The idea of building a large cement works in the vicinity of New Castle, Pennsylvania, was seriously discussed as early as the 1880’s. A successful cement-making facility, which later became the Crescent Portland Cement Company, had previously been established in Wampum in 1874. The area around New Castle was rich in high-quality limestone and other valuable raw materials and this made it a natural location to erect a massive cement plant.
A group of Pennsylvania-based investors apparently sent Dr. Ludwig Preussner, a native of Germany with decades of cement-making experience, to New Castle in the summer of 1889 to scout out locations. The New Castle News of Wednesday, August 7, 1889, reported, “A fine-looking old gentleman below medium stature but with splendid physique and a pleasing, honest face has been in the city, and a News reporter who learned that he had been examining the limestone of this section with a view to manufacturing Portland cement, sought out the stranger and found him registered at the Fountain House as “Dr. L. Preussner, of Berlin. Germany.” In answer to the reporter’s inquiries Dr. Preussner said he would prefer not to talk about his venture in its present indefinite shape lest he should find himself saying things that would never be realized. He, however, said that he represented an organization of Pittsburg and Philadelphia capitalists who propone to erect a cement works that will cost $300,000. This structure will probably be located in this neighborhood, but whether in the city or at some of the suburbs is not now determined. The works will employ from 200 to 300 men, and the product will lie the celebrated Portland cement.”
It seems the appearance of Dr. Preussner caused a bit of controversy as a rival newspaper reported the cement plant idea, which would be a boon to the local economy, was a hoax. The same edition of the New Castle News replied with, “Тhe News was the only paper that published a few days ago an interview with Dr. Preussner regarding the probable erection of a $300,000 cement works in this city. The next day an alleged newspaper, because as usual it got left on the item, tried to make out that it was a hoax. But nevertheless the work is going right along, and an immense cement works here is one of the probabilities. Dr. Preussner stated to a (New Castle) News reporter this morning that matters are shaping themselves nicely and that he believed they would result in a successful culmination of the scheme. It is known that Dr. Preussner has a company formed, and it is only necessary to demonstrate to the stockholders that he can make as good a cement as the imported Portland, and the works will be built.”
At some point the cement company investors centered their efforts on acquiring property just south of New Castle Junction in Taylor Township. The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 15, 1890, revealed, “The News is frequently asked what has become of the company that recently signed articles for the purchase of the Sheals farm, near New Castle Junction, of which to erect the largest cement works in the United States. In order to find out, a News reporter on Friday met Mrs. J. M. Mayne. who is one of the Sheals heirs, from whom the farm is to be purchased, and that lady said: “We are in almost daily correspondence with the officers of the Cement Co., and if there is any hitch in the proceedings or any failure on the part of the Company to make the purchase it will be a surprise to us. Papers were made out while the officers were here and then had to be sent to Steubenville to be signed. Then they came here and then they had to be sent to Minnesota for other signatures, and this all takes time. The officers of the company by their letters seem to be in earnest and I have no doubt that the works will be built.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 26, 1890, elaborated, “Mrs. Mayne says that correspondence is being kept up with the Philadelphia parties who are to build a cement works on the Sheals farm at New Castle Castle Junction. An unreliable paper said some time ago that negotiations had been broken off.”
On Thursday, November 27, 1890, the New Castle News provided an update with, “Early in the summer Dr. Preussner, a German mineralogist and chemist, and a practical manufacturer of Portland cement, visited this locality in the interests of a company of German and Philadelphia capitalists who held themselves in readiness to erect cement plant as soon as they were satisfied that an article could be made here that would be equal to the best imported Portland cement, and that the material could be found in sufficient quantity to justify the expenditure, it being calculated that the work would cost about $300,000 Dr. Preussner studied the limestone and clay resources of the county and had shipped to him at Philadelphia clay and stone from J. K. Pearson’s Croton quarries and quantity of clay, a bed of which he himself had discovered near Mahoningtown. With these materials Dr. Preussner has conducted long series of experiments, producing many varieties of cement. In this way he has succeeded in reproducing the German cement in its exact proportions and characteristics.”
