Monthly Archives: December 2011

Floods and Fires at Northwestern Steel & Wire Company

No Work Stoppage At Northwestern Steel & Wire Company During Major Floods and Fires Of 1938.
Employees Pitch In To Re-build After Disastrous Flood Of 1938

Retrieved from The Daily Gazette ~ March 13, 1979 Edition
Transcribed, and minor corrections made, by Dana Fellows ~ 2011

Two major fires in 1928 and 1939 along with a flood in 1938 caused extensive damage at te h Northwestern Steel & Wire Company but in all three events, no work stoppage was reported and the employees played an important role in the reconstruction which followed.

Fire is an ever present hazard in a steel mill and the first of the two major fires which hit Northwestern occurred on Friday, May 18, 1928. The fire was a result of some necessary welding from a platform under the wire mill.

Gears in the fence machines above were driven by shafts which extended down through the floor to the platform . Millwrights would bring barrels of grease from which they would throw grease into the gears as a lubricant. Surplus grease would fall unto the platform and also on the ground below and this waste apparently was not cleaned up.

So, on Friday, May 18, 1928, a torch was being used by welders (Chapman Brothers) set the grease afire. A witness, Gorge Pulford, reported he was coming around a furnace, when, Whoosh!… it went up just like that. Authorities indicated the wind on that particular date helped the fire along.

Pulford recalled that he was one of the several men who turned on hoses where the elevator shaft is now located. “Sandy” Hill and Bert Bradley, chief engineer, also helped with the hoses.

“All of a sudden, there was a big crash, “ Pulford said and added, ‘up on the third floor were these great big furnaces machines, much heavier than the ones we have now. When the floor let loose, down came those machines… boom? We all dropped our fire hoses and ran for the river,…there was no other place to go.”

The fire of 1928 claimed three lives and property damaged estimated at $250,000. The three who lost their lives were working upstairs. One of them would have gotten out safely, but he went back to get his watch in the cleaning house, where the men usually left their watches at that time.

No Work Stoppage

Paul W. Dillon was in Chicago at the time of the fire and when informed, he chartered a plane and returned to Sterling. As he circled over the mill to assess the damage before landing, he obviously was thinking ahead… not bemoaning what was now in the past.

In a report carried in the Sterling Daily Gazette newspaper the afternoon of the fire, it featured a good news item…. “Work for all employees”… contrary to advance reports that the mill would shut down., and the account further indicated., “every employee will be given work and should report Money.”

P. W. Dillon and the mill staff had immediately made the decision to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. In this, as in other emergencies, Northwestern employees were used as a labor supply for the re-construction which followed, rather than bringing in outside help – at least any more than was necessary for specialized work.

During the re-building, office workers also continued at their jobs while the new building was erected and machinery installed. A major changed resulting from the fire was the replacement of water power to the more modern use of electricity supplied from Northwestern’s own steam driven turbines.

A major fire struck northwestern for the second time, 11 years later on Money, March 6, 1939. The 1939 fire started in electric wiring in the bale tie department and was discovered around 6 AM the fire spread and was quickly out of control and reared through the bail tie, barbed wire, machine shop and the galvanizing departments before it was finally checked.

All area firefighting equipment was at the scene including the units from Sterling, Rock Falls and the city of Prophetstown. Firemen fought the blaze despite low water pressure which hampered their efforts. The water used to halt the blaze was pumped from the mill race which still existed although no longer used for power at that time.

Employees near the scene reported seeing the black smoke rolling up as they came to work, then seeing Paul Dillon as he stood in the street directing fire trucks to their locations. No one was injured seriously and the fire was under control by noon.

As in 1928, the decision to rebuild on a larger scale was made before the flames were completely out and that information formed the lead paragraph in the afternoon news report of the fire. It was especially important to get back into production quickly as demand for wire products is heaviest in the spring.

Even though the fire loss was covered by insurance, it was more heart-breaking experience added in other major problems. The 1939 fire came a year after a disastrous flood. The company was still struggling with the adjustment to a unionized work force and had not fully recovered from the financial strains in the installation of the electric furnaces and mills in 1936.

Employees Assist

But, despite the stormy labor relations of the period, men worked night and day shifts to get the mill back into production. The fledging union offered to work one day without pay each week for four weeks to facilitate rehabilitation of the plant but the offer was declined with worm words of gratitude, NS&W President James C. Foster expressed the intention of the management to provide employment for everyone affected by the fire.

Various employees at that time recalled other items in the efforts to rebuild the mill.

By three o’clock in the afternoon of the fire of 1939, a new conveyor had been built over the ruins and was carrying fence to the shipping department for loading.

Two of the bale tie machines were still operable. A tarpaulin was put over them and men kept on working. It was cold; ice froze on the wire coming from the furnaces.

Railroad cranes were used to pick up the damaged machines and transport the equipment to the Parrish-Alford plant in Rock Falls. There the machines were repaired and returned to Northwestern.

As the building frame were up and there were places to set up the machines, they were placed into operation again even though the ends of the buildings were still open, enclosed partially by tarpaulins.

