Rock Products 120th Anniversary – Part 3

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In This Issue, We Cover The Years 1920-1930.

26 120YEARS 400While production was on the rise in the early 1920s, it seemed that no one could find a way to make a sizeable profit. For instance, the average price of aggregate rose only about 7 percent annually between 1921 and 1923, while production during the same period rose about 50 percent.

The general sentiment was that, technologically, the rock products industry lagged behind many other commercial interests. One quarry owner wrote, “The trouble lies not with the business itself, but with the majority of the men engaged in the business. It is a fact that the world moves, and unless you are willing to move with it you may find yourself thrust aside in a way you will not like.

“Whenever the stone and quarry operator, owner and employee get to the point where they believe … that this industry is as important as … other basic industries – then, and only then, will the stone and quarry business take its proper place in our country’s industrial scheme.”

One of the biggest obstacles to progress was transportation. While some producers wanted to invest capital in plant improvements, many were producing at less than capacity because material could not be moved fast enough. Railroad car shortages carrying over from the late 1910s were mostly to blame. Sand and gravel operators in Indiana were working at one-third capacity in 1920.

A hearing held by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1922 muddied the situation. The National Association of Sand and Gravel Producers (renamed the National Sand and Gravel Association (NSGA) later in the year), the National Slag Association, the Portland Cement Association (PCA), and other independent producers were heard. A representative of the PCA testified that, “Every (one) knows that every industry is bearing an excess burden of cost due to the freight rates. That excess is slowing up all business.”

Producers had much to gain from a decision in favor of lower rates – in 1922, 70 percent of product was transported by rail, and only 27 percent by truck.

In March 1922, the Supreme Court granted the ICC the power to regulate interstate railroad rates where evidence of discrimination was found. The ICC revoked priority orders giving preferential railroad car service to coal transporters, thereby making more cars available to sand, gravel and stone producers and somewhat improving conditions in some parts of the country. But at the same time, in the Midwest, rates actually went up. In 1923, the president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroads urged Midwestern producers to load railroad cars to full capacity as a way of getting more for their money.

Throughout the railroad hearings (and the coming years), the effects of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act were felt strongly by trade associations. The government, in an attempt to define the legitimate activities of trade associations, announced that such groups could not discuss or handle prices, discounts or other factors that would affect profits. Members of the rock products industry felt this unfairly kept them from determining the fairest rates, and thus the percentage of the selling price railroad tariffs should occupy.

Changes in immigration laws in the early 1920s also caused the industry some concern. While new immigration laws shrunk the labor pool, the government also pushed for labor-saving machinery. But many in the industry believed there should be a balance; in 1923, F. R. Kanengeiser, vice president and general manager of Bessemer Limestone and Cement Co., Youngstown, Ohio, said, “We feel the effect of the present immigration laws quite keenly … we believe the country could absorb a considerably greater number of immigrants, and that labor-saving machinery will be installed just as rapidly as it is proven.”




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Many operations began building small communities on land next to the quarry, where laborers were encouraged to live in hopes of developing a more stable work force.

The Cement Industry

The cement industry, which was much less affected by the railroad car shortage, prospered in the early 1920s and had record production growth between 1919 and 1923. With plants working at only 66 percent, production of portland cement in 1921 reached 100 million bbls for the first time. Production of portland cement in 1923 was 25.8 million tons, 10 million tons higher than production five years earlier.

In the winter of 1923, Lehigh Valley cement plants worked through the entire season as a result of high demand, mild weather, and a surplus of fuel.

Prosperity in this sector of the rock products industry was mainly attributed to the huge growth in residential construction and road building, both of which were boosting the use of concrete. The PCA also played a role in unifying and educating cement producers, who were recognized throughout the industry as having on one of the strongest associations. In 1921, the PCA made membership contingent upon members’ ability to meet “Standard Specifications” for portland cement adopted that year by the federal government and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

Research on new uses of lime increased in the early 1920s, and technical papers appeared frequently in Rock Products regarding the proper design and construction of lime kilns. Agricultural applications were explored and touted, as were tiles, blocks and quick-setting lime plasters. Lime was used in petroleum refining, the making of bleach, glass and lubrication grease, and in water treatment plants.

Gypsum materials also prospered in the 1920s. Gypsum tile was used for non-bearing fireproof partitions, stairway and elevator enclosures, and the protection of steel columns, girders and beams. Plaster board using gypsum also gained popularity, and the ASTM set standards for use of the building material.

Crushing and Screening

In the quarries, managers focused on improving methods of crushing and screening. Larger crushers were installed with the ever-increasing receiving opening sizes that had become popular in the previous decade. “Shaking” or vibrating screens, which had previously been passed over by many operations, came into vogue for handling smaller sized, between 1 ½ and 4 mesh. In conveying, steel belt construction was increasingly favored in the 1920s.

