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Lehigh Valley: The Limestone that Built the World

Cement Kilns at Sayre Park in Coplay, PA

Cement Kilns at Sayre Park in Coplay, PA

The Limestone Bones of the Lehigh Valley

For more than a hundred years, thousands of people across the Lehigh Valley were practically covered in cement. This isn’t hyperbole, the air itself would often become saturated in cement dust brought in from the dozens of cement companies operating in the valley. In this article, we will discuss the interesting history of cement production in the area, cover the importance of The Atlas Portland Cement Company and talk a bit about what things look like today.

Limestone Mining and Cement Production in Lehigh Valley

Drawn in by the favorable geology lending itself to the perfect limestone for cement production, dozens of cement companies sprang up all across the county. At the height of the boom, there were 30 active companies all churning out endless barrels of cement.

 In 1871, a local entrepreneur named David Saylor was experimenting in his own kitchen to create a still rather new kind of cement that, while it actually already existed, he was able to produce it on a massive scale. This cement was called Portland Cement, named after the town in England where it was first produced. He patented his version of the recipe and subsequently licensed it out to just about every cement company in America, including a company named Atlas.

David Saylor Portrait

The Atlas Portland Cement Company

The largest of all these companies in the valley was easily them. At the height of the company, they were producing millions of barrels of cement in a constant stream that quickly dominated the world’s supply. They almost single-handedly shifted where the majority of cement came from Europe to squarely in America. Their cement was used in part and often in full for the creation of many now historic places all across the world.

 In terms of quantity, one project in particular easily stands above the rest. The Panama Canal, being built from 1903 to 1914, sourced the vast majority of the millions of barrels of cement used to build it from none other than Atlas themselves. Another noteworthy construction Atlas had a big hand in materials for was the Empire State Building, contributing 151,000 barrels to the project.

 Nothing lasts forever, and Atlas was no exception. In 1980, Atlas was bought out by Lehigh Portland Cement and folded into the Heidelberg Cement Group. In 1982, they closed their last independent plant and faded out of the public consciousness.

Legacy of Cement In Lehigh Valley

Today, only five local cement plants remain in active use. That doesn’t mean that cement production is dying to a lack of resources, not this time. Instead, it came down to labor costs and the growing prominence of automated machinery, making companies unable to keep up with the changing times to eventually close their doors. The history of the industry in the valley seemed to be in danger of being forgotten.

Then, in 1997, a former employee of Atlas named Edward Pany founded the Atlas Cement Memorial Museum inside the former main production plant. This museum not only exists to preserve the history of Atlas, but the industry as a whole. Mr. Pany likes to cite a favorite quotation from his godfather, reminiscing on the plants: “The Atlas plants are now sleeping, but the memories of the men and women who worked there will live forever.”


Atlas Cement Manual


When you first clicked on this article, you may have had second thoughts about reading. What could possibly be so interesting about cement, of all things? Hopefully, this article has shown you how, if it weren’t for companies like Atlas we may not have some of the incredible works of architecture we have today.

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