Until the galvanizer could be re-built, galvanized wire was purchased from the American Steel and Wire Company in order that Northwestern customers could be served. But even rebuilding the galvanizer didn’t take too long; as soon as the frame was ready, it was set up and made ready for wire production again.

There was a great deal of improvising. For example, railway car sills were used for columns. Anything available was used to re-build in a hurry and get back into production. Resumption of operations was further speeded up by the loan of a battery of surplus barbed wire machines by Jones & McLaughlin.

The flood of 1938

In February of 1938 ice in the Rock River broke up and formed hue jams in tans below the Sterling-Rock Falls area. The ice jams dammed up the already swollen river until water began coming over the retaining wall into the Northwestern plant.

When it became obvious that the mill would be flooded, men began shutting own equipment and pulling up motors. Water along with ice poured into the 10-inch mill and also the furnaces, mold pits, the wire mill and the basement of the office building. Office workers in the basement moved up to the second and third floors but there just wasn’t room for everyone. Elmer Hook recalls coming to work that particular day and seeing his desk out in the middle of the street.

Row boats were the only means of getting around the plant and little could be done until the water receded. One employee recalled seeing some of the men spearing carp, which had been card in the flood water, to an area near the office building.

Efforts were made to dynamite the ice jam without much success; but when the gorge did break loose after a week or so; the water literally went down overnight.

What was left in the wake of the flood was a sickening mess. Mud covered everything. Pools of water stood in all low spots. It was now a “dry up, clean up:” operation at the mill. Motors and equipment which had been removed had to be reinstalled. Motors which hadn’t been moved had to be taken out and checked over for damage. Acid from the cleaning house had been carried to the furnaces and had eroded the relays. Dirt, silt and filth was everywhere from the flood waters.

A similar work pattern followed the earlier fires, however, everyone pitched in to get the cleanup job down and the mill back into operations. It was miserable work and at least one man recalls having developed a case of dermatitis then, which lasted for years.

All who remembers the disaster agreed that the flood was a much discouraging disaster in many ways than the fires. After a fire, it is possible to begin immediately to clean up and re-build, however with the food, it’s a case of waiting for the water to recede and the realization that much of the damage from a flood is insidious and only become evident weeks and months later.

Shortly after the flood was past, at noon on March 1, 1938, a span of the Avenue G bridge across the north channel slid into the river. It obviously had been pushed by the ice to the very edge of the pier and finally fell. Fortunately, on one was on the bridge at the time. As a sidelight, The Sterling Gazette newspaper of that date published a report indicating that all the city’s police force were on strike duty at that time.

1906 Ice Jam

The Sterling-Rock Falls community experienced a more serious ice jam problem during the time the Northwestern was operating on the Rock Falls side of the river under the name of the Northwestern Barb Wire Company.

On Feb. 12, 1906, a tremendous ice gorge caused the collapse of the old Avenue G Bridge. The intense pressure of the ice against the old bridge caused the solid iron and stone work to snap after the Rock River peaked on Feb. 12, 1906.

The ice gorge of 1906 jammed the river from Portland and backed it up to Sterling and Rock Falls. The peak was reached when another smaller dam near Dixon broke and sent an additional rush of water downstream towards the area.

The pressure of the ice backed up by the swollen river water washed away three spans of the Avenue G Bridge and shortly thereafter, washed away the north (Sterling side of the river) end of the bridge.

Local officials took immediate steps to re-build the Avenue G Bridge and the work was completed in 1907.

Only Casualty

Northwestern apparently was the only mill casualty during the flood in 1938. Flood water again in 1955 hit a high mark along with a high in February 1973, but at neither date did an overflow occur into the mill itself.

Many other fires have occurred at the mill but none so serous as those in 1928 and again in 1939. Specific operations of the company’s fire protection program is contained in the chapter on Industrial Relations in the history of the Northwestern Steel &  Wire Company.

Northwestern Barb Wire Porcupine Barbed Wire

Victorian Advertising Trade Catalog 1888
Northwestern Barb Wire Porcupine Barbed Wire

The following explains in part the secret of the success of our customers in building up and retaining their large trade on our wire: The clear line of difference (look at the cut) between this and other wires enables the dealer and the consumer to avoid confusion, as the close similarity in form of a large number of wires is such that it puzzles an expert to distinguish between them.

We sum up a few of the excellent points in our wire. Possessing in the highest degree all the most desirable features, namely: Strength, Effectiveness, Highest Degree of Economy in Constructions of the Barb.

During the Fall of ’87 (1887) we changed and improved all of our machines to use No. 14 for the barb, instead of No. 13 as formerly, ad have shortened the barb. The reduction in size and length gives a barb two inches in length from point to point, and requiring only 1 ¼ inches of wire to make it. This change reduces the weight of Northwestern Barb Wire over 1 ¼ ounces per rod, or about 8 ½ pounds per 100 rods, for our regular cattle wire, making our wire weigh about one pound to the rod.

The Northwestern Wire is lighter by 10 to 20 pounds per 100 rods than many other good barb wires, and does not require the strength to be twisted out of main wires in order to hold the barb in place. The difference in weight by using a No. 14 instead of a No. 13 makes the Northwestern Barb Wire the cheapest as well as the best Barb Wire in the market.
















