McKenna Process Company
Plant formerly located in Joliet, Illinois - ca. 1920.
Autobiographical Data - The McKenna Company
by George Langford, Sr.

Mr. Edward W. McKenna, a railroad operating executive, secured a U.S. Patent for "renewing" worn steel rails.  His idea was to rejuvenate a worn railroad track by rolling the rails with as little loss in weight as possible and using them again in the same track.  He interested men with money and founded a company, "The Pioneer Rail Renewing Company."  A plant was built at Joliet, Illinois, and put into operation in 1897.  I graduated from Yale University that year and took a job as draughtsman in the Fall, in the Master Mechanic's Office of the Chicago Great Western Railway  In February, 1898, I learned that Mr. McKenna was looking for young men to learn the rail-renewing business.  So I went from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and met Mr. McKenna.  He offered me a job at $60 a month and I accepted.  I went to Chicago, Illinois, in March, 1898.
When I went to Joliet, Illinois, in 1898, then and for long after, I heard much in praise of the McKenna Process Company's method of renewing worn railroad rail.  Successful businessmen were putting much money into it.  The new business would soon spread over the whole United States, and eventually into all parts of the world.  Its promoters were supremely confident of success, enough so to put their fortunes into it.  The Joliet mill was operating, and another mill was to be built in Kansas City, Kansas.  Rail renewing was receiving much publicity, and railroad executives were rapidly becoming interested.  Such was the picture before me when I went to Joliet in March, 1898.
My first job was little better than than a laborer's but it enabled me to learn very soon just what the McKenna rail renewing process was.  It seemed rather simple, and yet there were difficulties that appeared to me more and more serious as I acquired familiarity with all of the plant operations.  The worn rails were heated, then rolled in two passes which stretched them sufficiently to cut off a foot of each worn end, leaving the renewed rail 30 feet long as it was before.  It sounds easy, but not even the McKenna process could ignore fixed habits in the Metallurgy of Steel.  The renewed rails should have looked and acted like new ones, but they did neither.  Day after day I saw them inspected and shipped, with only one thought in my mind.  They must be made better and soon, before railroad men became alive to the fact that renwed rails are not as they should be.
In 1898 the McKenna Steel Working Company comprised the Joliet mill and one at Kansas City, Kansas, nearing completion.  In August the Joliet mill shut down for lack of business, and I was sent to Kansas City to be night foreman of the Finishing Department.  Things went along there as they had been going at Joliet.  Renewed rails did not impress me at all favorably, due to the rules in Metallurgy of Steel.  I mean by this that in its great sensitiveness to heating, rolling, cooling and cold finishing, the steel reacted in so many unpleasant ways that the production of sound new rails was forever running into difficulties.  These difficulties encountered to some extent in new rail manufacture were greatly accentuated in renewing, due mainly to two things: the difficulty of properly heating a long rail; and the inefficient work of reshaping the section in only two rolling passes.
The McKenna Company officials were aware that plant operations at Joliet and Kansas City were imperfect and that the finished rails needed improvement, but their minds were filled with one idea; that rail-renewing was a wonderful thing and therefore railroad men must favor it.  The Kansas city plant shut down in the Fall of 1898 for lack of business, and I was sent back to Joliet to operate there as Finishing Mill Foreman, then Master Mechanic, and finally, Assistant Superintendent.
The McKenna Company now had the two plants, neither of which was operating steadily, but in spite of that, the promoters organized a much larger concern, The American McKenna Process Company, capitalized at 10 million dollars, and plans were made for a third and larger plant at Tremley, near Elizabethport, New Jersey.  There was no sales department, nor any pretense of determining from railroad men what volume of business might be expected.  The promoters treated that as a minor detail.  Rail-renewing would sell itself wherever there was a mill to do the work.  I was sent to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, early in 1901 to help build the machinery for the Tremley plant; and I went to Tremley in the Summer of 1901, in charge of construction.  The mill was built close to Staten Island Sound.  It was marsh land, and the concrete foundations were put on piles driven into the soft ground.  Then barge loads of garbage and street sweepings from New York City were brought in to make a 10 foot thickness of newly made ground.  It was like building a rolling mill on a mattress, as I realized only too well when finally the plant was completed and put into operation about 1903.
