Remarkable Career of an Ironton Man


Ironton Register - April 8, 1897

Written by Lida Rose M'Cabe

Taken from The Emerson McMillin Story by Elaine Winkler

"If you have the footprints and the handprints you can tell the whole man." A growing power in the conservative financial circles of New York and a brilliant light in the Ohio colony is Mr. Emerson McMillin.

To the superficial observer his masterful rise, in less than five years, in the vortex of Wall Street, may seem, even for this country, accustomed to the pyrotechnics and of self-made men, phenomenal. A glimpse at the years that preface it, however, will convince the sober-minded that it is the legitimate, the logical sequence of tireless energy, indefatigable industry and high purpose allied to great natural ability. Unlike the proverbial prophet, Mr. McMillin is happily not without honor in his native state. Much of his achievement familiar to readers of scientific and technical journals, however, is to the general public "another story."

That the international repute that is now his is but the crystallization of the forces he brought with him to the metropolis, a resume of the "steps by which he did ascend," not only substantiate, but lend new life to a truism of the sage of Concord, "a man takes no more out of a country than he brings into it."

Birth and Early Training

Emerson McMillin was born in the village of Ewington, Gallia County, Ohio, in 1844. He is of Virginian ancestry. One of a large family, he was nurtured in poverty and toil. Twelve years of age found him in charge of the engine of a blast furnace, where for four years he did all sorts of menial labor incidental to the making of iron.

In this rugged outdoor life, Nature's priceless gift - a splendid physique - was early developed laying the foundation for the Herculean tasks of subsequent years. In physical strength, he outstripped as a lad the strongest men employed at the charcoal kilns. His scanty earnings went to the support of the family. He never went to school until he was 15 years old, and then only for three months. Two years later came the Civil War - that great University Extension, in which quickened to early maturity the youth of the past generation. Twice rejected on account of his age, the Sandow of the charcoal country finally succeeded at the age of 17 in following his father and five brothers into the army, where their bravery won the sobriquet, "The Fighting McMillins." At the end of four years, Emerson was a commissioned officer, having participated in a number of hard fought battles and received five wounds. "He has a splendid war record," said a distinguished and discriminating officer, in recounting to the writer his impression of the man.

In camp, his natural mental bent manipulated itself, as did his moral courage and physical endurance in the field. While his comrades whiled the leisure of winter quarters in drinking and card playing, young McMillin devoured the few books he had gathered, works pertaining largely to chemistry and the natural sciences. While encamped in the mountains of Virginia his attention was turned to geology. His explorations there laid the nucleus of the knowledge that later was of signal service to himself and to Ohio. As a commissioned officer he had saved a little money, and when the war closed he shifted about for a business opening.

First Business Venture

Three times with varying fortune he embarked as a country merchant in Gallia and Lawrence Counties. In a desultory way he kept in touch with the reading that had attracted him so strongly as a lad. Discontented with the limitations of a country store, he at length branched out with his brother in the purchase and sale of coal, etc. This brought him again in contact with blast furnaces, saw mills, and similar industries. Finally he drifted to Ironton, which, as the name implies, is an iron town. The Ironton Gas Works were then in process of erection. While seeking employment the ex-merchant attracted the attention of the superintendent of gas construction, and soon with pick and shovel he was in the army of them employed. There was no part in the mechanical construction of the works to which Mr. McMillin did not lend a helping hand. His adaptability and his skill developed rapidly and when the works were completed he was offered similar labor in the south at much larger wages. He was about to accept, when the superintendent of the Ironton Works, who had observed his studious habits and his mental caliber, advised him to remain at Ironton. "There is no one in this locality who understands the chemistry of gas - the whole gas industry is in an experimental stage," he assured the ambitious day laborer. "You have a field and an opportunity here that may never come again." The advice was accepted.

It was the turning point in the career of the man today universally acknowledged one of the foremost authorities in the gas world.

