Advances made in the steelmaking process during the 1870’s saw the decline of the “iron age” and the rise of steel and tin plate. The use of tin plate had long been a very popular material for making household items such as stoves, lanterns, candlesticks, coffee pots, cooking pans, and eating utensils. It was becoming even more valuable with the increased manufacturing of tin cans for preserving food items. Tin plates or more accurately “tinned plates,” thin sheets of steel plating (“black sheets”) coated with tin, were extremely vital in the canning industry due to their ability to resist rust.
At the time – and into the early 1890’s – the United States imported most of its supply of tin plate from Wales. The McKinley Tariff of 1890, designed to jumpstart the infantile domestic tin plate industry, substantially raised the taxes on tin plate imports. It was under this and other “protectionism” laws that the United States underwent a rapid industrialization during the 1890’s, and became a leading exporter of various goods during the early 1900’s. American entrepreneurs established sheet plate plants or tin plate plants, or facilities that combined both operations, and began making a fortune. A cheaper material known as terne plate was also manufactured for use in the roofing and gutter industry.
In New Castle, Pennsylvania, a small businessman and farmer named George Greer (1844-1926) saw the McKinley Tariff as a major opportunity. Greer, who hailed from a livestock farm in Neshannock Township, was a clean-living Methodist, a well-respected choir leader, and a talented musician. He owned a music store in downtown New Castle with his brother Charles Greer. George Greer’s idea, in concert with his brother, was to establish a tin plate factory in New Castle. He gained the financial backing of some wealthy bankers and businessmen to include William Patterson, William Foltz, William E. Reis, and John Stevenson and soon secured some property along Moravia Street on the east bank of the Shenango River. Greer began overseeing the effort to erect a manufacturing plant. He brought in a host of skilled Welsh tin workers to manage the effort and they trained other workers to occupy such positions as rollers, doublers, heaters, openers, shearmen, tinners, picklers, and annealers.
After careful planning Greer’s plant, with four separate mills and known as the New Castle Sheet and Tin Plate Company, went into operation at the south end of Furnace Street in October 1893. Herbert Greer, the young son of Charles Greer, “dipped” the first sheet plate on November 5, 1893. George Greer served as President of new company, while his brother Charles served as Treasurer. The company was an immediate success and was quickly expanded to twenty mills.
Rivals companies also sprung up. Limestone magnate George W. Johnson remodeled the existing Arethusa Iron Works into the Neshannock Sheet and Tin Plate Company, while the powerful Shenango Valley Steel Company began construction of its own massive tin plate operation in 1897. The Shenango Sheet and Tin Plate Company was located on the west bank of the Shenango River along Mahoning Avenue.
Before construction of the massive Shenango Sheet and Tin Plate Company was even completed all the tin plate outfits in the area were purchased and merged into the new American Tin Plate Company in December 1898. The company, headed by Daniel G. Reid (the “Tinplate King”), owned numerous sheet plate and “tinning” plants around the country and practically controlled the industry now. Greer and other tin plate executives became very rich when they sold off their assets. George Greer, by now a wealthy man, remained onboard as District Manager overseeing all the local plants. These included his old mills now known as the New Castle Works, the soon-to-be-completed Shenango Works, and the Sharon (or Farrell) Works to the north. The smaller Johnson Works in New Castle was closed down.
The Shenango Works, covering some forty-four acres, was finally opened in May 1899. It was eventually expanded to include over forty mills and at one time was the largest tin plate operation in the world. With the New Castle Works and Shenango Works in full operation New Castle was the largest single producing site of tin plate in the entire world. The city prospered like never before or never since. The tin plate industry was the single most important factor in the growth of New Castle at that time. Welsh and other European immigrants soon flooded into the South Side of New Castle in search of employment and the population exploded from 11,600 in 1890, to 28,000 in 1900, and then to over 38,000 in 1910. New Castle was a center of industrial might and Greer led the way as its most prominent resident.
In 1901 the American Tin Plate Company was merged into the newly organized U.S. Steel Corporation, which became the largest and most powerful corporation in the world. U.S. Steel reorganized its tin plate assets under the moniker of the American Sheet and Tin Plate Company in January 1904. Greer remained in charge of all local plants until he finally stepped down in July 1909. His lone district manager post was dissolved and split among three new general manager positions. Bert “B.J.” Ross became general manager at the New Castle Works, David S. Pyle (Greer’s former second in command) took over at the Shenango Works, and William H. Davis assumed control of the Sharon Works.
