The Tacony Iron & Metal Company/ Dodge Steel Company
By Louis M. Iatarola
Passing by the vacant site along the easterly side of State Road, south of Magee Avenue, a newcomer to Tacony may wonder what once stood on this large waterfront parcel of land now strewn with bricks, dirt, and industrial debris. Anyone who has lived in Tacony for ten years or less would likely tell the newcomer that an old, abandoned factory named "Dodge or something" once stood there and that it continuously deteriorated until its demolition in October, 1994.
Anyone who has lived in Tacony forty or so years would probably say that on this site once stood a respected leader in the worldwide steel casting industry known as the Dodge Steel Company. This one-time major participant in the industrial development of the Philadelphia area made it possible for such vital products as valve bodies, pump and turbine parts and railroad, marine, and automobile castings to find their way to factories all over the world.
Anyone fortunate enough to have lived in Tacony eighty-five or more years would likely say that on this site most recently stood the Dodge Steel Company, but originally stood the Tacony Iron & Metal Company, whose claim to fame was fulfilling the contract to construct the mammoth iron statue of William Penn which adorns the tower atop Philadelphia's City Hall. What he or she may not tell the newcomer are the fascinating details concerning this site's history, such as providing the impetus for various inventions and the backdrop for two movies.
In the fall of 1891, when Magee Avenue was known as Salter's Lane, the Tacony Iron and Metal (see photo below) Company, under the direction of its president, uncle of the world famous inventor and prominent Taconyite Frank Shuman, had already secured the contract to cast the iron work for the tower of Philadelphia's new City Hall. Under Mr. Schumann's supervision, the 120' x 60' building was finished being constructed by early 1892, complete with a special high-bay roof and three custom made tanks whose sizes were determined by the largest of over forty castings comprising the 37' high, 55,348 pound statue.
The construction of the statue of William Penn was not publicized at the time, so few crowds gathered at the Tacony Iron & Metal Company site. However, according to Dr. Edward Schumann, son of Francis, interviewed in 1939 by the Evening Bulletin, the statue's casting provided some unique thrills to some lucky Tacony residents. Said Dr. Schumann, "Usually, on a Sunday morning employees' wives and children would watch the work, which was cast in sections. Children at one stage of the construction could be seen running around on the hat or perched on the hand. In a 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer interview, long time Taconyite Miriam Broughton confirmed this fact. "For most kids," recalled Mrs. Broughton, "the biggest delight was walking on the brim of William Penn's hat...In later years there were stories of someone going up on the tower and pedaling a bicycle around the brim, but I know by where the brim turns that it just wouldn't be possible."
In the aforementioned 1939 Evening Bulletin article, long time Taconyite Mrs. Joseph Tomlinson recalled, "My husband's favorite story was that he drove the team that hauled the statue's parts downtown. He often told how, one rainy day, Billy Penn's hand, extending out over the driver's seat, protected him from the rain." It required teams of sixteen horses to haul single pieces of the statue downtown. A one time employee of Tacony Iron and Metal Company, Fred Melsch, recalled in the same article, "As an iron-fitter, I worked on the tower. At the time those workmen who could were having souvenirs made out of the bronze left over from the statue. I have to this day a fancy wall ornament and pins for keeping score on a cribbage board, made from the same batch of metal of which the statue was molded."
Needless to say, the casting of William Penn's statue was the most significant accomplishment of the Tacony Iron and Metal Company. In addition to the statue, all the metal work on the 547' tall City Hall Tower, including the figures and eagles, was cast at the Tacony site. The polygonal steel structure on the dome was an original design by Francis Schumann. So widely recognized as a leader in its field was the Tacony Iron and Metal Works that the building was featured on the cover of the October 22, 1892 issue of Scientific American, complete with a lengthy article on the use of electro-plating in architecture.
