Discovering Zenas King
Paper delivered to the Society of Industrial Archeology
by Allan King Sloan © 1999
June 5, 1999 – Savannah, Georgia
A few years ago, my wife discovered Eric DeLony’s Landmark American Bridges at a museum book sale. In it were two bridges built by the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio, which was founded by my great-great grandfather, Zenas King, in 1858. While I was well aware that Zenas and his son, my great-grandfather, James, were in the bridge business, I was surprised and pleased that their work merited mention in a book about American landmarks. Eric DeLony put me in touch with a fellow “pontist”, David Simmons of the Ohio Historical Society, who had done extensive research and had published articles about the King Bridge Company for the SIA. Much to my embarrassment, David Simmons knew much more about Zenas King than I did, and I decided, as one of my activities in retirement, to try to catch up just a bit.
In searching one old trunk in the family attic, I found the pages of a book called the Encyclopedia of Biography, apparently written in the 1920s, documenting the lives of prominent Cleveland families. It contained the following entry for Zenas King, Inventor, Executive: “Each great practical scientific achievement that has meant comfort, convenience, and utility to the world has had connected with it one outstanding name, the name of a benefactor of his kind for all time to come. What Bell is to the telephone, Morse to the telegraph, Fulton to the steamboat, and Goodyear to the vulcanized rubber industry, Zenas King is to the science of building iron bridges.”
I was astonished by this sweeping statement, merited or not, but it certainly inspired me to keep on looking.
I was further surprised to learn that Zenas King decided that he wanted to build bridges when was entering his middle years.
He was born in Vermont in 1818 and it was only when he was forty years old that became involved in the iron bridge business. In the interval, he successively worked on his father’s farm in upstate New York, migrated to Ohio as a young man of twenty-two and became a successful carpenter-builder and clothing merchant in Milan, a small town in northern part of the state, where he designed and built this house among others, and then a salesman for a company manufacturing iron farm implements in Cincinnati. He was a family man making a decent living with a wife and four children to support when he decided to seek fame and fortune building bridges.
In 1848 Zenas King built a Greek Revival dwelling known as the Mitchell-Turner House which stands today, a historic building noted by historian Richard Campen in Ohio – An Architectural Portrait) as is an important tourist attraction in Milan.
In 1858, he became a salesman for Thomas Moseley , a Cincinnati bridge builder who had invented one of the first practical tubular arch bridge made completely from wrought iron boiler plate. Zenas represented Moseley at many bridge lettings, mainly in southern Ohio. This experience clearly captured his imagination and he obviously thought he could do well in the business.
The building of iron bridges was apparently one of the challenging technologies of the era, (like internet communications today). It lured many creative and ambitious men who saw a ready market for this product.
In the 1840s and 50s, there were a number of inventive souls who saw the possibilities iron bridges and began to patent designs, build production facilities, and market these new bridges to local officials. There was William Howe of Springfield, Massachusetts, Squire Whipple and the Pratt brothers, Lucius Boomer, Amasa Stone, and Thomas Moseley, among others . These were the pioneers in a field that by the end of the century would claim to have over 600 companies associated in one way or another with the iron bridge building business. However, in the 1850s there were just a handful of iron bridge builders located mostly in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
While not among the first to seek the possibilities in the iron bridge business, Zenas was among the first to have a vision of how bridge building could evolve from a local craft to a national industry and he systematically charted a course to achieve this end. This required a number of bold initiatives which he undertook in the decade surrounding the Civil War:
HOW ZENAS KING MADE IT IN THE BRIDGE BUSINESS
There appear to be five main pillars to his business strategy, which I have characterized as the five “Ps”.:
First, PATENTS — he decided he had a better idea for the design of iron bridges.
He obtained a patent in 1861 for a bowstring arch truss which was supposedly more efficient than the Moseley version and, because it was the thing to do for iron bridge builders to obtain patents, he went on with new designs and patents as shown here, including this swing bridge, one of the first. In these efforts, he collaborated with civil engineers he hired who had more formal training than he did – (like Cyrus Force, Theodore Mills, etc.)
