The Beginnings of Vulcan

Henry Warrington (1817-1904), Founder of Vulcan Iron Works

Henry Warrington was originally from Manchester, England, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1842. He came to Chicago and worked as the shop foreman in the boiler shop of James W. Cobbs, whose plant was located at Canal and Kinzie Streets. In 1852, he founded what ultimately became the Vulcan Iron Works Inc. This is the same year that Marshall Fields was founded in Chicago, making Vulcan one of the pioneer companies in the Chicago area.

In the beginning, the company was known as the Vulcan Foundry. The factory was then located at 83 Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, IL. The early years of the company were exciting at times. Most people have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That conflagration missed Vulcan, which was across the Chicago River from its path. There were many fires that preceded it. One of those took place in 1859, and a contemporary account related the following:

From the northwest corner of Fulton and Canal streets the fire communicated to the lumber yard of RYERSON & MILLER, consuming nearly 3,000,000 feet, valued at $40,000…From RYERSON’S yard the fire communicated to the Vulcan Works of WARRINGTON & McARTHUR, and thence to the Vulcan Boiler Works, destroying the block bounded by Fulton, Carroll, Clinton and North Jefferson streets…

The principal losers are as follows:…

WARRINGTON’S Vulcan foundry, $30,000; insured $10,000.

Vulcan recovered quickly from this disaster, and placed this ad in the 1863 Chicago City Directory:


Note that Henry Warrington continued his involvement in steam engines. Steam was a vital part of the family’s success in general and Vulcan’s in particular. Also note that Vulcan advertised “repairing promptly attended to.” Vulcan’s ability to respond swiftly to its customers’ requirements was one of the main reasons the company endured as long as it did.

Other products produced by the company included sewer covers, lamp posts, plough shares and drop pile hammers. Henry Warrington operated the company as a sole proprietorship from 1852 until 1864 when he decided to retire. Upon retirement he disposed of his interest to a firm known as Atkins and Burgess who operated the company from 1864 until 1876.

Connecting rod for steam engine, May 1874. Probably the oldest extant drawing record of the Vulcan Iron Works, from the Atkins and Burgess era.

In 1876 Atkins and Burgess went bankrupt and sold the company to O.B. Green. During O.B. Green’s tenure, the operation proved unprofitable so he decided to sell the company.

Henry Warrington and his wife Isabella McArthur Warrington (1822-1904) had three sons, William Henry, George and James Nelson Warrington, who survived to full adulthood. They decided to buy the company from O.B. Green, which they did in 1881. On 12 December 1881 they incorporated the company in the State of Illinois. They issued five hundred shares at $100 per share for an initial capitalisation of $50,000. William H. Warrington held 498 of those shares, with the other two brothers holding one share each. The first shareholders meeting took place 0900 24 December 1881 at the relocated plant at 86 North Clinton Street and 59 Milwaukee Avenue (same location). This corporation survived continuously until it was merged into the “Tennessee Corporation” created by Cari Capital in 1996.


The new corporation continued and expanded on the business of the old, with a varied product line. Sometimes things didn’t turn out as planned with non-pile driving equipment, as was the case with the Caldwell Snow Plough.

Below: a portion of an 1893 “Bird’s-Eye View of the Business District of Chicago,” with two photographs of Vulcan’s facility inset. It’s easy to see that the four-storey building in the centre of the rectangle is Vulcan’s Clinton Street façade as shown in the photo in the upper right hand corner. That inset is unusual in that it was scanned directly from the glass negative.

A portion of an 1893 “Bird’s-Eye View of the Business District of Chicago,” with two photographs of Vulcan’s facility inset. It’s easy to see that the four-storey building in the centre of the rectangle is Vulcan’s Clinton Street façade as shown in the photo in the upper right hand corner. That inset is unusual in that it was scanned directly from the glass negative.

Diagonally bisected by Milwaukee Avenue, the North Clinton/Fulton Street block made an interesting proposition to site a plant facility. It was, however, very close to Chicago’s city centre. Putting a manufacturing facility close to its business district is unusual today, but during the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth it was not.

In 1909 Chicago renumbered its streets; thus, “86 North Clinton Street” is now approximately 313 North Clinton Street, and occupied by condominiums.

Showing off the product: a diagram of Vulcan’s product line exhibition at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY, in 1901. Vulcan participated in most of the “world’s fairs” of the era, including the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It’s worthy of note that all of the products shown here: the leaders, the #2 steam hammer, the drop hammers, pile points, pile chain and the other items are for the pile driving line. It was evident at that point that the pile driving equipment would become the company’s dominant product line.

The Pan-American Exhibition is remembered for one tragic event: the assassination of President William McKinley on 6 September 1901 at the Temple of Music, which was adjacent to the Machinery and Transportation Building. That event affected the Warrington family in a major way: Theodore Roosevelt became President, and he appointed George Warrington as Engineer Commissioner of Lighthouses and Lighships, taking him away from Chicago and of his (by then) limited involvement with Vulcan, leaving the operation to his brothers William and James.

Back home, Vulcan was not unaffected by the labour unrest of the era. The freight handlers marched down Milwaukee Avenue past Vulcan’s facility on 3 May 1886, the day before the main Haymarket Riot. In 1904 a former employee, Peter Klein, was arrested during an attempted bombing of the Vulcan facility. He had obtained the dynamite from his brother and was bicycling from Batavia to Vulcan on 4 July when he was arrested. (Not all of Vulcan’s employees of the era were that discontented, as this account by the shipping clerk of the era attests.)

The 1890 book The iron and steel interests of Chicago by George W. Cope described the company in this way:

The Vulcan Iron Works, 86 North Clinton Street, manufacture dredges and other excavating machinery. Their plant consists of a four story brick building used as a machine shop and a one story frame building used as a blacksmith shop together occupying 150 feet frontage on Clinton Street. They employ 175 men and annually consume 1,500 tons of pig iron and 150 tons of other iron and steel.

The 1903 Supplement to the Directory to the Iron and Steel Works of The United States (issued by the American Iron and Steel Association) listed Vulcan Iron Works as follows:

Vulcan Iron works, (Incorporated,) 59 Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Product, light iron and steel engine and machinery forgings and heavy iron and steel forgings for hammered shafting up to 6 inches, crank shafts, connecting rods, etc. Also make pile drivers, dredging, bridge, and ice machinery, etc.


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