Chief Engineer – Crane Iron Works

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Hopkin Thomas (1793 – 1878)


Hopkin Thomas spent the years from 1853 to 1871 (age 60–79) as the chief engineer (Master Mechanic) at the Lehigh Crane Iron Company at Catasauqua.  In that role he would have been responsible for the design of a new blast furnace, the improvement and operation of the power generation machinery, oversight of the railroad design and operation issues,  the day to day engineering issues and the training of apprentice engineers. It is ironic that although so much material has been uncovered on his earlier activities, no records of the operations of the Crane Iron Company have, as yet, been uncovered. (It should be noted that the financial records of the Crane Iron Works are available at the Hagley Museum and Library, but little about the day-to-day operations of the Crane are available in these reports.)


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The Crane Iron Works in the late 1860s. More images here. In the later years, the Crane offices were located on Front Street (see map)


If the Lehigh Crane Iron Works had been incorporated under the laws of the state of Pennsylvania, then “minute books” containing the deliberations of the executive board would have been kept as well as annual reports giving the financial condition of the company along with highlights of the year’s accomplishments. However, the histories (for example, Matthews & Hungerford) reproduce the Articles of Association under which the company was formed and cite that the company will be “subject to and governed by the provisions of the act of Assembly, under which it is created”.  It would seem that this act did not require the publication of the aforementioned documents. Hence, the dearth of information of the activities during Hopkin’s term of service.


When Hopkin entered the service of the Crane Iron Company, his childhood friend, David Thomas was the superintendent of the works. David Thomas left this position in 1855 whereupon he devoted his time to the Thomas Iron Works in Hokendauqua. David’s son, John Thomas assumed the superintendency – he was 26 years old at the time. That very same year, on May 7 to be exact, John married Hopkin’s daughter Helen.  John Thomas left the Crane in 1867 (to assume duties at the Thomas Iron Co.) and was succeeded by Joshua Hunt, who was the husband of David’s daughter Gwenillian. So during Hopkin’s term, the operations at the Crane were under the command of the two Thomas families.


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David Thomas                     John Thomas                      Joshua Hunt

Superintendents of the Lehigh Crane Iron Works 1840 – 1882 - “All in the Family”


The ongoing activity that probably prompted David Thomas to bring in Hopkin was the construction and operation of a railroad that was to serve the Crane Iron Works. There is some reference to a very rudimentary rail operation that was setup in the late 1840’s to serve certain operations at the ironworks (see Yurko, the LVRR). A wagon bridge was built across the Lehigh River (at the foot of Bridge St.) at that time that would access, either by horse or ox teams, the minerals brought to that side of the river. There is mention that rails were laid across the bridge – perhaps for use by steam locomotives, but first by horse-drawn wagons. It was not until 1855 that the Lehigh Valley railroad began steam operations on that west bank of the Lehigh.


The expansion of the ironworks during the decade of 1840 required deliveries of raw materials (iron ore and limestone – coal was delivered by barge) that eventually exceeded the capacity of the horse and ox teams used in the early times.  A railroad was proposed to bring iron ore from pits in western Lehigh and eastern Berks counties. After some local opposition, a charter for a railroad, to be named the Catasauqua & Fogelsville Railroad was granted in 1854 and operations began in 1857. Although there are no references to the requirements needed to serve the Crane, it was a certainty that Hopkin was involved in specifying the load-pulling capacity of the locomotives.


Shortly thereafter – 1860 -  the Ironton Railroad was completed and all these railroads were interconnected and served the Crane via the aforementioned bridge across the Lehigh. Later, in 1867, the Central Railroad of New Jersey began operations on the east side of the river where the Crane Works were located and in the early 20th century rail operations were greatly expanded. There is mention that the Crane Iron Company had seven steam locomotives in operation at that time. No reference to engines operated by the Crane in Hopkin's time have been located.



The iron bridge on the C&F R.R.