Second, PRODUCTION — he decided to build his own factory in Cleveland, where there other complementary businesses with excellent transportation connections.
This was key in the iron bridge business because the materials to make a bridge had to be manufactured and shaped in a factory to specifications created for a distant site, then shipped quickly to the building site. This was the reverse of the process for stone and wooden bridges where the major materials were often available at or near the site itself. These new logistics required good planning and very cost-effective production and management of product distribution.
Third, PITCH MEN — he decided to market his bridge designs to the entire national market by hiring agents to represent the Company in virtually every state.
He somehow was able to recruit and organize a network of sales agents all over the country — this before the days of telephones, the fax, and air travel. In the 1860s, King had paid representatives in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas in addition to those operating out of the home office in Cleveland.
Fourth, PUBLICITY — he saw the need for effective outreach to prospective clients and created some excellent PR products to sell his operation.
King armed his agents with the following ammunition to sell potential bridge customers, and it seemed to be effective. Despite the costs involved in operating across great distances, the Company’s agents were able to make bids low enough to take business away from local bridge builders, some of whom complained bitterly to their local commissioners.
Fifth, PECUNIARY INSIGHT — to achieve his lofty ambitions, he saw the need to create a well capitalized business structure.
While many of his competitors were content to form partnerships or individually owned businesses, Zenas decided to increase his operating capital by creating a stock corporation and in 1871 the King Bridge Manufacturing Stock Company was formed (with a capital of $225,000) with Zenas as President. The incorporators included a number of Cleveland’s “merchant princes” who were in businesses that could complement and support bridge building. Among them were the owners of a foundry and rolling mill company producing iron for railroad tracks, and a railroad tycoon, banker, and civic leader who helped found the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad and the Ohio Central Railroad.
The result of the activities of the Company clearly benefited the “quality of life” of Zenas and his family.
By 1870 after a solid decade as a bridge builder, Zenas was well established as an important member of Cleveland’s business elite. He was by then a vestryman for the church in Cleveland noted by historians as the place where the movers and shakers of the city displayed their economic and spiritual standing. He was also president of a street railway company and had interests in a local bank. He and his family had moved to this imposing mansion on Euclid Avenue, then known as “millionaire’s row”, where one John D. Rockefeller, who was just beginning his career as a crude oil merchant, lived five houses away.
THE OBSESSIONS OF ZENAS KING
Zenas seemed to have a number of obsession which drove his business thinking. These include:
THE WEST— A prominent feature of Zenas’s ambitious strategy was to establish a bridge- building business west of the Mississippi, where there was a growing need for highways and railroads to cross hundreds of rivers and streams in this sparsely settled but booming area. To raise the capital for this strategy, he was probably one of the first to try what we would now call “public-private partnerships.”
In the early 1870s, he talked the authorities of two Kansas towns interested in promoting their economic growth into issuing municipal bonds to help finance a bridge factory to serve the western market. Both Iola, a small town southwest of Kansas City, and later Topeka acceded to this request and the chances of success looked good until the economic downturn of 1872, coupled with the decision of the U.S. Courts to void the use of public money for what was considered to be a “private benefit” put a damper on the approach. With a view to their permanent installation in the West, Zenas’s his eldest son and daughter had become fixtures on the local scene. After two healthy years of bridge making which resulted in the production nearly 100 structures for clients in Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Texas, first the Iola plant and later the Topeka plant were shut down. But this did not stop King from an aggressive pursuit of the western market from his sales operation he set up in Des Moines.
VISIBILITY —By the mid 1870s, the King Bridge Company had built more than 2,700 bridges, many of them patented bowstrings, and by then was producing 250 to 300 spans a year. It is interesting to note that about half of the bridges which the company chose to showcase were concentrated in three states: Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania, where the competition from other bridge companies was the strongest.
However, there were a number of “bragging bridges” built west of the Mississippi, including a 1000-foot, six-span bridge across the Mississippi at Minneapolis.
