Oyler: Flannery brothers made impact on Chartiers Valley region

JOHN OYLER | Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, 1:33 a.m.


The Jefferson College Historical Society recently invited me to speak at their fall meeting.

I decided to discuss the impact of the Flannery brothers on the Chartiers Valley region, knowing that their involvement with the Standard Chemical Company in Canonsburg was historically significant.

James Flannery began the family’s successful business career by opening a funeral parlor in Homewood. By the time his younger brother, Joseph, joined him, there were three Flannery mortuaries in Pittsburgh. In 1904 the brothers decided to diversify. They acquired rights to a patent for staybolts, a key component in the manufacture of locomotive boilers, and incorporated the Flannery Bolt Co. Their manufacturing facility was constructed on the Pennsylvania Railroad just north of Bridgeville.

Once they began manufacturing staybolts, they realized the advantage of using “vanadium steel,” an extremely strong grade of steel that had a tiny amount of vanadium alloyed into it. The vanadium was also extremely expensive. Joseph Flannery convinced his brother they should enter the vanadium production business.

In 1906 they established American Vanadium Co. and began researching vanadium production in their Bridgeville facility. They were able to acquire a mine in Peru that could produce vanadium ore economically.

By 1909, the Flannerys were successfully operating both companies. They built a magnificent five-story building, the Vanadium Building, in Oakland.

That year they learned that their sister had been diagnosed with cancer. She died because the scarcity of radium had prevented her from receiving radiation therapy.

At this point, Joseph Flannery decided to find a way to produce radium on a commercial scale in a large enough volume that future cancer patients would have access to radiation treatment. The two brothers incorporated Standard Chemical Co.

They found a source of carnotite ore in western Colorado that contained a trace of radium.

The radium production process was complicated. In an average month, they mined 2,500 tons of rock containing carnotite. In western Colorado, they separated the ore from the rock in a concentrator, producing 500 tons of carnotite. This was then bagged in 60-pound bags and hauled on burros to a Denver and Rio Grande railhead.

The ore was then transported by rail to Canonsburg, where a new processing facility had been built. There the ore was reduced to 1,000 pounds of salts, mostly barium chloride with a trace of radium chloride.

Once a day, a messenger would board a streetcar in Canonsburg with a pail full of glass bottles containing the salts and deliver his valuable cargo to the Vanadium Building.

The final step in the process was the subjecting of the salts to 25 or 30 cycles of fractional crystallization, eventually producing 1 gram of radium. By 1920, more than half of the radium produced in the whole world had been produced by Standard Chemical.

Both Flannery brothers had died by 1921 when Madame Marie Curie visited Canonsburg as part of a grand tour of North America. Standard Chemical operated until the early 1930s.

Thanks to the Jefferson College Historical Society for entertaining me, and for their continued contribution to preserving local history and heritage.