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Vitro Chemical Works

Standard Chemical Company

This web site includes photos related to the reduction mill part of the company that was in Canonsburg (dating from 1915 through 1920).

In 1911, a report came out stating that they received carnotite ore in 75-pound sacks shipped from Placerville, Colorado in box cars (narrow-gauge via the D&RGW, transferred to standard-gauge to Denver, and then via the UP to Chicago, then to the PRR). The company took the carnotite ore (about 500 tons at a time), mixed it with 500 tons of chemicals, cooking it with 1,000 tons of local coal, and flushing it with about 10,000 tons of pure water, resulting in 1 gram a radium (at the time sold for between $100,000 and $120,000 a gram). Between 1911 and 1913, the company made 2 grams of radium per year, but between 1914 and 1921 they had improved their process and were producing about 9 grams a year. In 1920, they produced a record 18.5 grams.

The company's owner, Joseph Flannery, was interested in radium as a possible solution for ridding his sister's cancer. Of course, we know better now, but that is also what eventually killed Madame Marie Curie.

Standard Chemical's radium manufacturing business ended in 1922 when it simply started selling Belgian radium produced in the Belgian Congo. The Belgian ore could get a gram of radium out of 10 tons of ore rather than the 500 tons needed for American radium. Standard sold the Canonsburg mill in 1923 and was dissolved as a corporation in 1933.

The PRR provided cars with the source materials to the factory, but due to the value of the radium, the end product was actually transported to Pittsburgh via the Pittsburg Railways' Washington-Pittsburgh interurban line. The company's messengers would carry the radium in the form of barium-radium chloride salt solution in bailed pails containing stoppered glass containers. The messengers boarded the trolleys at the Alexander stop west of Canonsburg and delivered it to the Vanadium Building at the corner of Meyran and Forbes Avenues in Oakland, PA. Chemists would then slowly evaporate the salt multiple times to concentrate the heavier radium crystals. The pure radium was stored in a vault. In 1921, there were between 120 and 140 grams of radium produced worldwide, more that half of it made by Standard Chemical Company in Canonsburg.

The company was visited by Madame Marie Curie in May, 1921. She was the famed nuclear researcher from France.

Vitro Chemical Works

After Standard Chemical Company (see above) went out of business in 1922, the mill site may have been used by other companies. But, it was bought by the Vitro Manufacturing Company in 1929 when it began processing uranium ore at the facility for the glass and ceramics industry. Uranium had been used for many years as a pigment because of its bright color.

In 1942, the company became a supplier to the Manhattan Project, by milling carnotite and pitchblende, which are uranium ores, for the War Department. This continued until 1946 when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took over the various nuclear weapons facilities and Vitro began processing sludge, sweepings, and waste material from the various AEC plants and extracting the uranium from them. In 1956, the mill began processing tailings from Canadian uranium mines.

There is no information about how materials were shipped in and out of the facility, but it is expected that the railroad provided the raw goods, and that the final products were shipped out by motor carrier under armed guards.

Vitro closed the Canonsburg mill in 1960. However, its role as a nuclear facility continued. Between 1957 and 1966, the site also was used as an AEC storage facility. When Vitro stopped its production line there, it left 220,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste that included all of the stuff leftover from Standard Chemical's operations. Between 1956 and 1957, Vitro sent 11,600 tons of waste material to a storage site near Blairsville, PA in an old PRR landfill located between the Conemaugh Division tracks and the Conemaugh river. The Burrell Disposal Site and the Canonsburg Mill Site are now government property that have been remediated and are continuously monitored by state and federal agencies.