The Low Moor Iron Company, the first producer of pig iron in Virginia according to the company's claims, was a self-contained manufacturing unit producing from its own mines the coal, limestone, and iron ore needed for its iron production. Located in Low Moor near Clifton Forge in Alleghany County in western Virginia, an area rich in mineral deposits, the company was in operation from 1872-1930, producing only pig iron; it never attempted to produce finished iron products.
Coal came to the Low Moor furnaces from the Kay Moor Mines at Kay Moor, West Virginia, about thirty miles from Low Moor; limestone was produced from the Low Moor limestone quarries; and iron ore came from the Fenwick, Dolly Ann, Jordan, Rich Patch, Low Moor, and Longdale Mines, most of them within twenty miles of Low Moor at Covington or Clifton Forge.
The towns of Low Moor and Kay Moor were company towns in every respect. Workers lived in company-owned houses, bought food in company stores, worshiped at the company church, saw movies in the company theater, were treated in the company hospital, and were buried in the company cemetery. Workers received part of their pay in scrip that they exchanged for goods and services. According to a statement from the Kay Moor Mines dated November 1904, Kay Moor then employed 338 people, paid them an average wage of $36.26 per month, and issued half of their pay in scrip. Kay Moor had four stores; Low Moor had seven or eight. All of these stores carried large inventories which are detailed in the collection. These inventories are valuable to anyone interested in determining the wants and needs of a coal miner and his family.
In the late 1910's and 1920's Kay Moor had a company theater called the Azure Theater which seated about 300 people. There were also plans for a company-owned social center, to have pool tables, a soda fountain, and provisions for dancing and skating. The company was in tough economic straits by the 1920's, however, and there is no evidence that the social center was built. The town of Low Moor was so completely under the company's influence that one of Low Moor Iron Company's assistant managers served as the town sheriff. He often foreclosed on people who did not pay their debts, and drove troublesome people "out of town on a rail" as he put it.
The Low Moor Iron Company's fortunes fluctuated during the various business cycles between the years 1880-1930. Low Moor was one of the larger pig iron producers in Virginia, but Virginia pig iron production was not important nationally. Low Moor officials sometimes sold their product themselves, but more often they used agents, the prevalent method at the time. Low Moor Iron Company used a variety of agents through the 1900's. James F. Bryan acted as the exclusive agent for the sale of Kay Moor Coal from September 21, 1903 to September, 1905. From about 1890 until about 1910 Dalton Nash and Company were the exclusive eastern agents of Low Moor Iron. After that time the exclusive agency went to Philips Isham and Company located in New York. From about 1890 the western agency was handled chiefly by Thomas Mack and Company. After 1902 Thomas Mack and Company underwent a name change, becoming Walter Wallingford and Company, with offices located in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
Perhaps the Low Moor Iron Company's biggest problem over the years was obtaining railroad cars for the transportation of its finished product. Low Moor Iron Company had its own cars for transporting its raw materials among its various facilities. For the long haul necessary for its finished goods, however, it depended upon the services of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and the relationship was not always a happy one. The Low Moor Company complained many times to the C & O Railroad about the discrepancies between long-and shorthaul freight rates. Low Moor also had trouble getting cars from the C & O. In a letter to one of Low Moor Company's agents from an irate customer dated 1898, the customer wrote: "We wrote you on Saturday and endeavored to question upon your mind the necessity of taking care of us with Low Moor iron. We are on our uppers--there is not a pound of Low Moor iron in the yard. Of the one hundred tons ordered some time ago, not one pound of it has been received." This was, according to the Low Moor Iron Company, because they could not get the railroad cars. In a letter from Thomas Mack and Company dated November 26, 1901, to General Manager E. C. Means: "We are hopeful that the car supply will get better because of the number of orders you have of ours for prompt shipment. Our customers are complaining that they are not getting the iron fast enough. . . . We hope that the railroad will be able to supply you with empty cars." In another letter dated 1916 to John B. Guernsey, then acting General Manager of the Low Moor Iron Company, "We were not supplied with coke cars for today's loading, and consequently we have been practically down of Kay Moor ovens all day."
The problem of procuring labor also plagued the Low Moor Company. The company sometimes tried to hire immigrant laborers and send the men directly to Low Moor from New York City. There were problems with this, as is explained in the following letter dated April 7, 1906:
Low Moor usually employed labor agencies, one of which was Atwood's Employment Agency. Often the Low Moor Company would request certain nationalities, believing them to be better workers than others. Sometimes the company would request a gang of twenty made up of "ten Greeks and ten Italians." Many of the immigrants fled Low Moor and Kay Moor when they learned that they would have to work underground. There is a fair amount of material on immigrant labor and its procurement in the collection, and it is noted in the description of the box contents.