With respect to major upgrades to the Crane facilities, there was only one blast furnace added during Hopkin’s tenure – that being Furnace #6 (see Matthews and Hungerford). All the prior furnaces had been erected in the 1840’s. Furnace #6 was erected in 1867-68 – it was 60 feet tall and had a bosh of 17 feet. There is no reference to whether the Chief Engineer participated in the design of this furnace or the blowing engines that would have been required. Subsequently (1880-81) early-design masonry furnaces were razed and replaced by iron-shelled designs.


The activity in which Hopkin Thomas was involved while at the Lehigh Crane Iron Company which drew the drew the most attention was the training of apprentices. Among the most notable was Billy Jones (later Capt. William Jones who became general superintendent of Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works) and in whose biography the following passage is cited:


When at the age of only ten, he was apprenticed to the Crane Ion company, of Catasauqua, Pa., in the foundry department, and later was placed in the machine-shop of that company, then under the supervision of Mr. Hopkin Thomas, whom Capt. Jones considers one of the brightest mechanics of his day. Hopkin Thomas was noted for his development of youthful minds, and it was his boast that he never produced a bad mechanic, and in the later years of his life, pointed with pride to the men who occupied leading positions in the mechanical and metallurgical world, who were formerly apprentices under his direction. In the list we find Philip Hoffecker, master mechanic Lehigh Valley railroad, at Waverly, Pa.; William Thomas, superintendent Crane Iron-works, Catasauqua, Pa.; James Thomas and George Davies, founders and machinists, Catasauqua; Owen Leibert, assistant superintendent Bethlehem Iron-works; Samuel Davis, superintendent Port Oram mines, Dover, N. J.; Daniel N. Jones, general superintendent Colorado Coal & Iron company, Pueblo, Col.


A similar reference to these activities was published as part of a testimonial to Hopkin Thomas by the Catasauqua Dispatch on May 12, 1878:


Mr. Thomas’ apprentices and workmen are numbered among the most prominent and successful mechanics in the country. Among them are two master mechanics of the Lehigh Valley R. R. Company, Messrs. Philip Hoffecker of the Weatherly shops and John I. Kinsey, of the South Easton shops, who build engines not only renowned for their speed, beauty and graceful combinations, but largely imitated by other builders; Mr. John Thomas, superintendent the Hokendauqua Iron Works; Mr. George Davies, formerly of the Carbon Iron Works; Messrs. John Fritz, Owen Leibert, and Enoch Philips of the Bethlehem Steel Works; Mr. Daniel Jones, superintendent of the Cambria Iron Works, Johnstown, the largest corporation in America; Mr. William R. Jones, superintendent of the Edgar Thompson Steel Works, Braddock, Pennsylvania; Samuel Davis, superintendent of the Thomas Iron Co.’s mines at Port Oram, New Jersey; John R. Tait, foreman Union Foundry, this place; Robert M. Forrest, superintendent machinery at Bodie Mines, Cal.; and many others, of whom we are not conversant.


Of these young men whom he trained, he would have been closest to sons James Thomas and William R. Thomas, to George Davies, and to family friend Billy Jones. James Thomas was apprenticed at the Crane during his teen-age years. He became the superintendent of the Carbon Iron Works in Parryville, Pa. (about 20 miles up the Lehigh River from the Crane operations in Catasauqua), then went to Alabama and was prominent in the development of the iron industry in the Birmingham area, before returning to Catasauqua where, with George Davies, they turned the Davies and Thomas Company into one of the more successful iron foundries in the east. His older son, William, was trained  at the Beaver Meadow R. R. operations and went on to have a varied and accomplished becoming superintendent of the Crane in 1887. Bill Jones remained a close friend of James Thomas throughout his life; he gained fame as Andrew Carnegie’s superintendent of the Edgar Thomson steel works in Braddock, near Pittsburgh.