Northwestern Steel & Wire Company Installs New Computer ~ 1967

Retrieved from the Daily Gazette by Dana Fellows ~ 2011

July 6, 1967

Northwestern Steel & Wire Company Installs New Computer

In 1967 Northwestern Steel & Wire purchased a RCA Spectra Computer, like the one in the photo.

Northwestern Steel & Wire Company has installed a new RCA Spectra 70-25 computer for use in the fields of handling order entry, invoicing systems, production planning, scheduling and inventory controls, and various other fields.

The computer complex consists of the processor, card reader, six tape stations with controller, high speed printer, card punch, and typewriter console. Information is supplied to the complex via punched cards and magnetic tapes.

The third floor of the office annex houses the new computer in a room specifically constructed for this purpose. The room’s temperature and humidity are kept at a constant level, the temperature holding at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity varying between 45 to 50 percent. In addition Northwestern has a large, excellently trained staff of systems analysts and programmers, along with plans to convert other of the company’s systems to the computer in the near future.

RCA Spectra 70-25 Computer from Brochure

Rolling out Flats – A Specialty at Northwestern’s 14 Inch Mill

Rolling out Flats – A Specialty at Northwestern’s 14 Inch Mill

Retrieved from The Daily Gazette ~ 1979
Transcribed, and minor corrections made, by Dana Fellows ~ 2011

There are over 100,000 uses for the flats that Northwestern Steel and Wire Company produces at the 14 Inch mill. They’re one product that’s used in everything from farm equipment and cars to building construction.

Richard Skibbe loading a Truck with Flats at the NWSW 14" Mill

Once the right steel billet or bloom is picked and brought to the correct temperature in a reheat furnace, the work necessary to turn it into a flat begins. The feeder first calls for the billet or bloom from the reheat furnace (whenever the charger adds a billet to reheat furnace, on drops onto the roll line ready to be pulled into the mill stands). The feeder is told by the hot bed operator… the man who controls the cooling bed… exactly when his area can accept another flat.

Once on the roll line, the speed operator, and his helper, is in control working by both, eye and gauge, these two controls the push and pull of the bar by the mill stands which do the actual shaping.

Each mill stand compresses the bar either vertically or horizontally, as the bar’s dimensions are made smaller, its gets longer. The earlier mill stands… called the roughing mills… do more of the work while the stands furthest from the furnace are the finishing stands. These put the final touches on the product such as the exact size, good edges and a nice finish.

The average billet or bloom used in the 14” mill is 32 feet long when it drops from the reheat furnace. By the time it reaches the end of the 375 foot-long line. It can become as long as 400 feet.

Once the bar reaches the proper size and shape, it is rolled onto the cooling bed and comes under the eyes of the hot bed operators, who make sure the flat goes across the bed at a speed that allows it to cool properly, without losing its shape (through bending and warping).

The hot bed hooker then places the flat on the shear roll-line to be cut. The weigher checks customer specifications and tells the shear operator and his helpers what length the customer wants and the sizes of the bundle.

The shear operator cuts the flat and the pieces roll down to the cradle tenders who make up the bundle.

Once cut and bundled, the crane operators place the finished product in piles in the warehouse area by size. It will be shipped according to the customer instructs by the shipping crew, which usually consists of a car checker, hooker loader and the crane operator (who also helps elsewhere in the mill when needed).

During the time the flat is on the roll line, cooling bed, shear line and even just before it is shipped out, the flat is checked and inspected to make sure the customer get the traditional NSW quality product he expects.

“Dillon” Wire Fence Stretcher

“Dillon” Wire Fence Stretcher

1906 – Hardware dealers’ magazine: Volume 25 – Page 1098

The Northwestern Barb Wire Co., Sterling, Ill., is offering the trade the “Dillon” Wire Fence Stretcher and Hoist. The construction of this device is such that there is a great multiplication of power. It can be readily attached or released by anyone who wishes to use a device for pulling or lifting.

Dillon Wire Fence Stretcher

Its special function is in stretching woven wire fences, but the


machine also finds many other uses about the farm, taking the place of a tackle block, pulling stumps. The makers fully guarantee it in every particular, and it has been put to a test in raising over 5,000 pounds as a hoist. It is provided with a center draft, and pulls the fence clear up to the post for stapling purposes, and no extra post is needed in order to stretch up to corner post. The machine is made entirely of malleable iron and is provided with handle ready for use A long heavy chain is part of the equipment.

The company is now utilizing their entire plant for the manufacture of Square and Diamond Mesh Field Fence Poultry and Garden Fence and the Dillon Fence Stretcher Special attention is being given to manufacturing a barbed top and bottom Field Fence

Tragic Fire of May, 1928

The following is a series of articles that ran in the Sterling Gazette in May – June of 1928 documenting a tragic fire in the Wire Mill. Three men died in this fire that, at the time, cost nearly half a million dollars.