To Mr. George Wickes
Supt. of Mines
Kay Moor, Virginia
Tony arrived with twenty one men last night. One got away in Jersey two in Washington D.C., four in Charlottesville. Some of the men are very good looking, but taken as a whole they are the worst lot I have ever seen: Irish, German-Jews, and Italians. . . . Our New York transportations to this place have never been a success.
Ed D. Wickes Supt. of Mines
Low Moor Iron Company not only had trouble procuring labor, but it also had trouble with labor already employed in the mines and at the factory. Labor dissension and strikes troubled the Kay Moor Mines through the 1900's. The great coal strike of 1902 hurt the Low Moor Company's coal mining operation, but by 1903 things were "nearly back to normal" according to the mine superintendent. There was still trouble at Kay Moor Mines, however. In a letter dated April 26, 1906, to the treasurer of Low Moor Company, the manager of the mines wrote about the trouble in "trying to get the agitators out." The mines were seventy-five men short of the total labor force needed because many of the coal miners returned to their farms during the spring. There were rumblings of another strike at Kay Moor, the result of which was to be a fourteen percent increase in wages for the Kay Moor Mine workers via an agreement with the United Mine Workers Union in December.
The Low Moor Iron Company grew along with the rest of Virginia industry in the 1890's and 1900's. Starting with only one furnace in the 1870's, it opened a second furnace at Covington, Virginia, in 1891. In 1911 it opened a third furnace, this time at Low Moor. Covington, with its heavy industry, soon became known as the "Pittsburgh of Virginia." Virginia's pig iron production rose from 9,000 short tons in 1870 to 544,034 long tons in 1903. Judging from the Low Moor Company's correspondence, the most prosperous period for the company fell between the years 1895-1907. In the years between 1907-1917 problems befell the Virginia pig iron industry. In a letter from William W. Hearns, the president of the Virginia based Princess Pig Iron Company, to U. S. Senator Thomas S. Martin, Hearns writes of the problems of the Virginia pig iron industry: "There is not a blast furnace in Virginia that is making any money from the manufacture of pig iron. The cause of this is there is an exceedingly low price on pig iron in the country at the present time, and the increased cost of manufacturing is due to the increase in wages in all lines." With the outbreak of World War I prices rose dramatically, but in a market report to Low Moor dated November 11, 1916, it was stated that: "In spite of the high prices, it is not a picnic to be in the iron industry. There is a desperate shortage of cars and equipment in the coal and iron districts, and in consequence there are troubles of all kinds to get materials shipped. The situation has grown serious."
When America became involved in the First World War, it meant a boost for the Low Moor Iron Company. The government helped it procure labor, and even helped it repair its furnaces. The problem of supplies and cars for their shipments, however, plagued the company more than ever. It had a good deal of trouble getting all the raw materials it needed due chiefly to the "tight ship" run by Harry F. Byrd, Sr., U.S. Fuel Administrator for Virginia. After the war very serious problems began to trouble the Low Moor Iron Company. The demand for iron fell precipitously and a short but severe depression ensued from 1919-1922. The depression seemed to hit the iron industry especially hard. Prices took a huge drop due to the lack of demand, and many pre-war contracts had to be revalued. To compound the company's problems, the Kay Moor Mines went on strike in 1919. This strike was quickly settled, as the market for coal was so good that the Low Moor Company ceased taking orders temporarily in 1921 as it could not fill the orders it had on hand.
The Low Moor Company furnaces lay idle for some twenty months. Finally, in November 1922 one of Low Moor's furnaces was finally fired up. While prosperity gradually returned to the rest of the country, the Low Moor Iron Company never recovered. Production of pig iron in the Virginia iron industry declined from 544,034 tons in 1903 to 148,053 tons in 1923, considered a good year for the industry as a whole. In February 1926 Low Moor officials talked of merging with two other iron companies in order to revive the iron business for the three companies. The merger, however, never occurred. By late 1926 the company was in the process of liquidation. An advertisement in the Charleston, West Virginia, Daily Mail dated April 30, 1927, told of a huge warehouse sale at the Low Moor Iron Company. The advertisement noted "thousands of screws, pipe fittings, valves, etc." The last piece of correspondence from the Low Moor Iron Company in the collection is dated 1929. It deals with the sale of a machine.
