John R. Thomas, 1834-1898.
Founder of the Niles Firebrick Company PO1.1374.
Original Niles Firebrick Company
1918 map shows the location of the
Niles Firebrick property.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Niles Firebrick was manufactured by the Niles
Fire Brick Company since it was created in 1872 by John Rhys
Thomas until the company was sold in 1953 and completely
shut down in 1960. Capital to establish the company was provided
by Lizzie B. Ward to construct a small plant across from
the Old Ward Mill which was run by her husband James Ward.
Thomas immigrated in 1868 from Carmarthenshire in Wales with his
wife and son W. Aubrey Thomas who served as secretary
of the company until he was appointed as representative to the
U. S. Congress in 1904. The company was managed by another son
Thomas E. Thomas after J.R. Thomas died unexpectedly
The Thomases returned the favor of their original
capitalization by purchasing an iron blast furnace from James
Ward when he went bankrupt in 1879. Using their knowledge of firebrick
they were able to make this small furnace profitable. Later they
used it to showcase the value of adding hot blast to a furnace
using 3 ovens packed full of firebrick. The furnace was managed
by another son John Morgan Thomas.
Fire brick was first invented in 1822 by William
Weston Young in the Neath Valley of Wales, in the next county
east of Llanelli where the Thomas family lived before emigrating
to Niles. It is recorded that Firebrick was made in the Llanelli
area in 1870 but the market was highly cyclical and it was difficult
to make a living at it.
From 1937 to 1941 the company worked to prevent
the United Brick Workers Union (CIO) from organizing the workers
in preference for an independent union favored by management.
The CIO union prevailed. In spite of this episode the company
had good relations with the employees and tried to keep them employed
during economic downturns. The "Clingans" mentioned
in that referenced interview were Margaret Thomas Clingan,
a daughter and John Rhys Thomas Clingan, a grandson,
who took over management of the Company when T.E. Thomas died
Patrick J. Sheehan worked various jobs
at Niles Fire Brick Company from age 13 up until 1897 when he
was appointed superintendent of the plant. When Sheehan started
with the company they occupied a plant covering a floor space
of 3,600 square feet, two kilns, and the output was 640,000 bricks
per year. The plant was moved to Langley street eighteen months
afterward, and the output increased to 1,200,000. This Langley
street works was constantly added to each year, until the output
was 6 million and in 1905 they built the "Falcon" plant
on the site formerly occupied by the Langley street plant. Which
doubled production to 12 million per year. By 1955 the output
was 25 million. The new type of blast furnaces introduced after
WWII made firebrick obsolete and the plant closed and was dismantled
The work of molding and firing brick was highly
labor-intensive. Immigrants from Southern States and European
countries especially Italy were sought to perform the work under
working conditions that were long and hard.
An article in the March-April "The Niles Register" of
the Niles Historical Society discusses the history of the headquarters
of the company at 216 Langley Street with a pattern shop in the
back where skilled workers created the molds for custom bricks
ordered by the mills in the 1902- 1912 period. After
that the pattern shop was used by the Sons of Italy and later
by the Bagnoli-Irpino Club. This was a result of the large percentage
of immigrants from the Bagnoli-Irpino area in Italy. One of the
founders of the club was Lawrence Pallante an early immigrant
from that area and presumably an ancestor of the reference articles.
Immigration from that area began in 1880 and extended to about
1 plant during the 1913 flood. PO1.1030
Location of original Niles Fire
Brick Company in 1882.
Location of Plant No. 1 and plant
No. 2, 1930 Atlas.
Aerial view of Niles Firebrick Company,
No. 2 Plant in 1956. The firebrick plant No. 2 was dismantled
Daily Times September 9, 1934
Today, The Niles Firebrick Company, the second
oldest industrial works in the city, value a nationwide reputation
for its high grade Fire Clay and Silica refractories. Their products
are used in open hearth blast furnaces, locomotive engines and
for all purposes that high grade refractory brick are used.
The Niles First Firebrick Company was founded
in 1872 by John R. Thomas on the present site of the
modernized No. 2 plant. In 1882 the plant was moved to a site
on the Erie Railroad on Langley Street and The Falcon Iron and
Nail Company plant was built on the former site of the Niles Fire
Brick Company at the mouth of Mosquito Creek (where it enters
the Mahoning River).
After the Falcon Iron & Nail Company was
razed in the 1900s, this site was repurchased by The Niles Firebrick
Company and in 1905 the No. 2 plant was built there. In 1910,
the plant was again modernized and a complete new Silica Brick
Plant was added. In 1926 and 1929 further expansion in the way
of additional kilns, buildings and machinery were made.
The original plant had an output of 600,000 bricks
yearly. The present modernized fire clay and silica brick plants
have a capacity of 20,000,000 brick.
The present No. 2 works, located along the Pennsylvania
railroad at East Park Avenue, is completely equipped modern fire
brick plant, with a working unit of about 300 men. The No. 1 plant,
located along the Erie and B&O railroads, with capacity operations
employs about 100 men. Clay mines in Pennsylvania and silica quarries
in Ohio operated by this company give employment to approximately
J.M. Thomas is president of the organization;
J.R.T. Clingan, vice-president; Mary T. Waddell,
secretary-treasurer; F.E. Gilbert, assistant secretary-treasurer;
and P.J. Sheehan, general manager. Mr. Sheehan has been
in the employ of the company since 1881.
Directors are: John M. Thomas, W. Aubrey
Thomas, John R.T. Clingan, Margaretta Clingan, Mary T. Waddell.
The plant has remained in the Thomas
family through four generations.
Niles Daily Times August 24, 1961
Fire destroyed the original wooded buildings, but they were rebuilt
in 1905 and have stood ever since.
When first founded, the firm supplied brick used
in the puddling process of making wrought iron. Then when the
open hearth was invented, the company switched to a new type of
brick which was to bring it fame and respect throughout the steel
The refractories industry grew slowly until the
1870s when the Niles plant was established. Total U.S. production
in 1870 was about 60 million bricks a year. By 1900 it was up
to 391 million and by 1926 it was up to 1,300,000,000 per year.
By this time, the Niles firm had found it feasible
to construct a newer and more modern plant, Niles No. 2 on the
south side of East Park Avenue. Because of its modern and more
efficient facilities which boosted the annual production to 17,000,000
bricks a year, No. 2 became the more profitable operation and
“Old No. 1” was closed in 1930.
Since that time, the ancient plant gradually
fell into a state of disrepair through inactivity until it was
decided recently to tear it down.
The sentimentalists might say it will be missed,
but that can hardly be the case since the plant has not been used
in 30 years. But it is safe to say that it cannot be demolished
without some of those who worked there feeling a few pangs of
These were the men who helped
build the Niles Firebrick Company, Niles oldest industry.
They were the employees at No.
1 Plant in 1890. Standing (L-R): Louis Rice, Supt. P.J.
Sheehan, Joe Nichol, Charles Ludwig, Jean Euly, Lawrence Pallante,
Mike Infant, John Watkins, and Thomas E. Thomas, one of
the owners and general manager of the plant. Seated (L-R): John
Mullen, Joseph Pallante, Joe Williams, Jim Chero, Tom Lowry
and John Seaton.
P.J. Sheehan, general
manager. Mr. Sheehan has been in the employ of the company since
Old #2 Plant, 1905
A picture of a Niles Firebrick,
manufactured by the Niles Firebrick Company. PO2.425