The Springfield Iron Co. — better known as “the Rolling Mill” — produced railroad rails and other products at a 45-acre plant near 11th Street and Ridgely Avenue from 1872 until the early 1900s.
More than 1,000 men worked at the mill, which turned out 4,500 tons of rail monthly at its height. The complex included its own coal mine and a company store in addition to iron production facilities.
“Each morning, the mill workers walked down ‘mill row’ to the mill yard,” the Illinois State Register reported in an article published in August 1950. “Each carried his dinner pail and wore rough hobnailed shoes, reinforced with leather flaps as an added protection against the rough steel.”
Springfield Iron Co. officers included such well-known Springfield names as Charles H. Ridgely (the company’s first president), John W. Bunn (vice president) and George Brinkerhoff. Probably not coincidentally, the mills were technically in the north-end suburb of Ridgely, which was annexed to Springfield in 1907.
The firm stopped producing rails in 1882 and turned to a variety of other iron and steel items, including railroad splice bars and bar iron for car building. It also had machine shops and a blacksmith shop.
Republic Iron and Steel bought the rolling mill in 1899, basically paying only enough — $400,000 — to meet the plant’s debts. Republic laid off 700 mill workers in early 1900; the last 75 employees, who were repairing equipment and cleaning up the plant, were let go that May.
Springfield interests, including Charles Ridgely, made several attempts to convince Republic to modernize and reopen the mill. They had some brief success in 1903, after pledging $50,000 to buy Republic stock worth about two-thirds that much.
The company spent about $150,000 to renovate the plant and hired 300 workers, many of them veterans of the Ridgely-led mill, and Republic began reprocessing scrap into usable iron in May 1903.
The recession of 1902-04, however, led to the mill being closed again in the summer of 1903. It never resumed large-scale operations, and most of its equipment was removed in 1906. In fact, some of the foundations were being dynamited on Labor Day 1906, something Springfield’s Democratic newspaper, the Illinois State Register, turned into political hay:
A generation ago the Springfield Rolling Mills gave employment to thousands of men. They were run day and night. They were kept in operation more or less extensively from the day of their establishment until they fell into the hands of one of the branches of the Steel Trust, soon after which they were closed down. …
(I)n order to make more dollars at the expense of home consumers, and employ less men to perform the labor that produces its highly protected products, the Steel Trust has abandoned an industry that was built up by our citizens, has torn down the furnaces, raised (sic) the foundations by dynamite and hauled away the machinery that once made music as it rolled the steel and iron billets into articles of commerce.
Note: This entry has been revised and expanded. Our thanks to Robert Schafer for contributing the lead photograph.
Sources: Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library; Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association
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Cornelius “Con” Reagan was a puddler and foreman at the rolling mill from the mid 1870s until the closing. He was born in 1847, “Black 47”, the worst year of the potato famine, in Ireland. His family emigrated from County Cork to work the steel mills of Birmingham, England. In 1870 he came to America and worked at pittsburg. A few years later he was lured to the springfield mill by better wages. He lingered and lived here the rest of his life, and so do his descendants. I believe the company was incorporated in 1869 and came on line in October 1872.
Mr. Weitzel: You may well be correct about the incorporation. It probably did take several years to get the production line running. Thanks for the extra information, and thanks very much for reading.
Are there any extant records of the rolling mills left in Springfield?
Mr. McDonald: There probably are, but I haven’t looked into them. I’d start by contacting Curtis Mann, who directs the Sangamon Valley Collection (the repository for many local records) at Lincoln Library. The library phone number is (217) 753-4900. If the SVC doesn’t have any rolling mills records, Curt will be able to tell you where to start looking. Good luck, and thanks for reading.
The rolling mill was supplied coal from the old North Mine, across the tracks to the west. This is how they made coke for the production of steel. My great grandfather worked the mine and his father worked the mill. The new North Mine was farther down the track to the north.
Frank: Thanks for the extra details.
The First Rail – Yesterday the first rail of railroad iron was successfully rolled from the Springfield Rolling Mill, and last night the employees jubilated. Having been bodily dragged from our desk at the late hour of 11 o’clock to go out with the boys to celebrate the grand event by a serenade, we cannot, for want of time, give the affair a notice such as it deserves, but if we can get the music and toasts out of our head in time will try to “dish it up” for Monday’s paper.
– ISJ 14 Sep 1872, page 4
See also ISJ 23 Oct 1872, page 4 for another article on the mill, including the quote “is turning out about fifty tons of iron rails per day.” Mentions abundance of coal and ample supply of water too.
David: Thanks for the info.
Another article that I came across today–
Explosion of Two Boilers at the Springfield Rolling Mills- One Man Killed and a Number of Others Seriously Injured.
Yesterday morning about 4 o’clock a terrible explosion took place at the mills of the Springfield Iron Company, situated about two miles north of the State House Square. The explosion was heard in all parts of our city, and was the subject of general conjecture until the facts were ascertained, which are about as follows:
The rolling mill, in order to keep pace with its rapidly accumulating orders for work, have been running their mill to its full capacity night and day, and yesterday morning, Thomas Robinson, (who had special charge of a battery of seven boilers, each of which was 28 feet long and 42 inches in diameter, in which steam is generated for a half dozen engines located in various parts of the mill,) was on duty. At 4 o’clock, just as one gang of the hands were relieving another, a terrific explosion took place, shattering the boiler house and throwing down the smoke-stack, turning the boilers upside down and end for end, etc., and killing Thomas Robinson instantly, and scalding J. C. Miller so terribly that it is feared he will die. John Horhne, engineer of one of the single 42 inch rail engines, had an arm crushed and received other very severe injuries. Hamrocher, fireman, was very badly burnt, his ankle broken and his back so badly injured that he will be confined to his house for a long time.
