In the June 2017 Issue...

Hamilton Disston

The Philadelphia Story Unfolds in Tombstone

Tombstone Epitaphhe image of Edward Schieffelin, in slouch hat and knee-high boots, with gun in hand, tells one story – the romantic one – of Tombstone’s founding. It is the tale, quite true, of a gritty, determined prospector who combed the West for years before finding a rich silver lode in Apache Indian territory in southern Arizona.

There is another story, less frequently told, of how Tombstone became a major silver mining town after Schieffelin, his brother, Al, and Richard Gird launched the Tombstone silver boom in 1878. That story leads into Parlor C of the Continental Hotel, a richly decorated room in what in its day was Philadelphia’s premier hotel.

In that room, on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1878, several men gathered behind Hamilton Disston, a well-known Philadelphia industrialist, to form the Orion Silver Mining Company. Their on-the-ground investigator, Elbert A. Corbin, member of a successful Connecticut manufacturing family, had reported that they “had a bonanza in their grasp,” according to a story that appeared in The Philadelphia Times the following day. The new company’s name came “not from the constellation in the skies,” the story said, but from Hamilton Disston’s love for the Orion Club, a tony seven-year-old men’s organization

The men, the paper reported, were seeking “fresh fields for the investment of their spare money.” So they organized Orion to purchase 11 mining sites in Arizona and arranged to buy the company’s stock at ultra-low prices – about one-tenth the price when the stock was subsequently offered for sale.

In spring 1880, the men gathered for a second time, this time at Philadelphia’s Union Club, a Republican Party enclave, to toast another heady moment. During a two-month-long Western trip – traveling in the “Isaak Walton,” a well-appointed Pullman Company parlor car – Disston’s group had used a new entity, the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company, to buy out the Schieffelin brothers’ interests in Tombstone. That ensured that the bulk of the profit from the Tombstone mines found its way to Philadelphia.

The city’s mayor, William S. Stokely, was among those present for the “congratulatory” gathering. So was Major F. X. Cicott, chief coiner of the U. S. Mint in San Francisco, along with one of the most important players in connecting Philadelphia industry and Arizona silver: Anson P. K. Safford, the former territorial governor.

“McClurg’s band enlivened the occasion with their music,” The Times reported. “At half-past 9 o’clock the company sat down to dinner in the club room, which was handsomely decorated with bright lights, flowers and cages of birds, tropical plants and green vines.”

For the next two years, Tombstone Mill & Mining cranked out dividends amounting to 12 percent per year. Then it was forced to take a “breather” due to what its president termed mounting expenses. Before that happened, however, Disston already was moving onto the next big thing – what the New York Times called the largest individual land transaction in U. S. history.

But who was this “charismatic and energetic young man,” only 34 when he and his Philadelphia cohorts decided to take the plunge into Arizona silver? To anyone who’s spent any time around tools, the Disston name is well known. In the second half of the 19th century, when nearly all tools used in America were made in America, Disston held the position of being the world’s largest saw manufacturing company. Its plants occupied sites in downtown Philadelphia and at Tacony, along the Delaware River. At its peak, Disston, which employed more than 2,500 workers, represented the industrial Northeast before the rust took hold.

Disston was the oldest of nine children, including four sons, born to Henry and Mary Disston. At 25, Henry Disston, an English immigrant, used $200 in borrowed money to open a saw manufacturing shop in Philadelphia. Owing to a lease dispute, Disston lost the money, his saw-making equipment, and his shop. He was not deterred: “The undaunted Disston promptly went to work at home, making tools until he could buy back his equipment,” according to Louis M. Iatarola of the Historical Society of Tacony.

Henry Disston was not content to be a small-scale toolmaker. By elevating tool quality and being attentive to workers, the Disston Keystone Saw Works began to emerge as a dominant player in tool manufacturing.

In 1859, Hamilton Disston, then 15 years old, became an apprentice in his father’s company. The elder Disston took the traditional view that anyone destined for company management had to rise through the ranks. When the Civil War broke out the following year, the Union turned to Disston Saw Works for war materiel. Disston also supported the Union by offering bonuses to workers who joined the war effort. They were also promised a job would await them when the war was over.

Hamilton Disston, following the patriotic fervor that washed over Pennsylvania, wanted to join the Union Army. But his father would have none of it, twice paying a bonus to keep his eldest son out of uniform. Not to be outdone, Hamilton used his membership in a local volunteer fire company to organize a group of men intent on entering the Union ranks. As an early example of Hamilton’s persuasive skills, the elder Disston relented, going so far as to equip his son’s unit to go off to war.