There are two bridges of this era — bowstrings with the Zenas patent — that must have brought particular pride to the company founder. The first was this two-span, 210-foot bridge built for the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The publicity given to the King Bridge Company as a result of being awarded this contract was a large feather in the Company’s cap, even though the bridge has long since disappeared.
Not so with one other King bridge of the period, which still stands today, protected as a national historic landmark and mentioned in by Eric DeLony’s Landmark American Bridges, in which Zenas would undoubtedly take even more pride. This is this 400- foot, three-span King patent bowstring arch bridge built for the U.S. Army across the North Platte River at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on the Oregon Trail. Built in 1875, it is believed to be the oldest existing military bridge west of the Mississippi River. The bridge became a vital link between Cheyenne, Fort Laramie, and the military outposts, Indian agencies, and gold fields of the Black Hill Dakota region..
PRODUCT PRIDE — When the company suffered failures, Zenas vigorously defended his product and went on undaunted.
The fear of collapse was a feature of the iron bridge industry in the early days, King included. Two King-built bridges were involved in dramatic collapses, both in New England. The first was a railroad bridge near Rutland, Vermont, which collapsed as a railroad engine was making it way across. The engineer was pinned under the overturned tender which crushed his leg, and he later died. The second was the famous collapse of one span the King bowstring bridge built in 1872 across the Merrimac River in Groveland, Massachusetts, less than ten years after it was put in operation.
That caused quite a stir in the civil engineering fraternity, adding fuel to the fire of the campaign against the King designs begun in 1878 by Professor Vose of the Civil Engineering Department of Bowdoin College in Maine, objecting to the design of this bridge between Brunswick and neighboring Topsham across the Androscoggin River. Vose was pushing for “disinterested trained engineers” to consult and inspect bridges. The collapse of the Groveland bridge was used as the example.
Despite these attacks on his designs, Zenas and the Company remained very productive.
By 1882 the King Bridge Company had produced 5,000 structures or the equivalent of 80 miles of bridges all over the country. More than 600 specific bridges were listed in the Company catalogue were distributed in four major regions; close to 200 in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states with over one half of these in New York State alone. There were 195 listed in the states west of the Mississippi, with Iowa and Kansas accounting for well over half of the total. The near Midwest accounted for close to 140 bridges, nearly 50 in Illinois alone, and about 80 were built in the states of the old Confederacy, mostly in Virginia. Kentucky and Tennessee.
During the 1880s, fluctuating business cycles and fierce competition forced the bridge industry to readjust their strategies. Zenas King was no exception and engineered two major shifts..
POOLING –The way to deal with the fierce competition in the industry.
In 1883, Zenas, at the age of sixty-five and in the later stages of his career, signed an agreement with sixteen other bridge companies to form a pool to control and share profits from highway bridge projects. In exchange for preferential treatment in its home area of operation, each company would contribute 13 percent of its profits on a specific job into the pool, which would then distribute the accumulated sums to the participants based on the size of the company. The King Bridge Company and the Wrought Iron Company of Canton were the largest in the pool and thus the chief beneficiaries of the arrangement. Zenas was appointed to an executive committee to control and arbitrate among the pool participants. Such “bridge trusts” were common in the industry at the time but were later targets for antitrust litigation after the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed by Congress in 1890 and parallel legislation was adopted in various states, including Ohio.
BECOMING ONE OF THE MASTER BUILDERS–By way of getting the Company into the large and highly visible bridge projects which characterized the industry in the 1880s.
The bridge builders were backing away from the old bowstrings and the American standard design was being used by more and more builders, including King. There was less prestige in producing relatively small iron bridges across small rivers and streams than by the large, dramatic engineering and architectural marvels spanning the major waterways. Those produced fame for the great civil engineers of the age –the Roeblings, father and son, whose Brooklyn Bridge became the hallmark of the bridge builders, and also Gustav Lindenthal, George Morison, and James B. Eads, and others.