May 19, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Three Live Lost in Fire
George Steltzer, John Burns and Frank Grate Are Missing

Death Rumors Were Denied Friday – Searchers Working In Ruin Today – All Employees Will Be Given Work by Company – To Rebuild At Once

Rumors that several men had lost their lives or wire unaccounted for in the disastrous file at the Northwestern Barb Wire company plant Friday morning were denied yesterday when a representative of the Daily Gazette south to ascertain the faces, but later in the day officials confirmed the report that three men, George Steltzer, 63 years, Frank Grate, 67 years, and John Burns, 70 years, were unaccounted for., following a thorough checkup.

The records fail to disclose any forth person missing, although there has been a rumor to the effect. The checkup again this morning, with no work of the missing men, confirms that believe that they perished. Owing to the intense heat in the debris it was impossible to make much of a perch late yesterday afternoon or night for the bodies but this morning a crew of men was engaged in the hunt.

The property loss was also larger than it was at first thought and is now figured at $400,000. All of the employees will be put to work by Monday morning and work on the erection of a new building will be started at once.

Old Employees Missing

Mr. Steltzer, one of the missing men, worked at the wire mill for a period of 22 years and then, after leaving the employment of the company, he returned last summer and had been working there since. He is survived in his immediate family by his wife and one daughter, Mrs. J R. Sides of Chicago.

Mr. Grate has been in the employment of the company for the past 37 years. He is survived by his wife and son Ed, of this city, and two daughters, Mrs. Stanly Hardy of Chicago and Mrs. Ed Meyer of Milledgeville.

Mr. Burns, the third employee who is missing, was a transient, He had been employed at the local mill at various times during the past 10 of 15 years and for the last year he had worked there continuously, Little is known regarding him.

Another employee was cut on the head by falling debris and was given attention at the Sterling Public hospital. His injury was not serious.

It is presumed that the men were overcome by the dense smoke and gas which quickly filled the plant and that they were unable to make their way to the exits. Their death has cast a pall of sorrow over their fellow workmen that is reflected throughout the entire community.

Work for all Employees

Contrary to the advance report that the mill would shut down and many men would be thrown out of work, officials stated this morning that every employee would be given work and that all should report to work Monday morning.

Work was resumed in the bale tie department last night and this morning 15 of the remaining fence machines were started up.

The barbed wire room began operations this morning and by Monday the 34 remaining continuous wire drawing machines will be ready for use.

Wire has been ordered from various other mills and some of it has already arrived. By the fore part of next week sufficient wire will be shipped in to keep everyone busy.

To Rebuild At Once

Paul Kornman, local contractor, has charged of the clearing the debris and it is expected that he will also receive the contract for the rebuilding of the portion of the plant destroyed. The new building will be of brick and fire proof construction, with basement, with is really the main floor, and two upper stories. It is understood, that the building can be ready for occupancy in from 60 to 90 days.

Lights are being strung throughout what remains of the old building in order that the work can go forward night and day in order to get everything cleaned up as quickly as possible and the bodies for the unfortunate victims recovered.

Further figures disclose that the lost will amount to around $400,000. The loss is covered by insurance. Orders for new machinery and parts have already been placed and full operations will be started just as possible. In the meantime all employees will be given work.

May 21, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Missing Men Not Found In Ruins Up To 1:30 today
Will Take Time to get Heavy Machinery and Rubbish Cleared Away

All of the employees of the Northwestern Barb Wire Company were put to work this morning. There is a large force at work both night and day in an endeavor to clean up the debris within the walls of the building which burned Friday morning.

Thus far a thorough search of the ruins has failed to disclose any of the remains of the three men, Frank Grate, George Steltzer, and John Burns, who are unaccounted for. The task of removing the debris, including heavy machinery and tangled masses of iron and wire, will require considerable time.

President Paul Dillon and Superintendent, Harry Hill is loud in their praise of the splendid work den by Chief Connie Nichols, his men and the volunteers. Mr. Dillon stated this morning that it was one of the best fire stops he had ever seen, and both he and Mr. Hill say the fire shows that Sterling has a real department.

May 22, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Charred Body Found In Mill This Afternoon
Could Not Be Identified At First Glance – Search For Other Two

The body of one of the men burned in the wire mill fire of Friday night was found by workers removing the debris of the fire about 2 o’clock this afternoon. At first examination the body could not be identified by the workers, but a more thorough examination is being made and possibly clothing, trinkets or other means of identification will be found.

The body was found near the door about the middle of the north side of the drawing room in front of what are known as the “bakers.”

No trace of the bodies for the other two men believed to have perished in the fire has been found. Workmen are working in day and night shifts in clearing the debris, but it is all in such a tangled mass that it will take a long time to get it all cleared up.

It is impossible to tell just where the bodies will be found as the men might have been overcome by the intense gaseous smoke and fumes as they ran for an exit or as they went for their clothes hanging in the coat room.

From the time the first call of fire was made it was but a matter of approximately a minute before the building was entirely filled with smoke and it was impossible to see one’s hand in front of them.