Coming Unto His Own

As superintendent of the Ironton Gas Light Company, Mr. McMillin became identified in 1867 with the gas fraternity. The superintendent of a small gas works in those days was not the technically trained man of the present. No where, perhaps, is his inherent force of character more decisively revealed than in the precedent Mr. McMillin established in that county plant.

Personally familiar with every detail in the construction of the works, he now turned with characteristic energy and thoroughness to a study of the science involved in the generation of gas. To this end a laboratory was fitted up in the Ironton Gas Works. For several years his days and nights were largely devoted to the study of chemistry and kindred subjects. Men of similar tastes were welcome, and for the first time in his life the layer of gas pipes found congenial work in the probing of nature's secrets. In his tireless mental activity he soon added to his scientific investigations, metallurgy, which was pursued with indefatigable industry until 1883.

First Fruits

Living in a region whose rich natural iron resources were just beginning to be developed, his attainments as a metallurgist were soon recognized. In rapid succession he became general manager of the Lawrence Iron Works, vice president and general manager of the Crescent Iron Company, president of the Iron and Steel Company and general manager of the New York and Ohio Steel Company, which operated rolling mills, blast furnaces and coal and iron mines.

The success of these companies during a period which witnessed the greatest depression in the iron and steel industry of the United States was general conceded to the scientific and technical knowledge of the self-taught man at the helm. Here is the cornerstone of Mr. McMillin's career as a financier.

While managing these great iron interests he upset the original geological survey of the state. Having occasion to build a line of railroads to reach one of the mineral properties belonging to his company he perceived in the geological formation of the section marked variations, unlike what his study of the state survey had led him to look for. Further investigations convinced him of the inaccuracy of the accepted survey. He brought the matter before the state authorities. A resurvey was made. Mr. McMillin was a member of the geological corps which carried out the undertaking. Had his material interests been then less securely established, he would in all probability have become more thoroughly identified with this branch of science and served the state in an official capacity. Later he became president of the Ohio Institute of Mining Engineers.

Midst these varied absorbing interests awoke the instinct of the scholar, the specialist. Frequent contributions from his pen found their way into technical journals. Gas associations were frequently regaled by addresses which revealed Mr. McMillin an original thinker and close student of economic problems. Since those tentative days, the man who never had but three months' schooling has addressed in the most acceptable manner various scientific associations made up for the most part of collegebred men. As befits the clear thinker his style is simple and direct.

A Larger Field

Finding himself in 1883 owner of several small gas plants in various localities, Mr. McMillin, desiring a central point for further operations, left Ironton and settled in Columbus. It was not long until a little bird whispered in the ears of the stockholders of the Columbus Gas Works that there was a grown "child among them taking notes." "If you don't look out," piped the augury, "that man McMillin will gobble you up." Soon he tendered the management of the Columbus Gas Company.

Columbus gas is made from coal. At this period water gas and electricity were making such rapid strides that many experts prophesied the Waterloo of coal gas companies.

The midnight vigils of the laboratory at Ironton now spoke out in meeting. Mr. McMillin maintained that these competitors - water gas and electricity - could be made valuable aids to increase coal gas competition and swell profits. This truism today universally accepted was then regarded by conservatives rank heresy. As manager of the Columbus Gas Company, Mr. McMillin was the first to promulgate this idea - that the cheaper the price of gas the greater the profit.

He thus practically revolutionized the gas industry of the country and became known as the "cheap gas man." His voice and pen have always been and continue to be in the vanguard of progress.

An Economic Problem

To his broad and comprehensive study of social economics, no less than to his generous heart and keen sense of justice are due the profit sharing system now in operation at the Columbus Gas Works. Economic students throughout the country, and educational institutions, notable the Chicago University, are watching with lively interest the outcome. Twelve years ago, the company began in an indirect way to share profits with the employees. In 1895, the present indirect method was adopted. When Mr. McMillin assumed charge of the works intemperance was a serious obstacle to good service. The man who never tasted spirituous liquor until he was past 30 threw a bombshell into this bacchanal community in the shape of a placard stating that the employee who indulged in liquor during working hours would forfeit his position. The entrance gate to the works was put under strict surveillance. No man was allowed to pass out during working hours without a special permit. Old employees were disposed to treat the edict as a huge joke. But they were not slow to discover that beneath the genial, sympathetic personnel of the new manager was a will of iron. Some of the oldest, most valued men were sacrificed to the common good.