Although there was very little business in sight, the McKenna Company promoters had launched another venture, the English McKenna Process Company, with a completely separate group of investors.  However the Kansas City plant still went under the old name of McKenna Steel Working Company.  We opened up the Tremley plant on two small orders of rails; one from the Baltimore & Ohio; and the other from the D.L & W.  One shipment of B&O rails in carloads on a barge wrecked the float end of our big transfer bridge, and about ten, fifty ton gondolas fully loaded were piled up at the bottom of the Sound.  It took the Merritt-Chapman Wrecking Company about two weeks to clear up the mess with their largest floating derrick and a diver, working not merely in 15 feet of water but also 15 feet more of soft mud below that.  But the mill finally got going on its small orders and finished them after no end of difficulties, and I was then ordered back to Joliet to start operations there. The Company's three mills were operating only one at a time and very spasmodically.  Railroads were slow in recognizing the merits of the McKenna process for renewing worn rails.
The new venture launched near Birkenhead in England was evidence that the promoters were still holding to their main idea of building plants and staking their all on the assumption that railroads must come to them from necessity. That the railroads were not doing so to any great extent was disappointing and suggested that perhaps the sales end of the business needed more attention.  So a Sales Department was organized and got going full steam ahead.  But in the five years of jumping from place to place, operating three mills spasmodically, a haunting spectre growing larger and more threatening confronted me at every turn - The Metallurgy of Steel.  The McKenna Company must master that to attain success.
The Promotion and Sales Department did not take this viewpoint very seriously.  All new manufacturing processes had many initial difficulties which had to be ironed out before things got running smoothly.  The idea of rail renewing was of course fundamentally sound; sales were being pushed; and manufacturing problems would be solved as the three mills secured enough business for full time operation.  And when I expressed my doubts, I was reminded emphatically that I was only Assistant Superintendent with a rather small experience, and that older and wiser heads than mine would deal with the important problems.
None of the three mills were operating in 1904, and so I assisted in draughting the plans for the new mill in England.  Much of it was badly planned and designed in my opinion, and building another mill to me seemed like the height of folly.  The promoters had yet to learn that even their business wisdom backed with money might not succeed in convincing railroad executives that rail renewing was a prime necessity.  However, the English McKenna Company was distinct from the American McKenna Company, although both had the same promoters, and what they did was none of my business.  My superiors made that clear to me.  Then things happened to bring about a change.
This was in 1904.  My boss, the General Superintendent, was to go to England in the Fall as Consulting Engineer to get the mill at Birkenhead into operation and stay there until the engineers were familar with the McKenna process.  I was to remain in the U.S. to take charge of our three mills.  I was to have an assistant.  But then the Kaw and Missouri rivers went on a rampage and buried our Kansas City mill under 10 feet of water and mud.  That flood did an immense amount of damage to Kansas City, Kansas, Armourdale, Argentine, and other places.  It devolved upon me to get to our Kansas City mill and repair the damage.  The flood was still on when I got there, but when it subsided, I got men to work removing the mud and debris and putting the machinery into running condition.
When I returned to Joliet, my boss, the General Superintendent, had disappeared.  He was gone two weeks, then came back to our office for a few hours, just long enough to give me the keys and say good-bye.  He was dissatisfied and quit without notice.  I fell heir to his job.  I operated the Kansas City mill, then the Joliet mill on small orders, and was finally advised by the promoters that they wanted me to go to England in the Fall as Consulting Engineer.  I did not want the job and said so.  I had plenty to do in the U.S., but they wanted me to go to England, and so I went in October. 1904.  In some ways it was a rather pleasant experience.  Being in an advisory capacity without authority or responsibility, I could enjoy life in England.  But the mill was a nightmare, rapidly going from bad to worse.  Then in July, 1905. they cabled me to take the first boat back to the U.S.  Things were going badly at Joliet.  I sailed for home on the Campania.  The trouble was the same old spectre that ever hovered about to bedevil me - The Metallurgy of Steel.  Renewed rails could not pass inspection.  I has a tough time of it getting the Joliet mill clear of the mess it was in but got through it all somehow.  Things went better, but not good enough.  Railroad men were beginning to find that renwing rails was a dubious economy.
The English mill and company soon passed out of the picture, and that investment was more than a total loss.  That ended further building of mills. The McKenna Company was doomed from then on.  I was sent to various places seeking old heavy rail for rerolling and found only poor stuff as a rule unsuited for our purpose.  "Renewing" worn heavy rails made no hit with railway engineers, and no business of that kind developed.
It is much easier to judge looking backward than looking ahead.  We make mistakes because we cannot foresee difficulties that turn us from the right course.  I do not mean difficulties that everyone encounters at one time or another, but the difficulties of a course whose principal attention was then concentrated on sales - an endeavor to see and interest railroad executives.  I took considerable part in that, but there was something else looming up to worry about.  This was my old bugbear, The Metallurgy of Steel, grown a lot bigger and more threatening in the form of Open Hearth steel rails.
