Charles Schwab was Cambria County's
'first citizen' in early 20th century

 

Letter No. 307 | February 23, 2003

I got into a mood swing to do an article about Charles M. Schwab, the steel titan, who I researched in the past. I am of the opinion that a lot of people heard about him, but know very little factual about him. The Nanty Glo web site has introduced "Buzz" Wagner, Charlie Metro, "Rip" Collins, and Billy Hartack to viewers. Now it's Charlie Schwab's turn.

CHARLES M. SCHWAB,
THE STEEL TITAN

(Foreword: In preparing a talk for the Toastmaster's Club about 20 years ago, I researched Cambria County native and steel industrialist, Charlie Schwab. Except for briefly hearing mention of his name, I previously knew very little about his life's history. With Bethlehem Steel and the plight of its company's workers and retirees in the news these days, I thought his story would be timely and informative. A lot of my information was obtained from the book, Steel Titan, The Life of Charles M. Schwab, by Robert Hesson, and New York Times articles.)

Charles Michael SchwabA stark mausoleum at the crest of Alleghenies has the name "SCHWAB" inscribed on it. The location is St. Michael's Cemetery, near St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. Upon visiting and peering into the mausoleum, a visitor sees the name "Charles M. Schwab B: 1862 - D: 1939" on an upper-level vault. His wife and parents occupy other crypts in the mausoleum. Therein lays the mortal remains of one of the biggest industrialist of the early twentieth century. He was the confidant of Presidents and kings, and associated with celebrities like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, O. Henry, Henry Ford, and Mark Twain.

But what do we know about him? Charles M. Schwab or "Charlie" was a top leader in the early American steel industry. Born in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, his family moved to Loretto where he spent his early years. During his teen years, he drove a horse-driven mail cart between Loretto and Cresson. Later he attended St. Francis College for two years. He moved to the Pittsburgh area where he began work in the steel mills as a stake driver. With his ability and energy, he rose rapidly to become president of Carnegie Steel Company at age 35. Through a number of steel company mergers, he became president of Bethlehem Steel Company at age 41. At the height of his power, he lived in a 75-room house called "Riverside" in New York City. In the summers, he visited his estate in Loretto named "Immergrum" (German for "evergreen"). The timing of his visits coincided with Labor Day, a time period featuring the Cambria County Fair in Ebensburg. With his money, he reorganized the Fair when it was about to become extinct and it grew to be one of the great rural expositions in Pennsylvania. Fulfilling a boyhood dream, he acted as ringmaster at the Fair. On his trips to Loretto, he traveled by train on his own Pullman coach called the "Loretto," which is on exhibit at the Altoona Railroad Museum. In the town of Loretto, Charlie built St. Michaels Church and also a Carmelite Convent. A sister of his, Cecilia, was a cloistered nun at the convent. He saw her once in 25 years.

Schwab spent a lot of money on "Immergrum." From the main house he had a full view of Loretto. Beautiful parallel stairways lead up to the house with a waterfall cascading down the center. When the water finished its journey to the bottom, an electric pump again lifted the water to the top to repeat the process. A huge goldfish pond stood at the bottom of the waterfalls.

His "Immergrum" estate in Loretto was opulent: statues of pagan gods and goddesses on the grounds, a nine-hole golf course. There were stables for fine horses, three greenhouses, and fancy garages for his fleet of cars. His chickens were housed in replicas of French Normandy cottages, and workshops and sheds resembled French farmhouses.

Anecdotes about his life abound. Upon becoming wealthy, his homestead was a 44-room mansion in Loretto. He wanted the house moved to a higher vantage point, but didn't want it demolished. There was an orchard that surrounded the house that he also didn't want disturbed. In 1915, Schwab had a contractor raise and move the house on rollers over 40-foot high treetops. The house was relocated a few hundred feet from its original site.

A superintendent called him crazy for his setting high production targets. Schwab told him if he met his goals he would pay off the mortgage on the man's house. In a few months, the man had a mortgage-free house for meeting Schwab's production goals.

Once while conducting a tour through one of his factories for a group of investors, a foreman told Charlie that a blast furnace couldn't be fixed. Schwab donned on coveralls over his business suit, crawled under the furnace, and rectified the problem himself.

In actor's fashion, Charlie would fumble for his glasses and the prepared text in his coat pocket for his speech. Members of the audience began to feel embarrassment and sympathy for him. It was strictly a ruse. The ploy created a bond of empathy with his audience and put them in a receptive frame of mind. On one occasion at a 1934 St. Francis College Commencement, he tripped on a rug that covered the speaker's platform. He was not seriously injured, but was unable to deliver his scheduled address to the graduates.

As an industrialist, Charlie recognized the importance of the "I-Beam" used in the construction of buildings, bridges, and railways. The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, grew and thrived on the production of "I Beams."

Amid his unparalled success, however, scandals and controversies arose. During the 1930s, Charlie and other Bethlehem executives were earning annual salaries in six figures when the average steelworker earned 67 cents per hour. As a result, he was the target of socialist verses like:

Schwab, Schwab, Charlie Schwab
Life and Happiness you rob
From the workers in the mills
To the miners in the hills.

During the latter part of his life, Charlie's financial resources were depleted. His elaborate estates in New York and Loretto were draining him. While traveling to Europe, he suffered a heart attack in London. In his weak condition, he returned to New York and died there on at the age of 77. His funeral in September, 1939, took place in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. In attendance were prominent people like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Standard Oil tycoon, and Alfred E. Smith, former New York governor and 1929 presidential candidate.

To quote the author, Hessen, "To some, Schwab was a folk-hero…a dynamo whose ingenuity and ambitiousness enabled him to achieve every goal he set for himself. Others saw him as a rogue and a predator whose lifestyle extolled 'crass materialism.' Few were indifferent to him; he seemed to symbolize the best and the worst in American business."

Best regards,
Frank Charney

 

 

 
 


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