McKenna Process Company
Plant formerly located in Joliet, Illinois - ca. 1920.
The McKenna Company - Its Rise & Fall
by
George Langford, Jr.

Worn-Out Rail - 1897 to 1923
For many long years, when rail had become so worn rhat it was considered no longer usable in main line track, the railroaders took up this rail and re-laid it in secondary track or in sidings; or they sold it as scrap to the big steel producers.  The chief engineer of the Milwaukee Road, aware that worn-out rail still retained about 98% of its original weight, reasoned that it should be possible to redistribute this 98% so as to restore the two essential original dimensions: (1) the rail height from base to rail head; and (2) the head dimension required to maintain the original gauge of the installed track.  Mr. Edward W. McKenna invented the process to do this metal redistribution by rerolling the rail.  Mr. McKenna explored the potential market and found many railroads very interested in this improved use of their worn-out rail and intending to become customers.

Mr. McKenna then designed the required plant and equipment and sought financing.  He found several well heeled investors; one of them
[Howard Morris, married to George, Sr.'s mother's sister, Julia A. Robertson, and General Counsel for all properties to the Wisconsin Central Railway and eventually part of the Soo Line Railway - George, III], was Uncle to George Langford, Sr.  A rerolling mill was built on a site in Joliet, Illinois, and by 1897 was ready for operation.  A general manager had already been hired, but the investors felt that engineering talent was also required.  George Langford, Sr., had graduated as a mechanical engineer from Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School in 1897 and was recruited by his uncle to be McKenna's chief engineer.

At this early stage, the railroads considered their total rerolling cost as only the direct per-ton rerolling charge, choosing to ignore or absorb the substantial labor cost of taking up the worn-out rail, the freight cost of transporting it to and from the Joliet mill, and then the additional labor cost of re-laying the rerolled rail. On this primitive costing basis, rerolling used rail was a tremendous bargain
[less than half the cost of new rail - George, III] and so the railroads rushed in and practically stood in line to have their own rails rerolled.  The Joliet mill was quickly filled to 24-hour, 7-day capacity, so the investors decided that a second mill was needed [to service the western railroads - George, III].  Kansas City, Kansas, was the site selected, the new mill was to be a carbon copy of the Joliet mill, and Father was selected to move to Kansas City, build and equip the mill, and then get it into operation.  While on this assignment, he met, wooed, and became engaged to Sydney Holmes, who was to become my mother.

Moving back to the Joliet mill, Father met with a nearly tragic mill accident, losing his left arm at the shoulder.  He felt that his engagement should be broken, but Mother would have none of that, and so in 1900 they were married.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City mill had caught on like wildfire, and the business so exceeded the capacity of both the Joliet and Kansas City mills that the investors felt that a third rerolling plant was needed
[this time to service the eastern railroads - George, III].  A site near Elizabeth, New Jersey, was selected, and Father, taking my pregant mother with him, assumed the task of building and starting this third plant.  I was born in Elizabeth in 1901.

This third plant was also a huge success, all three plants had business available that exceeded their total capacity, and so the investors sought New Worlds to conquer.  Somewhere, they got the idea of building a rerolling plant in England
[by now it must have been obvious that the imaginary markets were really for new investors, not real product - George, III].  Rather than simply building another copy of the successful American plants, they engaged a British firm to design and build a "modern" plant.  Father was again chosen to buid and get into operation this "modern" plant, but when he had the chance to see all the British design firm's plans, he felt that their designs were unspeakably faulty and refused to take the assignment.  Rather than be fired, he went to England in 1904, taking along Mother, my new sister Lyda, and me [George, Sr. was only an observant "consultant" for this process; he thankfully had no actual authority - George, III]

When we were all installed in a house in Birkenhead, near the Liverpool plant, Father ran into the unpleasant fact that there had been no research done in England of the potential market for British rerolled rail.  He then found that British rails were of a different "bullhead" design, totally different in shape from American rails, installed in track in a totally different way, and even wearing out differently.  The "chairs" interposed between the rails and the ties wore transverse grooves in the bottom of the dumb-bell  sectioned rail, oppositely to the wear pattern in American rails.  When approached, the British railroad people felt that their bullhead design rails could not be successfully rerolled into usable rail, and so they were totally uninterested in becoming customers.

By this time, the "modern" plant had been completed, a customer had been secured, and the plant was started.  As feared, the design deficiencies soon surfaced, the mill could not be made operative, was shut down, then scrapped, and the loss absorbed by the investors.

