Phoenix column

Phoenix Iron Works

The Phoenix Iron Works (1855: Phoenix Iron Company; 1949: Phoenix Iron & Steel Company; 1955: Phoenix Steel Corporation), located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, was a significant manufacturer of iron and related products during the 19th century and early 20th century. Phoenix Iron Company was a major producer of cannons for the Union Army during the American Civil War. The company also produced the Phoenix column, a significant advance in construction material.

Phoenix Iron Works is a core component of the Phoenixville Historic District, a National Register of Historic Places site and in 2006 was recognized as a Historic Landmark by ASM International.


Originally founded in 1790 to produce nails and purchased in 1812 by New Jersey industrialist Robert Waln, the Phoenix Iron Company (later renamed the Phoenix Iron Works) produced pig iron, wrought iron, and other iron-related materials and end products. As the complex grew, it featured a huge blast furnace and puddling furnace, an adjacent iron foundry, warehouses, ancillary buildings, and associated equipment. In 1825, the company was the first to successfully generate steam through the burning of anthracite coal to heat water. Other innovations soon followed, and engineers at the foundry invented a power-driven rolling method to weld and forge wrought iron, a process that enabled the iron company to begin producing cannon for the United States Army.

Griffen guns

In 1855, the foundry began producing 6# smoothbore artillery pieces known as Griffen Guns for the inventor, John Griffen. Hundreds were turned out before production shifted in 1861 to other Griffen designs. Daniel Reeves, owner of the company at the time, invested considerable capital in equipment and processes to modernize the factory and make it one of America's leading producers of iron and steel.

During the Civil War, the factory churned out over 1,000 Griffen-designed 3" Ordnance Rifles, giving it the largest market share of the over 1,400 pieces eventually used by the Army (see Field Artillery in the American Civil War). The wrought iron barrels weighed 820 pounds and were produced using the company's unique rolling process, making them extremely durable and highly resistant to bursting, a problem that plagued many of Phoenixville's smaller competitors that used cast iron gun tubes. At its peak, the factory was producing 50 3" Ordnance Rifles a week.

Many of the Phoenixville-produced rifled guns are still extant in private collections, municipal parks, and at battlefields across the country. A number are on the Gettysburg Battlefield, as well as in other locations in Pennsylvania. They are easily recognizable by the inscription PIC stamped on the muzzle of the gun tube (for Phoenix Iron Company).

Other significant products included iron for fashioning rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad and other eastern railroad lines, wrought iron for fencing and home decorative usage, and similar applications, as well as steel products.

Phoenix column

The "Phoenix Column" (invented by Samuel Reeves in 1862 during the Civil War), was a hollow cylinder comprised of four, six, or eight wrought iron segments that were riveted together into a single column. The result was much lighter and stronger than the usual solid cast iron columns of the day and advanced the ability to build massive structures without the usual brutally heavy and load bearing walls. Taller and taller buildings could now be built on narrow urban plots, helping facilitate the creation of the skyscraper and high stress load bearing bridges. The Eiffel Tower in Paris used puddled iron imported from Phoenixville.

The company declined as the steel and iron industry of western Pennsylvania waned in the late 20th century, and most of its buildings were dismantled. By 1984, production had ceased. Only the old foundry and company office buildings remain from the once sprawling complex. The foundry building and the office building have been restored and put to other uses.

Phoenix Bridge Company

The success of the Phoenix column led to the formation of a construction subsidiary. Initially it was named Clarke, Reeves & Co., then the Phoenixville Bridge Works, and finally the Phoenix Bridge Company. The firm ultimately built some 4,200 bridges, primarily wrought iron truss railway bridges. Phoenix Bridge was involved with the construction of the Manhattan Bridge, the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg and reached an international market with projects as far away as Russia and China. In 1900 the Bridge Company was awarded the contract for the Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence River. The 1907 collapse of that bridge during construction was blow to its reputation. Phoenix Bridge eventually closed in 1962.




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