The Edison Ore-Milling Company

Photograph of Thomas Edison c. 1880 by Victor Daireaux
Photograph of Thomas Edison c. 1880 by Victor Daireaux

Iron ore was scarce in the 1870s, especially in the eastern part of the country. The deposits were of poor quality and it was difficult and costly to separate it from rock debris. Edison discovered that beach sand contained deposits of iron ore and believed that extracting it would be a cheaper alternative to the traditional methods.

In his lab he developed a process to extract the iron using a large electromagnet. In 1881, he formed the Edison Ore-Milling Company. William Kennedy Dickson and mining expert John Birkinbine were in charge of refining the process further. Unfortunately, the market for his iron wasn’t sufficient to make a profit and the business was shut down after a few years.

But Edison wasn’t finished. He decided to adapt his process to crushed rocks from the mine. He opened a small plant as a trial in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania near an existing iron mine. Apparently satisfied with the results, in 1889, he completed one of the world’s largest ore-crushing mills. Located in Ogdensberg, New Jersey, it contained three giant electromagnets and was expected to process 1200 tons of iron ore a day. This time he was thwarted by technical difficulties.

Some of the buildings at the Ogden mine c. 1895
Some of the buildings at the Ogden mine c. 1895

Focusing back on electricity, Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company in 1890, but this was just a short foray back into that world. In 1892, he merged his company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, and turned his attention back to mining ore. He was determined to make it work, or just fascinated with iron ore, but he said that he was determined to do something so big that “people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical.”

So, in 1892, Edison sold some General Electric stock to raise capital, and closed the plant for upgrades. You may guess how things went since we all associate Edison’s name with electricity. The same technical problems existed as before, and it was difficult to get enough customers to make a profit. He persisted until finally in 1899, he admitted that the venture was a failure and closed the company.

But wait! All wasn’t lost. The milling business had created a large quantity of waste sand that was particularly well suited to making cement. In 1899, once again Edison formed a company, this time the Edison Portland Cement Company. Based in New Village, New Jersey, the company had staying power and in 1922 even supplied the cement for Yankee Stadium.

When asked about the financial losses in the milling business, he famously said, “it’s all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it.”

Yankee Stadium in the 1920s, not long after it was built
Yankee Stadium in the 1920s, not long after it was built

Standard Oil as the Octopus

Standard Oil was huge and seemed to have its hands in everything. At least that was the impression that it gave to some. This is a cartoon that appeared in McClure’s magazine.

From McClure's Magazine
From McClure’s Magazine

Ida Tarbell’s expose ran for 19 installments ending with a profile of John D. Rockefeller.

Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Company

Ida Tarbell around 1904
Ida Tarbell around 1904

Ida Tarbell (1857 – 1944) was an American teacher, author, and journalist. She was a “muckraker” of the Progressive Era, well-known for her expose of  The Standard Oil company. After graduating from Allegheny College, she was in Paris doing graduate work when she came to the attention of the publisher of McClure magazine, Samuel McClure, who offered her a job as editor. At McClure, Ida wrote series on Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. The series on Lincoln doubled the magazine’s circulation and was later published as a book.

Tarbell’s father was an oil producer and refiner in Pennsylvania. She remembered how he and many other small businessmen suffered because of the South Improvement Company scheme, the brain child of John D. Rockefeller owner of the Standard Oil Company. She accused Standard Oil of using unfair tactics, through the South Improvement Company, to put smaller oil companies out of business.

In 1900, Tarbell began research on the Standard Oil Company. This resulted in a 19 part series in McClure exposing the business practices of Rockefeller and the company. The series was published as a book in 1904 called “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” She was meticulous about documenting her story with hundreds of documents gathered from across the country. In many ways she led the way for investigative journalists.


The History of the Standard Oil Company is in the public domain and can be downloaded free. You can download a pdf version. (It is almost 11 M.) Or you can visit the internet archives and download it in other formats.