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History's Headlines: Hoover Mason trestle to give new life to post industrial Bethlehem

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 24 2013 02:54:52 PM CDT
Updated On: May 27 2013 05:52:22 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Hoover-Mason Trestle

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

By all accounts, Herbert Clark Hoover, whose term in office as president at the start of the Great Depression is still mired in controversy, was excellent in his profession as a mining engineer.

But with all his major achievements in his career, President Hoover was not, as is sometimes suggested locally, the builder or designer of Bethlehem Steel’s Hoover Mason Trestle. Still, because they were in roughly the same profession and lived at the same time, he almost certainly knew of Frank Kryder Hoover and Arthur J. Mason, and respected their mechanical and inventive abilities.  

That structure designed by Hoover and Mason carried iron ore to Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces from 1907 to 1995. Today it's being hailed in some circles as the Lehigh Valley’s answer to New York’s stylish popular Highline- an aging artifact of an industrial railroad that has become THE place in Manhattan to live and work and visit. The Hoover Mason Trestle was the product of two men who grew up on opposite sides of the world and might never have met if it was not for the industrial revolution. At the dawn of the 20th century, their inventive minds gave birth to new and creative ways for America to become an industrial powerhouse.

Looked at from one angle, Frank Kryder Hoover and Arthur James Mason were something of an odd business couple. Hoover was born on January 19, 1854, on his family’s farm in New Berlin, Ohio.

In his 1911 "Who’s Who in Chicago, Illinois" entry, Frank Hoover lists his career as including farming with his father, an education that included attending Mt. Union College in what is now Alliance, Ohio, five winters teaching in a rural school, and three years selling leather and harness equipment with his brother.

In 1879, perhaps hearing that “everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” Hoover left home for the bustling Missouri metropolis. There he would marry Effie L. Phelps in 1883 and take up a career selling wholesale farming equipment. And Kansas City was also where Hoover would meet a man who had grown up halfway around the world, a man who would change his life forever.

Arthur J. Mason was born in 1857 in Melbourne, Australia. Earning a degree in engineering from the University of Melbourne, he began his career working for the British colony’s department of government railways. Perhaps wanting to expand his professional horizons in 1881, Mason left the empire on which the sun never set and traveled to America. For four years he worked as a civil engineer for railroads in California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Kansas and by 1884 he arrived in Kansas City. Here he met and married Hattie Devol with whom he had four children.

It would be fascinating to know how Hoover and Mason met. Hoover’s biography makes references to his growing interest in electricity and street lighting. He apparently picked up enough of it to consider himself a consulting engineer. Mason, who was working as Kansas City’s assistant city engineer, may have met Hoover on a street lighting project.

Along with his engineering skills, Mason apparently had an inventive turn of mind, particularly with designing, excavating and conveying machinery. The only hint we have of their early years is a statement that appears in both their "Who’s Who" entries. “After extensive experiments together,” Mason’s entry reads, “He joined Frank K. Hoover, contracting engineer.”

The creation of the firm of Hoover and Mason took place in 1894. By 1902 they were doing well enough to leave Kansas City for Chicago, poet Carl Sandberg’s “City of Big Shoulders” on Lake Michigan.

Hoover and Mason set up offices in the city’s Railway Exchange Building, designed by “Make No Little Plans” architect Daniel Burnham and had homes near each other on the city’s fashionable professional neighborhood on Woodlawn Avenue.

In the first and second decades of the 20th century, patent applications for excavating and ore-carrying equipment from Hoover and Mason flooded into Washington. In 1905 alone, the year they were contacted by Bethlehem Steel to build the ore carrying trestle, those applications included a brake for a hoisting machine, a trolley- hook for manipulating self loading cars, a device for the rapid and accurate loading of railway cars, an apparatus for excavating and sluicing gravel and other material, and many more.

This was the kind of thing that brought Hoover and Mason to the attention of Bethlehem Steel CEO Charlie Schwab. Already on his way to planning the future company, efficient modern machinery was what he was counting on to make Bethlehem the best.

It is not known if either Hoover or Mason ever came to Bethlehem to oversee the project. Perhaps it was just a meeting of engineers over plans. But by the time it was done and in operation in 1907, the Hoover Mason trestle, like the H-beam-making Grey mill of 1909, was well on the way of fulfilling Schwab’s vision. For 88 years, in war and peace, the trestle served its purpose.

What would Hoover and Mason think today of their trestle’s redevelopment? It's impossible to know completely, but in an article “Comments Of An Ore Engineer,” in the March 1, 1921 issue of the American Economic Review, Mason noted that he was designing labor saving machines that he hoped would not only raise profits but would have a “stimulating and uplifting effect” on those who used them. Perhaps something of that effect will flow from the Hoover Mason Trestle's next 100 years.