Mayor Burkholder last night at the city council meeting alluded to the low water pressure at the time of the fire, and Manager E. MacDonald of the Illinois Water Service Co., who was present, stated that an open six-inch pipe in the mill, which was not closed until after the fire, and another six-inch pipe which somebody was able to reach and shut off during the fire, caused the low pressure, as the new and old pumps at the pumping station were both going at high speed and ware pumping at nearly a 6,000,0000 gallon a day rate during the fire.

The one reservoir in use at the station held out to furnish the supply, but was beginning to run low. The valve permitting water to run back to the pumping station from the stand pop was not needed. Mr. MacDonald said that there was not means of increasing the pressure with a six-inch main running open at the point of supply for the pumpers.

May 23, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Charred Body of the Third Missing Man is Recovered

The bodies of all three of the employees of the Northwestern Bar Wire Mill, who lost their lives in the fire of last Friday morning., have been found, the third being uncovered in the debris about 1:15 o’clock Wednesday afternoon. With the first remains taken from the ruins indentified as Frank Grate, and the second body believed almost beyond doubt to be that of J. Burns, the last of the three to be recovered is the only other missing man – George Steltzer.

The last body was found in an elevator shaft, and while it is in better condition than either of the two previously found, there are no recognizable features. Workmen were engaged this afternoon in looking thought the debris near where the body was found in the hope that some article might be found that would lead to positive identification.

May 23, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Second Body is recovered from Wire Mill Ruins
Identify Remains of Frank Grate – Believe Other Is Body of John Burns

Two bodies have now been recovered from the ruins of the Northwestern Barb Wire company plant, where on last Friday morning fire caused a $400,000 property loss and claimed the lives of three employees. Frank Grate’s body was found yesterday afternoon and this morning a badly burned body was found about 15 feet east of where Mr. Grate’s remains were discovered.

The body found this morning, is believed to be that of John Burns, aged 70 years, a transient wire drawer. Beneath the right arm, which was tightly pressed across the chest, was found a strip of underclothing and also a fragment of a blue shirt. It was at first believed that it was the body of George Steltzer as he was wearing a blue shirt on that day. It was learned later, however, that Mr. Steltzer wore underwear with sleeves and the piece of underwear recovered was that of a full length sleeve. As only three persons are unaccounted for, the identification of the body recovered this morning and removed to the Melvin mortuary is doubtless that of John Burns. A portion of the arm of the body recovered this morning was very hairy while Mr. Steltzer’s arm was not.

Mr. Burns was an old timer and had worked in various mills about the country and had been employed at the local mill on several locations over a period of years. The last time he had worked here about a year and boarded at the Wire Mill Hotel. Very little is known regarding him. It is believed that he has a brother in the Pittsburgh district, but an effort to get in communication with him has been unsuccessful thus far.

The position of the body as it lay in the debris gave evidence that Mr. Burns was evidently endeavoring to make his ways thought the smoke to an exit, with was not far away. A search is being continued in the debris where the body lay for further identification.

First Body Found Tuesday

The first body found Tuesday afternoon was that of Frank Grate, 67, of this city. The remains were discovered near the north wall of the ruins, about 25 feet east of the west wall and a distance of about 10 feet from an exit, toward which he probably was wending his way when overcome by the dense gaseous smoke that nearly blinded and choked others, who narrowly escaped with their lives.

The remains were lying on some steel sheets of metal which covered the runways of the room and were not buried down in the ruins. With the removal of the body, a small piece of shirt wedged tightly beneath one arm in such a manner that the flames could not reach it, was recovered. This was taken to the home of Edwin Grate as part of the shirt which she had given her father-in-law for Christmas last year.

Coroner Swears In Jury

Coroner C.M. Frye took charge of the removal of the remains from the ruins and following identification they were removed to the Wheelock storage rooms in Rock Falls. The coroner’s jury consisting of H. F. Kidd, foreman, F. W. Scated, William Gaffey, L. A. Wheelock, Fred Compton and William Hayward, viewed the remains and were sworn in. Coroner Frye will not hold the inquest until the body of the third missing man is found.

With the finding of the remains of two of the three missing men, the workers continued their search with renewed efforts. Some are of the opinion, however, that the body of the one still unaccounted for is in the mill race, it being believed that he fell into the water in climbing hastily out of the window.

William Franklin Grate was born near Streator, Ill., November 10, 1863, the son of Sylvester and Eliza Grate. In 1899 he was married to Amanda Jane Havens, and shortly afterwards they moved from the old home in Table Grove, Ill., to this city, and with the exception of three years spent in the state of Iowa and one summer in Beardstown, Ill., they have resided here.

Mr. Grate first started to work in the Northwestern Barb Wire company plant in 1896 and had worked for the firm about 27 years.

The deceased is survived by his wife and three children, Edwin Grate of this city, Mrs. Stanley Hardy of Chicago and Mrs. Edward Meyer of Milledgeville.

The funeral will be conducted Thursday afternoon with a short service at the late home, on Fifth Avenue, at 3 o’clock and at the United Brethren church, of which he was a faithful member, at 2:30 o’clock. Burial will be in Riverside cemetery.

