History's People: Rebecca Lukens, Tough as Nails

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Author: 
Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Publication: 
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
March 15, 2012

Imagine the year is 1825. You are a 31-year-old mother, pregnant with your sixth child. You've already lost two children in infancy. Your husband has struggled for a dozen years to build an iron-making business in the rolling backcountry of Chester County on the banks of  Brandywine Creek.  Suddenly he dies, leaving you alone. The ironworks employees are ready to leave and your overbearing mother implores you to abandon the business.

This was the challenge faced by Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens. Most in that age would have given up, moved in with family, or remarried to find financial security and retire to a domestic world. Instead, Rebecca managed the business and built it successfully for decades all while running a household on her own. She not only oversaw the business, but endured the financial panic of 1837 and the challenges of multiple lawsuits and disputes that threatened the ironworks and her family estate.

Perhaps you could say that, from the beginning, the iron business was in Rebecca Lukens's blood. She was the eldest daughter of Isaac Pennock, an area farmer-turned-ironmaster from West Marlborough Township.

In 1793 Pennock founded the Federal Slitting Mill, which made iron for various uses, from barrel bands to nail rods. The slitting mill, which slit iron plates into thin useable rods, was one of many mills in the county. Northern and western Chester County's abundant streams and iron ore quarries, along with its proximity to numerous farmsteads and Philadelphia, made it an ideal location for successful ironworks. Pennock founded a second mill in 1810 on the banks of the Brandywine, which he named the Brandywine Iron and Nail Company.

Rebecca was born in 1794, just one year after her father established the slitting mill. Educated at Westtown School and a boarding school in Wilmington, she married fellow Quaker Dr. Charles Lukens of Abington in 1813. Dr. Lukens had a medical  practice in Philadelphia but the newlyweds were wooed away from city life with the promise of managing their own ironworks. In 1816 they moved to Coatesville and Dr. Lukens took over the dilapidated Brandywine Nail and Iron Company. Although the works still belonged to Rebecca's father, Dr. Lukens invested heavily in the works' infrastructure, repairing its components and refitting the mill to roll boilerplate, which became their specialty.

The demand for boilerplate was high, as it was the dawn of the steamboat age. Despite the mill’s early struggles, things began to look up. Early in 1825, the young company landed a major contract for the iron hull of the Codorus - the first ever iron-hulled steamboat. But Dr. Lukens never saw the boat, as he died later that year.

On his deathbed Dr. Lukens implored his wife to continue the business. There was, according to Rebecca, "difficulty and danger on every side" as she faced the daunting task of managing the mill. Despite the obstacles ahead of her and lack of support from her mother, Rebecca chose to take on the challenge to support her family. "Necessity is a stern taskmistress and my every want gave me courage," she later remarked, "besides I had promised my dying husband I would remain, and where else could I go and live?"

Rebecca quickly demonstrated a keen ability to both run the family business and attend to the needs of her growing family.  According to Judith Scheffler, West Chester University professor, she was an "assertive, down-to-earth business leader and the matriarch of her family; she was a formidable force with which to contend." 

She was savvy dealing with suppliers, refusing to accept inferior raw materials. This dedication to quality became her trademark. During difficult times while other producers slashed prices to keep their mills going, she refused to submit to low pricing. Instead, she pulled out of the market and wisely invested in the company's infrastructure by putting employees to work repairing and upgrading the works until the market recovered.

Rebecca often found herself in court fighting for her business.  She did not hesitate to refuse payment for substandard products or defend her water rights.  She even had to defend her right to the mill against her mother, a dispute that hung over Rebecca’s head much of her adult life.  When her mother's will threatened to divest her of what she saw as her rightful inheritance, Rebecca wrote a detailed six-page statement in her defense.    

Rebecca Lukens was much more than an iron mill owner. According to Scott Huston, President of the Graystone Society which oversees her home and preserves the heritage of Lukens Steel, her business acumen extended to a variety of pursuits. "Rebecca owned a warehouse, store, saddler's shop, and ten dwellings in Coatesville that generated revenue," Huston remarked. "These were separate enterprises entirely from the iron mill," according to Huston, "as business diversity was an important part of her success."

It would be a myth to say she did it alone. Her brother-in-law, Solomon Lukens, acted as her day-to-day manager. Solomon not only oversaw the ironworks but also served as a go-between to settle matters with Rebecca's mother.

Perhaps Rebecca Lukens’s business genius is most apparent in her plans for the company's longevity.  Sons-in-law Abraham Gibbons and Charles Huston took over in the 1840s. When Rebecca Lukens died in 1854, she bequeathed her estate and the business to her daughters Isabella Huston and Martha Gibbons, with their husbands as executors. Eventually, Abraham Gibbons left the business, leaving Charles Huston in sole control of the company.  

At the time of her death, she was the wealthiest woman in Chester County. The name of the Brandywine Iron Works was changed to Lukens Iron Works in Rebecca's honor.  As the business grew over the next century, the name evolved to Lukens Iron and Steel, and finally Lukens Steel in 1917, a name which remained until Bethlehem Steel bought the company in 1998.

The  company went on to contribute to some of the most important projects in American history. Its materials fueled the railroad revolution in the boilers of Baldwin locomotives, secured our country in the hulls of naval ships and submarines, and even provided the iconic structural "trees" of the World Trade Center. 

It all started with the resolve of a woman who dared to manage an iron company with no guarantees of success.  That resolve is honored today through the Rebecca Lukens Award, an annual award given to an individual that demonstrates those same qualities.  For more information about the Rebecca Lukens Award, visit www.steelmuseum.org.

In closing, I feel compelled to answer the obvious question - am I related to Rebecca?  Yes, but in a distant way. My fourth great-grandfather William was Dr. Charles Lukens's first cousin. They shared a grandfather, also named William. So I feel close to this story in many ways.  And by the way, my wife's name is, indeed, Rebecca Lukens!

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Caption:  Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens. Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.