The one vital lesson in iron and steel that I learned in Britain was the necessity for owning raw materials and finishing the completed article ready for its purpose. Having solved the steel-rail problem at the Edgar Thomson Works, we soon proceeded to the next step. The difficulties and uncertainties of obtaining regular supplies of pig iron compelled us to begin the erection of blast furnaces. Three of these were built, one, however, being a reconstructed blast furnace purchased from the Escanaba Iron Company, with which Mr. Kloman had been connected. As is usual in such cases, the furnace cost us as much as a new one, and it never was as good. There is nothing so unsatisfactory as purchases of inferior plants.
But although this purchase was a mistake, directly considered, it proved, at a subsequent date, a source of great profit because it gave us a furnace small enough for the manufacture of spiegel and, at a later date, of ferro-manganese. We were the second firm in the United States to manufacture our own spiegel, and the first, and for years the only, firm in America that made ferro-manganese. We had been dependent upon foreigners for a supply of this indispensable article, paying as high as eighty dollars a ton for it. The manager of our blast furnaces, Mr. Julian Kennedy, is entitled to the credit of suggesting that with the ores within reach we could make ferro-manganese in our small furnace. The experiment was worth trying and the result was a great success. We were able to supply the entire American demand and prices fell from eighty to fifty dollars per ton as a consequence.
While testing the ores of Virginia we found that these were being quietly purchased by Europeans for ferro-manganese, the owners of the mine being led to believe that they were used for other purposes. Our Mr. Phipps at once set about purchasing that mine. He obtained an option from the owners, who had neither capital nor skill to work it efficiently. A high price was paid to them for their interests, and (with one of them, Mr. Davis, a very able young man) we became the owners, but not until a thorough investigation of the mine had proved that there was enough of manganese ore in sight to repay us. All this was done with speed; not a day was lost when the discovery was made. And here lies the great advantage of a partnership over a corporation. The president of the latter would have had to consult a board of directors and wait several weeks and perhaps months for their decision. By that time the mine would probably have become the property of others.
We continued to develop our blast-furnace plant, every new one being a great improvement upon the preceding, until at last we thought we had arrived at a standard furnace. Minor improvements would no doubt be made, but so far as we could see we had a perfect plant and our capacity was then fifty thousand tons per month of pig iron.
The blast-furnace department was no sooner added than another step was seen to be essential to our independence and success. The supply of superior coke was a fixed quantity – the Connellsville field being defined. We found that we could not get on without a supply of the fuel essential to the smelting of pig iron; and a very thorough investigation of the question led us to the conclusion that the Frick Coke Company had not only the best coal and coke property, but that it had in Mr. Frick himself a man with a positive genius for its management. He had proved his ability by starting as a poor railway clerk and succeeding. In 1882 we purchased one half of the stock of this company, and by subsequent purchases from other holders we became owners of the great bulk of the shares.
There now remained to be acquired only the supply of iron stone. If we could obtain this we should be in the position occupied by only two or three of the European concerns. We thought at one time we had succeeded in discovering in Pennsylvania this last remaining link in the chain. We were misled, however, in our investment in the Tyrone region, and lost considerable sums as the result of our attempts to mine and use the ores of that section. They promised well at the edges of the mines, where the action of the weather for ages had washed away impurities and enriched the ore, but when we penetrated a small distance they proved too „lean” to work.
Our chemist, Mr. Prousser, was then sent to a Pennsylvania furnace among the hills which we had leased, with instructions to analyze all the materials brought to him from the district, and to encourage people to bring him specimens of minerals. A striking example of the awe inspired by the chemist in those days was that only with great difficulty could he obtain a man or a boy to assist him in the laboratory. He was suspected of illicit intercourse with the Powers of Evil when he undertook to tell by his suspicious-looking apparatus what a stone contained. I believe that at last we had to send him a man from our office at Pittsburgh.
One day he sent us a report of analyses of ore remarkable for the absence of phosphorus. It was really an ore suitable for making Bessemer steel. Such a discovery attracted our attention at once. The owner of the property was Moses Thompson, a rich farmer, proprietor of seven thousand acres of the most beautiful agricultural land in Center County, Pennsylvania. An appointment was made to meet him upon the ground from which the ore had been obtained. We found the mine had been worked for a charcoal blast furnace fifty or sixty years before, but it had not borne a good reputation then, the reason no doubt being that its product was so much purer than other ores that the same amount of flux used caused trouble in smelting. It was so good it was good for nothing in those days of old.
We finally obtained the right to take the mine over at any time within six months, and we therefore began the work of examination, which every purchaser of mineral property should make most carefully. We ran lines across the hillside fifty feet apart, with cross-lines at distances of a hundred feet apart, and at each point of intersection we put a shaft down through the ore. I believe there were eighty such shafts in all and the ore was analyzed at every few feet of depth, so that before we paid over the hundred thousand dollars asked we knew exactly what there was of ore. The result hoped for was more than realized. Through the ability of my cousin and partner, Mr. Lauder, the cost of mining and washing was reduced to a low figure, and the Scotia ore made good all the losses we had incurred in the other mines, paid for itself, and left a profit besides. In this case, at least, we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. We trod upon sure ground with the chemist as our guide. It will be seen that we were determined to get raw materials and were active in the pursuit.