Until about 1908 our experience had been with Bessemer rails entirely.  Steel, made by the Bessemer process, was inclined to be soft.  Bessemer rails did not wear well under increasingly heavy traffic, and before 1900 railroads had been trying out steel rails made by the Basic Open Hearth process.  These Open Hearth rails were of increased carbon content, which made them harder.  It also made them more sensitive to reheating, an important step in the McKenna process.  The reheating temperature had to be lowered below that of Bessemer rails; otherwise, when renewed, the rails would be brittle and liable to break in track.  However, this lower temperature made rolling difficult with light draughts and only two passes and accentuated our former difficulties with twisted and crooked rails, badly sawed ends, too rapid roll wear and other unpleasant things that rail mill operators were familiar with.
When Open Hearth rails began to come to us for renewing, I was in for a bad time.  After a long shut-down, I had to open up the New Jersey mill on an order of Open Hearth rails.  The mill had not been operated enough to find and cure its numerous mechanical imperfections, and these occupied about 90% of our attention, all of which should have been concentrated on those Open Hearth rails.  The result was brittle rails, crooked rails and what not.  We had several other short runs at the New Jersey plant later on that did better but not well enough to avoid breakage in track.  The eastern railroads soon had their fill of rail renewing.
Both the New Jesey and Kansas mills were shut down indefinitely and all devolved upon the Joliet mill.  From about 1910 to 1917 we still received many Bessemer rails and increasing numbers of Open Hearth rails.  We segregated the latter and nursed them along as carefully as we could but not without ever fully mastering their obstinacies.  McKenna Company executives were now fully alive to the fact that renewing old rails must fail if the metallurgical difficulties remained unsolved, for our business would soon be concerned with Open Hearth rails entirely.  Newly made Open Hearth rails were beginning to worry railroad men with "transverse fissures" [now known as hydrogen flakes - George, III] which caused sudden breakage in track.  Their worry on that score did not help matters any.  We did many things to coddle Open Hearth rails along, and some of these things seemed for a time to breathe new life into the McKenna process's failing health.  I tried out successfully a new method of rolling [see US Patent No. 1,212,364  - US Patent No. 1,212,365 and US Patent No. 1,212,964 - George, III] to overcome the difficulties of working steel at low temperatures.  This enthused our western railroad sufficiently to give us business for a time at the Kansas mill.  Another railroad joined in a bit later, and several others in the Chicago region favored the new method and gave us some business.
However, our greatest reprieve came from new practices in rail straightening [see US Patent No. 1,314,877 - George, III] which involved a method of cooling the hot rails and straightening them when cold in presses with widely spaced anvil supports.  These new practices attracted the attention of the most prominent engineer of one of our largest railroads, and our Joliet mill became a sort of guinea pig to try out these new methods for use in the much larger field of new rail manufacture.  When these methods were finally adopted in the country's rail mills, our Joliet plant had served its purpose.  The World War had come and gone and our big rail customer was still with us.  Then came [in 1922 - George, III] the E.J. & E. Ry. [Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway - George, III] Shopmen's Strike, when our mill operated for two months full tilt, but unable to ship anything in or out.  The Sheriff was shot and badly wounded, and an assistant and a striker killed at our very door.  Then the troops came and camped around us to preserve order; and finally our big eastern railroad customer left us cold.
We acquired another customer, a western railroad.  A new method of hot straightening revived things, but only briefly.  When we passed into 1923, the McKenna jig was up.  The Metallurgy of Steel had us licked.  The McKenna process promoters had staked their fortunes on an idea and had lost.  They might have first tried out the idea with only the one Joliet mill to determine the practicability of the idea, but they did not choose to do that.  The renewing of worn rails was to become more and more impractical as the volume, speed and weight of traffic increased and called for better rails.  Rail-renewing could not keep up with the improvements demanded by The Metallurgy of Steel.  It was not in the cards.  For 25 years I had been bucking my head against a stone wall.