Back in America again, the three American plants were operating at full capacity, but business was starting to fall off, and for a very good reason.  The railways' costing system had been updated, and all labor, freight and direct rerolling charges were now included to make up the total cost of the rerolled rails.  On that basis the purchase of new rails was competitive with rerolling the worn-out rails.  In addition, the railways were using progressively heavier and heavier rail designs, and there was no way of rerolling rail to make it heavier.

Used-up Splice Bars - 1924-1928
By now Father, who had moved up into a management capacity with McKenna, keenly felt the need of finding a new business to replace the diminishing rail rerolling business.  He had visited one of the Burlington Railroad's big maintenance shops and had seen a pile of worn-out railroad rail splice bars waiting for shipment as scrap to a steel producer.  Taking a leaf from Mr. McKenna's book, Father also realized that a used-up splice bar still retained perhaps 95% of its original weight.  Reasoning, like McKenna, that this 95% could be redistributed so as to restore the dimensions needed to again fit the rails, he designed a method that would accomplish this redistribution by heating and re-forging the bars.  Father successfully presented this idea to the McKenna investors, who authorized him to design the required plant and procure the required furnace and tooling.  The railroads approved the new idea and planned to be customers, a very large and expensive mechanical forging press was bought and installed, and the forging plant was put into operation.

Almost at once, a snag developed; sheer power was not the full answer to reworking the worn-out splice bars into usable ones.  Reworking and redistributing the metal was really a tricky three-dimensional design and engineering problem.  Father, always resourceful, addressed the problem and found several solutions.  He secured about a hundred patents on the re-formed bars themselves, on the forging process, and even on their re-use in railroad track.

Business boomed, but rather than build forging plants in appropriate geographical locations all over the USA, the investors chose to encourage other plants to re-forge the splice bars under license to the Langford patents assigned to the McKenna Company.  This idea caught on, and by 1928 there were twelve plants (none owned by the McKenna investors) paying royalties on their production, producing a large and steady income to the McKenna investors.

But from the time he first took out a license, McKenna had one malcontent licensee.  He was always late with his royalty payments, we had caught him short-changing us several times, and then he stopped paying altogether.  We sued him for the arrears.  The case was full of detailed technical evidence that was hard to understand.  We thought we had a strong case, but our malcontent licensee convinced the Court that he wasn't using the McKenna patents and that, even if he did use the patents, that they were invalid.  The Court issued an injunction, forbidding McKenna to collect royalties from this licensee.  This put the fat in the fire.

Anti-Trust
The Department of Justice, learning that a licensor of twelve licensees had been enjoined from collecting royalties on patents, smelled a possible violation of the antitrust laws.  So, one day, totally unannounced, a staff investigator showed up at McKenna's Joliet office with papers showing that he was authorized to search all of McKenna's records.  Our company lawyer and our patent attorney both considered this an illegal fishing expedition, but their opinion did not prevail, and so the investigator went to work.  He first went through our financial records and found that we had indeed been collecting royalties, but there was nothing to concern the anti-trust division.

Reworking Charge
Here he found what appeared to be what he was looking for: price-fixing.  When McKenna first started reworking splice bars, there was no formal costing system, but by crude cut-and-try experience, they determined that at a rework charge of $10 per ton they could make a fair profit.  The railroads considered the $10 per ton a fair rework charge, and so we were off to a good start.  Most of our licensees were small companies without cost systems, and they were at a loss as to what charge to make.  Father, by then president of McKenna, would write them, suggesting that, pending the determination of the proper charge that they should make, they should lean on McKenna's experience and make the same $10 per ton charge; what worked OK for McKenna should work temporarily for the licensee.  There was considerable correspondence of this type in the McKenna files.  It also turned out that all of our licensses, for their own reasons, had not developed their own cost basis and were content to continue with the $10 per ton charge.  This resulted, of course, in all dozen licensees and McKenna charging the same price.

On the strength of this information, Father, our McKenna president, was indicted and put on trial in Federal Court in Chicago.  Our company lawyer, our patent attorney, and an associated New York patent attorney defended McKenna.  Father, always nervous when facing a crowd, flatly refused to testify, so I was pressed into service as McKenna's only witness.  I was on the witness stand for about two weeks, always stating that the $10 per ton charge was only suggested and never a requirement for a license.  The Court ruled that we had entered into a "Combination in Restraint of Trade."  The little McKenna Company was declared the perpetrator of an illegal price-fixing scheme, we were enjoined to cancel our licenses and were ordered not to collect the royalties due to McKenna, and the patents were declared invalid.  This ended McKenna as a licensor and cost us at least $250,000 in accrued royalties.

