Industry in Berks: Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company

 

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Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company Foundry Pattern  on display in the Berks History Center Museum.

Birdsboro Steel Foundry and Machine Company traces its beginnings back to 1740 when William Bird built a forge, a saw mill and grist mill and founded the town of  Birdsboro. His oldest son, Marcus, enlarged on his father’s work and constructed Hopewell Furnace. He was the largest producer of iron in America during the Revolutionary War.  After the war, the forges have financial problems caused the Birds to sell their assets to Matthew Brooke changed the name to the Birdsboro Iron Foundry Company.

The forges were most successful under Brooke’s management in the mid-19th century. During the Civil War, the company produced munitions and armaments for the Union Army and began manufacturing parts for railroad cars and locomotives.  This was the beginning of steel production for the family. The company continued its tradition of supplying the armed forces with providing the Navy with material for building a steel fleet during the late 19th century.

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Photo taken in the Berks History Center Museum’s Trades to Industry Room

In 1906, the management decided to erect a large modern steel foundry with a potential capacity of approximately 3000 tons per month for making steel castings.  In World War II, the government contracted with Birdsboro Steel and Foundry and Machine Company to produce tanks and artillery for the war effort.  In 1944, a manufacturing subsidiary was established for weapons manufacturing known as Armorcast. By the end of the war, the company began to manufacture more industrial equipment, many used in the production of steel.

After 1947, the federal government and several businessmen tried to sell or use the space.  Armorcast failed to win a government contract to continue production in 1975 and the plant closed in 1988 after a lengthy strike. The four smokestacks, collapsed in the planned implosion to make way for a new power-generating facility, were the last vestiges of a regional history of manufacturing started before the American Revolution.

“Manufacturing evolved from making cannon for Revolutionary War to making tanks for World War II,” said Sanders, 70, former Superintendent of Hopewell Furnace.  “All that’s gone now.”

Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia

The First Defenders: Reading’s Famous Response to the Civil War

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April 14th marks the 156th anniversary of the First Defenders’ response to Lincoln’s call to arms, following the attack on Fort Sumter. They departed Reading on April 16, 1861, arriving in Harrisburg that evening. The Ringgold Light Artillery, commanded by Captain James McKnight, was part of the Pennsylvania Companies.  The Pennsylvania Companies were mustered in Harrisburg before taking the Northern Central Railroad to Baltimore where they were met by angry, violent mobs.

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First Defenders Monument, Reading City Park from BHC’s Research Library Postcard Collection

Upon arrival in Washington, the Ringgold Light Artillery met with Lincoln and his party first as they were first to volunteer and leave Reading.Their assignment was to protect the White House and later Washington itself. They remained at the Washington Arsenal as guards until they were mustered out on July 23, 1861 where many joined other units.

 

Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge by John Heyl Raser

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Reading and Berks County have a rich railroad history. This circa 1875 oil painting by John Heyl Raser (1824-1901) depicts the original Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge where it crossed the Schuylkill River and the Union Canal at Reading. Opening in 1858, the Lebanon Valley Railroad became a subsidiary of the Reading Railroad, and a lucrative route connecting Reading with Harrisburg. John Heyl Raser was a native of Alabama who moved to Reading in 1851 and became particularly well known for his landscape paintings. He exhibited his works at a variety of venues including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Are you a fan of railroad history? Berks History Center’s Second Saturday program on April 8th will focus on the Northern Central Railway and its role in the Civil War. Join us for Scott Mingus Sr.’s talk, Soldiers, Steam & Spies: The Northern Central Railway in the Civil War 

Scholla: Infant of the Regiment June 16, 1941

Scholla: The Infant of The Regiment June 16, 1941

Many residents of Reading will remember the towering figure of the one-time chief of police of this city, Mahlon Shaaber. He stood six feet, seven and one-half inches, a giant stature. Early in the trying days of the Civil War Shaaber joined the company of Zouaves officially known as Company B of the 93rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. This company was recruited in October, 1861, from Reading, Bernville, and Womelsdorf and other sections of Berks County. Mahlon Shaaber was the tallest man in the entire regiment and won for himself the nick name, the “infant of the regiment.”

In January, 1862, the 93rd Pennsylvania Regiment passed in review along Pennsylvania Avenue of the nation’s capitol. Among those who reviewed the troops was Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States. When the Reading Zouaves passed the reviewing stand Lincoln’s attention was attracted by the tall lanky private who towered high above his comrades. A signal from the President to the captain of the Zouaves led to the order to Shaaber to fall out of line and approach Lincoln.

“How tall are you?” asked Lincoln.

“Six feet six and one-half,” replied the Berks volunteer.

“And how old are you?”

“Seventeen and weigh 140 pounds.”

Then, as Shaaber related it years later, Lincoln introduced himself, “I am old Abe,” and then introduced Shaaber to Hannibal Hamlin, the vice president.

