By Louis M. Iatarola
Hamilton Disston, the eldest of Henry Disston's four sons, is best known locally as the namesake of Tacony's seventy-eight year old public school, located at Knorr and Cottage Streets. His father's legacy is well known, having risen in the span of fifty-nine years from immigrant apprentice to owner and operator of the largest saw manufacturing firm in the world and founder of the community of Tacony as we know it today. Although the life of Hamilton Disston would span seven less years than that of his father, his influence extended well beyond Philadelphia to the once barren reaches of Central Florida.
On August 23, 1844 Hamilton Disston was born to Mary and Henry Disston. At this time, the twenty-five year old Henry Disston had just rented a shop in Philadelphia and borrowed $200.00 to equip it with the first steam-powered saw machinery in the country. Unfortunately, Henry was unaware that he was a sub-tenant and soon saw his equipment seized for his landlord's unpaid rent. The undaunted Disston promptly went to work at home, making tools until he could buy back his equipment.
Prompt responses to crises, decisive action, and above all, an insistence on quality and fair treatment of employees were factors that led to Henry Disston's Keystone Saw Works fast becoming the local leader in its industry. In addition, Henry's collaboration with brothers Charles and Thomas plus frequent contact with brother William in England helped keep the company ahead of its competitors when it came to the latest tool-making techniques.
By the time Hamilton Disston began his apprenticeship at his father's firm at the age of fifteen in 1859, the Keystone Saw Works at Front and Laurel Streets employed 150 people, more than any of Disston's local competitors. Company custom, as implemented by Henry Disston, was for each son to apprentice for five to seven years before assuming an executive position.
This ensured that each future leader would have first-hand knowledge of most operational methods at the plan and have greater familiarity with his co-workers. This tradition also included lavish parties in his respective Department to celebrate the son's admittance into partnership. This practice continued into the 1940's, when William Leeds Disston as the last family member to apprentice at the firm. The only exception during that time span was Jacob, son of Henry, who attended Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Henry Disston's eldest son, it is certain that Hamilton benefited the greatest through observation and imitation of his father's administrative skills and technical proficiency. At the rapidly expanding factory, Hamilton was the only son to witness and fully participate in the resultant boom in business from the outbreak of the Civil War. The factory's expansion was heightened given an immediate need to manufacture materials for the Union Army. A rolling steel mill was constructed and Henry Disston appealed to workers in the national interest to report defects and suggest possible modifications to enhance their war products, which included knapsack mountings, scabbards, swords, and guns, among many others. In addition, Disston offered employees who joined the Union Army 50% in addition to the government's pay plus a secure job when returning from the war.
Hamilton Disston, an apprentice at the time of the Civil War outbreak, was a charismatic and energetic young man who had made many friends and acquaintances in his short time at the Saw Works. Sharing his father's patriotic spirit, Hamilton wanted to enlist in the Union Army when President Lincoln made an appeal for volunteers. Although he attempted twice to enlist, both times his father paid an enlistment bonus insisting it a necessity that Hamilton attend to his duties at the business.
Not to be stifled in his civic duty, Hamilton Disston, or "Ham," as the was affectionately known, became a member of the Northern Liberties Volunteer Fire Company and would frequently leave the factory to help fight fires in the area. In addition, he organized approximately one hundred fellow workers in forming "Disston Volunteers." This was a youthful group of men so motivated by the young Disston that his father reluctantly gave permission to the volunteers even equipping their entire unit for the war effort. Upon returning from the war in 1865, Hamilton Disston was made partner in the firm that would be known for a short time as Henry Disston and Son.
The tenure of Hamilton Disston at the upper echelon of the Disston Company began with some of the firm's most prosperous years. The demand for many types of saws intensified as new lines of products were introduced, including a whole line of steel files. Modifications were routine as the Disstons always stayed ahead of their competition when it came to design technology. Their success led to a need for more space which the cramped Laurel Street facility could not accommodate, prompting the Disstons to search for a site large enough to build a new factory.
Hamilton Disston's Uncle Thomas had purchased several lots on the Delaware River near what is now Cottman Avenue in 1855 and built a summer home. The land had been sold by the Tacony Cottage Association, who sold the lots along with others to build St. Vincent's Catholic German Orphanage. Henry Disston, familiar with the area's transportation sources and envisioning an area west of the railroad tracks ripe for settlement of his workforce, chose in 1871 Tacony as the new site of what was then known as Henry Disston and Sons. Henry Disston eventually purchased 390 acres of land on both sides of the railroad tracks, reserving for the new factory forty acres between the railroad and the Delaware River.
