MONDAY, JULY 25, 2005

Robert Coleman, Millionaire Ironmaster

While removing an old desk from the Paymaster’s Office, Brian and Bob found an 8-page essay entitled “Robert Coleman, Millionaire Ironmaster by Professor Frederic S. Klein.” It was hand-typed on legal paper, no doubt using one of the dozen or so manual typewriters we found in the mansion. It looks like a first draft, with a lot of rambling passages and its share of typos, but it is quite interesting, nevertheless.

Robert Coleman, while born in Castle Finn in County Donegal, was more English than Irish; his father had moved to Ireland at the request of Charles I. Robert had one brother and six step-sisters. I don’t know why Robert and his brother, William, emigrated; Professor Klein speculates that the family was just too big. William went to Canada and, in 1764, at the age of 16 and with only three guineas to his name, Robert went to Philadelphia.

Robert had only one skill, something that today we wouldn’t even consider a skill: Beautiful penmenship. He was soon recommended to the prothonotary in Reading, where he copied wills, legal records, deeds and agreements for two years. This familiarity with contracts would serve him well later in life.

When Curtis and Peter Grubb, of Cornwall Furnace in Lancaster County, needed a bookkeeper, they hired Robert Coleman. And when James Old, ironmaster of Speedwell Forge, needed a clerk, he stole Robert Coleman from the Grubbs. Robert even lived with James Old, moving between Speedwell Forge and Reading Furnace in Chester County.

In 1773, after three years of working and living with James Old, he did what any penniless-immigrant-turned-future-millionaire would do: he married the boss’ daughter, Ann Old. No doubt aided by his new father-in-law, Robert Coleman leased Salford Furnace, and was now his own ironmaster.

The paper then draws some striking similarities to Henry William “Baron” Stiegel, who also began as a penniless immigrant, was hired as a bookkeeper by Jacob Huber, married his boss’ daughter Elizabeth, and then bought out his father-in-law, taking over Elizabeth Furnace. He then bought Charming Forge, founded Manheim, and started the Stiegel Glass Manufactory, amassing a staggering amount of debt along the way.

In 1773, the same year Robert Coleman was starting in the iron industry, Baron Stiegel was stripped of all his assets. Elizabeth Furnace was closed for three years, but in 1776 Robert Coleman leased the property. Of course, in 1776 the American Revolution started, and great amounts of cannon, shot, and iron chain links were needed. Baron Steigel became a clerk at his former ironworks, and Robert Coleman became quite wealthy. He and his family moved into the mansion at Elizabeth Furnace, now known as the Stiegel-Coleman house. Like Speedwell Forge, nothing is left of the iron works, but the mansion has been fully restored.

The paper ends noting that iron workers were often exempted from military duty, and that Robert Coleman was also given prisoners of war to work at Elizabeth Furnace. I’m sure there was more to the paper — he didn’t even get into the story about Robert Coleman’s daughter and James Buchanan, future President, — but it is lost. Robert Coleman was also a delegate to the second Constitutional Convention, and a state politician. His family continued to dominate business in Lancaster and Lebanon counties for many generations.

I googled Mr. Klein and found two things:

Frederic Shriver Klein was a professor of history from Franklin and Marshall College and the author of over a dozen books on various aspects of Lancaster County history.
Frederic Shriver Klein, historian, musician, and flying enthusiast was born in 1904, the son of Harry Martin John Klein and Mary Winifred Shriver Klein. He joined the Department of History at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1928, where he taught until he retired in 1970. In addition to the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra and the Lancaster chapter of the Civil Air Patrol, he founded the Union Mills Homestead Foundation. As he cleaned up after pigeons in 1954, he never dreamed that he would live to see Union Mills again grinding flour, but he did. He died in 1987, aged 82.

He wrote several books, including “Fighting the Battles: Lancaster’s Soldiers March off to War” in 1975, which is out-of-print but still availabe on Amazon. He apparenlty had his own historic property to save: check out

Addendum August 10: The Lancaster County Historical Society archives has a book entitled “Robert Coleman, Millionaire Ironmaster.” I guess I have part of an early draft.