Regardless of the outcome of Dr. Preussner’s tests the out of town investors declined to build a cement plant in New Castle and moved on to explore other locations. It was another decade before a group of local industrialists revived the effort. In early 1901 the wealthy investors, led by George Greer, Charles Greer, Edwin P. Norris, and Elmer I. Philips, began slow but steady steps to organize a cement plant and began acquiring property – mostly to the east of New Castle. A few years later they deemed themselves ready to officially establish their business.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, April 27, 1904, reported, “A new cement plant, capitalized at $1,000,000, will soon be erected here by local men of financial standing, which will give employment to at least 200 men. It will be located out the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburg in Hickory Township on the old Rhodes limestone property, purchased about three years ago by the Marquis Clay and Limestone Company of this city. The new company grew out of the old proposition to launch the concern which was to have been known as the Portland Cement Company, which name may also be adopted by the new company. The Marquis Clay & Limestone Company’s holdings, including the quarry, railroad and lands have been absorbed by the new company… The manufacture of cement is one of the industries which has excellent prospects for development. Limestone and shale are essential in the production of the cement, which is now being used in the building of homes, curbing of streets, construction of sidewalks, and is taking the place of stone in many instances.”
The 240-acre quarry out past the Croton district in Hickory Township (between Harlansburg Road and Countyline Road) provided the raw materials, while a facility and crusher were erected on South Mill Street in New Castle. Another quarry, with its own crusher, was established on property east of Rose Point. The company set up executive offices in the Lawrence Savings & Trust building in downtown New Castle. Active cement-making operations got underway in 1905.
However, as soon as things were steadily underway the company was sold in March 1906 to a small group of investors from Allentown, Pennsylvania. These men, led by President Harry C. Trexler, also operated the Lehigh Portland Cement Company that was established in Allentown in 1897. It was initially referred to as the Shenango Portland Cement Company, but was soon merged to become the New Castle Works of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company.
The new investors commenced with a rebuilding program, upgrading the existing plant (mill #1) and erecting a second plant (mill #2) just nearby. The New Castle News of Monday, February 25, 1907, had this to report, “Work at the Lehigh Portland Cement company’s works is progressing rapidly, as every effort is being made to have the large addition to that plant completed and in operation before July 1. There are now in the neighborhood of 1,100 men at work making cement and building the large addition. The plant is now turning out about 400 barrels of cement a day and when the new addition is completed the capacity of the works will be about 1.000 barrels a day. It is said that the company has contracts to furnish cement to some of the largest concerns in the country. It is also expected that the New Castle concern will furnish thousands of barrels of cement for the Panama canal.”
Work on improving the facilities continued and both mills were in full operation by the summer of 1908. The business quickly grew and in the summer of 1909 the parent company dispatched William H. Kleckner (1867-1934) of Lehigh County to take over as superintendent of all operations at New Castle.
No sooner than Greer and his associates had sold their cement holdings to Lehigh in 1906, they commenced with plans to establish a rival company. The New Castle News of Friday, July 20, 1906, reported, “For the erection of a massive cement works, the main building to be 450 feet in length, and to employ 1,800 men, an organization, styled the Lawrence Cement company, has been effected by New Castle capitalists, among whom are Edwin N. Ohl, Charles Greer, Edwin F. Norris and others who held heavy interests in the plant recently sold to the Lehigh Cement company. Operations of the promoters are, and have been carried on with the greatest secrecy in the endeavor to keep all news concerning it from the public so that plans now pending for the acquisition of thee land will not be interfered with. The exact location of the works is not positively known nor can this be determined from those interested, who will say nothing. However, it is supposed to be at or near Hose Point, at which place a limestone crusher has been erected by the New Castle Portland Cement company…”
Greer and associates soon renamed their business as the New Castle Portland Cement Company, the same name that graced their earlier venture. In early 1907 they established a quarry operation just east of Rose Point. They planned to erect a cement plant in the vicinity of the intersection of Cascade Street and Frew Mill Road, but ran into a legal snag. The New Castle News of Wednesday, July 10, 1907, reported, “New Castle stands in danger of losing the mammoth $500,000 plant proposed by the New Castle Portland Cement company. Whether it will be located here or at Rose Point depends altogether upon the final disposition councils makes of the company’s request for the temporary abandonment of Cascade street between County Line and Grandview avenue. If the request be granted the works will remain in this city and building operations will be started at once. If it is turned down, the plant will go to Rose Point, where the company owns and is now developing in the neighborhood of 800 acres of limestone deposits.” This issue was soon worked out and a portion of Grandview Avenue was abandoned.