[Article continues for several more paragraphs…]
ISJ 30 November 1872, page 4
Sadly, J. C. Miller did die from his scalding injuries.
– ISJ 11 Dec 72, page 4
Last one for today. I’m not intentionally researching the mills, but every time I see it mentioned in the paper, I remember this blog article.
Scientific American, November 16, 1872, page 308
has a letter entitled “Reckless Engineering” about the Springfield Iron Co.’s new rail mill.
Quote: “If any body can beat this for stupid and criminal carelessness and ignorance, I should like to know of it.”
The phrase “ignorant numskulls” is also skillfully employed in this anonymous letter.
This letter was reprinted and commented-upon in the 14 Dec 1872 ISJ, page 4, as a defense against people who were blaming Robinson for his own death.
David: Thanks for all the followups. I don’t think people realize how hazardous blue-collar jobs were a century ago, and how few safety precautions were taken.
By the way, that is a great, great quote from the Scientific American article. Thanks also for including the link.
The Springfield Iron Works are in successful operation, turning out from sixty-five to seventy-five tons of rails per day. About three hundred names are upon the payroll of the company. The employees will be paid on Saturday. A battery of steam boilers at this mill, capable of furnishing steam for propelling all the machinery of the establishment, will be completed in about two weeks. The company are also erecting a new furnace of sufficient capacity to heat from sixty to seventy tons of rails per day. Improvements are in progress which, when completed, will enable the company to turn out one hundred tons of rails per day.
– ISJ 7 March 1873, page 4
Illinois State Journal – 6 Oct 1871
The Springfield Rolling Mill is a fixed fact, the work preparatory to erecting the buildings having already been commenced.
Illinois State Register – 14 Sep 1872
THE FIRST RAIL
The Springfield Rolling Mill in Full Operation About 5 p.m. yesterday the first bar of railroad iron was turned out from the works of the Springfield Iron Company. The progress of the works from the beginning of the project, the erection of the buildings, and the preliminary operations of the machinery, have been faithfully chronicled in the REGISTER; and we have now to record that on September 13th the entire establishment was put in complete operation. The officers and directors of the company, with a few ladies and invited guests, witnessed the interesting process. The rail made is equal in appearance and finish to that produced at any mill in the country. Later in the evening the employes serenaded the officers and directors of the company at their residences, and were hospitably received. The works now employ about 150 men and by October 1st the number will be increased to 250. The company has contracts for all the rails produced up to December 1st. The average producing capacity of the mill is now 100 tons per day, and the company intend to add to the works as rapidly as possible, until all varieties of iron are produced.
In the early 1870’s, my great great grandfather, John W. Payne, worked at the East St. Louis Co-operative Rail Mill Company, which made T-rails for railroad companies. In early 1872, the Rail Mill Company employees union initiated a labor strike, which had the ultimate effect of closing down operations permanently. It was about this time that Payne moved to Ridgely, in north Springfield, and became one of the first employees of the Springfield Iron and Steel Works (which would become known locally as the “rolling mills”). One morning about daybreak, in September 1879, he lost his right eye when a flash of hot iron flew into it, while he was in the act of maneuvering a rail with a set of large tongs. He recovered, and after a few weeks, he was back working at the mill. He continued working there until the late 1890s.
Mr. Wiessing: Thanks for the additional history, especially the personal touch. Both the Journal and Register had short stories about Mr. Payne’s accident. I assume you’ve seen them. Did you also see the item, published a week earlier (Register, Aug. 26), about his and his friends’ success at hunting prairie chickens? Seven “rolling mill boys,” hunting all day 10 miles north of Springfield, bagged 54 prairie chickens.
Thanks for the reply. I have seen many of the articles. I have a photo taken late in life of John W. Payne, and as hard as I have looked at it, it’s just impossible to detect that he wore a false eye, even though he did. Either he had a very realistic prosthetic, or the photographer in the 1920s did a great job of re-touching the photo. As for the personal touch: I just think it is a shame to portray soemone’s entire existence as a date of birth and a date of death. The workers of the rolling mills were people with families, who worked hard under dangerous conditions and, if injured or sick, had to rely on benevolent associations to take care of them. My ancestor was lucky. He lost an eye and was back on the job in weeks. Some workers were maimed or killed in work accidents that left their families fatherless and husbandless, and with few prospects.
Here it is 2018 and Springfield Iron is making headlines again! What a great article. I would be curious to know how many confederate soldiers worked there in light of the fact that Camp Yates was a POW camp during the Civil War albeit briefly and at one point the POW’s roamed Ridgely Village at will. I believe I sourced that from Sangamoncountyhistory.com.
Mr./Ms. Murphy: Glad you liked the article. However, Springfield Iron didn’t open until 1872, seven years after the Civil War ended and nine years after the last Confederate prisoners left Camp Butler (not Camp Yates, which was never a POW camp). You can read more about Camp Butler elsewhere on SangamonLink: http://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=10239