The war’s end marked turning points for Hamilton Disston and the family saw works. Henry Disston made his eldest son a full partner in the firm. Meanwhile, the company, benefiting from its war contracts, grew and prospered. Within a few years, Disston no longer could meet its customers’ demands from its factory at Front and Laurel streets. As a result, Disston acquired almost 400 acres of land along the Delaware River, including 40 acres reserved for a new factory.

Tacony soon was a company town. Homes, a park, schools, churches, a music hall, library, and other community facilities either were donated or financed by the Disston Saw Works. The goal was to create “a stable, family oriented atmosphere,” according to Iatarola.


Firefighter and Political Force

Tombstone Epitaphy the early 1870s, Hamilton Disston was more than a young industrialist. Although still in his mid-twenties, Disston became heavily involved in Philadelphia civic affairs and politics. Drawing on his past as a Northern Liberty volunteer firefighter, he served as a city fire commissioner and joined scores of other city leaders in donating money to victims of the 1871 Chicago fire. Disston became a power player in Republican Party politics, particularly on the issue of whether candidates for public office would pass muster in the city’s 29th ward. Throughout the 1870s, Philadelphia newspapers frequently reported on Disston’s battles for ward control.

They also tracked many other Disston activities, large and small. Disston liked to race his yacht, Mischief, on the Delaware River. He also liked the waters off Atlantic City, N. J., then a popular coastal resort for the rich and famous. In its coverage of yacht race there in early August 1875, The Times noted, “Conspicuous among this multitude – which was really a very respectable multitude – loomed up the indefatigable Mr. Hamilton Disston, who is quite as noted for the interest he takes in outdoor sports as that…in the political field.”

Disston also was front and center when Philadelphia, the home of Independence Hall, turned out en masse for the nation’s centennial celebration on July 4, 1876. In advance of the celebration, the Disston Saw Works gave each of its 1,000 employees a silver half-dollar coin so they could attend the city’s centennial celebration.

On July 4, “the Disston army of workmen,” participated in an exuberant demonstration. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “With circular saws in motion, ‘crosscut’ and hand saws carried aloft, with steam engines screaming and wagons full of workmen forging machinery, (they) attracted the chief attention of spectators, and created a marked sensation everywhere.”

In 1877, Disston was named president of the National Immigration Bureau and Industrial Exposition, an event designed to showcase the “resources and advantages of each state and territory of the United States.” The standing exhibits at Philadelphia’s Machinery Hall − agricultural products and mineral samples – may have marked Disston’s initial exposure to Western resources, including the nascent silver industry in northern and central Arizona. Meanwhile, along with George Burnham, president of the giant Baldwin Locomotive Works, Disston was exploring the creation of a steamship line that would run between Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Burnham later became president of Tombstone Mill and Mining Company.

(The full version of this story appears in our print edition. To subscribe, click here.)

Our other June features…

The Lynching of Jim Averell and “Cattle Kate” – When cattle rustlers moved into the Wyoming range in the late 1880s, established cattlemen decided to take the law into their own hands. In one incident in the Sweetwater country, two suspected rustlers, Jim Averell and Ella Watson – usually called Cattle Kate – were marched to a secluded location where they were hanged. Although six local cattlemen were arrested, they were never indicted after witnesses proved unwilling to testify against the perpetrators.

The Strange Rancho Muscupiabe Land Claim Case – In 1843, the Mexican governor of California gave Michael White a square league of land near San Bernardino on his promise he would stop Indians from spiriting cattle from Southern California via Cajon Pass. Though White soon failed in that quest, he retained a half interest in the Rancho Muscupiabe, finally agreeing to sell out to Henry Hancock, a surveyor working on adjudicating Mexican land claims in California in the aftermath of the Mexican American War. In a clever trick, Hancock managed to increase the rancho’s size from one to seven square leagues. As a result, the rancho’s true size was debated for years. Despite assertions of fraud by the U. S. General Land Office, the U. S. Supreme Court decided in 1890 that no fraud had been perpetrated.

Dick Wick Hall’s Dance With Salome – Few people pass through Salome, Ariz., anymore. In the 1920s, however, Salome was often a necessary stop for automobile travelers between Los Angeles and Phoenix. While there, visitors soon got their fill of the humorous antics of Dick Wick Hall, a mines and land promoter who operated Salome’s “Laughing Gas Station.” Poking fun at Salome and just about everything else, Hall produced a mimeographed “newspaper,” the Salome Sun, “to make you smile for half a mile.” On politics, Hall said, “Democrats were always crying for something and Republicans generally get it – so I became a Republican.” In another one-off, Hall wrote, “Tourists stopping at the Salome Service Station always get their TANKS full of gas; at some of these sage brush and side track stations they get their EAR full.”

And Much MoreOur regular features, including Frontier Fare, YesterWest, the Adventures of Randy Jones and Booger Red, Twisted Tails, and the antics of the Buffalo Gals.


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