Unfortunately for Tacony and its Iron and Metal Company, the casting of William Penn's statue was not enough to ensure financial stability as it went out of business by 1910. After the Tacony and Iron and Metal Company closed its doors for the last time, the building was virtually abandoned. At the time, Philadelphia was considered a great motion picture center. The city was the source of profound innovations in movie making and served as headquarters for studios in five states and Berlin. This was due primarily to film pioneer Siegmund ("Pop") Lubin, who was viewed on the same level as Thomas Edison when it came to the development of movies as a skill and art.
In 1914, Mr. Lubin chose the abandoned Tacony Iron and Metal Company building as the site of a film titled "Gods of Fate." The film was described as "an Epic of Labor with an Appealing Love Theme of Unusual Character," and was expected to satisfy the public's demand for bigger, better, and more realistic spectacles. The movie company asked permission to stage a small fire along the north side of the building. The scene was to show the stars being rescued. As a precaution, Engine Companies #38 and #52 were on hand at the scene.
William H. Batezell, Jr. one of a crowd of curious spectators, recalled in a letter to a local editor in April, 1967, "...No one figured on the dry timbers in the building, which was three-quarters of a block long. And then it happened! The building went up like a box of matches. The stars already at the windows would not jump, as per script, and our Philadelphia fire fighters got into the act by staging the real thing...I saw one cameraman making a very close escape. How he missed being killed could only be explained by the 'God's of Fate.' " Later in that year, the Lubin Manufacturing Company's film storage facility at 20th and Indiana Avenue also burned to the ground. Several years later the Lubin Company was to go out of business.
Although the "Gods of Fate" fire rendered the former Tacony Iron and Metal Company site a skeletal reminder of what once was, Tacony was to see yet another prominent industrial player in the worldwide economy establish firm roots in this still suburban-like community. In 1919, the Dodge Steel Company was founded by Kern Dodge and Associates in a building comprising approximately 21,000 square feet. With a mission statement promising to manufacture the best quality steel castings that good workmanship and science can produce, the Dodge Steel Company became a respected leader in the steel casting industry by the late 1930s.
Through expansion in its physical facilities which eventually amounted to over 100,000 square feet, plus a wider acceptance for its castings and an accelerated shipbuilding program started in 1940, Dodge Steel's production rose from 50 tons per month in 1926 to a peak of 648 tons per month during World War II. By 1950, castings with the "DS" trademark were considered among the best in the world.
The best known subplot to emerge from the existence of the Dodge Steel Company is probably that of steelmaker Albert A. Schmid. Mr. Schmid, at the age of 21, left his family, girlfriend, and the Dodge Steel Company to sign up for military service on December 9, 1941, two days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Eight months after leaving his job working a gas-fed torch and cutting and scraping steel castings, Al Schmid found himself manning a machine-gun emplacement with orders to hold the all-important post protecting Henderson Airfield on the Tenaru River at Guadalcanal. According to a Marine Corps report, although a grenade explosion blinded Al Schmid and one partner was dead while the other wounded, Schmid singlehandedly held his position and fought off his Japanese aggressors for over four hours. Of nearly 1,200 Japanese soldiers who reportedly tried to cross the Tenaru River that night, eighteen were wounded, two captured, and the rest killed.
Hollywood soon recognized that Schmid's story was one of which movies were made. A feature film which proved very popular at the time titled "Pride of the Marines" was released in the mid-1940's starring John Garfield as Al Schmid and Eleanor Parker as Ruth Hartley, Schmid's girlfriend and eventual wife. Parts of the movie were filmed at Al Schmid's Fillmore Street home and at the Dodge Steel Company. Much furor was raised in Frankford and Tacony as local residents swarmed around the film sites to get glimpses of the movie making.
By the 1960's and 1970's, the only headlines made by the Dodge Steel Company were those of labor unrest involving primarily the International Molders & Allied Workers Union. Many a labor strike interrupted production at the factory over such issues as union shop classes, wage increases, and incentive pay disputes caused by machinery which did not meet production expectations.