The three tall men stood side by side. The unusual picture made an impression upon Lincoln. Two other Pennsylvanians were invited to join the group and then the President made the following notes in a small black notebook:

Mahlon Shaaber, Co.

B, 93rd Rgt. P.V. … 6 ft. 6  ½ inches

Abraham Lincoln

President…… 6 ft. 4 inches

Hannibal Hamlin

Vice President … 6 ft. 0 inches

Andrew Curtin,

Gov. of PA. ….. 6 ft. 2 inches

Simaon Cameron,

General ……. 6 ft. 1 inch

Total heights 31 ft. 1 ½ inches

After the interview Lincoln gave the soldier a pass permitting him to rejoin his regiment and inviting him to visit at the White House.

Several months later Shaaber and Sergeant Fritz of the Zouaves paid a call upon the President in the executive mansion. They were ushered into the Blue Room and there were greeted by the President. Lincoln invited his Berks County guests to dine with him. The young men lost courage and fumbled for excuses. According to Shaaber’s testimony he “preferred bean soup and hard tack better than a reception dinner.” In later years the Reading chief of police expressed regret that he had not accepted the President’s invitation to dine.

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Mahlon Shaaber. http://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2013/01/mahlon-shaaber-tallest-soldier-of-the-civil-war/
Mahlon Shaaber. http://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2013/01/mahlon-shaaber-tallest-soldier-of-the-civil-war/

Archival Notes: For more information please refer to Norman Gasbarro’s blog, http://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2013/01/mahlon-shaaber-tallest-soldier-of-the-civil-war/  He does an excellent job of providing a more detailed account of Mahlon Shaaber.

Catch Up

I admit it, I have been a bit neglectful of my blog lately.  So let’s catch up.

We have seen an undocumented number of researchers visiting the HJL this spring.  We have had triple digit numbers in February, March and April and are currently on track for triple digits in May.  In fact, with the two Archival workshops we hosted in February and March, we saw almost 200 people…both months!

We instituted an Archival Workshop series.  January, believe it or not, was snowed out.  It was pretty much the only snow we had this year.  In February, we hosted a Photograph Preservation Workshop.  The 59 attendees learned some basic photograph preservation techniques for their personal collections.  In March, yours truly hosted “Why Archives Matter”.  This was a look at the history of archival institutions and a look at the history of the Historical Society leading to a discussion on why we are focused on preserving our history.  Following that discussion, was an introduction into researching at the HJL, how to locate and request material and the resources we have available.  We are currently planning out next year’s series, which will hopefully be run every year between January and April (with snow dates).  Possible topics of discussion: Funeral Homes, Pennsylvania Governor John Frederick Hartranft (who served over the trial and execution of the Lincoln Conspirators) given by a descendant and possibly a “Tracing Your Roots” a look at some aspect on Genealogical research.

In April, we hosted members of the Berks County Heritage Council and individuals responsible for their organization’s archives.  The workshop was a basic introduction to archives and how to go about organizing, arranging and describing your collections.  We also looked at Collections Management, Disaster Preparedness and How to Create Databases.  We are looking into the possibility of hosting this workshop again in the fall.

In between assisting researchers and running workshops, we have been busily processing collections and have shortened our backlog significantly.  Currently, almost all of the 2011 donations have been processed.  Now, I stress almost, due to budget cuts and time constraints, we have left the bigger multi-cubic feet collections until such time as we have the resources to process them.  Regardless, when we started 2012 we were still processing 2010 donations.  Through a stroke of luck, everything clicked and we are shelving new material as we speak and updating our online databases to reflect these new additions.  I will, at some point, release the donation lists on our website and Facebook page for all to see what has come in since the last update.  While our bigger collections are not processed, they still are available for research.

For some exciting upcoming news…the HSBC and the Kutztown Folk Festival will be hosting the Pennsylvania Civil War Road Show.  This is a multidimensional traveling exhibition in a 53 foot tractor trailer that is traveling the state.  The interactive exhibits help to draw and engage the audience into the Pennsylvania experience during the war.  You are even asked to participate through an online scrapbook and by leaving your story through their video oral history booth.  We ask everyone to tell us your “historic” connection to the Civil War and leave your mark on history.  To learn more about the Road Show please visit www.PACivilWar150.com.  We here at the HSBC are excited to be hosting this exhibit at the Kutztown Folk Festival, where on average 140,000 people come and visit Berks County over the course of two weeks.  In addition to the Road Show, we will be opening our new Civil War Exhibit and hosting a walking tour of Charles Evans Cemetery.

So, while I have missed talking to you all, and I hope you’ve missed me in return, we have been busily working preparing for the summer months ahead.  We here at the HJL hope to see all of you at some point during the summer, while you are in researching.  Don’t forget to stop by and check out our new exhibit and who can resist the Folk Festival?