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History's Headlines: "Gentlemanly Steel Man: Bethlehem author Karen Samuel plans biography of Bethlehem Steel's Archibald Johnston

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 03 2014 08:31:48 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 04 2014 11:15:55 AM CST
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Local author Karen Samuels, with two well-regarded Arcadia history books under her belt, knows how to research and write about Bethlehem.

But this time Samuels has taken on an even more complex task, a biography of Archibald Johnston (1865-1948), one of the seminal, but at times little appreciated figures, who was involved in the creation of Bethlehem Steel and also served as the first mayor of a united Bethlehem following the 1917 merger.

With Johnston’s former estate Camel Hump in the news lately, attention has focused on a man some sources describe as “gentlemanly.” But he was also a master deal maker who outsmarted some of the best known arms merchants in Europe to reap lucrative contracts for Bethlehem Steel.

Working closely with John Marquette of Bethlehem, Samuels has begun the task by plunging into Johnston’s personal and business papers both at Lehigh University and at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, where many of Bethlehem Steel’s records are stored.

Their research has made both Samuels and Marquette realize that Johnston was not a simple man. “He is coming across as a very complex person, full of what our own time might see as contradictions,” Samuels says. “He was an industrialist and an environmentalist, a prominent businessman with strong Progressive government views.”

What may have shaped Johnston’s life most was being the middleman between the larger-than-life figures of Charles Michael Schwab and Eugene Gifford Grace. Although he outranked them both in seniority at Bethlehem Steel, Johnston never was named CEO.

Johnston was born into a large family in Phoenixville, PA on May 30, 1865. At the time of his birth it was the home of a thriving iron industry. Samuels believes that Johnston’s father Joseph was involved in the industry, which may have inspired Johnston.

In 1889 Johnston graduated from Lehigh University, and that same year he was hired by what was then the Bethlehem Iron Company. He joined its physical testing department. In 1891 he married Estelle S. Borhek, a member of a prominent local family.

Johnston arrived at a crucial moment in the company’s history. Founded in the 1860s primarily to make iron railroad rails for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, in the 1870s under the direction of Robert Sayre and John Fritz it had adopted the Bessemer steel making process to make steel rails.

By the late 1880s steel railroad rail making was not a fast growing market. Fortunately for Bethlehem, the U.S. government decided to modernize the Navy, which had shrunk from the world’s largest at the end of the Civil War to behind Paraguay in international standing. Under the direction of Fritz and Sayre the company began the process of creating a naval gun forging plant, the first of its kind in America. And they selected Johnston to do the work.

It would be fascinating to know what Fritz and Sayre saw in Johnston. Unfortunately almost all of the records of that part of Bethlehem’s history are gone, so there is no way of knowing why a young, untried man just out of college was selected for this task, or of knowing very many details about how he went about doing it.

What is clear is that Johnston did the task assigned to him well enough to be put in charge of the erection of the buildings that were used to make battleship armor plate. He was also made department superintendent.

Under Johnston’s leadership it did its task well. In 1898 the U.S. Navy handily defeated the Spanish fleet in the Spanish American War. Soon nations all over the world were clamoring for Bethlehem Steel to do for their navies what they had done for the U.S. fleet.

In the early 20th century Schwab, a brash young steelmaker from western Pennsylvania (in 1900 he had been made president of the newly formed U.S. Steel Corporation, the nation’s largest steel maker at the unheard of age of 39), acquired Bethlehem Steel and decided to make it his own.

Among those employees Schwab acquired was Johnston. Despite his ties to the previous management, they took to each other immediately. Samuels has found letters between the two that show how Schwab came to respect Johnston’s loyalty.

In his 1975 biography of Schwab, “Steel Titan” historian Robert Hessen notes that in 1906 Johnston told Schwab that the company’s board was less impressed with what Schwab said than with how he said it.

Not believing him, Schwab called a board meeting and forcefully argued a proposal which the board voted to support. After a brief intermission he slowly began to argue against his previous proposal. Schwab was stunned when they proved Johnston’s point by voting against the proposition Schwab had made just an hour before.

From 1906 till his retirement in 1927, Schwab used Johnston as his diplomat in international arms deals. In one case mentioned by Hessen, Johnston even managed to outfox Basil Zaharoff, the leading and most devious international arms dealer of the pre-World War I era.

In what was perhaps an even more difficult “diplomatic” assignment, at Schwab’s behest Johnston oversaw the merger of North Bethlehem, South Bethlehem, West Bethlehem and Northampton Heights in 1917. The result was that almost by acclamation he was selected to be the new city of Bethlehem’s first mayor.

By the 1920s the handwriting on the wall was clear that the hard-driving Grace, (who would later tell the press that it was the duty of every good employee to take his boss’s job away from him), rather than Johnston, would be Schwab’s successor.

From his retirement in 1927 to his death in 1948, Johnston managed to keep himself busy at Camel Hump, which he enjoyed with his family.

He must have taken a hit in the stock market following the 1929 crash and then seen his values rise rapidly with the boom years of World War II. But perhaps those details are still waiting in a file cabinet for Samuels and Marquette to discover.