Historic Structures

Seneca Glass Company, Morgantown West Virginia

Date added: February 28, 2020 Categories: West Virginia Industrial

Seneca Glass Company was founded by a group of immigrant German glassblowers. Natives of the district of Baden in southern Germany, many of these men had previously been employed at the North Cumberland Glass Company in Cumberland, Maryland. In 1891, they met in Cumberland to form their own corporation and subsequently purchased, for $10,000, the plant of the Fostoria Glass Company, at Fostoria, Ohio (Fostoria Glass had moved to Moundsville, West Virginia). The new company flourished from the beginning but was soon faced with the threat of a fuel shortage. In 1896, the directors decided to relocate their plant near a plentiful supply of natural gas and decided upon Morgantown. The new plant began production in January 1897 and continued until the companys bankrupcy in 1983.

The plant operated using essentially the same machinery and process with which it began in 1897 until it closed. The glass was still produced from the original 14-pot furnace by "shops" or teams of men in much the same manner as it was in 1897. Senenca Glass was the first company to locate in Morgantown. At the turn of the century, when transportation facilities were only crudely developed, the discovery of the nearby Mannington oil and gas field was of considerable importance in attracting new industries. In the 16 years following the move of Seneca, nine other glass plants located in Morgantown. These developments (along with that of the coal industry in the area) brought industrial processes with all their social and economic ramifications to what had been primarily an agricultural region.

The decision to move the plant to Morgantown coincided with and was an integral part of the growth of industry in the area. In the early 1890s, three important factors caused the area to grow rapidly. First, travel opened from Pittsburgh via the river because of a new river lock. Second, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line was built through Morgantown. Third, newly discovered gas and oil provided further inducements for growth. In order to entice companys to settle in the area; an investment firm gave free land, cheap gas and, in the case of Seneca, a $20,000 subsidy to move.

The glass factories had a tremendous impact on the economy of the county. None received the national reputation that Seneca did. The firm of Cummings and Davies of Wellsburg, West Virginia constructed the plant in 1896-1897 and another firm, Nichols and Matthews, the furnace, its fourteen pots and four annealing ovens. The firm started operations early in 1897. In June 1902, a fire destroyed much of the interior of the brick portion but the Furnace and Lehr Rooms were untouched. Evidently, the fire was more destructive to the back and interior of the brick building and to equipment and glass. The reconstruction and building of whole new sections were done under the supervision of Elmer F. Jacobs,

Skilled workers were necessary in a plant with the technology of Seneca Glass. During the early decades of its existence, most of the workers came from Europe, particularly from France, Belgium and Germany. A closely knit community grew up around Seneca; in fact, the neighborhood became known as Seneca. There are still people who remember some of the early craftsmen. Until Seneca ceased making glass in August 1983, it was using much the same technology as it had when it opened in 1896. Sophisticated hand labor and a great deal of time were two important factors in the production of a single piece of glass. Numerous people handled a goblet and it could take at least eleven man hours to produce one. By the end of World War II, it was apparent that the firm needed to expand in order to bring the cutting operations up to date.

It was the uniqueness of the total technology, from the operation of the reverberatory furnace to the weighing and mixing of raw materials, the firing, blowing, shaping, annealing, cleaning, decorating and polishing which enabled the company to produce fine tableware and, importantly, to preserve the building. Mechanization would have been costly and impractical for lead glass production.

Lead glass has always been preferred by the wealthy because of its brilliance and belllike tone. It can be etched and cut in intricate patterns and, because of the high quality produced, Seneca's market included some of the finest stores and hotels in America, as well as international steam ship lines. Eleanore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and the President of Liberia were only three of the many dignitaries who purchased Seneca crystal. In fact, one President of Liberia owned 218 dozen pieces of Seneca's custom-cut crystal.

Seneca Glass Company was the most popular single tourist attraction in the county^ its factory and showrooms were visited annually by thousands of people from many areas of the country. Most people in Morgantown remember the factory tours which they took as school children; a 16mm documentary film, Seneca Glasst An Allegheny Glassworks, produced in 1973 by the National Park Service and the State of West Virginia, has acquainted numerous others to the plant. A tradition which had started many generations ago was carried out at Seneca. Unfortunately, tradition was not able to carry the factory through the twentieth century. It became more and more difficult to acquire quality materials and ovens needed for some of the technology. Furthermore, labor and, especially, fuel costs rose tremendously in the 1970s. Although it has been believed that the public no longer wanted crystal, there is evidence that the firm was having no problems getting orders, only that it could not fill them due to frustrations of production.

In 1982, the plant, which had been owned by a small group of stockholders, many whose parents had also owned it, was sold to a Malaysian firm which hoped to combine the sale of glass with pewter. By August 1983, factory operations closed and the firm filed bankruptcy. In November 1984, most of the firm's glass inventory and equipment were sold. Sanders Floor Covering, Inc. of Morgantown, a long-established family-run firm, specializing in floor coverings and furnishings, purchased the plant December 28, 1984.

Today the building contains small retail shops and offices.