Then, late in 1924, something else bobbed up.  I conceived the idea of renewing or re-forming worn rail joint bars with press and dies [see US Patent No. 1,659,776 - George, III].  The McKenna Company Directors approved, and so I designed and built a bar-re-forming plant.  We got going late in 1925 and ran into all sorts of trouble, which we ironed out bit by bit.  The Old Metallurgy of Steel reared its ugly head again.  Our re-formed Open Hearth bars were too brittle, and it appeared that many of them had acquired a tiny crack while in service.  This crack was in the middle of the top and would cause the bar to break when re-formed and used again.  But we found out how to cure these ailments and did cure them [see US Patent No. 1,712,506 and US Patent No. 1,732,650; see also the ultimate splice-bar reforming practice that evolved under George, Sr.'s, watchful eyes - George, III]
Throughout the period from 1929 to 1943, we continued the kind of business which I was trying hard not to believe was fundamentally unsound.  With the change from soft to hard, higher carbon steel, the renewing of steel railroad rails was doomed.  For as far back as 1920 I was fearful of that, but we continued with the hope that we could beat it with improvements in our methods.  The main difficulty, as became evident later, was that we could not renew high carbon rails successfully without overheating and injuring the steel.  The re-forming of worn joint bars promised success for a time, but that, too, became a flop when cutthroat competition got under way.  Our numerous patents simply got us involved with the Rail Joint Company.  For a time we rode the crest, then came down with a bang.
There were legal battles with the Bert Lentz - A. Schupp Company backed by George Woodruff, Lawrence Wilbur and his outfit at Aurora, Illinois, and Schaeffer, who eventually moved his company to Fort Worth, Texas.  All this got into the Rail Joint Company's hair.  When I stuck my neck out with the Sellers Company and invited a suit in 1937, the McKenna Company took a bad beating.  We might have saved something out of the wreck with a more judicious handling of the McKenna - Blatchfield decision in our favor, but our attorney William D. Heise died in 1941, and when John Newhall of Aurora took over, nothing was done until the F.B.I. stepped in and slapped, first a criminal suit, and then a civil suit upon us.  The Rail Joint Company and licensees stepped out, and the McKenna Company was left holding the bag.  We lost the civil suit before Judge Barnes in Chicago; the McKenna Company slowly breathed its last; and that about washed up my approximately 45 years of life in a business that I should never have gotten into. [See George, Jr.'s history of McKenna - George, Jr. had a less emotional response to this episode than did George, Sr. - George, III]
However, in 1943 the McKenna still breathed, although feebly, drawing some income from its numerous patents, also considerable litigation in respect to those patents.  In the period 1943 to 1946, the McKenna office and mill land remained to be dispersed.   The office became a target for young hoodlums who smashed the windows and even the tile roof, but I finally sold it to Freeman, who made it his junk-shop.  
The mill land was not ours; so it proved.  The E.J. & E. Ry. had strings attached to it in their deed of about 1897.  Nobody in the McKenna Company appeared to be aware of that.  We finally got $1000 which the E.J. & E. considered to be blackmail because we could not give them a quit-claim for nothing.  Judge Barnes' decision in Chicago had made our patents worthless.  That washed things up.  The Charter of the McKenna Company was revoked, and the McKenna Company was given an unwept but decent burial.
Had we continued reforming bars, I think that we would have licked Old Metallurgy of Steel completely.  Our problems were much the same as with rails, although we could succeed with short bars where we failed with long rails.  Long lengths were the most troublesome feature.  In 1896 the Joliet Mill was designed to handle the standard length of 30 feet.  The standard was later increased to 33 feet and then to a still longer length.  The rail joint bars were only 2 to 3-1/2 feet long, easy to heat and manipulate; those things were very difficult to do with long rails.
Strangely enough, the McKenna process has been primarily concerned with rail joints from beginning to end.  McKenna's conception of renewing rails was mostly concerned with a renewal of the joint.  It was then common practice for railroads to repair worn track by taking up the rails, cutting a foot or so off of the worn and battered ends; drilling new bolt holes; and then putting the rails back into track, the rail lengths being shortened by this method.  The McKenna process rolled a 30 foot rail to about 32 feet, then sawed off about 1 foot of each battered end, making the rail 30 feet long, as it was in the first place.  The railroad practice of repairing worn rail joints has been largely discontinued, now that worn rail joints can be repaired and battered rail ends restored by welding on metal.
The McKenna process failed dismally in bringing prosperity to those who promoted it, and yet it contributed in very large measure to railroad maintenance, which profited by its various experiences and disclosures.  In that it was successful, although that was no comfort to those who invested in the McKenna Company.
And I might conclude with my own personal opinion of rerolling, renewing or reforming worn rails, bars and other steel shapes to their original usage or into other steel shapes.  Old Metallurgy of Steel is a hard taskmaster.  Perhaps these worn-out appliances would do better if consigned to the melting-pot where they could begin anew, starting from scratch.