Le Creusot - literally, "the hole." In a more picturesque phrasing, "the crucible." This Le Creusot is indeed the crucible. It is a deep bowl, set into the hills of the Department of the Saoneet-Loire. To be more readily understood perhaps, this crucible of crucibles is situated in old Burgundy, some two hundred and fifty miles from Paris but less than eighty northwest from the city of Lyons.
For more than four centuries it had been a crucible. Under the highest of its guardian hills, - Montchanin les Mines - anciently called Montcenis - lie vast deposits of iron; coal is not far distant. So it is no wonder that five hundred years ago the peasants of the neighborhood began crude workings for the valuable fuel; and that eventually the state, itself, made small appropriations for developing these mines. Le Creusot was born. The iron deposits were unearthed. A foundry was set up. Then a glassworks. The foundations of what has come to be one of the great industries of the earth were firmly laid.
By the middle of the eighteenth century Le Creusot had attained an aristocratic distinction. Its chief institution was now known as the Royal Foundry. Rebuilt in 1782 into the form of a hollow square it came under the direct patronage of Louis XVI. It became one of the favorite playthings of Marie Antoinette. For her it fabricated not only the exquisite glassware, but many of the lovely iron grills for Versailles, Fontainbleau and their appendages. Throughout the day and far into the night its flares lighted up the little village around about it.
During the Napoleonic wars the foundry acquired an added prestige. No longer came such fripperies as iron grills or lamp-standards from its furnaces. Le Creusot was manufacturing guns. It was laying the foundations for its work in the World War a century later. Then it was to be known as the center of a private industry which would construct more than seventy-five per cent of the most famous of field guns that inventive science has created-the French "seventy five." After the fall of the Empire, sleepy days in which stricken and disillusioned France sought to recover from her many wounds and in which there was little for Le Creusot to accomplish, the glassworks faded away-forever. Baccarat became the center of that industry in France. To Le Creusot was left the ironworks. And even that faded to next to nothing. Rust and mold crept in upon the great furnaces.
In the ancient province of Lorraine there lived two brothers who had acquired a local distinction because of their skill in iron-mongering. Their names were Schneider - Joseph Eugene and Adolphe, - and they were of a family much respected in the little town of Bazeilles, from which they came. The metallurgical resources of their native community were limited; the men themselves had almost limitless ambition. With keen vision they foresaw the coming of the iron age, of the domination of the steam-engine and of the industrial revolution which was to follow in its train.
Joseph Eugene Schneider heard of the all but abandoned Royal Foundry under the shadows of Mont Cenis, visited it and in 1832 purchased the property and moved his family to it. Thereafter Schneider became Le Creueot. And Le Creusot Schneider. The most far-reaching and perhaps the most successful paternalism ever evolved. Schneider dominated a city of more than forty thousand people. The smoke-stacks of its enterprise rose like a miniature forest in the crescentshaped valley that swings around the great house of the proprietor, situated upon a slight eminence in the very center of the deep bowl.
Le Creusot in 1922 was the heart and center of one of the greatest industrial enterprises in all the world. Le Creusot, 1832, was an infinitely simpler affair. Joseph Eugene Schneider was struggling with the beginnings of his business. His opportunity was vast. Always his was the dream of the coming of the steam engine. Great Britain already was in her industrial transformation because of this invention, France rapidly was following suit. The steam-engine driving a ship was a commercial success. The steam-engine pulling cars upon a track, of wood or stone - or far better still, of iron - was already an accepted institution in England. Again conservative France was following the lead of her neighbor across the channel. The Paris-Orleans Railway had come into existence. A dozen others were being planned; carefully, with the strategic military needs of the nation always first in mind. It irked France to have to buy her earliest locomotives of England. Schneider saw that particular opportunity.
In 1833 at Le Creusot he built the first all-French locomotive. Others followed. In a few months they were following upon rails laid out of "the crucible." The fact that for more than sixty years the town had stood at the top level of the historic Central Canal, connecting the basins of the Loire and the Rhone, was little to it once the railroad had come. No longer would the plant be dependent upon water transport alone for its coal-the modest fuel resources of the immediate neighborhood could not stand continued large demands without complete exhaustion-but the railroad would bring it within easy touch of the great mines of the Lens area, with those of the Saar, of the Ruhr - everywhere else within Continental Europe.
Yet the chief output of Le Creusot -the one upon which it has won its greatest fame-has been cannon. Its traditions of the Napoleonic wars were quickly revived by the first generation of Schneider. The manufacturing of guns was resumed ; but not without the bitterest opposition on the part of the French government. The former Royal Foundry no longer was a national institution. The government had its own factories for the output of both rifles and cannon - outside of Le Creusot. These arsenals were the strongholds of a considerable and a very powerful bureaucracy. It was to the interest of this bureaucracy that private gun-making in France, if it was not to be extinguished completely, should be held down to (nearly nothing. So for years the gun trade of the house of Schneider all but starved to death.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Le Creusot, for at the time of the Great War this was certainly the most important plant of its kind in all France. The highest intelligence marks the direction of the various departments, and taken all in all the establishment is one of which Frenchmen are rightly proud. There is no work here in armor plate or castings of any kind too large for Le Creusot to handle, and from the standpoint of the gigantic, the Creusot shops can produce sizes the equal of any other plant in Europe.
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