David Thomas achieved both fame and fortune in America as he led the development of the anthracite-fired blast furnace industry. In the 1830’s the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. was looking for industrial uses of anthracite coal when they heard that the Yniscedwin Iron Works. in Ystradgynlais, Glamorganshie, Wales had successfully employed the hot-blast technique, developed by a Scotsman, James Nielsen of the Glasgow Gas Works, in an anthracite-fueled blast furnace. In 1836, LC&N representatives traveled to Wales to meet with George Crane, part owner of the Yniscedwin works, to pursue the possibility of using the patented hot-blast process in America. Two years later at the further urging of LC&N , Crane asked David Thomas to oversee the erection of the Crane Iron Works in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Within two years Thomas had emigrated to America and put into blast the first large-scale anthracite furnaces.
Thomas, his wife and five children sailed from Liverpool to New York aboard the clipper ship “The Roscius” on a voyage of some 23 days. Some accounts indicate Mr. Thomas was quite ill at the conclusion of the voyage. He recovered and went about the business of assembling the machinery needed for the new Crane Iron facility which went into blast in 1841.
The venture was a great success and many other furnaces were erected in the Lehigh Valley in the coming decades.
In 1854, Thomas and other business interests developed plans to erect a new furnace complex in Hokendauqua, a few miles up the Lehigh River from the Crane Iron Works. This new complex was known as the Thomas Iron Works.
David Thomas became known as ‘Father Thomas’ – father of Pennsylvania’s anthracite iron industry. He and his wife, “Mother Thomas”, were supporters of both civic and religious institutions in the town of Catasauqua where they spent their days after emigrating from Wales.
The David Thomas Family residence at 2nd & Pine Sts, Catasauqua, Pa.
On the occasion of his 82nd birthday, the admiring citizens of the town presented Thomas with the commemorative cane shown above.
David Thomas’ activities have been well documented. This page contains links to a number of informative articles on his life’s work.
In 1899, David’s son Samuel Thomas gave an address before the American Institute of Mining Engineers entitled Reminiscences of the Early Anthracite-Iron Industry. This article refers to Thomas’ early life in Bryn Coch.
Mathews and Hungerfords 1884 History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contains information on the attempts to put the Crane Iron works into Blast.
Stapleton, Darwin H., The Transfer of Early Industrial Technolgies to America is a most thoroughly annotated history of Thomas' work - highly recommended for details on activities related to the utilization of anthracite in iron-making both in Britain and the U. S.
In 1883, the publication The Red Dragon, The National Magazine of Wales produced an article on David Thomas, The Father of the Anthracite Iron Trade This article, by Ed. Roberts of Neath, Wales presents a biographical sketch of David Thomas, discussing his success in the anthracite coal trade in America as well as in Wales. This biography provides details of Thomas' life, starting with his childhood and going on to examine his work in the iron industry, specifically his work with anthracite iron and the creation of the Thomas Iron Company. A copy of this may be found in Lehigh University's digital library, "Beyond Steel".
Williams, Peter N., David Thomas: Iron Man from Wales. A monograph devoted to David Thomas with emphasis on the social conditions existing in Wales at the time of Thomas’ emigration. The final chapter notes the difficulties that Thomas overcame in the building of the Crane Iron Works.
Rev. January 2015