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The Story of Koppel
by Louise Carroll

From the South County News
Milestones Vol 21 No 1 Springl 1996

Not every town has been sold at auction. Yet, that's what happened to Koppel in 1943.

When the gavel sounded for the third time that afternoon on Dec. 3 an Ellwood City scrap iron dealer owned the town. Morris Greenberg bought 343 acres, 45 dwellings, a bank, a hotel, an office building and 384 building lots, all for $22,500.

It was a strange twist in the history of this Beaver County borough, whose beginnings just 36 years earlier were given rave reviews.

A yellowed newspaper clipping on the wall at N.S. Ruby Inc., a framing company in Koppel, trumpets the borough's auspicious beginnings.

On June 20, 1907, headlines proclaimed, "Opening Day at Koppel" and "The New Industrial Town Growing At A Wonderful Rate."

The article describes Koppel as a strong industrial community only 35 miles from Pittsburgh on the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The land itself was the center of a swap in the early 1900s. Charles Mount acquired about 350 acres on which Koppel now stands in trade for one city block he owned in downtown Pittsburgh.

Mount, a civil engineering professor at Iowa State University, migrated to Pennsylvania in 1895. After the swap, Mount settled in the area and farmed part of the land, where he raised prize-winning gladioli and Clydesdale horses.

In 1905, Arthur Koppel and Harry Ellis, Germany industrialists, came to the United States searching for a new plant site to manufacture steel rail cars. They targeted Mount's property because of what it had to offer: Pittsburgh freight rates, cheap coal and natural gas, a location high and dry above flood lines and plenty of room for expansion.

Koppel bought the land from Mount except for the area from Second Avenue to Day Street and from Richard Street to Mount Street, which later became part of Big Beaver Borough.

In January 1906, Koppel and Ellis started the Arthur Koppel Car Company, with Koppel as president and Ellis as superintendent. When the company began production the next year, it employed about 300 people.

In the fledgling town, an electric power plant was built, paving and sewering contracts awarded and a hotel and a few stores constructed.

After the town's foundation was established, building lots went on sale, ranging in price from $250 to $650, and were considered the best real estate values ever offered in the Pittsburgh area.

For those who did not wish to pay cash, the terms were 10 percent down and two percent a month for the balance with no interest charged until January 1908.

"Koppel is growing so rapidly and so substantially that investments along any of these lines are absolutely sure to return large profits," the 1907 article stated.

Before his death, J. Herbert Beere wrote of having worked for Arthur Koppel.

"When the German officials came from Pittsburgh by train to visit the plant, they would walk down the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk just the way they did in Germany. And they carried canes," Beere wrote.

"Upon arrival at the office, they would contact the office boy first. The boy's desk was just inside the entrance. They would ask to be escorted into the plant. They never went without an escort; this was a German custom," Beere recalled. In 1911, Beere was the office boy.

Koppel built company housing at Fourth Avenue and Richard Street. The row houses were painted orange and quickly acquired the nickname "pumpkin row," which it's known by even today. Additional company housing was constructed on Second, Third and Fourth Avenues.

The borough was incorporated in 1912 and, in 1913, Koppel donated land at Second Avenue and Ida Street for a school and another lot at Third Avenue and Arthur Street for a municipal building and jail.

Public transportation via the Harmony Short Line street cars connected the borough with Ellwood City, Butler and Beaver Falls. The Pennsylvania Railroad began commuter service with two trains running each morning and afternoon. PA 18 was built, making a throughway from New Castle to Beaver Falls.

Koppel continued to grow around the industrial and portable railway works of Arthur Koppel Company, the largest corporation of its kind in the world. At that time, the corporation had eight plants in Europe and offices in Philadelphia, Chicago, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Java, China and South Africa.

But the company that created and sustained the town came to an end when the United States entered World War I in 1917. The following year, the U.S. Government arrested all the principal company officers and took over the Arthur Koppel Company, operating it until the end of the war in 1918. Koppel and Ellis were in Germany at the time and escaped the sweep of U.S. Marshals and Justice Department agents.

After the war, the government sold the company for $1.3 million to the Pressed Steel Car Company of Pittsburgh. It was the first foreign-owned property sold by the U.S. government.

When the Pressed Steel Car Company dismantled the plant in 1937, the borough lost its only industry and seemed doomed to become a ghost town. Some residents who owned their homes stayed and sought work outside the borough.

Again, from Beere's journal, "On the first, second and third of March, 1938, all machinery and equipment of the plant was sold at public auction. These were sad days when men stood by the machines they'd worked on for years. They watched with tears in their eyes as these same machines went on the auction block."

He wrote, "No threat of a strike then, no fringe benefits, just wondering where they would get another job."

From 1936 to 1959, Koppel was without an industry. In 1959, the Babcock & Wilcox Company announced a $12 million expansion of its steel making facilities, and with it, Koppel moved toward prosperity once again.

By the time Morris Greenberg died in 1964, he had sold all of the Koppel property he had held.

In the early 1980s, Babcock & Wilcox was sold to McDermott which closed in 1989, leaving Koppel yet again with loss of industry, business and jobs.

A Newport, KY, holding company, NS Group Inc., purchased mills in Koppel and Ambridge in 1990 to manufacture seamless tubes, hot rolled carbon and alloy bars.

Currently, they have 91 employees and achieved record sales in 1993.

An exhibit of antique photos is currently on display at the Koppel post office, 543 Fifth Ave.

(Reporter Mary Alice Meli also contributed to this story)