Henry Clay Frick had apprehended the value of vertical integration—owning and controlling both production and distribution—from the start. So when Frick, Andrew and Thomas Mellon, and Donora’s founder, William Donner, joined forces in 1899 to build steel mills along the Monongahela River, employing the tenets of vertical integration there must have been a foregone conclusion.
Donner located all of his mills in Donora on the western side of the Mon. He located three types of furnace at the southern end of the mill complex: blast (video in new window), Bessemer (video in new window), and open hearth. The three furnaces each worked somewhat differently and produced steel in a variety of compositions, depending on customer needs. Donner probably chose the southern end for his furnaces based at least partly on where most of the coke used by the furnaces would come from.
A wide swath of coke deposits ran from northern Pennsylvania diagonally south through West Virginia all the way down to the middle of Alabama. Much of Donora’s coke, then, came into town from the south, mostly from coal and coke towns farther south and west than Donora, and perhaps some from West Virginia as well.
Much of that coke, as well as limestone and raw ore, reached Donora on barges that traveled downriver through a series of nine locks and dams. Barges would pull into the docks and unload their wares onto freight cars, which would then distribute the coke, ore, and limestone to furnaces throughout the mill complex.
The furnaces burned coke, ore, and limestone to make molten iron. From there the iron would be sent to a series of steel mills for processing. Donner placed those processing mills—the blooming mill, nail mill, rod mill, and wire works<em>north of the furnaces. The steel mills produced an assortment of products, from construction nails to sheets of steel to Ellwood fences, a type of fence made of wires woven in a repeating diamond pattern. American Steel & Wire Co., the division of US Steel that ran the steel mills in town, advertised its Ellwood fencing products for anyone “needing an efficient farm, field or ranch fence, secure against outbreaking or inbreaking horses, cattle, hogs, pigs, sheep, dogs, poultry or rabbits.”
Finally, north of those mills, past the Donora-Webster bridge and about two miles north of the blast furnaces, was built the Zinc Works. Producing zinc required fewer processes than did steel production, so the buildings needed to make zinc could be located far enough away from the steelmaking operations to stand on their own but close enough to benefit from some of those same operations.
The design of the mill complex, employed Carnegie’s (read: Frick’s) vertical integration concepts. With the furnaces and steel mills all on one side of the Mon there was no need for the kind of hot-metal bridges used in Carnegie’s steel plants in Pittsburgh.
Hot-metal bridges were specially made to handle extremely heavy loads of extremely hot materials that had been poured into sturdy, torpedo-shaped train cars. The cars carried molten steel from the blast furnaces on the west side of the Monongahela to the steel mills on the west side for processing. That journey was a hugely time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient process.
Donner’s one-side-handles-all design, on the other hand, proved far superior to Carnegie’s Pittsburgh operations and was an example of how the concepts of vertical integration can be successfully implemented in a metal-making operation.