Chester County Yesterday: John Fritz


“After the smoke of battle has cleared away and the history of the steel industry in this country comes to be written, there is one name that will shine brighter than that of any president of any corporation, and that name is John Fritz.”

So said Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel in 1911, as quoted in this week’s edition of Main Line Times.

And why should those of us who live in Chester County care about John Fritz or his contribution to the steel industry?

Turns out John was born in Londonderry a few miles south of Cochranville in western Chester County and began his career as a metal worker and gunsmith in Parkesburg:

12.31.2014 John Fritz BirthplaceBorn in Londonderry Township, Fritz was the eldest of seven. His parents were poor farmers and, in the way of those who struggle for a living, seem to have been rather Spartan with each other. In 1861, when Fritz’s younger brother burst in to tell his mother that he had enlisted in the Union Army, Mary Meharg Fritz turned to her son and said, “Well, my boy, never let me hear that they shot you in the back.”

Fritz was generous in his autobiography, describing his father, George, as “a man of high standards … particular and exacting” and his mother as “a true Christian woman.” Nevertheless, he got out at age 16, moving to Parkesburg in 1838 to learn blacksmith and machine work.

In Parkesburg, Fritz began his career with grunt work—chipping, caulking and riveting boilers. But his responsibilities grew and, in Fritz’s second year, he was assigned to “iron” a large, wooden horse-drawn wagon—that is, to line it with iron plate so that it could be used for heavy-duty purposes. The deadline was short and the shop under-equipped. Plus, Fritz’s employer was ill and could only give directions. “We succeeded in doing the work, and the boss said it was a very creditable piece of workmanship,” he later recalled. “When my boss got well, he and I ran the large fire, doing the best and heaviest work.”

In his spare time, Fritz created a small sideline business of his own, converting flintlock muskets to percussion. “There was no other gunsmith nearer than Lancaster or Philadelphia, [so] I had something  like a monopoly,” he wrote. “I did all the work by myself and at night, when other people were having a good time or were sleeping. Saturday night was my harvest time, as I could work all night.”

12.31.2014 John Fritz medal
John Fritz Medal

After leaving Parkesburg, Fitz went on to play a key role in the formation of Bethlehem Steel inventing the process for rolling steel rails durable enough to support multi-ton locomotives in 1854 and hardened armored plate steel used by the US Navy for the outer shell of battle-ready warships by 1892.

The former invention “made possible the building of the great railroads that span America from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” the latter gave birth to today’s modern navies.

According to the Main Line Times article, “Fritz’s accomplishments were so many that, on his 80th birthday in 1902, he was the first recipient of the John Fritz Medal.  It is still awarded annually for “outstanding scientific or industrial achievements” by the American Association of Engineering Societies.

Read the entire Main Line Times article on John Fritz here.

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