 May 24, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Delay Inquest until Debris of Fire is Removed
Coroner wants to be Certain No More Bodies Are in Wire Mill Fire Ruins

The body of the last of the three unaccounted for workmen who lost their lives in the disastrous $400,000 fire at the Northwestern Barb Wire Company plant last Friday morning was removed Wednesday afternoon. The first charred body to be removed was that identified as Frank Grate, 67, and was removed Tuesday afternoon. Yesterday morning a body identified as that of John Burns, 70, was found, and about 2 o’clock in the afternoon the remains of George Steltzer were found.

Mr. Steltzer’s body was located covered with a great deal of debris in the elevator pit. It was the most difficult of the three to get to and remove. The elevator shaft was right next to an exit and it is evident that Mr. Steltzer was overcome just as he was a step of two from safety.

The remains of Mr. Steltzer and Mr. Burns were removed to the Melvin mortuary, where they aware viewed by the same jury as vied the remains of Mr. Grate at the Wheelock undertaking parlor. The jury was sworn in by Coroner C. M. Frye but the inquest will not be held for at least a day or two until all of the debris has been cleaned up from the fire. No one else has been reported as missing, but Coroner Frye thought it best to wait a day or so in order to be certain that there are no more bodies buried in the debris.

By working day and night in cleaning up the debris and wreckage the work has moved along very rapidly and aside from some of the heavy machinery witch was operating in the basement of the building there is little left to clean up.

The fire was the most disastrous in the history of the city. The anxiety which preceded the finding and identifying of the remains of the three missing men has been a great burden on the families and it is a great relief now that positive identity has been made.

Little is known regarding John Burns. He was about 70 years of age and had worked at the mill on various occasions during the past several years. Burns was a transient wire drawer and had worked in practically all the big mills in this county. It was said he had a brother in the Pittsburgh distract but this far officials of the mill have been unable to get into communication with any relative or near friend. It is possible that the remains will be buried in a local cemetery.

The funeral for George Steltzer will be held at the family home, on Johnson Avenue, at 2 o’clock, Friday afternoon. Dr. E. C. Harris of the St. John’s Lutheran church will be in charge of the rites. Burial will be in Riverside cemetery.

May 26, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Begin Building Wire Mill Plant

Preliminary work on the reconstruction of the burned portion of the Northwestern Barb Wire Co. mill has been started and will be carried on concurrently with the removal of the debris of the fire.

The new building will be of approved mill construction and will add considerable floor space to the factory, permitting an increase in the capacity of the plant. Definite detail of the plans will not be ready for announcement for several weeks.

May 28, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Section of Warehouse at Wire Mill Falls
Overload Causes Top Floor to Give Way – Part of Wall Pushed Out

Following closely on the heels of the damaging fire of 10 days ago, which caused a loss of more than $400,000 at the Northwestern Barb Wire Mill, came another disaster Sunday evening when a portion of the top floor of the new three story warehouse gave way, carrying several tons of wire crashing through the second and first floors to the basement, and also pushed out a portion of the south wall of the building. The accident occurred about 6 o’clock last night and was due to an overload being piled on the top floor, much of the material being a finished product which had been placed there following the fire.

It is considered fortunate that the accident occurred on Sunday. Had it happened on a working day, it might have coast several lives.

Although the reconstruction cost will be considerable, the financial loss is small compared to the loss of the much needed floor space and of the time that will be required in the making of the repairs. Since the recent fire it has been necessary to use every bit of available space. In the effort to clean up the plant after the fire, the materials have been piled wherever space could be found. The load was too heavy on a portion of the top floor and it gave way.

A railroad car on the switch track just south of the building was damaged some by the falling brick. The sprinkler system was damaged and the basement was filled with several feet of water before it could be shut off. The broken ends were plugged this morning and the system is again in order.

Under normal conditions the accident would not amount to a great deal, but coming s it does on top of the fire it makes maters more complicated and produces a larger handicap. Nevertheless the officers of the company are making the best of it and are rushing work toward the building of the new plant to replace the one destroyed by fire and will soon have the present difficulty adjusted.

May 31, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Inquest over Mill Victims Tonight

This evening at 7 o’clock Dr. C. M. Frye, coroner, will conduct the inquest at the Melvin mortuary to inquire into the deaths of Garage Steltzer, Frank Grate and John Burns, the three men who lost their lives in the recent fire at the Northwestern Barb Wire company plant.

The jury was sworn in at the time the bodies were recovered. The funerals and burials of all have occurred.

June 01, 1928 ~ Sterling Daily Gazette

Open Verdict in the Inquest over 3 Fire Victims
Evidence Heard by Coroner’s Jury on Wire Mill Fatalities Last Evening

An open verdict was returned last evening in the inquest held by Coroner C. M. Frye at the Melvin mortuary, after hearing testimony relative to the deaths of George Steltzer, Frank Grate and John Burns, the three men who lost their lives in the fire at the Northwestern Barb Wire company plant on May 18th.

The verdict in each case was that the men came to their death; being burned in the fire witch destroyed building No. 6 of the Northwestern Barb Wire Company, where they were employed, May 18th, 1928.

