Arts & Antiques

Coatesville’s National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum Explores Chester County’s Role in Industry

Rich in history and cultural significance, Lukens Steel was more than just Chester County’s source of revenue. The steel industry’s effects on the area are lasting, and recent efforts from several local outlets would see these milestones preserved.

By By J. F. Pirro |

Sometimes, museums exist for legitimate historical reasons. Other times, they’re little more than an ego trip for the wealthy. In the case of Coatesville’s National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum, it’s a “dike in a dam to stop the flood of decline,” says Chester County historian Eugene DiOrio.

The city’s steel descendants and its preservationists see a museum as both an attraction and an opportunity to improve Coatesville’s economic status and image. “The worst thing any of us can stand to hear is, ‘Oh, there’s nothing in Coatesville worth seeing,’” DiOrio says.

That could change when the plans at the old steel plant in the Lukens Historic District come to fruition. “Sooner rather than later,” says Scott Huston, a seventh-generation direct descendant of Rebecca Lukens, known as America’s first woman of industry. “We’re anxious—and when it happens, we’ll be ready to move in very quickly. We continue to add capacity and take it one step at a time. Each day, we’re figuring out how we can make the project better and do something positive for Coatesville.”

The Greystone Society is the project’s parent organization; the Stewart Huston Charitable Trust and Huston Foundation are funding it. They’d like to acquire two defunct mill buildings to house the attraction. They’ve been in negotiations with ArcelorMittal, which owns the site.

Executive director of the Stewart Huston Charitable Trust, Huston says it’s difficult to estimate when the mills will be acquired or when work on program expansion into the museum might begin. However, the two sides are “closer to a deal,” he says, and ArcelorMittal feels the project is “worth investing in.” “It’s just a matter of time,” says Huston.

Coatesville became the center of a steel industry for a number of reasons. Positioned along the West branch of the Brandywine River, it had a source of energy, and the surrounding land was once full of iron ore and other necessary raw materials. Beginning in the 1790s, the Philadelphia Lancaster Turnpike ran through town. “You could make the stuff, but you also had to get it out of here,” DiOrio explains.

The two mills are now storage. One is 85,500 square feet; the other, 30,000. It’s a hefty footprint, but steel objects aren’t tiny or “cutesy,” as one source says.

There’s hardly a worry about filling the space. Objects are regularly donated or acquired—like a share of the World Trade Center’s “trees” that Lukens manufactured in 1969. The society managed to get 10 of the 18 that survived 911. The 28 flatbed trucks it took to transport the trees cost $200,000.

All gifted, the trees will be the modern-gothic spectacle at the center of future exhibits. Like three-prong, 90-foot tuning forks, they’re now iconic memorabilia. Lukens made 152 of the trees, 19 on each of the four sides of the two towers. Now, they’re back where they began.

Among other recent museum-ready acquisitions are blueprints from Phoenix Steel courtesy of the Phoenixville Historical Society. The bulk of the existing Lukens collection—and the documentation of its role in industries like shipbuilding (including the first American-made, iron-hulled vessel, Codorus), railroads, military operations, and major architectural wonders like the St. Louis Arch and Seattle’s Space Needle—has long been on display at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del. Other items remain in rooms at the old Lukens executive offices, which the Huston Charitable Trust owns.

The Greystone Society has acquired world-renowned industrial painter Klaus Grutzka’s Lancaster County studio, plus some 1,000 paintings. Grutzka died in 2011. Much of his work focused on steel plants and shipbuilding, which helps diversify the planned museum’s appeal. “There’s interest, and we know there’s great interest in more than just steel,” says James Ziegler, the society’s executive director. “The appeal of the collections has broader audiences.”

Other than securing the old mill space, there really is no other plan. “If there is, it’s to push Plan A harder,” says Huston, whose father retired from Lukens. “If you’re going to have a national iron-and- steel museum, I don’t think you can have it anywhere else but Coatesville. We hope to have a home for those trees. It’s a huge responsibility to have those artifacts.”

What became Lukens Steel began in 1810, when Issac Pennock—then of Buck Run Iron—started Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. His daughter, Rebecca Pennock, married Dr. Charles Lukens, who took over the plant. The company was best known for industrial boilerplates that allowed water to be heated and converted into steam.

In 1825, he died just shy of 40, leaving his widow, Rebecca, then 31 and pregnant, to run the steel plant. It was his dying wish that she never leave the business. A Quaker, her gender was more traditionally found on the homefront, not at the front of industry. But under her guidance, the business survived, then thrived. She died in 1854, just shy of what became the heyday of the steel industry she saved. “She was a tough old bird, or as one writer put it, ‘as tough as a boilerplate,’” says DiOrio.

Of Rebecca Lukens’ seven children, just two daughters survived into adult life. Both of their husbands continued the business under the Huston and Gibbons names, though it remained Lukens until the 1998 sale to Bethlehem Steel, which collapsed shortly thereafter.

Lukens, though, has survived seven generations, mostly because of its diverse interests. It has changed hands a multitude of times, first as part of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation then as part of Wilbur Ross’ International Steel Group. It operates as ArcelorMittal today.

In 1994, the one-block historic district was honored with National Historic Landmark status. Lukens, and its subsequent incarnations, is the oldest, continuously operated steel plant in the nation. “We’re still producing a comparable tonnage here,” says DiOrio, who worked in the accounting department at Lukens for more than 21 years.

The industry is much less visible, these days. There were once 12 open hearths along Coatesville’s main drag. Since the 1950s, the steel has been made in electric furnaces. Lukens once employed 5,000. Today, ArcelorMittal operates in 65 countries and employs 850 in Coatesville.

Founded in 1984, the Greystone Society had humble beginnings. Then it began acquiring properties in the historic district—first Terracini, an 1849 Huston home, which remained family-owned through 1985. In 1889, the society acquired another Huston mansion, Greystone, the  society’s namesake and home to Coates-ville’s city hall until 1992. A National Historic Registered site, it’s the ancestral home of Abram Franas Huston, Lukens’ president from 1890 to 1925.

Later acquisitions have included Brandywine Mansion, Rebecca Lukens’ home until her death. The cost of its restoration is projected at $700,000.

Handed out every March, the Rebecca Lukens Award already preserves her contributions. Recipients have included Mary Sullivan, (who, along with DiOrio, co-founded the 150-member Greystone Society) and, posthumously, land preservationist Nancy Hannum. Though the winner doesn’t have to be a woman, there’s an unspoken feeling that it should be. “We wouldn’t be here without her,” says Ziegler. “She did what she did, even with opposition from her mother.”

Beyond family ties, Huston remains focused on the responsibility of telling the story of steel. “I’ve always been fascinated by the process,” he says. “This museum has to be a place that honors the people who did work there for 40 and 45 years, an unheard of commitment by today’s standards. We need to capture their spirit—the steelworkers who fought the Industrial Revolution right here.” 

Visit graystonesociety.org.