Catasauqua Press

Saturday, August 17, 2019
Above: Atlas Portland Cement Company office, 1910 Left: Plant #4, the largest of the Atlas plants PHOTOS COURTESY OF LARRY OBERLY Above: Atlas Portland Cement Company office, 1910 Left: Plant #4, the largest of the Atlas plants PHOTOS COURTESY OF LARRY OBERLY
Plant #4 was the largest of the Atlas plants Plant #4 was the largest of the Atlas plants

Panama Canal cement contract was record-breaking

Thursday, June 4, 2015 by ED PANY Curator, Atlas Cement CompanyMemorial Museum in Columns

The Atlas Cement Company Memorial Museum has attempted to preserve the history and lore of the Lehigh Valley cement industry. The museum displays more than 3,000 artifacts and photographs, including rare Panama Canal memorabilia.

The Atlas Portland Cement Company was the world leader in producing cement and was able to win the largest cement contract in history. The old Cement News, our weekly newspaper, had this headline in 1908: "Government accepts bid of the largest cement company in the world for the largest contract given in the history of the cement business, 4-1/2 million barrels for 5-1/2 million dollars for three years."

Mr. Ron Ennis, current editor of the News & Views newsletter for the Lehigh Valley Labor Council AFL-CIO, a friend of this writer, has visited the museum and has written numerous columns on the history and challenges labor has faced in our country. A great researcher, he recently found this information on the Atlas and Panama Canal.

Here's a front-page story from the Lehigh Registar, an old Lehigh Valley newspaper. The headline: "The Lehigh cement region is jubilant over the announcement that a contract for 4.5 million barrels of cement has been awarded to the Atlas Portland Cement Company"

The article states:

"H.J. Seaman, the general manager of the Atlas Company said, 'This order for the company means a great deal for the local cement business.'"

Mr. Ennis' News & Views article states, "2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the waterway that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The route across the Isthmus of Panama showcased American ingenuity and innovation at the turn of the century."

Mr. Ennis also documented some of the human cost in building and manufacturing the cement for the gigantic project.

He found the story of Mr. Howard Schall, a foreman who headed a six-man crew that worked in the coal mill of plant #3, where a fatal explosion occurred.

The old Lehigh Registar newspaper reported: "The entire mill was aroused by a terrific rumbling noise. All hands rushed in the direction from which the noise came. The sight which met their eyes on bursting into the pulverizing room of mill #3 was terrible to behold.

"Dr. Charles Haff and Dr. Miller rushed to the scene! In 1908 Northampton lacked a hospital or medical center, so the men were rushed to the Allentown Hospital in automobiles. There was no ambulance service.

"The men had inhaled the toxic superheated air when it ignited. The burns on the men were some of the worst the physicians have ever seen.

"Mr. Schall and laborers Mike Gossler and Frank Neiman succumbed to their burns. The other members of the crew survived the deadly ordeal, but the tragic event remained in their memories for the rest of their lives.

"Mr. Schall was survived by a wife and four children. Mike Gossler was single. Frank Neiman left a wife behind in the old country."

We thank Mr. Ennis for sharing this chapter of history, showing the hazards faced by our early cement workers.

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In two weeks: They served the company for more than a century.