Evidence given the jury was practically the same as has been carried in previous reports of the fire, Simon Chapman stated that Chapman Bros., were removing some engines and had Robert Mayberry and Charles Morris doing the work. Mayberry told of using an acetylene torch and how the molten iron falling into some grease and oil started the fire. Morris, his helper, unbeknown to him had gone to get a drink of water. Morris was supposed to keep a fire extinguisher handy and put out any fires which might start. Mayberry said he grabbed several extinguishers but they were empty and that he got a hose but the water pressure was so low that the water barley came out the end of the hose. Within a minute the smoke was so dense and the fire so hot that Mayberry had to quit the room. When Morris got back he was unable to get into the room. Superintendent Harry Hill, Assistant Bert Bradley, T. J. O’Brian, employment manager, E. B. Van Horn, time keeper, and Sam Mitchell, steam fitter, testified. J. R. Sides of Chicago testified as to the identification of Mr. Steltzer and Edwin Grate told of the identification of his father, and Mr. Hill related how Mr. Burns was identified.

Paul Kornman, who had the contract of hunting for the bodies and cleaning up the debris, state that everything possible was down to speed up the work. By Monday following the fire he had 200 men working on the job. There were 150 tons of wire in addition to the machinery, fencing and debris to remove.

Northwestern Barb Wire Company Incorporated By Dillon-Griswold

Retrieved from The Daily Gazette
Transcribed, and minor corrections made, by Dana Fellows ~ 2011

Northwestern Barb Wire Company Incorporated By Dillon-Griswold

After trying various lines of work in New York, St. Louis, Dixon, Ill., and perhaps elsewhere, Washington Dillon was close to finding in sterling, the one which would occupy him for the rest of his live.

Washington Dillon was the great grandson of Moses Dillon, who had established the first iron forge in Ohio, at Zanesville. Although there is no information that Washington Dillon ever worked in the iron works, he undoubtedly had heard much about the business from his grandfather and others.

Washington Dillon was mechanically inclined…he was a tinker, some have called him, and his partnership with his step-brother, William C. Robinson, in the hardware and farm implement business in Sterling gave him the opportunity to satisfy that inclination. It also was to bring him a new and broader opportunity.

Like others serving in t a farm trade, Robinson and Dillon were well aware of the pressing need for satisfactory fencing at a reasonable cost. When the newly invented barbed wire became available, they were quick to stock the item. They were further intrigued by its success and the difficulty in getting enough to satisfy the wants of their customers. As demand multiplied, blacksmiths, hardware dealers and others of a mechanical bent began making the special wire.

Only 10,000 pounds of barb wire were sold in the United States in 1874, it is estimated. This was the year Haish, Ellwood and Glidden was granted their first patents.

In the next four years, 1875 to 1878, at least 114 barbed wire patents were recorded and the total amounts sold boomed to 26,665,000 pounds. By 1880, the volume was up to 80,500,000 pounds.


Washing Dillon was quick to join the rush to this new manufacture and he began experimenting with the manufacture of barbed wire in the rear of the hardware store.

IN 1875, Dixon began making barbed wire in a building on First Avenue, in Sterling, where Leaths Furniture Store is located today, according to his son, P. W. Dillon.

Washington Dillon made his own barbed wire machines which required the use of both hands and one foot to operate. Before 1878 ended, he and W. C. Robinson were ready to incorporate and launch the new business on a larger scale.

Dillon was then 36 years-old and Robinson, 39, but Robinson was apparently not in good health. It is evident in one of his letters of that time that he had been working extremely hard in civic enterprises as well as in the hardware business and he now “hoped to have some relief.” The men were not only cousins, their mothers having been sisters, but they were also stepbrothers. Washington’s widowed mother had married Robinson’s widower father in 1850.


To provide capital for the new enterprise, Dillon and Robinson put in $2,500 each. Two other men, David H. Law and James M. Ball, Chicago, also invested $2,500 each, providing a total original capital of $10,000.

The application for incorporation of the Northwestern Barb Wire Company was filed in the office of the Illinois secretary of state on Feb. 28, 1879, and this is considered the official date of incorporation. However, the signatures of Robinson and Dillon on the application were notarized by John G. Manahan on Feb. 20, and the signatures of Law and Bell were notarized on Cook County on Feb. 22.

The original certificate of incorporation was signed by the Illinois secretary of state on March 29, 1879.

The company was incorporated for “the manufacture and sale of barbed fence wire.”

The capital stock of 10,000 was divided into 100 shares of $100 each.

Four directors were to be elected annually: the principal office was to be in Sterling and the live of the corporation was to be 50 years.

The minute book of the company records that the first meeting of the “commissioners of the Northwestern Barb Wire Company” was held on March 17, 1879.

Stockholder Law presided over the election of four stockholders and directors, who in turn elected Washington Dillon, president; Law, secretary and W. C. Robinson, treasurer. Bell was never mentioned by name again in the minutes or the record available, although it can be presumed that he attended the second meeting of stockholder and directors on Nov. 1, 1879 and the third meeting held in July of 1880.


