Our History & Our Heritage by Bill Kiefer

In last week’s column I indicated that I drew heavily on an article written in 1975 by John D. Ubinger who served for thirty-two years as the Director of Public Relations at National Steel Corporation in Pittsburgh. Although Mr. Weir had been deceased since 1957, Mr. Ubinger was able to write his piece from personal knowledge of the man. In researching the Company, and its impact upon our community, there are not many readily accessible first-hand accounts that I discovered. However, there is much anecdotal evidence about how Mr. Weir, and his company operated from 1909 until his death. Some of it is undoubtedly true, some not. But in my years in Weirton and working at Weirton Steel with some people who had exposure to him I heard some interesting stories. But first l will try to stick with the facts as established by Mr. Ubinger, and the Weirton Museum’s 100 year timeline of Weirton Steel.
E. T. Weir’s product line featured light weight, flat rolled steel products, especially Tin Plate. Then as now, his product had to be rolled from the bars which he bought, to a desired width, thickness and finish prior to being plated with a layer of tin or perhaps zinc. The better the steel for the intended purpose, and the better the job done by the crew in the rolling, the better the finished product would be. A prime product was sold for premium prices.
In late 1909 production started in Holliday’s Cove with ten mills, and within a year the Company added ten more. In this period the heart of the operation was the Hot Mills where the rolling process described above took place. The bars were passed back and forth between mill stands by crewmen using tongs, until a desired width, thickness and finish were achieved. A good roller could earn $50.00 a day on Mr. Weir’s mills. Those men were earning more than the $5,000/year Weir was earning a few years before to manage an entire mill. In 1911 his company acquired the twelve mill operation of the Pope Sheet and Tin Plate Company in Steubenville. By 1915 Phillips Sheet and Tin Plate Company was second only to US Steel in the production of tin plate through its 50 mills at its three locations. A significant event occurred in 1913 when Mr. Mudge, an original investor in Phillips and Weir’s startup constructed and became principal shareholder of a cold rolling mill plant south of the Phillips tin mills. Mudge named the facility the Weirton Steel Company. In 1915 Mr. Weir purchased this facility and announced plans to double its size. These cold rolling mills produced strips rather than sheets of steel. On August 1, 1918, Weir’s 43rd birthday the combined business was re-organized and all of it became named “Weirton Steel Company.”
From then until the mid-1920’s the Company further integrated through purchasing coking facilities, building the No. 1 Blast Furnace, Open Hearth Furnaces and Blooming Mills. Then in 1927, a real breakthrough occurred. The American Rolling Mill Company had developed a rolling mill for the continuous rolling of steel that would roll thick slabs of heated steel into coils of thin steel in a single operation, improving upon the tong pulled, one sheet at a time process. Mr. Weir wanted the process for his Weirton Plant, but he wanted to improve it by aligning it with both his blooming mills and downstream operations. His engineers went to work on the design, and he went to work on obtaining financing. In short order his 48-inch Hot Strip Mill went into operation in 1927, at a cost of $7,000,000. It was the first of its kind in the world. He subsequently adopted the continual processing feature to the pickling, cold rolling, annealing, and plating of steel, to produce first rate tin plate as well as hot dipped galvanized steel in Weirton.
Then in 1929, came his master stroke. It started when George Fink, President of Michigan Steel located at Ecorse Michigan, came to Weirton to see the continuous Hot Strip Mill. His company produced sheet metal primarily for the automobile industry much in the same “hammer and tongs” individual sheet method previously used at Weirton to make steel for tin plate. Mr. Weir convinced him that such a mill was a good idea, but only financially viable, if his company had blast furnaces and other facilities to produce steel slabs. Mr. Fink returned to Michigan to raise money to build a steel mill. In the meantime, both men had a mutual supplier the M. A. Hanna Company of Cleveland. The latter company was headed by George A. Humphrey (who later served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Eisenhower), had iron ore mines, a fleet of Ore Boats, and two Blast Furnace Plants one in Buffalo, NY and the other a few miles from Fink’s Ecorse operation. Each company contributed all of its assets. In return the Weirton owners acquired 50% and the owners of Michigan Steel and M.A. Hanna 25% each of a new company, National Steel Corporation, which was established in October, 1929, just weeks prior to the beginning of the Great Depression.