The Passing of an Industrial Titan: The Van Dorn Iron Works

Situated along East 79th Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, the Van Dorn Iron Works once stood as a bastion of industrial prowess.

Situated along East 79th Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, the Van Dorn Iron Works once stood as a bastion of industrial prowess, tracing its origins to 1872 when James Van Dorn founded the company as an iron fence fabrication enterprise in Akron. Six years later, seeking proximity to supply and shipping lines, Van Dorn relocated his operations to Cleveland.

It was during an auspicious encounter while awaiting a bid for cemetery fencing in Milwaukee that Van Dorn overheard a conversation about jail cell construction. Recognizing that jail cells were, in essence, indoor fences, he swiftly added them to the company’s product line. Within a few years, Van Dorn’s company emerged as the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the United States, with its products gracing institutions such as the West Virginia Penitentiary, among many others.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the company expanded its purview to encompass structural steels, coinciding with the rise of the skyscraper and the burgeoning automobile industry. One of Van Dorn’s early contracts was the erection of the Williamson, a 16-story iron skyscraper in downtown Cleveland. By the early 20th century, the company boasted a workforce exceeding 1,000 employees and an expanded production line that included frames, fenders, and other automobile parts for local industries. By 1908, Van Dorn comprised four departments: the Structural Iron Department, the Steel Jail Department, the Ornamental and Light Iron Department, and the Art Metal and File Department. The company also controlled the Van Dorn & Dutton Company, which manufactured cut gears for shops, trolley cars, and automobiles, as well as the Van Dorn & Elliot Company. Van Dorn also pioneered the development of the mechanical dump truck hoist and later produced tanks and armor plates for Jeeps and aircraft during World War I and World War II.

In 1916, Van Dorn expanded its footprint on the west side of 79th Street with the construction of a five-story concrete-reinforced building.


In the 1940s, Van Dorn Iron Works diversified its operations by acquiring the Davies Can Company and the Colonial Plastics Manufacturing Company. By the 1960s, the company had ventured into the production of drawn aluminum cans for processed foods and plastic injection molding machines.

In November 1990, Van Dorn Iron Works announced the closure of its plastic injection molding machinery manufacturing plant at its 79th Street location, consolidating its equipment with another site in suburban Strongsville. This decision was precipitated by a dip in earnings for 1990, which necessitated relocation and modernization. The third-quarter earnings showed a 94% drop in its plastic machinery division, operating at a loss. Furthermore, the facility was aging and ill-suited for modern assembly operations. Additionally, much of the floor space was underutilized due to advanced manufacturing methods that simplified the assembly process and reduced the required equipment. The new production processes included simultaneous building and testing of sub-assemblies, team assembly methods, a moving assembly line, and the pre-painting of parts.

Concurrently, the company announced its intention to relocate its corporate offices from 79th Street to a new building in the region.

The Orlando Baking Company, which had operated on the east side of Cleveland since 1904, had relocated to the five-story Van Dorn building in 1977. It subsequently constructed new production buildings towards the western end of the Van Dorn complex. However, in the early 2010s, the bakery found itself running short of land and sought expansion space for a new production facility. At the time, production flowed east to west within the bakery, with raw materials delivered on the east side and finished goods shipped from the west side. The bakery needed additional space for cold storage on the west side of the complex. Orlando proposed relocating maintenance and other functions to the east side of 79th Street and constructing cold storage facilities on the west side, at a total cost of $6 million to $10 million.

As of 2013, the bakery utilized a portion of the five-story building for storage and office space, while a one-story shipping building served as a repair and fabrication shop for bakery machinery. Another Van Dorn building had been demolished in the 1990s to create a gravel lot.

A Phase I and Phase II environmental assessment was conducted in 2011 on the former Van Dorn property on the east side of 79th Street, partially funded by the Orlando Baking Company. Based on the findings, several areas of the Van Dorn property required remediation to protect bakery workers. In January 2012, the city of Cleveland and the Orlando Baking Company submitted a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund application and received $1.3 million in May of that year. Demolition of the Van Dorn Iron Works site commenced later in the year, marking the end of an era for this once-imposing industrial titan.

As the dust settles on the rubble of the Van Dorn Iron Works, we are reminded of the impermanence of even the most formidable of human endeavors. Yet, in the wake of its passing, we are left with a legacy that resonates through the ages.


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I worked at the Van Dorn Co on e79th st. From 1972-1988. Not a bad place to earn a living. Paid well & lots of overtime hours. Glad that I am a part of their history.

I live in England and have hobby of photographing the ancient and historic post boxes we still have in use here.
I was delighted to spot a vintage box when visiting New Mexico, at the office building of the Valley of Fires Lava Flow in Corrizozo. It is a ‘pedestal box’ as referred to above, but the paintwork is not quite in the original colours. It proudly bears the label “Van Dorn Iron Works Company”
All the best.

My great grandfather worked for Van Dorn (d. 1960) and is the patent holder for most, if not all, of the jail mechanisms, including the ability to open several cell doors at once from a remote location, or individually. Before it was a key in every door.

Hasting Dial Sr., was one of the few Blacks to work for Van Dorn between 1930-1980. Was there a company newspaper, roster or pics? I don’t remember what my grandfather looked like but, I’d like to.

I have a US Post Office letterbox (the kind that was once mounted on posts) manufactured by this firm.
Did they manufacture very many of these?


I don’t know if they manufactured many, but I do know that there is one in the Smithsonian. Not for any special reason, but the one they have is a made by them, so I imagine they must have been pretty prevalent.

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