Northwestern’s Love Affair for Trains

Northwestern’s Love Affair for Trains

Story by Ron Parsons – Gazette City Editor ~ 1979
Transcribed, and minor corrections made, by Dana Fellows ~ 2011

Only in Sterling can the grinding, puffing, hissing, rumble and rattle, click and clack sounds of the last of the steam locomotives be heard as they go about the important business of switching the Northwestern Steel and Wire Company cars of steel products and scrap to their destinations.

The fleet of steam locomotives currently used at Northwestern Steel and Wire are the last of a dying breed and perhaps the last of their kind used the United States today (1979). While there are some occasional runs made by steam locomotives owned by museums and “railroad buffs” the steam engine is no longer used and occupies and important chapter in the history of American transportation.

Time was when vehicle traffic stopped for the Northwestern Steel and Wire Company's fleet of steam engines and trains on Avenue G as shown in the photo. This was 1959, or before the overpass was built.

The switch engines currently used at Northwestern operate around the clock on the network of rails encompassing the steel complex. The engines are constantly taking scrap, the basic raw material of the steel industry, to the giant electric furnaces and in turn, hauling the finished product to shipping stations to be in turn, shipped to the actual customer.

The death warrant for the huge steam “work horses” was signed late in the 1930’s when railroads in the U. S. entered a conversion program from the wood and coal-fired steam engines to the powerful petroleum-fired diesel engine. Railroads began this conversion during the late 1930’s and as the years went by; more steam engines were either converted or simply sold for scrap in favor of the popular diesel. It was the beginning of the end for the great steam engine.

It was not until 1960, however, when it was generally recognized as the year the big steam engine died in the United States. The Grand Trunk Western (GTW) ran the last regularly scheduled steam-powered passenger train in February of 1960 and the Illinois-Central and NorthWestern pulled in their last hoppers with 4-8-2’s and 2-8-2’s according to Jim Boyd, in an article published in the spring of 1977.

Shortly after the railroads began their conversion from steam to diesel engines in the late 1930’s the Northwestern Steel and Wire Company initiated the purchase of old locomotives for scrap metal. But, instead of melting them all down, the company decided to use some of them in the plant operation.

Some of the early engines purchased were used for parts and even to the present time, in a certain part is unavailable or obsolete, Northwestern maintains a locomotive repair unit and parts are made here and the engines are kept serviceable and running around the clock.

If, at such time the current Grand Trunk Western class steam engines are taken out of use, or replaced, by Northwestern, it will spell out the final curtain for this very important part of American history. There just aren’t’ any more to be bought,,, at any price.

Photo of Burt Halsne shown shortly before his retirement after 22 years of service with NWSW. He started in 1956 as foreman in the Locomotive and Tractor Repair Department.

In May of 1960, switch engine ex-GTW 0-8-0 8327 (built by Lima in April of 1927 and still in use by NSW), was rounding out its first month of service for the Northwestern Steel and Wire Company It was the first of many engines that would replace the company’s 0-6-0’s.

As late as 1962, Northwestern had more than 100 old steam engines in its scrap yards. Most ended up as the basic raw material in steel-making. Were melted down,,, and finally marketed in the form of nails, fence, bale ties, wire and steel structural pieces.

Not only did Northwestern melt down a number of locomotives, but railroad Pullman and baggage cars were also cut up for the scrap material needed. At one time, a special sale was offered to the public and townsfolk as well as curio collectors from the area purchased light fixtures, furniture and other items from the old cars.

NSW Roster

At its peak, Northwestern had a total of 16 ex-Great Trunk Western 0-8-0 engines and as near as can be determined, all but two (8310 and 8314) were actually steamed up for service at one time or another. Several years before the GTW’s arrived, the biggest engine used by Northwestern for switching was an 0-60 wheel configuration which the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad had converted from 2-6-2 model. This unit was the NS&W’s first oil burner and served off and on until the 0-8-0’s arrived.

With the current fleet of some 16 engines to work from, Northwestern keeps approximately four serviceable at any given time and with a storehouse full of parts salvaged from 20 years scrappeing steam locomotives, the company is much better equipped than most to keep them running economically.

With the recent innovations of oil firing and the auxiliary tenders, the current engines are easily on-man engines keeping in mind that even with the use of coal earlier, the engineer did his own firing. Under the old coal fired system, Northwestern engines are reported to have consumed approximately 24 tons of coal each day along with 48,000 gallons of water. As far as peer is concerned, a GTW 0-8-0 engine is able to tie onto over 25 loads of steel, work up their steam, and move them down the track.

Steam Engine at Northwestern Steel & Wire Co.

Northwestern Steel and Wire Chairman of the Board, P.W. Dillon has a special admiration for steam locomotives. His admiration for the “iron house” stems from earlier experiences when, as a youth, he operated steam engines while in Colorado for health reasons. It was his decision some years ago to keep the Northwestern steam engines running as long as they could be economically justified.

And while local residents in the Rock River Valley today take the huffing and puffing Northwester steam engines as a common-place activity, rail-fans from the state and other states as well, consider it as distinct privilege to travel to Sterling to witness again, the thrill and excitement of the old steam locomotives in action… a living legend today and still adding pages to the history of tat important chronicle… the American railroad.