How Did Railroads Help The Steel Industry?

The steel industry has always been one of the backbones of the American economy. It supplied employment for millions, and allowed entire cities to flourish. However, the steel industry could not have had such profound success without the genesis of the railroad.

How did railroads help the steel industry? Railroads helped the steel industry by providing a means of inexpensive, reliable transport. Railroads also helped the steel industry flourish because of its need for steel rolling stock and rails. 

As many know, railroads utilizes steel heavily in many areas of its construction, thus, it is imperative that the steel and railroad industries work together to keep the country rolling.

The Infancy of the Steel Industry

Beginning in the 18th century, the iron industry was on a stark decline. The smelters furnace, ignited by charcoal, was in short supply, posing a substantial threat to the iron industry, and its dependents. However, almost one-hundred years later, coal was utilized for smelting iron, which made iron more commonplace, as it was given an extended life, and gave rise to the steel industry. This revolution in the industry was devised by the Darby family, who was located in Coalbrookdale, and had quite an influence in the early days of the steel industry.

In the early 19th century, the primary metal utilized in buildings, brides, and other structures was oftentimes wrought iron, as steel was too expensive to produce utilizing the current methods. Thus, the early railroads purchased wrought iron rails from Britain, who was the leader in the world’s industrial revolution for its many advances in manufacturing, steam power, rail networks, and mass production of goods.

Joseph Pennel/Public Domain

Steel is known as an alloy of various metals such as iron and carbon, and is utilized in various industries due to its immense durability and low cost of manufacture. Interestingly, prior to various advancements in steel production, iron was the mainstay for various industries, including railroads, therefore, steel was only utilized in certain instances.

The earliest railroads in the country utilized wooden rails with strips of iron on the rail head to improve durability to the brittle wooden rails. However, in 1845, wrought iron rails became commonplace, as they were increasingly durable, and could support more weight than traditional wooden rails. However, with the industrial revolution at the forefront, these rails were still considered brittle and inferior for handling the increasingly heavier trains.

Prior to the utilization of steel rails on the country’s rapidly expanding railroad network, the metal was not thought of as a viable enterprise to mass produce. Thus, wrought iron rail was commonplace in the mid-19th century. The earliest steel was forged in Britain, who provided steel for a variety of different markets in Europe and North America. Because steel was so expensive before 1860, it was only utilized to forge small house-ware items, and wrought iron reigned supreme in railroad and structural systems.

Jonathan Lee

After Henry Bessemer revolutionized the steel industry with the implementation of his “Bessemer Process”, in the early 1860s, steel was much less expensive to create, and could now be produced in mass quantities. Early on, wrought iron remained commonplace on railroads, and steel was utilized for various maritime items such as ship plates.

Although Bessemer contributed greatly to both the steel industry and the industrial revolution, it was the Siemens-Martin process that led the industry into the 20th century, allowing the metal to be manufacturing less expensively than even before. This allowed for various infrastructural advancements such as tall buildings in cities, suspension bridges, and improved machinery for various vital industries.

With the manufacture of steel beginning to increase, many saw the benefit of utilizing steel on railroads.  Prior to the Bessemer and Siemens-Martin processes, the railroads were limited due to the utilization of wrought iron rails, as the speed, weight and length of trains were compromised in order for the rails to remain intact. However, the implementation of steel rail negated these issues, as trains could now operate faster, and encompass greater weights than ever before.

The steel industry in America began with the creation of various technologies invented by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie modified the Bessemer process so that pig iron, (which was high in carbon content) would be burnt off in production. This ingenious adaptation to the Bessemer process greatly reduced the price of steel, thus, it proved more attainable for various industries, including the railroads.

Carnegie expanded his steel empire, making itself at home in the Pittsburgh area, where his company, Carnegie Steel operated. The railroad greatly assisted the expansion of the steel industry, as it demanded various amounts of steel in for railroad infrastructure such as rails, bridges, and tunnels. Furthermore, steel was needed for the numerous amounts of locomotives and rolling stock being manufactured.

Jonathan Lee

Steel and the Industrial Revolution

The railroad and steel industry gave light to the second industrial revolution, believed to be between 1870-1914. The railroad and steel industry worked together, as the steel industry relied on the railroads for transportation throughout the country. Furthermore, the railroad were one of the industry”s largest customers, especially due to the rapid expansion of railroads during the late 19th and early 20th century.

The transportation of steel to the public is perhaps the most prominent contribution that railroads made towards the steel industry. Steel produced throughout the Pittsburgh area could now be transported throughout the country to destinations south and westward.

Steel could be transported to large cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, where large skyscrapers, and other tall buildings were being constructed. Steel allowed for the construction of these structures, as it was inexpensive to produce, and strong enough to hold the weight of the massive structures. Prior to the mainstream utilization of steel products, wrought iron was the metal that seemed most commonplace on structures and transportation systems. Although initially effective, as industrialization increased rapidly, the use of wrought iron limited the height and size of structures, as it lacked the structural integrity of steel.

Steel was transported to various factories to create items such as automobiles and appliances. According to a piece by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), steel is transported by railroads in various forms. Raw items used to create steel, such as coke, iron ore, and lime or stone are transported to various steel mills via rail. Once steel is produced from these commodities, the steel is transported by rail to various foundries, which then form the steel into various different castings, depending on the products the metal is being cast for.

The railroad then moves these steel castings to various factories such as automobile or appliance factories, which then are assembled into the finished product. The finished product is then transported by rail to distribution facilities, where they are then transferred to stores, dealerships, etc. by truck.

Since the second industrial revolution in the late 19th century, railroads contribute heavily to the transporting of steel in every form and in every phase of production.






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