The paternalism fostered in the Disston Company was thrust on the new community of Tacony, where by 1876, forty-four twin and twelve row style homes had been built west of the railroad tracks. Funds were set aside for a park along Keystone Street, as school, independent water works and a benefits package for workers. Favorable terms were available for workers to buy or rent homes. Deed restrictions promoting a stable, family-oriented atmosphere were incorporated into lot sales. Funds were made available and land donated for churches, a music hall, library, and scientific society. These practices were reinforced and perpetuates by Hamilton Disston and his three brothers after the death of Henry Disston in 1878. less than seven years after his Tacony land purchase.
The entire Laurel Street facility would not be moved in its entirety to Tacony until 1899, attesting to the size and scope of the company at this time. Hamilton Disston became President of Henry Disston and Sons upon the death of his father in 1878. Hamilton Disston was a likeable, effective president; however, his interest in politics and real estate often diverted his attention from the day-to-day operations of the factory.
Because volunteer fire departments were disbanded in 1870, Ham's social venue became on of Republican politics. Besides using politics as a fruitful social outlet, the firm was staunchly in favor of the protective tariff on imported goods, and Hamilton was sure to make his Republican allies aware of this. In 1875, he was the Ward Leader of the City's 29th Ward, and helped one of his Northern Liberties Volunteer Hose Company friends, John A. Loughridge, to the post of Prothonotary to the Court of Common Pleas.
Upon the firm's move to Tacony, Hamilton Disston struck up an immediate kinship with his cousin and Disston land agent Thomas W. South. With Disston's assistance, South became the local Magistrate in 1875 while doubling as the real estate agent for the properties within the Disston Estate. Because South lived in Tacony, and Hamilton resided near his father on North Broad Street, South virtually oversaw the implementation of Henry Disston's orderly industrial village at Tacony. As a result, South eventually wielded significant power himself. If became common knowledge that nothing went on in Tacony without the approval of Disston and South.
Although never elected to public office, Hamilton Disston served for a time as the City's Fire Commissioner and became the City's first Fairmount Park Commissioner in the 1870's. It was during his tenure that Disston Park was extended from Unruh Avenue south to what is now Levick Street. He donated land charitably, including the plot where Tacony Baptist Church was built in 1884 and expanded thirty-one years later. At the firm, Hamilton incorporated the business in 1886, and stock was distributed among family members.
It became clear that Hamilton Disston virtually controlled Republican nominations in the City during the 1870's and 1880's. Early alliances with the City Gas Works "Czar" James McManes as well as William Leeds, United States Senator Matthew Quay, and David H. Lane reaped bountiful political rewards, even enough to eventually help unseat McManes over a disagreement about who would run for the the City's Receiver of Taxes post. In addition to controlling Tacony's water source, Hamilton Disston was the major investor in the Tacony Fuel Gas Company when it formed in 1888. Ten years later, the company was wholly owned by Henry Disston and Sons after Jacob Disston bought the company outright.
Hamilton Disston's interest in real estate extended well beyond his family's significant holdings in Tacony and Atlantic City. Through his ever-expanding roster of political allies, he was able to forge partnerships with various power brokers including Samuel R. Shipley, President of Provident Life and Trust Company, Thomas Scott, Jr., the heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune and United States Senator Matthew Quay for the purposes of real estate investment. It is generally understood that the inner workings of the plant during Hamilton's tenure as President was left to his Uncle Samuel and younger brothers. Ham's role was more ceremonial, as in the time President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the plant. Hamilton Disston reportedly showed the President a rough piece of steel at the outset of the visit and less than forty-five minutes later presented him with a finished saw emblazoned with the President's name.
It is believed that Hamilton Disston's first trip to Central Florida occurred in 1877. He became fascinated with the possibility of reclaiming swamp land to facilitate agricultural and possible residential development. By 1879, he and some investor friends formed the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company to work on the drainage of the upper portions of the Everglades. Although railroad had begun to open up new areas of Florida development, Civil War debt had left he state in dire financial shape and would be unable to oversee any railroad development until the 1890's. The drainage contract called for the reclamation of some twelve million acres of land, which would be deeded in plots beginning after the reclamation of the first 200,000 acres alternately to the State and the Land Company, which issued 600,000 shares of stock at $10.00 per share.
This contract received immediate attention nationwide and the Florida land boom began. The New York Times reported on February 18, 1881:
The reclamation of 12,000,000 acres of land, or one-third of the States of the Union, has been undertaken by a company of Philadelphia gentleman with every prospect of success...The project of reclaiming this wonderfully rich country has been talked of for years, and it has long been considered feasible by many noted engineers...The leading man in this enterprise is Hamilton Disston, a young gentleman of great business energy and ample fortune, and present head of the great saw-manufacturing firm of Henry Disston & Sons.
In June, 1881, Hamilton Disston purchased four million acres of land from the State of Florida, promptly bailing the state out of its debt and becoming the largest single land owner in the United States at the time. Disston also developed railroad interests and bought half-interest in the St. Cloud Sugar Plantation formed on reclaimed land. Towns such as Kissimmee City, Southport, Narcoosee, and Runnymede sprung up on reclaimed land.
