She was widowed and pregnant with her fifth child when this young Quaker took charge of her husband’s steel mill, kept it running, and paid off its debts. Now the oldest continually operating iron and steel mill in America, Lukens Steel in Coatesville, Pennsylvania is a monument to a brave woman’s faith and determination.
In the summer of 1825, Charles Lukens died suddenly leaving behind his pregnant, 31 year-old wife and four children, and she wondered how she would ever manage without him, having depended on him so closely throughout their marriage. Added to those burdens, their mill was deeply in debt. Rebecca didn’t know a thing about running a business, but that’s exactly what Charles had in mind when he had spoken his last words to her. In her memoirs she recalled, “My husband had just commenced the Boiler Plate Business and secured sufficient workmen to carry it on. This was a new branch in Pennsylvania and he was sanguine in his hopes of success. It was his dying request that he wished me to continue and I promised to comply.”
A female ironmaster was unheard of, yet that’s what Charles Lukens wanted his wife to become and for her, there was no possibility of going back on her word. She was a devout Christian, and she had made a promise.
When word spread to the mill’s workers of Mr. Lukens’s death, they paid their respects and with resignation and sadness, packed up their families and their belongings to head out west for Pittsburgh.
Rebecca got wind of their plans and acted quickly, meeting the workers on the road. Without those men, the mill would surely go under. “Please stay with us!” she urged them.
Although they liked her well enough, they had to do right by their own families. No one can live on sentiment, after all. Then she dropped her bombshell. “I am going to run the mill! My husband asked me to do so before he died.”
The men were understandably incredulous. “No woman can run a steel mill,” they said. They hated being blunt considering her condition, but this woman had to face reality--iron-smelting and steel-making were men’s work. Still, there was something terribly winsome about Rebecca, and they stopped long enough to listen.
Rebecca didn’t sugar coat her plea. “Making a success of the mill will be difficult,” she admitted, “but if you stay with me, I will take care of you.”
The men scratched their heads as they consulted their wives and each other. It wasn’t like they wanted to leave the beautiful Chester County, Pennsylvania countryside or turn their backs on this woman, but could she pull it off? Persuaded by Rebecca’s clear-headed realism and determination, the men returned to their jobs.
As she assumed the duties of “iron mistress,” Rebecca Lukens was not without her critics. Most people believed that a steel mill was no place for a woman, especially a pregnant Quaker. What else could she do, however? There seemed no other way to keep her family going, and she had made a solemn promise to her husband, one that must be kept. Her men rallied around her, especially
grateful that unlike other steel mills, the Lukens operation didn’t stop when the nearby river ran too low to continue production. Rather than lay off her workers, Rebecca employed them on the adjoining farm.
In nine years the debts were paid off. Rebecca also steered the company through six financial panics and through it all, her employees never spent a day out of work. In addition, Rebecca was forward-looking like her husband had been, interested in the march of technological progress. She “prophesied” that one day there would be a high bridge spanning the Brandywine Creek, instead of the small stone bridges in use at the time. Such a superstructure would permit trains to come closer to her iron and steel works, then her product could be sent further than the 50 to 75 miles it had reached before that. In 1833, the bridge become reality, and Lukens Steel’s business contacts expanded greatly.
Lukens Steel is now the oldest continually operating iron and steel mill in America. Robert Wolcott, past president of the company and Rebecca’s descendant, cited her:
simple directness, faith, sincerity, and earnestness. . . . These indeed were contributions, rockbedded in the eternal and priceless values of character. She had known what suffering is, and out of that suffering arose strength and understanding and determination. (Janney, p. 116)
Do you know any women who succeeded against all odds? I’d love to hear about them!
This story is adapted from Dr. Rebecca Price Janney’s best selling Great Women in American History (Moody Publications). In that book you will find Rebecca Lukens’s full story, along with those of 22 other women of faith and principle. For more about Rebecca Price Janney, go to www.rebeccapricejanney.com. Be sure to follow her on Twitter--@rebeccajanney--and Facebook (Rebecca Price Janney).