This drastic measure eventually revolutionized the works and assured faithful, devoted services. A second difficulty was to keep the men at work. The intense heat, especially in summer, not only incited great thirst, but invited truancy. Often half the force would disappear for several hours or a whole day. It was necessary to employ an official at an annual salary of $1,200 to hunt up the men, keep them at work or find a substitute. To obviate this, Mr. McMillin conceived the idea of offering a premium or bonus to each man in proportion to the amount of service rendered. The working year is divided into four quarters of 90 days each. To the man who worked a full quarter was given a premium of $10. If he put in four full quarters he was allowed at the end of the year an additional $25, making a total premium of $65 for 360 days' work. The effect was instantaneous. When compelled to lay off each man found his own substitute. The $1,200 official was dispensed with.

Temperance established, the company decided to divide equally the saving in cost of labor per unit of product. For instance, if the cost of labor pr unit of product was reduced 5 per cent, in any one year, as compared with the preceding year, the men's wages would be increased 2 1/2 per cent from that time on. Eventually the company reached a point where further reduction was not possible, and the system became practically inoperative. In 1895, the present system was introduced. It will continue indefinitely and in all probability be established in the various gas companies throughout the country under the control of the originator. The Columbus Gas Company now pays its men a dividend at the same time and at the same rate paid to stockholders. At present it pays 6 per cent per annum to stockholders, payable semi-annually. The stockholder's dividend is figured on the amount of his stock. The employee's dividend is figured on his earnings. If an employee earns $1,000 a year he receives a dividend of $50. No distinction is made. Every employee from the president down is entitled under certain restrictions to participate in the dividend. About 75, or nine-tenths of the regular employees of the Columbus Gas Works participate. The conditions are:

It is the desire of the company that all their employees should become stockholders. In this they will probably fail. More than half the employees sold their first stock dividend. Several have been paid.

The effect of the system is most satisfactory, since it reduces the cost of the manufactured product, increases the remuneration of the men, while strikes are unknown. Five years ago the company provided its employees with a large hall, lighted and heated. Billiards and pool tables, a card room and reading room, with scientific books, magazines and papers, lend new interest to the bond that has grown up between employer and employee. During Mr. McMillin's 13 years' management the harmony of the Columbus Gas Works has never been marred.

The Master Stroke

His skill as an organizer was not fully demonstrated to capitalists until 1889, when, by a masterly stroke, he succeeded in amalgamating four warring gas organizations of St. Louis into the Laciede Gas Light Company. Not uninteresting is the story of this deal, largely instrumental in establishing his present status in New York. Mr. McMillin and the late George Shepherd Page of New York were the American agents of the American Industrial Syndicate, Limited, of London. Sir Julian Goldsmith, president of more than 100 gas companies and one of the richest men in England, and the late Duke of Sutherland, with five other English capitalists, were directors of this organization. The syndicate was seeking investments in American gas properties. At first effort was made to secure only one of the companies, and that by lease. The English capitalists were not kindly disposed toward the enterprise and New York and St. Louis capital was enlisted chiefly through the banking house of H. B. Hollins & Company, New York. The scope of the enterprise grew until it finally resulted in the purchase of all the companies in St. Louis. The value of this property, estimating by the price at which its securities were selling on the Stock Exchange, is about $13,500,000, or two and a quarter times the market value of the securities of the companies before the purchase. Mr. McMillin was elected president June 1, 1889. He accepted such against his will, and on the condition that he would not be required to serve beyond the following January. He is still president.

The success of this enterprise won for him the confidence of the most conservative and influential financiers. They recognized in him not only accurate perception of the values attached to fixed conditions, but clear, farseeing judgment of men - in short, the qualities of a leader.

