Iron City

Decades before the rise of steel, Pittsburgh was known as an industrial powerhouse for its iron production.

Senator John Heinz History Center

Adam Hart, a heater at an iron bar mill for Lyon, Shorb & Company (1862-1867) by Cargo's Photographic RoomOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Forging the Way

The tremendous output of Pittsburgh’s iron foundries, forges, and rolling mills helped christen it “The Iron City.” By 1815, the manufacturing town at the Forks of the Ohio called itself “The Birmingham of America," after the great industrial center of England.

Illustration showing the production of cannons at Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Foundry (August 1862) by Harper's WeeklyOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Pittsburgh’s iron foundries produced many kinds of goods. Established in 1804 by Scotsman Joseph McClurg, Fort Pitt Foundry specialized in the manufacture of large cannons and cannonballs. 

During the Civil War, the foundry produced more than 3,000 cannons, including guns for both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. This illustration showed the casting of cannons for the Navy’s new ironclad monitors underway at Fort Pitt Foundry in 1862.

The Rodman gun, from Fort Pitt Foundry, en route to Fort Hamilton, New York (1864)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Produced at Fort Pitt Foundry in 1864, this massive 20-inch caliber gun, the largest ever cast, was made possible through an innovative process pioneered by ordnance expert Thomas Jackson Rodman.

Designed for seacoast fortifications, Rodman guns once guarded entry to New York harbor. The 20-caliber Rodman gun inspired author Jules Verne’s conception of a cannon that could shoot men into space in From the Earth to the Moon (1865).

A ladle transporting molten steel at Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Jones and Laughlin produced only iron when it was founded in 1852 as the American Iron Company. After Irish American banker James Laughlin became part-owner, the name changed to Jones and Laughlin. Steel production began in 1886.

Adam Hart, a heater at an iron bar mill for Lyon, Shorb & Company (1862-1867) by Cargo's Photographic RoomOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Iron Man

Lyon, Shorb, & Company - also known as the Sligo Iron Works - produced sheet and bar iron and products such as boilers and machinery. By 1879 the company employed 250 men.

As a heater, worker Adam Hart loaded iron bars into the furnace, monitored their temperature, and removed them at the proper time - one of the most skilled and highly paid jobs in the mill.

Letterhead for Iron City Commercial College (c.1850) by E. Vossnak, EngOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

The Steamboat City

Iron City Commercial College's letterhead highlighted another dominant industry built on the region's expertise in iron manufacturing: steamboat boilers and engines.

Western Pennsylvania once led the nation in steamboat building, and many families in the Monongahela and Ohio River Valleys depended on the industry. 

Nails and a barrel lid from James Wood & Company (1856) by Liz Simpson (photo)Original Source: Steamboat Arabia Museum

Steamboat Arabia

Pittsburgh iron goods found an eager market across the nation. This barrel of nails was on its way to a settlement in Nebraska until the steamboat carrying it, the Arabia, sank in the Missouri River (near Kansas City, Mo.), in 1856. 

The cargo was excavated in 1988. Built in the Monongahela River town of Brownsville and finished in Pittsburgh, the Arabia also symbolized the region’s industrial legacy.

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