James Thomas      William R. Thomas              George Davies       William R. Jones


Hopkin Thomas retired in 1874, after 20 years as Master Mechanic at the Crane Iron Works. He was 80 years of age. Few men have led as creative and as an accomplished career.


As Master Mechanic at the Crane Iron Works, Hopkin was in charge of the machine shop, the blacksmith shop and the pattern shop. In 2015 records of the Crane, which had been in storage for years in the attic of original Crane Iron Offices, were discovered. This office building had been converted to apartments by the Blocker's and was sold to Vincent Smith in the year 2002. Mr Smith  discovered the records and they were sold to the Canal Museum in Easton, PA.  In 2015 members of the Historic Catasauqua Preservation Association including Debra Mellish and Martha Capwell Fox were given access to these files and they uncovered the following information on who was working for Hopkin in the year 1867.  The names that appear were tracked in the Catasauqua directories of that time period, and the citations appearing in the directories are given. 


Hopkin Thomas Staff

July 5, 1867


Machine Shop

John Trecht 

        Listed in 1877 & 1890 directories as a machinist, 146 Front St (now 130 Front as per 1896 Sanborn map)

John Tait

         Listed in 1877 as foreman on Second St East of Chapel St; the 1885 directory lists John R, Tait as a machinist living on 3rd above Walnut; the 1890 directory lists him as a foreman, 231 N 3rd, (now somewhere in the 700 block), married to Jane. 

I. Davis

        The 1877 directory lists Isaac Davis as a machinist living on Church St., above Second St.  The 1885 directory lists Isaac Davis, machinist, home Bridge near 4th

John Felix

Russ Levis

William Clugeson

   The 1877 directory lists a James Clugston as a laborer living on Church St.

K. D. Spinner

Benjamin D. Lynn         

   The 1890 directory lists a Benjamin B. Lynn, laborer, living at 3rd and Walnut.

David Taylor

William Williams

      There are two Wm. Williams listed in the 1885 directory, one a yardmaster and one a puddler; only the puddler remains in 1890.  Wm Williams, the yardmaster, lived with his wife Naomi on 2nd, between Chestnut and Liberty (see lot map 1876). He was the first president of the board of the Phoenix Fire Co (pg 25 Lambert & Reinhard).

David Hunt

        A grandson of David Thomas, studying under Hopkin (he would have been 13 years of             age before going to college).


Blacksmith Shop

August Richter

          In 1861, August Richter built the Union Hotel at the Five Points.

James Dempsey

        One of the original members of The Humane Fire Co formed by D. Thomas in 1845.

Daniel Davis

         There was more than one Daniel Davis living in Catasauqua. The 1878 directory lists a Daniel Davis, blacksmith, living on Church above Second St. Also, there was a Daniel Davis listed as a laborer boarding at the American Hotel. This Daniel Davis was not the son of Noah Davis.

William McMonagle

         Listed as a blacksmith in the 1885, 1890 directories, living at 121 Church (house # possibly 220 today, and name now McMonigle).  He was associated with the purchase of a one hose carriage for the newly formed Phoenix Fire Co in 1866 following the destruction of the Crane’s machine shop in 1865.  (He also served as a Corporal in the 46 Regiment, PA Volunteers.

James Dyatt

        Listed in the 1885, 1890 directories as a blacksmith living on 3rd above Walnut.

Thomas Forrest

Andrew Kurtz

Ellis Hammersly

         Served in the First PA Regiment, Allen Rifles.


Pattern Shop

David Price

         1885 directory lists David Price, Jr. as a pattern maker living on 2nd (rear) above Walnut); his father David was a carpenter.

Jon Price

         Jonathan Price was listed in the 1885 directory as a pattern maker, a boarder at 227 Front St (this is now 221)..

Thomas Bach…..  

Thomas Bachman, the 1887 directory has him listed as a carpenter.


The specific file that listed these names is given here.



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Rev. April., 2016