Eber Brock Ward, Midwest captain of industry
July 1, 2010
By Anna Passante
Bay View residents know Eber Brock Ward (1811-75) as the founder of the Milwaukee Iron Works, also known as the Bay View rolling mill. The mill was established in 1867 and employed thousands of Bay View residents until it closed in 1929. But to Bay View historian Bernhard Korn, Ward was best known as the “Captain of Industry of the Midwest.” According to Korn in his doctoral dissertation, Eber Brock Ward, Pathfinder of American Industry, Ward’s goal was to make the Midwest the most productive and most prosperous section of the United States, rivaling the industrialized East.
As a ship captain in the 1830s, Ward had experienced the Midwest’s agricultural economy firsthand. His ships transported many of the pioneers who settled on the shores of the Great Lakes, and in turn, transported farm products to the East, returning with necessary supplies for the settlers.
However, Ward saw the over-dependence on agriculture in the Midwest as counterproductive. He intended to take the Midwest’s predominantly agricultural economy of the mid-1800s and merge it with a manufacturing economy.
Ward’s manufacturing career began with the purchase of iron mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With iron ore readily available, Ward opened his first iron mill, the Eureka Iron Works, in Wyandotte, Mich., in 1853. The North Chicago Rolling Mill in Chicago followed in 1857. Both mills manufactured iron rails, but due to the softness of the iron, the rails lost their shape within two years and were returned to the mills to be rerolled.
Ward was interested in the Bessemer process of steel making, which removed carbon from the iron, making for a stronger metal. Ward successfully produced the first Bessemer steel in America at his Wyandotte Plant on Sept. 6, 1864. From this steel, Ward’s Chicago plant rolled the first steel rails in America on May 24, 1865. In 1867 Ward opened his third mill, the Milwaukee Iron Company, on the future site of the Village of Bay View. At that point Ward was considered America’s “Iron King.”
Ward’s goal of a Midwest economy balanced between agriculture and manufacturing was soon realized. The agricultural settlements produced farm products for the densely populated cities, and in turn, growing industries in the cities produced manufactured goods.
Midwest’s Wealthiest Man
Due to his successful steel companies, Ward became the wealthiest man in the Midwest. He had married Mary Margaret McQueen in 1838. They resided in a mansion at 807 Fort St. in Detroit. A showplace of his wealth, the mansion had all the latest conveniences. The conservatory itself was large enough to hold a number of fruit trees. However, in January 1869 Mary divorced Eber on grounds of adultery. Two months later at the age of 57, Ward married 27-year-old Catherine Lyon, the niece of Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade. That same year Ward suffered a stroke that incapacitated him for a full year.
In the decade following his stroke, Ward invested his millions in assorted industries. He acquired timberland and became the largest pine forest landowner in the north-central states. The town of Ludington, Mich. grew up around his two sawmills.
Ward founded the Saginaw & Bay Salt Company in Michigan’s Saginaw Valley. Sawdust, a byproduct of his Ludington sawmill, served as fuel for the steam that that was needed to pump the salt up the 2,000-foot shaft to the surface. In 1873 the salt mine produced over 823,000 barrels. The company paved the way for the future Morton Salt Company.
As an American industrialist Ward didn’t like the importation of products from overseas, especially the importation of plate glass, used for windows and mirrors. So Ward bought up a tract of land near St. Louis containing high-grade sand deposits suitable for making the finest glass. By 1874 Ward’s American Plate Glass Company employed 300 men. The company town of Crystal City, Mo. grew up around the plant, and the company eventually became part of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.
Silver mining was the last of Ward’s large business ventures. In 1870 Ward purchased a 14-acre island off the north shore of Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario, containing a 70-foot vein of silver. In the first three weeks of mining, the Silver Islet Mining Company extracted $100,000 worth of silver. Per day the mine made more money than the famous Nevada Comstock mine.
Eber Brock Ward died of a stroke at the age of 64 on Jan. 2, 1875. Ward’s business holdings were vast and figures varied on the value of his estate, but according to a newspaper report the estate totaled over $6 million ($133 million in today’s dollars). In his will Ward left the majority of his estate to his second wife and their two children, Eber Jr. and Clara. The children from his first marriage only inherited the mansion on Fort Street, with each child receiving just $200 per month.
Ward’s children by his first marriage had a variety of “issues.” Son Charles was considered “deranged and eccentric” and went bankrupt, his father refusing to bail him out; son Henry, insane since the age of 15, was committed to the Michigan State Hospital for the Insane; son Frederick committed suicide; daughter Elizabeth was diagnosed as mentally incompetent; and daughter Mary was considered very “eccentric” in her behavior.
Eber Jr. and Clara had their own personal problems. Clara married Prince Joseph of Belgium in 1890 and became Princess Chimay. She made national headlines when she left the prince to run off with a Hungarian gypsy. Eber Jr.’s wife, Victorine, left him in 1900 after accusing him of being infatuated with his stepdaughter (her daughter), Blanche Herault.
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