To Pastures New

When it became known in 1891 that there was a doorplate in Wall Street bearing the name Emerson McMillin & Company, Bankers, wiseacres declared that the successful manager of gas companies should stick to the gas business and fight clear of the goldbugs' kingdom. Now they realize that the "cheap gas man" knew what he was about and builded better than he knew. The firm deals chiefly with gas and railway companies - their financiering. It is an independent organization for financing of large investments. It is not subject to the banking laws. When Mr. McMillin lef~ Columbus, June, 1891, with his banking project on paper, he thought if he could get a capitalization of $1,000,000 it would be a big thing. To date the banking house of Emerson McMillin & Company has financed properties representing capitalization upwards of $40,000,000.

The highest testimony to the natural, conservative and intelligent methods by which the business is conducted is the fact that in no instance has the corporations represented by this great sum of money failed to realize in every particular the expectations and representations of the firm and its patrons.

Scarcely a large investment now seeks Wall Street without coming directly or indirectly to the McMillin Banking House. The most profitable deal it has made was that of the Welsbach Commercial Company, by which was cleared more than $300,000. In bringing this about Mr. McMillin worked 19 hours a day for more than two months.

International Repute

The success of the banking house was augmented greatly by the international renown its founder achieved through the successful launching of the East River Gas Company of Long Island City, which supplies gas to New York City through a tunnel under the East River. Mr. McMillin not only originated the idea but enlisted, through the confidence he had won from the most conservative financiers, the co-operation that made this gigantic enterprise practical. As an engineering feat, the tunnel, even up to the day of its formal opening, was declared by many able engineers an impossibility. Though the troublous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles arose, enough to intimidate the bravest stockholder, his extraordinary force guided the scheme to successful completion.

Despite, Mr. McMillin disclaims credit beyond originating the plan and influencing capitalists to invest, specialists employed in its erection generously assert that the influence of his judgment, his experience, predominates everywhere throughout this marvelous enterprise, with which his name will always be indissolubly connected.

The Business Family

No banking house in the country, perhaps occupies more substantially luxuriant quarters. They were designed especially for this firm and have been frequently complimented by imitation. Eleven rooms comprise the suite. Finished in oak, with polished floors, marble tile corridors, Turkish rugs - they replete in the paraphernalia that goes to make up the business shrine of the modern millionaire. The spacious tiled entrance is flanked on the left by a finely equipped counting room, while to the right is the office, rather the library, of Mr. McMillin's private electrician or specialist. Adjoining is the sanctum of the firm's specialist, beyond which is the imposing council chamber, stolidly furnished, as befits the capitalists of Midas' touch who congregate there to concoct enterprises involving sums sufficient to take away the breath even of a scribbler disciplined to chronicle the goodies of the elect. Across the hall and confronting these apartments and the main entrance are the public and private offices of Mr. McMillin, his partner, Colonel Henry B. Wilson, his son, Emerson McMillin, Jr., bookkeeper, Mr. W. F. Douthirt, solicitor and two room reserved to Miss Jenkins, the private secretary and trusted confidant of the firm. It is distinctly an Ohio settlement.

Any delinquencies in the master's knowledge of the banker's art is more than compensated by the courteous and accomplished Colonel Wilson, whose business training was secured in the banks of his native town, Ironton, where he was associated in Mr. McMillin's early projects. Likewise an Ohioan is Mr. Douthirt, a son of Delaware, whose social, no less than his legal career at Ohio's capital culminated so auspiciously in his marriage to the clever Miss Gray, only daughter of the railroad magnate D. S. Gray.

A Buckeye by adoption is Miss Jenkins, to whose skill and faithful service, covering more than a dozen years, her employers owe no small share of their solidity.

Six thousand dollars per year is considered modest rent for these spacious Wall Street quarters, to which come, sooner or later, itinerate Buckeyes on business or pleasure bent, always sure - it matters not what great scheme may be brewing - of cordial welcome and godspeed.