In 1922, typical-shovel construction involved a 100-ton shovel, equipped with a 4- or 5-cu.-yd. capacity dipper. This type of shovel lifted from 5 to 7 tons per dip.
Advancements in power shovels focused on the move to electricity and away from steam. The cost and trouble of handling fuel for steam machines became prohibitive once electrical, gasoline and oil engines became available.

Shovel construction advance into a new era in 1922 with the introduction of the three-motor drive. In this type of construction, each operating unit was independent, but the basic design was almost the same as that of steam, allowing an easy transition between the two types of shovel.

Luck Stone Co., still in operation today, was established in 1923 in Richmond, Va. Their quarry was worked by seven employees, who broke stone with sledge hammers and loaded it by hand into mule-driven carts.

Awareness of safety issues continued to grow in the early 1920s. The Wisconsin Industrial Commission put new quarry safety rules in effect in that state in 1922 and arranged for the training of quarry personnel by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The use of helmets during World War I had spurred an interest in using hard hats in quarries.

Road construction in the early 1920s progressed at about the same rate as the late 1910s. States received war surplus trucks in 1920 to speed highway building.

In 1921, Congress appropriated $75 million to be spent in one year as federal highway aid to states set up a system of roads correctly following state lines.

In 1923, the Bureau of Public Roads offered that an annual sum of $40 million could be raised nationally for road building and maintenance by taxing gasoline 1 cent per gallon. By the end of the year, 17 states had adopted this method of fund raising.

In that same year, the Federal Aid System of Highways designated that 34 states would have roads in a system that would connect every city with a population of more than 5,000. The completion of the project would place 90 percent of the population of the United States within 10 miles of a highway.

The National Crushed Stone Association (NCSA) passed a resolution in 1920 recommending a return to the macadam type of road, which used 12 in. of crushed stone, in view of the high cost of other, more permanent types of roads. Still, concrete paving continued to be the preferred method of road building.

Calm Before the Storm

In November, 1924, Rock Products purchased Cement & Engineering News, merging the two magazines into one and creating the most comprehensive trade publication about the building materials industry. It was reported that, “the combined Rock Products and Cement & Engineering News will offer an opportunity to serve the portland cement and allied rock products industries to a greater degree than ever before in the history of these industries.” Three weeks later on Nov. 22, 1924, Edgar Harvey Defebaugh, founder of Rock Products, died.

The late 1920s, before the Wall Street crash, saw a level of prosperity heretofore not experienced in the rock products industry. President Calvin Coolidge said during the decade that, “the business of America is business.” Aggregate production levels climbed from 158 million tons in 1920 to 361 million tons in 1929. Portland cement production also rose considerably from 18.8 million tons in 1920 to 32 million tons in 1929.

Building contracts in 1925 were valued at $4.5 billion, and construction in 1928 reached a value of $8 billion, 3 percent higher than that of 1927.

At the same time, the Sherman Antitrust Act was felt as an ever-growing threat to prices. In 1929, Rock Products reported that the NCSA was organizing an effort to petition against the law, and to request provisions that would legalize “pools, division of territory and price agreement-always, of course, in such a way as to place the public welfare uppermost in consideration.”

Railroad car shortages had been a continuous problem in the previous decades, but, in the 1920s, rock products producers began to use their own cars, barges and self-unloading boats to bring material from the point of production to a distribution yard. This allowed them more control of distribution methods and to cut down their reliance on railroads.

Batcher bins were developed as part of this trend. Transportation of batched aggregate had been problematic in the past because coarses and fines would shift. Plants in the late 1920s began to install batchers as part of the plants, so the delivery of concrete mix in gross was becoming replaced in great part by delivery of proportioned mix in batches.

An increased emphasis was placed in the late 1920s on research and developing new applications for rock products. The labs of the Bureau of Mines at Rutgers University in New Jersey focused on fledgling cement applications, including building blocks, roofing tile, pipe and architectural stone. In 1926, the NSGA established a research facility, and the NCSA established their own in 1928.

Research on alternative uses for gypsum continued in the late 1920s. F. Tweddell, M.D., announced in 1924 that the inhalation of gypsum dust could prevent and cure tuberculosis, but he was not allowed to test the procedure in hospitals. Gypsum dust also was thought to be a cure for foot-and-mouth disease and was marketed rurally as such.

Although gypsum wall-board had been used for many years, the first-ever gypsum wall-board machine was introduced in 1923.

Alternative applications for lime also continued to be researched in this period. It was believed that the addition of lime to water would prevent pipe corrosion and “red water.” Lime also was thought to kill bacteria.

Dr. F.F. Baer warned in 1926 that soils would need more liming to accommodate the growing United States population, which he expected would reach 200 million by the year 2040.

In the Quarries

In the quarries, there was a shift to larger tonnage plants. The use of moveable plants also became popular.

A record quarry blast at the Blue Diamond Co. in Los Angeles, Calif., broke 21 million tons of rock using 182 tons of explosives. More than 40,000 spectators witnessed the blast, which rattled windows within a 15-mile radius.

