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Iron and Steel in Wheeling, WV in 1886

from THE WHEELING DAILY INTELLIGENCER, " Special Natural Gas Edition", September 14, 1886.
View Special Edition in its entirety.



Their Importance and their Value — History of the Manufacture of Iron and Nails and of Steel — The Ramifications of the Business Here — Its Growth

UPWARDS of a generation ago the manufacture of iron and nails was the leading industry in Wheeling, and for nearly as long Wheeling has been recognized in the iron markets of the world as one of the leading producing points. The city comes fairly by her soubriquet, "The Nail City." Here are cut more nails than in any other city in the world; counting the concerns in the suburbs owned and operated in part or in whole by citizens of Wheeling, vastly more. The largest nail factory in the world is that of the Riverside Company, in Wheeling. In a few months the Laughlin Company will have its new factory complete, and will then have two more machines than the Riverside, thus giving Wheeling the largest two factories. She has six others. Seven blast furnaces produce pig iron, a large proportion of which is consumed by the foundries, mills and forges of the city and vicinity. Four complete Bessemer steel plants of large capacity convert much of this iron into steel, and Wheeling steel is in such demand that these four plants cannot spare the metal to fill their orders, and have business enough booked to employ them in full capacity four months to come. Three sheet mills roll into sheets the iron and steel produced by her furnaces and converters. Two bar mills manufacture commercial iron and steel bars. Foundries, forges and machine shops shape iron into wheels, boilers, engines, stoves and hollow ware — in fact with a few notable exceptions, into every conceivable shape for every known purpose. In 1870 West Virginia ranked tenth among the States in the production of steel. In 1880 she had advanced to the seventh position. While the State includes some iron works outside of Wheeling, more are excluded which were built and are owned by Wheeling capital, and though located on the Ohio side of the river, have their offices in West Virginia and lie within as easy access of the heart of the city as the confines of her own territory.


When Jamestown, Va., was founded in 1607, iron ore was found near the site, taken to Europe and smelted. In 1619 the first iron works on this continent were located on Falling Creek, Va. At that early day the rich resources of Virginia were recognized by the colonists. These resources had some bearing, no doubt on the location of iron works in Wheeling. The first iron works known to have existed in the present bounds of West Virginia and the first west of the Allegheny mountains was built on Cheat River by Jackson & Updegraff, and was in operation in 1812.

Wheeling's first iron mill was built in 1834 by Philip Shoenberger and David Agnew, and was located on a portion of the present site of the Top mill. These works was operated with varying success until 1857, never having more than 14 nail machines. In 1847 E. M. Norton and others organized the Virginia mill, to manufacture nails exclusively. It was located on the present site of the B. & O. depot, and started with forty machines. In 1849 Mr. Norton and others built the Belmont mill. In 1853 the present Benwood mill was built as the successor of the Virginia mill, which had been removed to give room for the Baltimore & Ohio Company. The new Virginia mill was sold under a decree of court in 1864, and reorganized as the Benwood mill, E. M. Norton being its President. About the same time Cyrus Mendelhall entered the company, and it thus acquired his blast furnace at Martin's Ferry, and fifty acres of ore land near. In 1852 Mr. E. C. Dewey built the Eagle wire mill, at the head of what is now Twenty-fifth street. In 1850 this works was burned, but rebuilt. In 1860 it was leased by O. C. Dewey, J. N.Vance and W. H. Russell, who, under the firm name of Dewey, Vance & Co., operated the Wheeling Iron and Spike works. From this beginning through various stages of progress has grown the Riverside Iron and Steel Works, one of the wealthiest and most important concerns of its kind in the country. The LaBelle mill was completed in 1852 by Bailey, Woodward & Co.


Wheeling had thus become the centre of the nail industry and an important iron producing point in general before 1860. Since that time all the mills have grown in capacity, wealth and importance. The Bellaire mill, the Junction and Laughlin mills, the Crescent, Etna, and Standard sheet mills and the Riverside, Junction, Bellaire and Wheeling Bessemer steel plants have diversified and increased Wheeling's leading industry. In the meantime the iron industry of Virginia had grown, flourished and languished, the lack of transportation making it impossible for the business to be profitably operated except on the railroad or river. Hence Wheeling became the iron city of Virginia, the Nail City of the world. After the separation of Virginia, the mother state declined from the thirteenth iron producing state in 1870 to the sixteenth in 1880. The latest reliable and accessible statistics bearing on the iron industry are contained in the United States Census of 1880. The afford satisfactory comparisons, since the industry is about relatively the same now as then, excepting that whereas in 1880 there was not a steel plant in this vicinity, there are now four large ones.

In the year 1880 Wheeling, including Benwood, Bellaire, Martin's Ferry, Aetnaville and Mingo, had thirteen iron works. Of these eight are credited to Wheeling in the census report, and these eight had —

Capital........................................... $2,274,425
Employes..................................... 2,629
Yearly wages paid.................... $1,098,296
New material used.................... $2.502,053
Value of products...................... $4,416,567

Few of the large cities of the country excelled this record. Baltimore and Philadelphia fell below it. In importances as an iron producing city Wheeling ranks Eighteenth among the cities of the country.It is not just, however, to limit an estimate of the production of Wheeling's iron industries to the city proper. Were it possible to collate the statistics of those iron manufactories which comprise the community of which Wheeling is the centre, the record would be still more credible and impressive.

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