Pittsburgh.”

Steel in the 20th century

By the early 1900s, management realized it needed to expand to remain competitive. Constrained by topography and faced with limited opportunities to enlarge the Pittsburgh site, the company purchased a defunct amusement park at Woodlawn, Pa., some 20 miles downstream from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.

There, they established the town of Aliquippa and began building their new works. Eventually the Pittsburgh plant would employ 10,000 workers, while the Aliquippa site employed three times as many.

As the years went by, J&L gradually found it more difficult to compete in a global marketplace. Ling-Temco Vought Inc. (LTV) acquired controlling interest of J&L in 1968. In 1974 it became a wholly owned subsidiary of LTV.

In the 1970s, the steel industry began to have problems due to a variety of factors including foreign competition, environmental controls, labor costs and lack of reinvestment. Both the Pittsburgh and Aliquippa Works of LTV were closed in the 1980s.

In 1984, Republic Steel merged with the J&L Steel subsidiary of the LTV Corp., with the new entity being known as LTV Steel. In December 2001, LTV filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and a few months later International Steel Group purchased LTV. It was acquired by Mittal Steel in 2005 which merged with Arcelor to become the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, in 2006.

How to reach: Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp., (412) 464-4020 or www.riversofsteel.com

SIDEBAR:

Rivers of Steel: Connecting past to present

The Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. conserves, interprets and develops historical, cultural and recreational resources throughout Western Pennsylvania. Rivers of Steel seeks to link the colonial and industrial heritage to the present and future economic and cultural life of the region and the communities it serves.

The museum and archives division collects and preserves the history of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area through artifacts, documents, photographs and audiovisual materials that show many aspects of southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial, cultural and ethnic traditions. The corporation is located in the historic Bost Building in the Homestead neighborhood.

The Bost Building, built in 1892 as a hotel, served as the temporary headquarters for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers during the Homestead Lockout and Strike.

In addition to the main exhibition room currently featuring “J&L: A Pittsburgh Icon,” there are two rooms that have been restored to the way they looked in 1892, with original floorboards and period reproduction wallpaper. One room tells the story of the Homestead Strike; the other contains photographs that chronicle the restoration of the building from dilapidation through its opening as the Rivers of Steel Visitors Center.

The Bost Building also includes the Homestead Room — a permanent exhibit displaying artifacts and artwork specifically related to the Homestead Works.

For more information about Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. and to plan a visit to the “J&L: A Pittsburgh Icon” exhibit, visit www.riversofsteel.com.