While not a trained engineer himself, hence not listed among those great bridge engineers of the era, Zenas was smart enough to find a way to obtain contracts to build some of these more challenging structures. During the 1880s at least four major long span bridges built by the King Bridge Company were considered among the outstanding examples of the art of bridge engineering of the times. David Simmons noted four in his article; the Cedar Avenue Bridge in Baltimore, the Willamette River Bridge in Albany, Oregon, plus the two below:
Grand Avenue viaduct in St. Louis
This was suspension bridge modeled after the ornate bridges crossing the Thames in London and considered to be one of the most beautiful bridges of the era. This bridge stood until the 1950s, when it was dismantled with some public fanfare.
The Central Bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati, Ohio
This was a cantilever structure of 2,900 feet designed by King Bridge Company engineers ,which at the time was the second longest in North America and got the attention of the civil engineering community.
The Central Viaduct , Abbey Avenue branch, in Cleveland
This project might well be added to this list. This was a celebrated structure (now replaced by the I-90 viaduct) across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It was opened in 1888 to connect the east and west sides of Cleveland after two and one-half years of construction at a cost of $885,000. It was 3,931 feet long and included the Abbey Avenue branch of 1,092 feet. It was hailed as a great engineering feat and of great importance in linking the city together. At the dedication ceremonies attended by the great and noble of the land, including President Garfield, Zenas spoke on behalf of the company. The Abbey Avenue branch of the project lasted until 1982, when it was finally dismantled.
MAKING A FAMILY BUSINESS —While Zenas was a product of his times in terms of his aggressive business tactics, he was also a family man with the intent to make the business a truly a family affair. In the 1870s and 1880s he had his three sons, his son-in-law, his nephew and his grandson serving in various capacities in the Company structure. Eldest son, James’s, whose first important assignment was to work with the Company’s chief engineer who had been dispatched to Kansas City to help establish King bridge empire in the West This was William Vleit who became a noted civil engineer in Kansas later on. In the early 1870s second son, Charles was brought into the Company’s management structure back in Cleveland as vice-president and director, but for what ever reasons that status lasted only a short time. In the late 1870s he disappeared from the structure but was reinstated as a director for a time in the mid 1880s, he was never deeply involved in Company business. Youngest son Harry King was named secretary and a director when he became of age in 1887. He would be involved in the operations of the company with James until the end. Zenas’s nephew , George E. King, a carpenter, was hired as the agent for the Company as part of the Topeka operation. Later he became “general western agent and contract engineer” for the King Bridge Company office in Des Moines, Iowa, to coordinate the activities of the network of agents working throughout the Western states, before leaving to start his own company. Dr. Homer W. Osborne of Coffeyville, Kansas, who married James’s older sister, Mary King, was also named to serve on the board of directors of the Company in the 1880s.
By 1887 the Company’s management and board of directors included five Kings out of nine directors. When Zenas began withdrawing from active management of the firm, his eldest son, James, was designated to succeed his father as the president and his youngest son, Harry, elevated to vice president.
On October 25,1892, Zenas died at the age of seventy-four just eighteen months after his wife’s death. The legacy that Zenas King left to his heirs was impressive. It included a nationally known bridge- building company, one of the top dozen such firms in the country, and enough wealth so that his sons and daughter and their spouses could live very comfortably in Cleveland society in the gilded age of the “Gay Nineties.” Zenas’s business reputation and connections provided his sons with opportunities for participation in banking and other Cleveland businesses.
Despite the death of Zenas, the King Bridge Company flourished during the last years of the century. In the period from 1894 to 1903 it was able to increase the output of its bridge shop from 18,000 tons to 30,000 tons a year and to maintain its position as the largest bridge company based in Ohio, and second only to the American Bridge Company in the near Midwest. In fact, most of the King bridges that can still be found in operation were built during the time when James lead the company.
To meet the challenges of the times, the Company began to put more stress on building bigger bridges for the railroads, including swings, trusses, cantilevers, etc., and more emphasis on non-bridge building, including steel framing for structures like shopping arcades, office buildings, factories, grandstands, etc. It also began to feature more of its considerable talent in civil engineering, represented by some of the outstanding engineers of the era, like Albert Porter and Frank Osborn, who started out in the Company then went on to have brilliant careers and establish their own companies later on .
