In the mid-twentieth century, Pullman Standard was the powerhouse of Butler industry and commerce. Nearly fifty percent of supplies and materials were purchased within the county. Their payroll funneled millions into the local Butler economy every month. Time and money were donated to local charities. So, it’s no surprise that when Pullman Standard suddenly closed after eighty years in business, the city and county both suffered a loss that has yet to be completely resolved.
In 1902, James “Diamond Jim” Brady and John Hansen opened the Standard Steel Car Works in Butler, Pennsylvania. Brady and Hansen had previously worked for Pressed Steel Car Company. Brady was a star salesman, and Hansen was Pressed Steel’s chief engineer. Brady sold thousands of cars prior to the opening of the factory. With these orders, Brady was able to secure $3 million in capital from Andrew Mellon to start Standard Steel Car Company.
They needed a factory. Brady, Hansen, and their co-investors chose a location to the southwest of Butler. Over several months, workers transformed the Butler Fairgrounds, Stamm’s brickyard, and a pickle factory into Butler’s newest industrial masterpiece. In an April 1902 article touting Standard Steel Car’s grand plan, the Butler Eagle noted that nearly one thousand houses would be needed to house the new company’s workforce. Construction began in July 1902 with the first stages of development by the Lyndora Land Company, a subsidiary of Standard Steel Car.
In a time before government oversight of factories, workers were held responsible for their own safety. High production quotas often caused workers to work carelessly and lose appendages, eyes, or be injured in other ways. Injured workers who sued against factory owners were often met with dismissal or findings in favor of the employers. Standard Steel Car could have convincingly argued that due to the number of languages spoken within the factory, accidents and injuries were inevitable. In 1907, seventeen workers were killed when a ladle filled with 9000 pounds of molten steel exploded inside the factory. Forty more workers were injured, many with extensive burns.
Standard Steel Car bounced back quickly from the explosion. During World War I, Standard converted part of the factory to a munitions plant, producing for countries including Russia, Finland, Serbia, and France. Standard also introduced the Standard 8, the first automobile manufactured at the Car Works. Several other models followed and allowed Standard to expand operations east toward the Island. Standard Auto failed within a decade and the stalled automotive works were sold to American Austin in 1929.
The sale of Standard Auto was one of many changes for Standard Steel Car. Forged Steel Wheel Company merged with Columbia Steel and the combined company was then sold to American Rolling Mill Company. John Hansen, who had retired in 1923 but remained active within Standard Steel Car, died in December 1929 while visiting the Standard Steel Car plant in La Rochelle, France. Hansen’s death left a leadership vacuum during the beginning of the Great Depression. Chicago-based Pullman Incorporated had also recently lost their president. The two companies agreed to a merger between Pullman and Standard Steel Car. The new company became known as Pullman Standard, and was based in Lyndora.
The Depression was a difficult time for Pullman Standard and its workers. Management closed the plant for two years and reopened in 1934. Production continued at a steady pace until the breakout of World War II. Pullman Standard manufactured approximately 7 million artillery shells and bombs in addition to rail cars for the Allies and, later, American forces abroad. Like many industries, women found work on the factory floor during the war. Nearly fifty women remained at Pullman Standard as welders or riveters after the war had ended.
During the post-WWII boom, Pullman Standard employed 4000 people in both the factory and offices. The Red Row was demolished in favor of a parking lot. Second and third generation workers became somewhat commonplace at Pullman, which was considered to be a lifetime job. Despite that prevailing belief, workers could be laid off when production was slow but were called back when demand increased. Both the factory and its workers donated significant time and money to service organizations in Butler and within the county.
The development of the interstate highway system and increased use of trucks and buses had a profound impact on Pullman Standard. In 1979, Pullman’s most famous product, passenger sleeper cars, ceased production due to a lack of profitability. The next year, Wheelabrator Frye purchased Pullman Standard and promised to keep the Butler plant open. Almost 3000 workers were laid off when Wheelabrator Frye instead moved operations to other plants. The final blow came on February 4, 1982, when the plant closed permanently.
Pullman Standard’s closure decimated the county and city economies. In a Butler Eagle article dated February 17, 1982, Mayor Fred Vero estimated a $60 million loss to the county. School districts lost significant portions of their budgets; suppliers and contractors laid off employees. Approximately 2000 jobs outside of Pullman Standard were lost due to the plant’s closure. County unemployment skyrocketed to 17.5% practically overnight.
In 1984, Trinity Industries, a Dallas based rail car company, bought the factory. Rumors swirled that the plant would reopen to full capacity but never came to fruition. The axle works were purchased by former Pullman Standard employees who formed Allegheny Axle. The remainder of the factory site remained quiet until the 1990s, when the Community Development Corporation purchased forty acres and converted it into the Pullman Square shopping center. Trinity Industries eventually ceased operations in Butler and the remaining acreage was sold to Armco Specialty Works and the CDC. The CDC reclaimed the once-polluted industrial lands, and now county, state and federal agencies, as well as private providers, have brought life back to the formerly abandoned site.
The main office building for Standard Steel Car, built in 1910, remains vacant, greeting travelers to Lyndora. In December 2015, an Ohio real estate developer announced plans to purchase and convert the offices into senior apartments.