The Secret of Success

"Great physical strength due in a measure to my boyhood training," says Mr. McMillin, "has made enormous work and constant study possible. I require less sleep than most people. Four hours suffice. To my daily habits I attribute largely the success that is credited to me. I always know what I am going to do. I may be obliged to alter my plans, nevertheless no time is wasted in considering what to do next. I generally decide quickly and rarely change. In talking up a business scheme I always consider first what not to do. I have learned this valuable lesson from the hundreds of people who have submitted projects to me. Invariably they consider but one side - what to do. Now if they had looked at it as thoroughly from the other point of view, they would often have saved themselves and me the waste of valuable time, money and useless worry. I never worry. When I go to bed, the cares of the day are lost is sound sleep. A continuous study of theoretical and applied science is what made my financial experience possible."

Daily Routine

Unlike the majority of American business men, absorbed in the money getting to the sacrifice of the aesthetics, Mr. McMillin is to a surprising degree a man of varied resources. Despite his enormous interests, necessitating some 36,000 miles of travel yearly, he is always in vital touch with current art, music and letters. "How do you suppose he finds the time," was asked an eminent scholar also a prodigious worker? "Somebody reads for him,: was the reply. "He couldn't do it himself. It's a physical, if not mental, impossibility."

In the daily routine of well digested policy his is the solution. He is at his desk every morning before the office boy arrives. He adheres strictly to the fist law of nature - order. His desk is as neat as that of the daintiest woman. Night rarely finds a tasks undone that the day ought to have dispatched. His home life is as well ordered as his office hours.

The Home Circle

Essentially domestic, his fine social qualities are best in his spacious and elegantly appointed home, at the Navarro, in close proximity to Central Park, where his hospitable wife, beautiful and accomplished daughter, Mrs. S. H. G. Stuart, and her clever husband, now a Wall Street broker, Miss Maude and two sons, the youngest a freshman at Yale, dispense royal good cheer.

The spacious home of 24 rooms reflects both the habits and the tastes of the man. A lover of "art for art's sake," wealth enables him to indulge his taste to the extent of a private art gallery. Each picture is to him a never-failing source of pleasure. It is after midnight when all the household is asleep that he communes with these pictorial friends and accomplishes the reading variously attributed to an assistant. He has the catalogues of every notable collection, every art sale. He knows the biography and the school of each painter, and the prices brought at all important sales. A splendidly equipped library is another fountain of inspiration from which he drinks knowingly.

Wealth a Trust

While personally enjoying to the utmost the fruits of his labor, there are perhaps few men who feel more conscientiously the responsibility wealth imposes.

"I have never had the ambition to be rich," he once said. "I can't say that I ever entered upon any undertaking with the thought of how many dollars it would bring me personally. I, of course, take up only those things that I believe are worth my time, and then have the ambition to make them a success for the sake of success, rather than for the money that is in it. I am not proud of the fact that I have been able to make more money than the average man of similar environment. But I am proud that I have been industrious and that I had the energy and the capacity to equip myself mentally in such a way as to command positions of high remuneration." To aid others less fortunate than himself is his constant solicitude. He is never too busy to lend a helping hand, a sympathetic ear to the cry of distress, while in his quick discernment of merit he is ever ready to advance the fortunes of the deserving.

"It is my purpose to make a disposition of my surplus as I go through life, leaving whatever I may possess at death entirely to my family. I don't think," he said, "that there is anything very liberal in a man hanging on to the last dollar until he dies, with a provision in his will giving away that which he can no longer use. Then I want the pleasure and happiness that may be derived from disbursing the little surplus for which I work."

The Ohio State University in its law library, the Museum of Orton Hall and the Emerson McMillin Observatory bear witness no less than the Columbus Art School, the Y.M.C.A. library and numerous educational and charitable institutions, to his substantial appreciation of educational needs and possibilities, and the "ineffable blessing" this gifted and public-spirited Buckeye finds in showing the rewards of his labor.

Return to Emerson McMillin and His Astronomical Observatory.