Before too long a large cement plant was erected at the southwest intersection of Cascade Street and Frew Mill Road. The company also operated a smaller facility and retail warehouse in New Castle at #236 South Mill Street (the former Marquis brickyard) and maintained executive offices in the nearby Greer Building. The company continued to acquire additional properties and in late 1909 began leasing 354 acres of limestone property in Worth Township in Butler County. The “Marquis Spur” was built off of the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railroad (BR&P) Big Run Branch to serve the cement plant and other industries along Cascade Street. Business suffered in the next few years with brief periods of shutdown due to a lack of demand.
In early 1914, prior to the commencement of the Great War (World War I), the executives of the New Castle Portland Cement Company once again looked to sell off their assets to the Lehigh men. The New Castle News of Saturday, February 28, 1914, reported it this way, “At a meeting of the stockholders of the New Castle Portland Cement company held in the Greer building in this city this morning, the officers of the company were authorized to conduct negotiations with the Lehigh Portland Cement company officials for the sale of the property to the Lehigh company. It is expected that if the deal is consummated that it will be closed up within the next two weeks. It will be an outright sale of the New Castle Portland Cement company property for cash and if it materializes will include the local plants and quarries and the quarry holdings in Butler county.”
The sale was soon completed and the New Castle News of Friday, March 13, 1914, reported, “New Castle Portland Cement company holdings are now in complete charge of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, the deal which the officers of the New Castle company were authorized to make having practically been completed. There are a few minor details to arrange, but the cement mills and quarries have been transferred to the Lehigh company and that company is in charge of operations. Former stockholders in the New Castle Portland Cement Company have been given the privilege of taking out stock in the Lehigh company, and quite a number of them have done so.”
The Lehigh Portland Cement Company merged all the assets and continued to operate the quarries and facilities in Hickory Township (mill #1 and mill #2), on Cascade Street (mill #3), and out towards Rose Point. The company thrived in the late teens and early 1920’s and continued to expand locally and nationally. Lehigh opened facilities in Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, Maryland, and New York and during the 1920’s was one of the largest producers of cement – with twenty-one total plants – in the United States. The cement business was lucrative and another local rival, the Bessemer Limestone and Cement Company (BELCO), also started producing cement in late 1920.
The men who worked in the cement plants were often involved in the local sports leagues, and apparently a baseball rivalry emerged between the combined team from the Hickory Township plants (mills #1 and 2) and the team from the Cascade Street plant (mill #3). The New Castle News of Friday, August 29, 1924, mentioned, “In order to settle the controversy as to which is the better team, Mills 1 and 2 of the Lehigh Cement and Mill 3 clashed last evening at the Lehigh grounds (on Butler Avenue), Mills 1 and 2 emerging the victor by a 4 to 3 count.” The game was apparently the first of a three-game series, but no reports of further games have been found.
In the fall of 1924 the issue of cement dust covering vast areas of New Castle became a hot topic. The New Castle News of Saturday, September 20, 1924, reported, “East Side and North hill residents held a meeting at the Thaddeus Stevens school house last night to take action on the cement dust nuisance from No. 3 mill of the Lehigh Portland Cement company. A resolution was passed to the effect that action will be taken to close down the mill if the nuisance is not abated by October 10. John C. Syling, president of the East Side Civic club presided at the meeting. The school house was full to overflowing, mostly with East Side residents whose properties are being damaged, but there was also a delegation present from the North hill, where the nuisance has been very pronounced during the past week… Previous to the meeting Mr. Syling had an interview with Superintendent Kleckner during which Kleckner was taken into Syling’s garden where enough cement dust was scrapped off a rhubarb leaf to fill a large spoon.”
Kleckner admitted that an existing “dust collecter” at the plant was not having much success, but also pointed out that a new system was about to be installed. Several delays were encountered but the new electric-powered system, which utilized water to dampen the dust at the plant, went into effective operation by the end of the year. A cement dam had been constructed on the Big Run (behind the Radiator Works) to draw water to a reservoir, which was used in the dampening process.