We had lost and won, but the escapes in business affairs are sometimes very narrow. Driving with Mr. Phipps from the mills one day we passed the National Trust Company office on Penn Street, Pittsburgh. I noticed the large gilt letters across the window, „Stockholders individually liable.” That very morning in looking over a statement of our affairs I had noticed twenty shares „National Trust Company” on the list of assets. I said to Harry:
„If this is the concern we own shares in, won’t you please sell them before you return to the office this afternoon?”
He saw no need for haste. It would be done in good time.
„No, Harry, oblige me by doing it instantly.”
He did so and had it transferred. Fortunate, indeed, was this, for in a short time the bank failed with an enormous deficit. My cousin, Mr. Morris, was among the ruined shareholders. Many others met the same fate. Times were panicky, and had we been individually liable for all the debts of the National Trust Company our credit would inevitably have been seriously imperiled. It was a narrow escape. And with only twenty shares (two thousand dollars’ worth of stock), taken to oblige friends who wished our name on their list of shareholders! The lesson was not lost. The sound rule in business is that you may give money freely when you have a surplus, but your name never – neither as endorser nor as member of a corporation with individual liability. A trifling investment of a few thousand dollars, a mere trifle – yes, but a trifle possessed of deadly explosive power.
The rapid substitution of steel for iron in the immediate future had become obvious to us. Even in our Keystone Bridge Works, steel was being used more and more in place of iron. King Iron was about to be deposed by the new King Steel, and we were becoming more and more dependent upon it. We had about concluded in 1886 to build alongside of the Edgar Thomson Mills new works for the manufacture of miscellaneous shapes of steel when it was suggested to us that the five or six leading manufacturers of Pittsburgh, who had combined to build steel mills at Homestead, were willing to sell their mills to us.
These works had been built originally by a syndicate of manufacturers, with the view of obtaining the necessary supplies of steel which they required in their various concerns, but the steel-rail business, being then in one of its booms, they had been tempted to change plans and construct a steel-rail mill. They had been able to make rails as long as prices remained high, but, as the mills had not been specially designed for this purpose, they were without the indispensable blast furnaces for the supply of pig iron, and had no coke lands for the supply of fuel. They were in no condition to compete with us.
It was advantageous for us to purchase these works. I felt there was only one way we could deal with their owners, and that was to propose a consolidation with Carnegie Brothers & Co. We offered to do so on equal terms, every dollar they had invested to rank against our dollars. Upon this basis the negotiation was promptly concluded. We, however, gave to all parties the option to take cash, and most fortunately for us, all elected to do so except Mr. George Singer, who continued with us to his and our entire satisfaction. Mr. Singer told us afterwards that his associates had been greatly exercised as to how they could meet the proposition I was to lay before them. They were much afraid of being overreached but when I proposed equality all around, dollar for dollar, they were speechless.
This purchase led to the reconstruction of all our firms. The new firm of Carnegie, Phipps & Co. was organized in 1886 to run the Homestead Mills. The firm of Wilson, Walker & Co. was embraced in the firm of Carnegie, Phipps & Co., Mr. Walker being elected chairman. My brother was chairman of Carnegie Brothers & Co. and at the head of all. A further extension of our business was the establishing of the Hartman Steel Works at Beaver Falls, designed to work into a hundred various forms the product of the Homestead Mills. So now we made almost everything in steel from a wire nail up to a twenty-inch steel girder, and it was then not thought probable that we should enter into any new field.
It may be interesting here to note the progress of our works during the decade 1888 to 1897. In 1888 we had twenty millions of dollars invested; in 1897 more than double or over forty-five millions. The 600,000 tons of pig iron we made per annum in 1888 was trebled; we made nearly 2,000,000. Our product of iron and steel was in 1888, say, 2000 tons per day; it grew to exceed 6000 tons. Our coke works then embraced about 5000 ovens; they were trebled in number, and our capacity, then 6000 tons, became 18,000 tons per day. Our Frick Coke Company in 1897 had 42,000 acres of coal land, more than two thirds of the true Connellsville vein. Ten years hence increased production may be found to have been equally rapid. It may be accepted as an axiom that a manufacturing concern in a growing country like ours begins to decay when it stops extending.
To make a ton of steel one and a half tons of iron stone has to be mined, transported by rail a hundred miles to the Lakes, carried by boat hundreds of miles, transferred to cars, transported by rail one hundred and fifty miles to Pittsburgh; one and a half tons of coal must be mined and manufactured into coke and carried fifty-odd miles by rail; and one ton of limestone mined and carried one hundred and fifty miles to Pittsburgh. How then could steel be manufactured and sold without loss at three pounds for two cents? This, I confess, seemed to me incredible, and little less than miraculous, but it was so.
America is soon to change from being the dearest steel manufacturing country to the cheapest. Already the shipyards of Belfast are our customers. This is but the beginning. Under present conditions America can produce steel as cheaply as any other land, notwithstanding its higher-priced labor. There is no labor so cheap as the dearest in the mechanical field, provided it is free, contented, zealous, and reaping reward as it renders service. And here America leads.
One great advantage which America will have in competing in the markets of the world is that her manufacturers will have the best home market. Upon this they can depend for a return upon capital, and the surplus product can be exported with advantage, even when the prices received for it do not more than cover actual cost, provided the exports be charged with their proportion of all expenses. The nation that has the best home market, especially if products are standardized, as ours are, can soon outsell the foreign producer. The phrase I used in Britain in this connection was: „The Law of the Surplus.” It afterward came into general use in commercial discussions.