Trolley Tracks and Pierre du Pont’s Early Career

There have been several Pierre Samuel du Ponts, all with the exact same name. The one I am talking about is the creator of Longwood Gardens, and the time is the late 19th century. “Creator” is the proper word. He took a decrepit, empty farmhouse and with ingenuity, time, and vast amounts of money, turned it into a world-class public garden. I remind visitors the old farm he bought little resembled what they see today.

Pierre graduated from MIT in 1890 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and began working in the family gunpowder business along the Brandywine. There, his older relatives gave him a lab, told him to play around with the chemicals—and stay out of the way. They treated all of the younger family members with disdain (and why they later had no one to take over the company). Like other young du Ponts, he soon left to build his career elsewhere. In his case, he left to become president of a steel company in Lorain, Ohio, that eventually became part of US Steel.

It only sounds impressive.  His job was glorified babysitting, and he was still hoping to find a better challenge.

To explain the circumstances, we have to back up a bit and follow the career of another unrelated entrepreneur, Tom Johnson, in that great age of entrepreneurs.

Tom L. Johnson

Tom L. Johnson

Tom Johnson had invented a new, stronger trolley track at exactly the right time. The few trolleys up to then were light-weight carriages pulled by horses, but the new electrified trolleys were built much larger and stronger to hold more people and to support the heavy electric motors. The old tracks were too weak for the new trolleys and required constant repair.

Demand for Johnson’s improved tracks was booming. Trolleys were the first mass transportation, the only transportation for many city dwellers, and even the smallest cities were furiously building trolley lines. Large cities already had them, but wanted more. Trolleys—not automobiles, not barges, not even trains—began the age of transportation for the vast majority of people.

Tom Johnson went into the business of making the new tracks. He bought ingots from the steel mills, heated them red hot, and rolled them out into the shape of the tracks in his own rolling mill.

Despite the demand, the steel mills, not Johnson, were making the money. Johnson depended on them for his raw material and had to pay whatever they charged. In addition, the process of heating the ingots hot enough to be rolled is a very slow and expensive operation. An ingot takes weeks to cool and almost as long to heat. In steel mills today, the steel is never allowed to cool completely. The molten iron pouring out of the blast furnace is converted to steel, cast into ingots, and the ingots go to “soaking pits” where the temperature equilibrates, then on to the rolling mill while still red hot.  Only when in the final form is the steel allowed to cool.

The solution was for Johnson to produce his own steel. He bought a large parcel of land near Lorain, Ohio, (on Lake Erie, west of Cleveland) and built a steel mill on part of it. The other part was for worker’s housing to be built once the mill was up and running.   Before automobiles or buses (or trolleys), anyone employing large numbers of workers had to provide housing for them within walking distance.

But just as the project was progressing, the recession of the 1890s hit, and the track orders dried up almost overnight. Now fatally overextended, Johnson sold the steel mill, but the land for the workers housing had to sit idle until the recession ran its course and the mill went into operation. Johnson had been recently elected mayor of Cleveland and needed a company president to preside until the land could be liquidated. His business associate and former mentor was Pierre’s Uncle Fred (Alfred Victor du Pont), the same crusty old bachelor who was also Cousin Alfred’s uncle and who was later scandalously shot dead in a St. Louis bordello (see posting of May 2, 2013). Uncle Fred recommended Pierre for the job, and Pierre accepted at a salary of $10,000 per year, more than double what he was getting at the DuPont Company. But although Pierre had the salary and the title, he had nothing to do except wait for the recession to end.

That’s where Pierre was when he received the decisive phone call from Cousin Alfred to join him and Cousin Coly (Thomas Coleman du Pont) in buying the failing DuPont Company. Pierre accepted within minutes, based only on that brief, static-ridden telephone call that came unexpectedly out of the blue.

As a final irony, Pierre later bought the Kennett Pike that ran from his Wilmington offices to his home at Longwood partly to prevent ugly trolley tracks ever to be built on it.




About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in du Pont History, History, Philadelphia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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