The Van Dorn Iron Works Company

The Van Dorn Iron Company was located along 79th Street in Cleveland, Ohio and is in a state of demolition.

The Van Dorn Iron Works was located along East 79th Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio and was founded in 1872 by James Van Dorn as an iron fence fabrication company in Akron. He relocated to Cleveland six years later to be closer to supply and shipping lines.

While waiting to submit a bid for cemetery fencing in Milwaukee, Van Dorn overhead someone mentioning jail cell construction. He believed that jail cells were nothing more than indoor fences, and went to add them to the company product line. Within a few years, Van Dorn’s company was the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the United States, some of which were used in the West Virginia Penitentiary among many other places.

The company expanded into structural steels by the late 19th century, which coincided with the rise of the skyscraper and then the automobile. One of the Van Dorn’s early contracts was the erection of a 16-story iron skyscraper in downtown Cleveland, the Williamson. By the early 20th century, the company boasted over 1,000 employees and an expanded production line that included frames, fenders and other automobile parts for local industries. By 1908, Van Dorn consisted of 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 that manufactured cut gears for shops, trolley cars and automobiles, and the Van Dorn & Elliot Company. Van Dorn was 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 on the west side of 79th Street by constructing a five-story concrete-reinforced building.

In the 1940’s, Van Dorn diversified by purchasing the Davies Can Company and the Colonial Plastics Manufacturing Company. By the 1960s, Van Dorn produced drawn aluminum cans for processed foods and plastic injection molding machines.

Van Dorn announced that it was closing its plastic injection molding machinery manufacturing plant at its 79th Street location in November 1990, and consolidating its equipment with another site in suburban Strongsville. A dip in earnings for 1990 also brought about the need for relocation and modernization. It’s third-quarter earnings showed a 94% drop in its plastic machinery division, operating at a loss. The facility was also aging and not adept to handling modern assembly operations. In addition, much floor space was not utilized due to advanced manufacturing methods that simplified the assembly process and cut the number of equipment required. The new production processes included simultaneous building and testing of its sub-assemblies, team assembly methods, a moving assembly line and the pre-painting of parts.

The company also announced that it was seeking 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  constructed new production buildings towards the western end of the Van Dorn complex but in the early 2010s, was 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 of the bakery and finished goods shipped from the west side. The bakery needed additional space for cold storage on the west side of the complex. Orlando pitched the idea to move maintenance and other functions to the east side of 79th Street, and to construct cold storage facilities on the west side of 79th Street at a total cost of $6 million to $10 million.

The bakery, as of 2013, used a portion of the five-story building for storage and office space. A one-story shipping building was used as a repair and fabrication shop for bakery machinery. Another Van Dorn building was demolished in the 1990s for 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, paid for in part by the Orlando. Based on the findings, several areas of the Van Dorn property required remediation to protect bakery workers. The city of Cleveland and the Orlando Baking Company submitted a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund application in January 2012, and received $1.3 million in May 2012. Demolition commenced on the Van Dorn Iron Works site later in the year.

Saying goodbye to another historic industrial site in Cleveland.

6 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

    1. David,

      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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