This Company Made Some of the Largest Machines in the World

In 1896, Samuel T. Wellman, inventor of the first open-hearth furnace, teamed up with his brother Charles H. Wellman, and friend John W. Seaver. Together they founded the Wellman-Seaver Engineering Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Their company would go on to engineer and design steel mills and industrial plant equipment, including some of the most important machines of the early 1900s, which contributed to industrial growth in the United States and around the world. 

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Tracks leading into the now abandoned factory – Photo: Johnny Joo

Samuel T. Wellman was an industrialist, inventor, and early pioneer of the American steel industry. Wellman was not originally from Cleveland, but was born February 5, 1847 in Wareham, Massachusetts. Charles M. Schwab of Bethlehem Steel was quoted calling Wellman “the man who did more than any other living person in the development of steel.”

Wellman began his engineering training at Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont. After finishing his training, he served during the Civil War as a corporal with the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery Regiment. After returning home, he started a career with the Nashua Iron Company, and with some encouragement from his father, had actually built a regenerative gas furnace for the company. This invention caught the attention of German-British electrical engineer and businessman Carl Wilhelm Siemens. He immediately contracted Wellman to build the first crucible-steel furnace in America.

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Factory offices – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
One of two train cars left behind – Photo: Johnny Joo

After spending some time improving on the open-hearth process used in steel rail production, Wellman stumbled into another invention. In 1869, he had built the first commercially successful open-hearth furnace in America. The furnace was built and located at the Bay State Iron Works in South Boston. Through his work in improving upon the open-hearth process, he also improved upon the Bessemer process. He had later become president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers from 1901 to 1902.

Wellman would go on to invent numerous things over the years, such as an automatic bail gripping or locking device for electric cranes, a furnace charging apparatus, and more. He was also a close friend of George Westinghouse, an electrical pioneer who also had a factory located in Cleveland. 

The Wellman-Seaver company was a pioneer company among manufacturers of steel mill equipment. Over the years they had operated, the company gained an international reputation for engineering many of the largest material-handling projects ever built. Initially known for creating and producing semi-automated electrically operated charging systems for open hearth furnaces, the company would go on to win many contracts from all over the world, always expanding their impressive production list of different material-handling equipment. 

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
BATHROOMS – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
One of two train cars left behind – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
One of the massive pulley hooks used to carry pieces across the factory floor – Photo: Johnny Joo

In 1901, they built their plant on Central Ave. in Cleveland, Ohio, which today stands abandoned and quiet.

Not long after the company was founded, Cleveland resident and inventor George H. Hulett would come into the picture, joining the company as executive vice president.

George H. Hulett was born September 26, 1846 in Conneaut, Ohio to parents Erastus and Amanda Norton Hulett. At age 12, he moved to Cleveland with his family, and at age 18 had graduated from Humiston Institute in 1864. After graduating, Hulett moved to Unionville, Ohio where he would operate a general store until 1881, when he had decided to return to Cleveland to work in the produce and commission business. In 1890, he transitioned out of this business when he began designing and manufacturing coal and ore-handling machinery.

In 1898, George Hulett invented the Hulett Ore Unloader while working as a construction engineer with Variety Iron Works of Cleveland. The Hulett Ore Unloader would mostly be used to unload taconite from ore boats on the Great Lakes. Who doesn’t love taconite? Now I’m hungry.

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Reflections in the factory – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Massive windows at the front of the factory – Photo: Johnny Joo

Hulett’s invention revolutionized the way we hauled iron ore on the Great Lakes, which would be hugely beneficial to the universal growth of industry. With the machine having been designed in Cleveland, it was only fitting that it would also be built in Cleveland. The Wellman-Seaver Engineering Company started producing these machines in 1903 at their Central Ave. location. Wellman worked closely with Hulett to improve the design of his machine.

In this same year, Thomas R. Morgan joined the firm, and it was renamed as the Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Company. With Morgan now part of the company, they were able to later acquire the Webster, Camp & Lane Company in 1907. At this time, Hulett had been working with Webster, Camp & Lane, and when the two companies merged in 1909, they brought Hulett on as executive vice president. Hulett acted as executive vice president of the Wellman Seaver & Morgan company until 1917, working with them on the production of his ore unloaders.

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
View of Cleveland – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
View of other crumbling industry from factory windows – Photo: Johnny Joo

By use of these ore unloaders, a job that once took 100 men working 12 hours now took only 25 men less than five hours to do double the work. Originally 100 men would work 12 hours to move 5,000 tons of ore, but with the use of just four hulett unloaders, 25 men could move 10,000 tons in under five hours. At one point in time, there were over 80 of these machines being operated across Great Lakes ports. Over a dozen of these massive machines were being operated on Cleveland’s lakefront and the Cuyahoga River. 

Being able to much more efficiently move ores across the Great Lakes meant huge growth was to come. Over the next few decades industry grew rapidly, and with it so did the wealth and population of Cleveland. The city’s population boomed, growing by approximately 500,000 residents between 1900 and 1930. Business owners, inventors, and industrial workers and their families all flocked to Cleveland to build a life. The city of Cleveland had quickly become one of the biggest and most important cities in the United States. At this time, Cleveland was the 6th most populated city at approximately 900,000, just behind Los Angeles, California at around 1,238,000.

Hulett also invented the Hulett car dumper machine, which was used to unload entire cars of materials at ports and blast furnaces. Another important invention of Hulett’s was the Hulett conveyor bridge, which allowed for the handling of coal, iron ore and limestone. 

In 1931, thirty years after opening this plant, and just as Cleveland was becoming a booming US city, excavating buckets were added to their production line, as they acquired the G. H. Williams Company based out of Erie, Pennsylvania. Just one year earlier, the company had changed their name to the Wellman Engineering Company.

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
The moisture inside created beams as the day warmed – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Person standing below for size reference – Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Photo: Johnny Joo

By 1954, in order to reach a goal of erecting turnkey plants for basic industries, Cleveland-based McDowell, Inc. purchased Wellman. In 1963, both companies officially merged, creating the McDowell-Wellman Engineering Company. Their headquarters was located in the Vulcan Building at 113 St. Clair Avenue. Into the early 1970s, the company built coal docks and port loading facilities. In 1978, the company was purchased by Helix Technology Corp, a company based out of Massachusetts. The bulk material-handling unit and research center were sold to the Pittsburgh-based Dravo Corporation. In 1980, the company had reorganized their Cleveland units as the Dravo Wellman Company, but was again sold off, this time to Blyden-Alice in 1988. That same year, the company decided to leave Cleveland. By 1993, the company had become a division of the Swedish firm Svedala Industries, with almost no representation remaining in Cleveland, aside from one single remaining maintenance engineer.      

Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Photo: Johnny Joo
Abandoned factory - McDowell Wellman Seaver
Photo: Johnny Joo

Before sitting vacant however, the plant was purchased by Cleveland Track Material, Inc., who had operated within the building until 2007. It was this year that the company was sold to Caterpillar subsidiary Progress Rail Services for about $41 million. A tour was held on August 10, 2007 before full closure of the facility.

In the 2000s, when CTM was still operating within the former Wellman-Seaver plant, the company made use of older equipment, including a rolling mill from the year 1900, purchased from Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. It is said to be the oldest hand-operated rolling mill in the United States. The company produced joint bars, compromise joints, bridge joints, paneled turnouts, crossing diamonds, railway frogs, switch points, rocker clips, slip switches, lap turnouts, and hook flange guard rail.

Since 2007, the plant has sat empty, and it’s unsure what the future holds, if anything for this massive relic of the once-thriving US steel industry.


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