Title: Metallurgist, steel mill operator, inventor
Birthdate: August 9, 1857
Death Date: July 28, 1918
Plot Location: Section 36, Lot 38, north half

Screenshot (2709)

Steel is made from two ingredients: iron which comes from iron ore, and carbon which comes from coal. Both of these raw materials were in abundance in Pennsylvania, making it famous in the 19th century for steel production. Jacob Griffith was raised in the eastern part of the state and helped expand the steel industry in the western part, on the heels of the more famous steel pioneer, Andrew Carnegie.

Jacob was born in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, located midway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton on the west bank of the Susquehanna. His father, Andrew Jackson Griffith, was 29 years old and a farmer of considerable means. The 1860 census showed he had real estate valued at $10,000. Living with them was a farm hand and an Irish servant. This is a photo of him at age 60 (but unfortunately none could be found of his son).

Working the soil was what he knew best, but his children made their living from what was beneath it. Older brother William became a geologist and mining engineer, while sister Gertrude’s husband ran a coal mining operation. 

After high school, Jacob majored in Chemistry at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, beside the Delaware River. He graduated in 1878 and landed a job with the Midvale Steel Works in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. It was strategically located to receive the two ingredients of steel, iron ore and anthracite coal, either by river or rail. 

The company had contracts with the Navy and some big construction companies. The original product was locomotive wheels and other railcar components which were purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Company, located just a few miles away.

Midvale became known for applying a scientific approach to industrial problems, leading the company to a period of prosperity. Just before he was hired, two chemists from Yale were brought in to improve the steel-making process. Jacob probably felt right at home working under them as an analytical chemist. He advanced quickly, being promoted in 1885 to manager of the melting and molding departments.

Wedding bells rang at the Church of St. Matthias in Spring Garden in 1883 when he became the husband of Winifred Kerr. She was a local girl who was a Daughter of the American Revolution and later became an active member of the DAR organization.  Jacob was also a descendent of a Revolutionary War veteran on his mother’s side. Their first child, Mary, was baptized at St. Matthias in 1885.

In the meantime a much older Andrew Carnegie had built his first steel mill in 1872 in Braddock, just east of Pittsburgh. Sixteen years later, some other capitalists from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia considered the prospects of operating a mill in Latrobe, 30 miles east of Braddock. Whether Jacob was one of those investors or simply hired by them, he jumped at the opportunity to advance his career. 

The Griffiths moved west in 1888. Jacob oversaw the construction of the new mill as superintendent, and in 1889 the Latrobe Steel Works began producing steel tires for locomotive wheels. (Replacing an entire wheel because of a worn contact surface was expensive, so older types of railway wheels were fitted with replaceable steel “tires,” seen in the background of this photo.)

Andrew Carnegie bought out a half-dozen other mills, mines, and a steamship company, consolidating them in 1892 as the Carnegie Steel Company. Jacob’s operation wasn’t affected; it did well as a business and made Latrobe proud. As it grew, so did his family. They welcomed a son in 1889 and another daughter in 1894. Winifred’s single sister, Josephine Kerr came to live with them and stayed for the rest of her life.

Jacob enjoyed 22 years at the helm, but when Latrobe Steel was purchased by another firm he decided he could retire at age 53. The industry was riding high until it eventually came crashing down later in the 20th century.

The Latrobe works went through four more owners before filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Midvale Steel closed in 1976 as domestic steel simply couldn’t compete with foreign imports. Carnegie Steel became U.S. Steel when it was sold to J. P. Morgan in 1902. What was once the world’s largest producer is now 24th in size and was acquired in 2023 by Japan’s largest producer. Most of the larger steel companies are in China.

By 1910 the Griffiths were looking ahead to their “empty nest” period, after a daughter got married and their son went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. That year’s census included Winifred’s sister Josephine, youngest daughter Winnie, a boarder, and two servants in the household. After Jacob’s mother died in May of 1910, he decided to move the family to the Griffith homestead in West Pittston.

The years there were not idle ones. Jacob had been granted five patents related to his work at Latrobe, and he filed a couple more after he left. He was listed in the local city directory as president of Nordmont Chemical Company, then in 1916 as president of Griffith Collieries Company, a mining operation. 

Kidney disease eventually took his life in 1918. He had three patents that were being processed and were granted after his death. His obituary says he died in the very same room in which he was born, overlooking the Susquehanna. He may have made a promise to his Philadelphia-born wife that they would be laid to rest in her hometown, and he kept his word. His plot here at Mount Moriah includes his wife and several of her Kerr relatives.

Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Support the Friends of Mount Moriah

Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.