Business slowed during the latter half of the 1920’s and financial difficulties followed. The two Hickory Township plants (mills #1 and #2) were reduced in operations and then closed down in about 1928, although the adjoining quarries remained in use for the Cascade Street plant (mill #3). The onset of the Great Depression in late 1929 brought further hardship and the Lehigh Portland Cement Company was forced to start dismantling some of its facilities and sell off much of the equipment.
The New Castle News of Thursday, January 23, 1930, reported, “Representatives of the Lehigh Portland Cement company met with the county commissioners and assessor of Hickory township at the court house this morning for the purpose of adjusting the assessment on the company’s cement mills located in Hickory township. The Lehigh company is dismantling two of the cement mills which have not been used for some years, and as a result are asking that the assessed valuation of the company’s property in Hickory township be materially reduced.” The Cascade Street plant (mill #3), although idle for long stretches of time, remained in operation throughout the 1930’s.
The employees of the plant suffered a blow when in March 1934 the longtime superintendent, William H. Kleckner, passed away at the age of sixty-six. The New Castle News of Monday, March 12, 1934, carried an obituary that read in part, “Industry and the citizens of New Castle lost one of their most prominent leaders and most cherished of friends Saturday evening when William H. Kleckner passed away it his residence, 828 Butler avenue, He had been ill since October, 1933. Death came at 7:00 p.m., ending a long, honorable and useful career and leaving a great host of friends in mourning. For twenty-five years Mr. Kleckner had been superintendent of the plant of the Lehigh Portland Cement company here. He conducted his business with great efficiency at the same time making a personal friend of every one of his many employes. Mr. Kleckner came to New Castle from Nazareth, Pa, on May 15, 1909 and had resided here ever since.” He was laid to rest in Oak Park Cemetery.
Kleckner was succeeded in the post of superintendent by Wesley Davy (1878-1966), a longtime executive with the company. Under Davy’s guidance the Cascade Street plant (mill #3) weathered the storm of the Great Depression, but finally ceased operations in late 1940. Most of the remaining employees – numbering about 225 – were soon laid off, while a few accepted positions at other Lehigh plants. Dismantling of portions of the facility were soon initiated and continued well into 1941. Back in 1940 the company began selling off small parcels of properties to individual buyers, and was trend continued over the next few years.
In the fall of 1941 the company was exploring a plan to transfer the bulk of the property along Cascade Street, not including the equipment and buildings, over to the City of New Castle in lieu of paying the property taxes that were still owed. In December 1941 the deal was finalized and a large parcel of property was transferred to the city. The New Castle News of Monday, December 22, 1941, reported, “Council today approved a motion by Finance Director James L. Fink which entered the city into an agreement with the Lehigh Portland Cement company whereby the city will obtain from the company a plot of ground which has been worked out, east of Cascade street, coursing almost to Butler avenue. It is reported a deal will be made with the county to take over some of their land outside the city limits.” The city temporarily began using one of the quarries to dump refuse (but not household garbage) from the city.
In July 1942 the cement plant (mill #3) property at the southeast corner of Cascade Street and Frew Mill Road was acquired by the Fassinger & Sons Manufacturing Company, which planned to expand operations from its nearby plant on Butler Avenue. Fassinger & Sons, aided by the events of World War II, was a company on the rise and needed additional space.
The land that came under county ownership, located primarily in Hickory Township (mills #1 and 2), was soon placed under the control of the Lawrence County Conservators, a reforestation organization composed of local outdoorsmen. In the April 1943, with the assistance of local Boy Scouts, this group planted over 25,000 small trees across the barren and stripped property. At least one of the deep quarries, several of which were filled with water, was also stocked with fish for recreational purposes. The initiative was successful in reclaiming some of the land for practical use.
The Lehigh Portland Cement Company, without its New Castle plants, survived the tough times of the 1930’s, thrived in the next two decades, and began to significantly downsize during the 1970’s. In 1977 the company was acquired by a German concern known as Heidelberg Cement Group and greatly diversified. It was combined with another company in 1997 to form the Texas-based “Lehigh Hanson” and is still in business today.
I believe this photo depicts the cement plant (mill #3) of the New Castle Portland Cement Company along Cascade Street. This facility was erected by the company in 1907 – and sold to Lehigh Portland Cement Company in 1914. The Lehigh Portland Cement Company was in operation locally from 1906 until closed in 1940. (c1911) Full Size
A view of cement operations of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. (c1915) Full Size