Atlas Portland Cement Company

from The Story of Hannibal (1976) by Hurley & Roberta Hagood

The Atlas Portland Cement Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was seeking a Midwestern manufacturing site, preferably with water and rail transportation. They selected a site three miles south of Hannibal in Ralls County where raw materials for their products are abundant. The coming of this large industry shaped the course of events in Hannibal history.

The selection of a site was influenced by a smallpox plague in Kansas. Two engineers from the Philadelphia office were sent to Iola, Kansas, to evaluate possibilities of cement manufacturing there. A small brick plant was available and had strong possibilities. Having previously done exploratory work in the Hannibal area, they decided the Iola location offered better prospects, and secured options on the property. Early in 1901, J. Roger Maxwell and other officials went to Iola in Maxwell's private railroad car. Arriving at night, the car was switched to a siding.

The next morning they noted a smallpox quarantine sign on a house near the siding. Without leaving the car, they hastily pulled out. The Iola option was allowed to lapse. The two engineers were sent to Alton, Illinois, to investigate a site, but eventually recommended the Hannibal location.

By June 1901, the company bought 1144 acres of property for quarries and a plant, and had options on additional land. In the middle of a heat wave on August 7, 1901. construction was started. Negroes from South Carolina and foreign laborers under contract fresh from Poland, Romania, Hungary and other Slavic countries, were imported as soon as barracks were erected.

The eastern company officials had fears in regard to Hannibal. A smallpox epidemic was rumored and correspondence from Hannibal was fumigated before being read. Jesse James' gang was thought to be in this far western territory, and to minimize the risk of hold-ups all employees were paid by check, instead of cash, as was the custom then. Hannibal leaders had misgivings also. A prevalent concern was that the company would establish a company town similar to those in the coal mining areas, would rent houses, run stores, offer services and also pay such low wages that the employees would be indebted constantly to the company - and more disconcerting, might not trade in Hannibal. High company officials came to Hannibal and dispelled these fears, assuring that the company was not going to develop a company town, but would provide train transportation from Hannibal to the plant, and that employees would be encouraged to live in Hannibal. Ilasco did develop for those wanting to live closer to work, but businesses therein were privately owned.

The cement plant, the first west of the Mississippi, provided cement for the Keokuk Dam, the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building in New York, the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, and other notable constructions. The Panama Canal used more than four million barrels of cement. In the first 20 years, cement shipped by water was loaded at the waterfront in Hannibal. The Hannibal Connecting Railroad, owned by the company, provided the link between production and major railroads and helped maintain favorable freight rates. Commuter-type trains ran to the plant, originating, at one time, at the west end of town.

Ilasco became a sizeable town as the number of Polish, Slavic, Hungarian and Italian immigrants were attracted to jobs. A  suburb called Monkey Run developed - the origin of its peculiar name is lost. Several thousand men worked for the company in two separate plants until the 1930's. According to tradition, the name Ilasco came from the components necessary to manufacture cement - iron, lime, alumina, silica, coal and oxygen.

The LeBaume Cave was on the cement company property. Previously it was owned by Edward Metcalf, and visitors came to see it and the nearby Mark Twain Cave. As new quarries were blasted, fractures in the rock strata developed and LeBaume Cave was closed.

In August, 1909, a strike shut down the cement plant. Newly immigrated workers armed themselves with clubs and stones. The work stoppage ended after four days when the company agreed to pay higher wages.

The cement company brought in management personnel and engineers (such as Guy Helmick, who married a sister of Robert E. Coontz), who mingled with Hannibal people and became part of the community. It also absorbed local men into the staff (such as Robert L. Brown, hired as employment agent), further assuring good relationships.

This industry brought to the area another group of immigrants valuable to the town, since Slavic labor imports were young, adventurous, healthy and in many cases, well-educated. Some spoke several languages, unfortunately English was not one of them, but this they soon learned. The ones who prospered added to the religious and cultural life of the community through a stalwart second and third generation now in the midstream of Hannibal's business life.