Mounting cash flow problems, caused by decreasing demand of its products and wage hikes which saw the hourly rate increase from $2.83 per hour on average in 1970 to $8.10 per hour by the mid-1980's, led to the ultimate closure of the Dodge Steel Company in 1986. Although a small group of the company's seventy of so employees tried to save the company bay taking over from a Chicago lawyer name Morris Coff (who had little or nothing to do with the company's day-to-day operations), the group found itself capital-short when it came time to avoid foreclosure on a $1.5 million dollar load.
Over the course of its sixty year existence, the Dodge Steel Company's progress was virtually mirrored by American society. All phases of modern American history can be traced through the development of this factory. The excitement of World War I followed by the depression of the 1930's, prosperity of the '40's and '50's was reflected in the growth and inner workings of the Dodge Steel Company and its employees. Accordingly, the civil rights and labor disputes of the 1960's and 1970's followed by the corporate merger-mania rampant in the 1980's led to the company's ultimate demise.
Not long after the factory was abandoned, the site surrounding the factory as well as the building itself became an illegal dumping ground. Discarded tires, construction debris, and industrial waste, mostly unrelated to the Dodge Steel operation accumulated on the waterfront site.
In 1992, local artist Brian C. Moss chose the abandoned factory site as the subject of a photographic installation titled "What Helps Dodge Helps You." With the help of a New Forms Grant through the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, the artist used materials present on the site to construct a functional sculpture in the form of a giant pinhole camera. The camera was then used to make 10' square photographs of the factory and surrounding grounds. Following is an excerpt from Mr. Moss's project description:
I have always been drawn to vacant buildings as modern archaeological sites because they reveal a lot about our culture, priorities, and values...When I began this project my intention was to create art while drawing attention to the problems of industrial decay and its effect on our cities... As I spent more time exploring the decaying factory, my interests expanded not only into the history of the site, but that of the workers and the neighborhood...I began to wonder: Who was responsible for this mess? What were the effects of the closing on the employees and the community? Imagine the energy...thought and worry that was expended during the course of this once-thriving enterprise. Where does that energy go when a factory closes? And does it disappearance sap the energy of a neighborhood as well?
"What Helps Dodge Helps You" was received favorably during its photographic installation at the Painted Bride Gallery from September 2nd to the 16th, 1993. In addition, the work received attention from Fox-29's "The Ten O'Clock News" as it was featured by Gerald Kolpan on September 17, 1993. Mr. Moss' pinhole camera and several photographs were also a prominent exhibit in the 1993 Tacony History Day Parade and Disston Festival.
The attention drawn to the former Dodge Steel plant by Brian C. Moss did not deter illegal dumpers from continuing to deposit unwanted items at the site. This problem, compounded by gang activity and occasional brush fires, continued to plague the site until the ultimate demolition of all the surrounding structures and environmental remediation in late 1994. The site now remains conspicuously vacant, as described in the opening paragraph, a faint reminder of what once was and what may someday be.
What will occupy the site once home to the Tacony Iron and Metal and Dodge Steel Companies is a matter of public debate. Some feel that recreational use would best maximize the sites amenities and would help significantly in re-connecting Tacony to the banks of the Delaware River. Some feel that a shopping center or a related commercial use would maximize the economic productivity but attract new residents to the area as well. Others, meanwhile, feel that the site would make an ideal restaurant/entertainment complex on the waterfront which could be developed in conjunction with proposed riverboat gambling.
Nevertheless, the one thing nearly all Taconyites agree upon is that industrial usage of the site would not be feasible, not now and not in the future. The Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society of Tacony, along with state and federal officials are committed to see that future development of this site is responsive to the changing completion of the waterfront from that of industrial port to host of pleasure craft and serene riverside portraits.
Keep a close watch over the former Tacony Iron and Metal/Dodge Steel site, Taconyites. Because what was for almost ten years a Tacony eyesore may yet prove to be one of its greatest assets.