Birth and development of the steel industry in Gadsden


  The Vagabond recently pulled out a speech prepared and presented by the Vagabond’s father, Dr. Kenneth A. Crownover, who was a combustion engineer and energy coordinator for the Southern District of Republic Steel Corporation and gave speeches to Gadsden area clubs as a member of the Republic Steel Corporation Speakers Bureau.

Dr. Crownover writes:

“Republic Steel Corporation at Gadsden, Alabama, has touched and enriched the lives of almost everybody in Etowah County and the immediate surrounding areas. This is not news to you, but have you heard how this great corporation became a part of Gadsden’s heritage and an outstanding contributor to the Gadsden community?

“The story of the first steel company in Gadsden unfolds much like a romantic story with the ups and downs, reorganizations, acquisitions and expansions adding enough spice to the drama to make it more than interesting.

“Surrounding Gadsden at the turn of the 20th century were great deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone, which are the major ingredients needed for steel production. One of the oldest residents, Captain W.P. Lay, learned of these deposits and conceived the idea that Gadsden would be the perfect home for a steel producing plant.

“George H. and E. T. Schuler were two brothers from Kansas that had established a rod and wire mill at Ensley near Birmingham in 1898 but were not satisfied with the arrangement of buying billets from a nearby steel producer and were seeking a site for their own steel producing plant. 

“Captain Lay, acting on his idea, visited the Schulers in Birmingham. He told the active heads of the Alabama Steel and Wire Company of the glowing advantages of the Gadsden area for the location of a steel plant. The charts and maps that he furnished showed the location of the coal and iron ore deposits. There was enough interest generated for the Schulers to send an expert on mines and plants to Gadsden to the area. Captain Lay agreed to pay for all the expenses except the man’s salary.

“Captain Lay drove the mining expert, Mr. O’Brian, all over the area where measurements and specimens of vein after vein of coal and iron ore were carefully measured and studied to analyze how large and what grade the veins contained. When Mr. O’Brian wrote his report to the Schulers, he very confidently backed Captain Lay’s glowing advantages of locating a plant in the Gadsden area but did so in even more approving wording.

“The Schulers had not considered moving their plants to Gadsden in the beginning but had only been interested in the iron ore and coal deposits for their future plant in the Bir-mingham area. After the favorable report and their own visit to this area, they were impressed enough to seriously consider moving their plant from Ensley to Gadsden.

“The greatest of secrecy was maintained throughout all the preliminary investigations needed for this great undertaking. If anyone had suspected or knew about what was being done, it could have jeopardized or completely sabotaged the project.

“Birmingham and Ensley would have sought ways to prevent the removal of the plant if the move had been announced before every detail was worked out. Also, the people in the Gadsden area would have raised the prices on the needed property to the point that the land could not have been purchased and the project would have fallen through and be gone, maybe forever.

“Eventually, the Schulers informed Captain Lay that they would move their plant to Gadsden if certain concessions could be secured. The Schulers, in company with Captain Lay, started looking for a site for their plants that had to be one mile long and on level land that was easily accessible to a bountiful supply of water and the railroad.

“A site that was visited which proved to be entirely too small was the old wagon works. Another site visited was the East Side, but the main problem was crossing the river. Section after section was turned down because they did not meet the specification and were not quite suitable. 

“As the search for the site continued, Captain Lay decided to invite his guest to the Bellevue Hotel on Lookout Mountain for the noon meal. It was during this meal that Captain Lay suddenly and exuberantly exclaimed that he had found the perfect place for the new plant. He had picked the site that Republic Steel is now situated. While the gentlemen were eating, Captain Lay told of the advantages that the site had – room for expansion, the magnificent and convenient water supply, the ability to reach the plant by railroad, and the feasibility of digging a canal from the Coosa River to the plant site to insure water transportation.

“The proposed site was visited after lunch with much enthusiasm and was found to be very satisfactory.

“Everything seemed to be falling into place. If they could only purchase the land at a reasonable price, then the dream of Captain Lay would really start to take meaning. It was not a simple matter to just go out and purchase the land. Most of the land needed was owned by the Alabama Land and Development Company, which was in litigation. To make the purchase, Captain Lay set about getting the order of sale from Chancery Court.

“Eventually, the order for sale of the land was secured after many disappointments and the slow grind of the courts. The heads of the steel company had agreed to pay up to $20,000 for the property, so when it went on the blocks to be sold, Captain Lay felt confident the land could be secured.

“When the day of the sale of the property arrived, there were several bidders on hand attempting to purchase the land. The Schulers were guests in the home of Captain Lay at this time and were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the sale. 

“Colonel E.T. Stocks had been authorized to bid for the steel people, so the bidding was shrouded with secrecy even at this point.

“As the bidding started, it became very evident that the bidding was going beyond the $26,000 that the Schulers had offered. The outside parties continued to bid up the price until something had to be done if the project were to be saved. A telephone call to the Schulers at the home of Captain Lay saved the project for a short time when they consented to up the ante to $25,600.

“The outsiders continued to up the bid until the limit was once again reached. Captain Lay allowed the bidder to add another $1,000 to the ante from his own pocket to save the property from going to the others. This was to no avail, since the outsiders continued until the bidding had once again passed the limit.

“Communication was once again established with the Schulers who agreed to pay $33,000 for the property. 

Again the limit was reached, and the Schulers agreed to go to $35,000, but before that limit was reached, the outsiders stopped bidding and Colonel Stocks purchased the property for $31,400.”

Check back next week for Part II.

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