Rock dusting of coal mines was experimented with and became popular after 1924. The process involved scattering rock dust in mine passages, which was thought to suppress coal dust that would otherwise be explosive.

Safety issues had begun to be addressed in the early 1920s, and protective gear was worn in many operations.

In early 1928, a safety voucher was introduced by the PCA and offered to 2,400 foremen and department heads in the industry for signature. The form stated that within the previous 48 hours a plant safety inspection had been done, and that it would be repeated the following month. Self-regulation was the only regulation in these years.

In 1928, Rock Products for the first time recognized a number of cement mills for operation throughout 1927 without lost-time accidents. The PCA presented 10 mills with trophies commemorating their safety records, and outlined their continuing plan for safety throughout the industry.

A.J. Curtis, assistant to the general manager of the PCA, said, “We have had a good year – but zero is the limit with us; we will not be satisfied until every man in every mill is a safe worker.”

Road building continued through the end of the decade as it had years before, at a rate of steady growth. The Federal Highway Act of 1925 established the first official Interstate Highway System.

By 1926, $1 billion per year was being spent on highways in the United States. That same year, the American Road Builders Association estimated that traffic congestion cost the country more than $1.6 billion annually. Of more than 3 million miles at the same time, about 500,000 were paved or surfaced.

The portland cement industry in the late 1920s saw prosperity like never before. In 1929, the cement industry breathed a short sigh of relief, as for the first time since 1921, a saturation point was reached.

The success of cement plants that worked through the 1924 winter in Lehigh Valley helped spur winter industry push in the late 1920s for a standard year-round work year. “If department stores can move furs in August,” wrote one producer, “we stone men ought to be able to find a way of moving stone in January.”

At a meeting of the PCA in 1924, the 100th anniversary of the first patent on portland cement was celebrated.

The same goals for research seen throughout the crushed stone industry and directed at gypsum and lime also effected the cement industry. In 1928, a number of studies covering cement issues were published. Papers mostly covered the specifics of cement and clinker composition, hydration and hardening, improvements to cement kilns, and admixtures.

National Standards

The need for national standards for building materials in a variety of uses became more widely recognized in this period. Representatives of the concrete masonry manufacturing firms established, in 1925, standard sizes for products.

The American Engineering Standards Committee revised its procedure for determining standards in 1928, making it easier for producers to have input into the process regarding their own materials. Rock Products reported that the revised procedure was, “founded on the principles that the basic test to be applied in all cases is the fact of the assent, affirmatively expressed, of the groups having substantial interest in the standard.”

A number of significant equipment evolutions and plant design changes were made in the mid and late 1920s.

  • In 1928, the first portland cement mill in the world designed to include slurry filters was built at Federal Portland Cement Co. in Buffalo, N.Y.
  • The cement kiln gun was invented in 1924.
  • A Polysius four-compartment tube mill, the first of its kind in the U.S., was installed at Coplay Cement Manufacturing Co.
  • At a Cleveland quarry, a dredge with an 18-in. pump was used, the largest ever reported by Rock Products at the time.
  • In 1929, a new type of dredge, built by Dravo Contracting Co., and introduced at the Ohio Sand Co.’s plant, was the first in the world to use vibrating screens mounted on deck.

Diesel engines were heralded in the late 1920s as the most reliable of any type of engine. By 1925, neither electric nor diesel shovels were new, but their range had been greatly extended. Diesel power by that time was applied to smaller units as well as large ones.

Electric motors had been developed to reach adequate power output, but the speed was too high. Speed reducers were developed for wide use in these years.

By 1925, 40 percent of all shovels were electric, and crawler treads were used on almost all of them. Bucyrus Co. (now Bucyrus-Erie) offered a 4-cu. yd. full revolving shovel with the speed and power of the railroad type with the advantages of the crawler tread. The machine weighed 140 tons and was built for either steam or electricity.

Conveyors were being installed in longer units, and self-lubricating idlers with ball or roller bearings had become almost universal installations.

Dust conveyors and collectors in 1925 were recognized as indispensable. A self-cleaning cloth type of dust collector was introduced by the J.W. Paxon Co. It was designed to eliminate moving parts that would be cut by abrasive dust. In 1928, a 400-mesh wire cloth was introduced to the market.


After almost nine years of steady progress and production growth, a world-wide depression set in after the Wall Street crash of October 1929, and the rock products industry certainly felt the hit. Crushed stone production fell from 141 million tons in 1929 to 127 million tons in 1930, and would continue to drop to 70 million tons in 1933. Production of portland cement also dropped after the crash, from 32 million tons in 1929 to 12 million tons in 1933. The 1920s had seen constantly climbing production rates, which peaked in 1929; those same levels of production would not really be seen for another 10 years.

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Natomas Rock Plant #1 was located on the American River in Fair Oaks, Calif. In the 1960s it became Pacific Cement and Aggregates, and later it was acquired by Lone Star Industries. Photo, part of the Stumpf family collection, was likely taken in the late 1910s.

Next Month: Focus on Recovery.

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