Greer retired to concentrate on his other substantial business interests. He was involved with several banks, steel mills, and cement plants. He built an impressive home in the North Hill District in 1905, erected the new Greer Block on Mercer Street in 1906, and continued to raise prized cattle on his old homestead. He was very active with the First Methodist Church and was involved in a handful of fraternal and charitable organizations in the city. Greer remained a lifelong resident of New Castle, and died after an operation in a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 1926. His wife died at their North Hill residence just a few hours later. His brother Charles, who basically retired from business after 1909, had preceded him in death in February 1925. George and Charles Greer, two of New Castle’s most prominent citizens, were both laid to rest in Oak Park Cemetery.
When Greer stepped down the American tin plate industry was already on the decline. The American Sheet and Tin Plate Company,which had enjoyed a monopoly, consolidated its sheet plate and tinning plants, closing many smaller plants and enlarging the bigger ones. With fewer plants and automated techniques more and more workers were put out of work. Smaller independent companies began to make some headway as the government fought to control the power of the monopolies. Utensils and other household items made of tin were no longer in vogue, and other materials like aluminum would slowly come to prominence in the canning industry. The price of tin plate fell sharply by 1910 and the industry was no longer as lucrative as it once was.
The New Castle Works and Shenango Works continued in operation for many years. They eventually came under the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Much of the finished product these two plants turned out went directly to the nearby American Can Company in Mahoningtown. That local canning plant primarily made tin cans for condensed milk companies. Other pallets of tin plate sheets were shipped by rail to the Pacific Northwest to make cans for processed salmon, and also to Hawaii for canned pineapples. The two plants were periodically shutdown, sometimes for months on end, due to a lack of demand. The tough times of the 1930’s took a toll on many businesses in the area including the tin plate mills. The New Castle Works, shut down for a time from 1931-1933, was finally closed for good in 1937. The larger Shenango Works survived a while longer, but it too was shuttered in early 1940.
The New Castle Works was soon purchased by the Standard Steel Spring Company of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. It was renovated in 1943 and became a defense plant making vital materials for the U.S. military effort during World War II. It continued in service after the war making heavy duty springs and later axles for automobiles, buses, and military vehicles. The company was involved in several mergers over the years to become the Rockwell Spring and Axle Company in 1953, Rockwell Standard in 1958, North American Rockwell in 1967, and Rockwell International in 1973. In October 1991 the parent company announced it was closing the New Castle plant and moving operations elsewhere. The 530 employees were now out of work. A portion of the old plant buildings are still in use today, at least for a time as a rail car repair facility operated by the Kasgro Rail Corporation.
The Shenango Works was put back in operation in 1942 as a defense plant, making aluminum for the U.S. military. It was operated by the Pittsburgh-based Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), which controlled operations at five vital aluminum plants across the country. The Valley Manufacturing Company, a sheet mill operation, also began leasing a portion of the plant. The federal government put the plant up for sale in early 1947, but ALCOA was forbidden to purchase the plant due to stringent anti-monopoly laws. The plant was sold in December 1948 to the Bossert Company, which became part of the Rockwell Spring and Axle Company in 1953. From that point on the two former tin plate plants in New Castle, which both made heavy duty axles and transmissions, were under the control of the same company (Rockwell). I believe the Shenango Works was closed down in the late 1980’s. In 1992 the plant was converted into a multi-tenant industrial site known as the McDuff Industrial Park. Several tenants have since come and gone but BPI Inc., a company that processes mineral by-products and markets the finished material, still occupies the majority of the former plant.
The heyday of the tin plate industry in the United States (roughly 1895-1907) was short lived, but its importance to the growth of New Castle can’t be stressed enough. As the 1890’s came to a close New Castle, with a thriving industrial sector led by the tin plate plants, was one of the fastest growing cities in the entire country. It was this phenomenal growth that gave rise to the now forgotten nickname of “Little Pittsburgh.”
George Greer, born in Neshannock Township, opened his first tin mill in New Castle in 1893. (c1900)
Charles Greer assisted his brother George in making New Castle the center of the tin plate industry. (c1900)
The Shenango Works (shown above) near Mahoningtown was at one time the largest tin plate operation in the world. The combined tin plate mills in New Castle were often referred to as the “Greer Mills.” (c1908) Full Size
The massive Shenango Works was opened for operation in January 1899. This plant was finally closed in 1940 and soon converted into a war industry plant producing vital aluminum. (c1903) Full Size
This popular old postcard shows tin mill workers in Pittsburgh hard at work. (1907) Full Size
Another view of the massive Shenango Works (c1915) Full Size
Tin mill workers from the Shenango Works. (c1914) Full Size
The marching band of the American Sheet & Tin Plate Company. (c1910) Full Size
The former Shenango Works site in Mahoningtown is now home to the McDuff Industrial Park. (Dec 2016)
The former site of the Shenango Works along Mahoning Avenue in Mahoningtown, part of the massive “Greer Mills” complex. (Dec 2016)