Obsolete Forging Equipment
We were still operating our splice-bar reworking plant, making just about enough profits to keep McKenna alive.  But our big mechanical forging presses were wearing out and needed replacement.  Fine, technically advanced hydraulic presses were avilable.  They were better and faster but they were expensive, and the McKenna investors felt that the profits they could generate were not enough to justify the big investment they would require.

Track Repair by Welding
What finally put an end to any thought of continuing the Joliet splice-bar reworking operation was that the big commercial welding companies had come up with a well thought out technique for restoring the worn ends of rails and the worn centers of splice bars.  The decisive advantage of their technique was that the restoration work could be done right on the trackside, along the railroad's right-of-way.  This eliminated the labor cost of taking up and then re-laying the rails, the labor costs of removing and replacing the splice bars, and the freight costs of shipping them all to and from the reworking plants. 
[They had figured out how to replace the missing 2% to 5% of the lost weight of the worn rails and used-up splice bars with little or no handling of the other 98% to 95% of the weight of the heavy track parts - George, III]

The process consisted of unbolting the splice bars, welding back the steel lost from the centers of the bars, and grinding the weld overlay smooth, making the bars ready to be put back in place.  For the worn rails, they first replaced the steel lost from the battered ends and heads of the rails with new and tougher steel, welded on.  They would then bolt the restored splice bars back in place and grind the newly welded rail ends to make a perfectly smooth joint.  As this excellent method was so much cheaper and actually made a better rail-end connection, it drove the final nail in the coffin of McKenna's re-forging mill.

Licensing of Track Weld Repair
Exploring the welding technique, Father hoped that he could prove that one or more of his McKenna rail- and splice-bar-repair patents was being used, and so he tried to work out a licensing arrangement with the welding companies. but he was unsuccessful.

Fossil Collections
We tried all sorts of ideas to keep the Joliet plant alive, but we had very little success.  But one method did bring in a medium amount of money: selling fossil collections.  During idle periods at the Joilet plant, Father and I learned of the well preserved plant fossils being found in the strip mine spoil heaps, twenty miles or so south of Joliet.  A dedicated scientist, Father got deeply interested, and we kept finding thousands of excellent specimens preserved beautifully in the claystone concretions.  We got help in identifying the different specimens from Dr. Noe, the world's leading paleobotany authority, then a professor at the University of Chicago.  I have lost track of the number of different species, many hitherto unknown , that we were eventually able to identify. 

We were assembling the best specimens into a large central collection, very well taken care of, with no idea as to its final destination.  We kept finding many duplicates, all excellent specimens, and Father had the idea of assembling these into small collections for sale.  We did so.  We got together, and sold to the science departments of small colleges, small collections of a hundred or so good spcimens, maybe twenty such collections.

Meanwhile, we were building up a second rather large collection.  The Illinois State Museum got wind of our collection-selling venture, became interested in our Number Two large collection, and paid a nice price for it.

Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum people had seen and admired the Illinois State Museum Collection and were receptive when Father offered them our original, Number One big collection.  Father eventually negotiated a handsome purchase price, and so that collection was transferred to the Field Museum.

Mckenna Company - The End - 1941 to 1946
McKenna now had no mill work, no royalty income, and little money in its treasury.  It was obvious that the end had come.  So in 1941 I looked for a job, found that I could have one back at Belden, left McKenna, and went to work for the second time at Belden.  Father stayed behind to liquidate the Joliet plant.  After that was accomplished, he and Mother moved to a Chicago apartment on the near North Side. 

Curator of Plant Fossils - 1947 to 1962
With time on his hands, Father asked permission of the Field Museum to curate, as a volunteer, the fossil plant collection that he had sold them, but which had not been worked up by the museum.  In 1947, recognizing Father's dedicated interest, the Field Museum hired Father as Curator of Plant Fossils.  Father then authored and had published two guide books on the Mazon Creek area fossils with which he was so well acquainted.  I have the manuscript of a third guide book that was not published.  Father retired from the Field Museum in 1962.  He died suddenly in Chicago in 1964, aged 88 years.