According to the files of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, the venture that ultimately became Alan Wood & Co. was an iron forge operated at Hickorytown, Pa., by James Wood in 1805. A number of other enterprises involving the Wood family were created over the years until, in 1857, Alan Wood & Co. established the Schuylkill Iron Works plant in Conshohocken.
Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, production at Alan Wood & Co. expanded to an annual rate of 25,000 tons of sheet and light plate. The operation also included a puddle mill for making wrought iron.
In addition to the Alan Wood & Co. operation, there was a second Wood family company in Conshohocken, J. Wood & Bros., that was engaged in the rolling of steel sheets. Also, in McKeesport, Pa., the family had a controlling interest in the W. Dewees Wood Co., a steel operation of considerable size.
The Wood family business and other steel businesses in eastern Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Birmingham, Ala.; and elsewhere were able to produce high-grade steel because of the Bessemer process. This was a method of making steel by blasting compressed air through molten iron, burning off carbon and other impurities.
By 1900, the American steel industry, a major industrial force in the world, was basically in the hands of a number of small producers such as Alan Wood & Co. There were of course a few large firms, such as the one controlled by Andrew Carnegie. But industry's base in small companies was about to change.
John Pierpont Morgan, financier and head of the large private bank ``The House of Morgan,'' created the United States Steel Corp. in 1901. The company integrated its raw materials and pooled its technology to alter the way steel was produced in the country. As a result, Alan Wood & Co. had to follow suit or be forced out of business. This resulted in the creation of the Alan Wood Iron & Steel Co., an integrated steel concern that no longer depended on others for its supply of resources such as semifinished steel. Other small steel companies in the region also followed the U.S. Steel model of organization.
The reorganized Alan Wood & Co. built a new plant, consisting of five open-hearth furnaces, which began producing steel in 1903. The files of the historical society report that by 1907, the production facilities of the Alan Wood Iron & Steel Co. added up to 250,000 tons a year - 10 times that of the older Alan Wood & Co.
Between 1907 and 1920, additional mergers, greater blast-furnace capacity, a bridge across the Schuylkill linking the plants at Ivy Rock to Swedeland, and the Upper Merion & Plymouth Railroad Co., a short-line carrier wholly owned by Alan Wood, helped expand the company's output.
Company records report that by 1920, the facilities could put out 500,000 tons of steel a year. While this represented only a fraction of the country's steel capacity, it had a local economic impact just as ``big steel'' had nationally and internationally.
Alan Wood & Co. mirrored both the good and bad of steelmaking in the nation.
It provided jobs for thousands of people, including the new immigrants. It created wealth. It also helped build the industrial base that contributed to the Allies' victories in World Wars I and II.
But the company also exploited its labor force. It created a sharp divide between rich and poor. And it misused and polluted the environment.
Today, only a few steel operations exist in our region as a reminder of how important steelmaking was a century ago.
The Alan Wood firm filed for bankruptcy in 1977, unable to compete with foreign steel, and the plant closed. The 892-acre site along the Schuylkill is now home to Lukens Steel, Smith-Kline Beecham, and the Inquirer-Daily News printing plant.