Why did the iron industry in Virginia decline as it did? Some say that lack of speed, efficiency, and a decent transportation system for Alleghany County caused it. In a letter from C. E. Bertie, secretary of the Virginia Pig Iron Association, to the Manufacturers Record dated 1925, Bertie claimed that it was the tremendous rise in the cost of transportation. Virginia, he claimed, had almost no home market. Over 80% of its normal production was shipped out to other states. The failure of the Interstate Commerce Commission to treat Virginia furnaces as southern furnaces was the cause of much of the trouble. From 1914-1925 there were four blanket increases in freight rates in the country, of which only one applied equally to all localities. Southern furnaces were received only two increases--a 25% increase in 1918 and a 25% increase in 1920--but northern furnaces had had 5%, 15%, 25%, and 40% increases in their transportation costs. Virginia furnaces, although recognized as southern furnaces, had had freight rates increased in line with the northern furnaces. Prior to the war Virginia iron reached all points in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois on a competitive basis with southern furnaces. After World War I the advantage was limited to a small portion of southeastern Ohio. All of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan were now lost to the Virginia producers. The Virginia producer, according to Bertie, felt that the freight rates should be restored to a relationship with southern furnaces. If what Bertie said was true, the other southern states iron industries should not have been in the same desperate economic straits as Virginia's, and statistics should support this. In the 1920's production rose to new heights in Alabama. In Tennessee, however, iron production plunged to new lows during the 1920's. While the south accounted for 10.2% of the entire U. S. production in the years 1919-1924, Virginia accounted for less than 1% during those years. In 1915 Virginia accounted for over 6% of the U.S. iron production. One can see a decline in other areas of the south than Virginia. While the discrepancies in the freight rates may have helped cause the decline, clearly there are other reasons.
During the 1900's there was a discovery of extremely rich iron ore deposits in the mid-west. Much of this ore was on or near the surface, making the mining of it both easy and inexpensive. This in turn lowered production costs of the pig iron. This caused iron production to shift to that region, and resulted in a decline in the Virginia iron industry. There was a sharp increase in iron production in the mid-west through the 1920's. The iron ore in the mid-west may have been of better quality than Virginia, but the iron ore in Virginia was of sufficient quality to produce a good pig iron. The western ore deposits were not as conveniently located as Virginia deposits, but the inexpensiveness of production more than made up for it.
In examining the rise and fall of the Low Moor Iron Company, we can see a situation in which the conditions for the manufacture of iron were nearly ideal. There was plenty of land for expansion and resources for the manufacture of the iron. The major internal problem faced by the Low Moor Iron Company was that of transportation. External developments, however, caused the final demise of the Low Moor Iron Company.
Low Moor Iron Company Personnel:
Executive Staff: Managing Director, Colonel H. M. Goodwin: ca. 1881. General Managers: H. G. Merry: ca. 1884-1902; E. C. Means: ca. 1905-1915; J. P. Guernsey: ca. 1915 (acting General Manager); F. U. Humbert: ca. 1916-1929. Assistant General Manager: E. B. Wilkinson: ca. 1909-1915. Treasurers and Assistant Treasurers: Edward Low: ca. 1886-1898; Frank Lyman (in New York): ca. 1898-1919; S. G. Cragill (Asst. Treasurer): ca. 1900-1915; H. A. Dalton: ca. 1921-1929; John Lipscomb (Asst. Treasurer): ca. 1918-1928.
Factory and Mine Supervisors: Kay Moor Superintendents: C. C. Cooke: ca. 1918; Ed. D. Wickes: ca. 1906; H. L. Tansell: ca. 1903; A. H. Reed: ca. 1906. Kay Moor Managers: J. W. Monteith: manager of mines. ca. 1918; promoted in 1925 to general superintendent in charge of mine plants, coke ovens, shops, repairs, and construction; A. L. Monteith: assistant superintendent of mines, ca. 1918; George T. Wickes: manager of Covington mines, ca. 1906-1917; Ross Howell, ca. 1918. Stack Mines Superintendents: J. H. Carpenter: ca. 1906; C. D. Oberschain: ca. 1907; J. L. Harris: ca. 1903; John S. Ham: ca. 1891-1901. Rich Patch Mines Superintendents: John R. Thompson: foreman, ca. 1906. Low Moor assorted other personnel: S. L. Tulley: trainmaster, ca. 1906; B. J. Shenkley: foreman, Low Moor limestone quarries; L. Q. Wood: assistant traffic manager, ca. 1919.