While the King Bridge Company’s strategy was apparently to remain a family-controlled concern, one of its chief rivals, the American Bridge Company of Chicago, had successfully moved in quite another direction. By 1890 American Bridge was controlled by J. P. Morgan & Company and was about to be absorbed into Morgan’s massive conglomerate, the U.S. Steel Corporation. The strategy of American Bridge was to expand by purchasing other bridge companies. While the Kings were busy cementing their family firmly into control of their business, American Bridge was busy buying up their rivals, twenty-four of them representing over fifty percent of the nation’s bridge building capacity in the first year alone. Apparently the King family was approached to join in the combine, but resisted and decided to go it alone.
Entering the New Century
The Company entered the new century with a seemingly solid business with continuing good contracts and a fine reputation. However, the status of the Company as well as the tranquility of the King family life was about to be shattered when the pooling arrangements started by Zenas in the 1880s and amplified in the 1890s in the reign of James, caused the “bridge trusts” to be actively pursued by the federal and state governments. Since Zenas had played a leading role in setting up the pooling arrangements, the King Bridge Company was a prime target for government lawyers. The State of Ohio brought suit against thirteen bridge companies, including King (and American Bridge), to oust the offending corporations from their franchises to do business in the State of Ohio because “they have entered into an illegal agreement or conspiracy in restraint of trade and in violation of the anti-trust laws of the state.”
To compound the legal problems, James had come down with a severe attack of appendicitis and suffered one of the worst operations one could imagine. He was laid up for months with a wound that never did heal. From then on he was bedridden and miserable, hardly able to function in a business capacity. Harry was forced to play a large role in running the company and when the court case was lost, and the King Bridge and other companies were stripped of their Ohio franchises. To stay in business, the King Bridge Company had to be reincorporated under the more tolerant laws of the State of New Jersey. That was done in May 1906 with Harry W. King named as president of the New Jersey entity. James began his gradual withdrawal from the business, acting as chairman of the board until 1910, and as a director until 1913, when he withdrew from all connections with the business to live out his remaining days, in continual discomfort and distress.
Harry became the third leader of the company his father had created, assisted by the outstanding engineers who were to play the principal role in directing the fortunes of the company from then on. To avoid entanglement in pending legal actions, James’s son, Norman, who had been secretary-treasurer of the Company for about 10 years and who was the lone male heir born to Zenas’s four children tagged to enter the family business, was forced to spend much of his time out of the country in 1905 and 1906 just as he was about to have his first and only child. This whole episode was costly and embarrassing for a family with great pride in the accomplishments of their business and their status in the community, and Zenas’s offspring had little enthusiasm for the family business after that.
During the final decade of the King Bridge Company there was one more outstanding engineering triumph, the Detroit-Superior High Level Bridge across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It functions today as one of the main connections between the east and west sides of the City. This bridge was designed by the Cuyahoga County Engineers office, and the King Bridge Company won the contract to build the center span of the structure. It took the years between 1912 and 1918 to complete and at the time it was the largest double decked reinforced concrete structure in the world and much admired by the engineering fraternity. It was to be the last important project of the Company. It is currently being rehabilitated to continue in operation into the next century.
James A. King died in 1922 at the age of seventy-five and during the autumn of the following year, the King Bridge Company was officially disbanded. In 1928 Harry W. King died at the age of sixty-five after spending his final years as a gentleman farmer. Norman, who was turned off by the family business and enjoyed a more satisfying career as a golf champion, was the only one left and spent the rest of his days helping his daughter raise her family.
Today, Zenas and Maranda King and their children rest with their families in a cemetery plot in Lakeview Cemetery under the shadow of the imposing monument to President Garfield and a few paces from the obelisk erected on the gravesite of John D. Rockefeller. The monument on Zenas’ plot is modest by the standards of some of the neighboring families of Cleveland’s nineteenth-century “merchant princes” as was his “fortune” – modest by modern standards. However, some monuments to his accomplishments as an imaginative bridge-builder and a creative business entrepreneur remain, although disappearing fast.