It was estimated that by 1893, Disston's Land Company had conveyed nearly 1.2 million acres of land and the level or Lake Okeechobee had been lowered 4 1/2 feet. By that time, additional towns such as St. Cloud, Tarpon Springs, Fort Myers, and Anolote among others in Pinellas County were formed. Disston's search for a resort town led to the founding of Disston City, on the Boca Ciega Bay, today's Gulfport. A Waldorf Hotel was built on its shores where a wharf extended into the bay and a Mississippi paddleboat christened the "Mary Disston" carried freight and passengers to and from the Tampa Bay area.
By the mid-1890's, it began to appear that Hamilton Disston's Florida investment may never reap the benefits envisioned. Although substantial lands have been reclaimed, more of Disston's acreage remained unclaimed than claimed. The true cause may have less to do with Disston's foresight and more to do with an ill-defined definition of "swamp and overflowed" land as established in the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850. This Act allowed such lands to be sold if they were deemed drainable for use in agriculture. This definition applied to Disston's surveyed sections of land and created whereby some of the land would never be suitable for development, agricultural or otherwise. In addition, overdrainage in some areas led to more severe drainage problems in other areas.
Other problems plagued Hamilton Disston at this time. A business-friendly bounty of two cents per pound instituted in 1890 to assist the domestic production of sugar was removed by an unfriendly Grover Cleveland administration in 1894. This factor, combined with a nationwide economic panic of 1893 and severe freezes in 1894 and 1895 which devastated Florida's citrus industry, created cash flow problems at the Florida Sugar Manufacturing Company. Land prices plummeted as a result which did not bode well for Disston's interests. Also to Disston's disadvantage was the fact that the new railroad constructed by Peter Demens in the interior of the state stopped at downtown St. Petersburg and did not extend to Disston City. Many businesses moved from Disston City to St. Petersburg as a result, and by 1905 it's name was changed to Veterans City in an attempt to lure aging Civil War veterans. By 1910, its name was changed to Gulfport.
Back at the Saw Works, the firm was forced to reduce wages as a result of the 1893 panic. A note of $1,000,000 drawn on the business which was due on Hamilton Disston's Florida investments painted a bleak economic picture by 1895. It was becoming increasingly evident that Disston's concept of canals and steamboats was becoming outmoded as the railroad's ever increasing presence opened up more and more parts of Central Florida. Many of Disston's investors would never see their anticipated returns.
Although Hamilton Disston was widely credited for bailing Florida out of tremendous debt, few reminders remain today of his far reaching influence. Gulfport Junior High changed its name to Disston Junior High before closing in the late 1970's. The area of St. Petersburg known as Disston Heights has an elevation of forty to sixty feet and is centered at 49th Street, formerly Disston Boulevard. The Disston Community today boasts an active 250-member civic association, a large shopping center, and at least a handful of businesses with Disston in it's name. The 150,000 acres on the Pinellas Peninsula founded by Disston is the county's highest ground, the modern-day destination for residents in lower lying areas in times of a hurricane.
It is widely accepted that the underlying reason behind Hamilton Disston's untimely death was his anguish over the economic implications of the ill-fated Florida investments. Confusion abounds, even to this day, surrounding the physical cause of his death, which occurred on April 30, 1896. Although there were no eyewitnesses, on Philadelphia newspaper and a distant nephew of Disston reported Hamilton's death a suicide in his bathtub with a single gunshot. All other newspapers across the country reported that he dies at home of a heart attack. An acquaintance of Disston's, Alfred Chandler, confirmed this in his book, Land Titles and Fraud. The official coroner's report read that Disston died, "...by natural causes, probably a weakened heart."
Upon the death of Hamilton Disston, his brother William took over the Saw Works and promptly borrowed the $1,000,000 from friend James Stokesburg of J.P. Morgan to pay off Hamilton's Florida debt. Short-term case flow problems persisted at the factory, but recovery and further expansion would occur by the turn of the century. Hamilton Disston's estate was divided between his wife and three sons, Henry, Frank, and Albert. Twenty-seven years after his death, the Hamilton Disston Elementary School was opened on land donated by the Disston Family. Hamilton's brother William helped unveil the stained glass windows and hand-painted auditorium murals that make the building so unique.In conclusion, the undeniable and ubiquitous impact of the Disstons upon the Tacony community is still alive nearly 150 years after the arrival of Thomas Disston at his summer hamlet on the Delaware River. Their deed restrictions in effect to this day have positively influenced the quality of life in the community while the school and recreation center erected in their memory still thrive with the daily exuberance of Tacony's youth. In Central Florida, Hamilton Disston is recognized as its savior and pioneer whose vision paved the way for modern-day development. Imagine the value of Disston's land holdings today in and near the Walt Disney World Resort area. This exercise should bring into sharp focus the true visionary that was Hamilton Disston.