George Reis

George C. Reis, father of George L Reis, namesake of Reis Stret in Gary-New Duluth. (Ancestry.com)

Most of the streets in Duluth’s Gary neighborhood bear names that have some relationship to the Minnesota Steel Company, the United States Steel subsidiary that created Gary and Morgan Park for the convenience of its workers. One of those is Reis Street, named for iron-and-steel magnate George Reis or one of his sons. Believe it or not, a line can be drawn from Duluth’s Reis Street to the acting careers of Charles Bronson and Rue McClanahan. It sounds far-fetched, but all you have to do is follow the steel money.

It is difficult to determine just which famous Reis Gary’s street is named for. In 1926, on the occasion of one member’s retirement from the industry, the Canton Repository called the Reises “a family of seven ironmasters, father and six sons, whose names have been written deep in the ore veins of a thousand ranges and burned bright in the flames of a thousand belching blast furnaces.”

We can begin with the patriarch, George Columbus Reis, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1823. He started out in the grocery business, but soon found his way into the world of iron. In 1863, he and two partners bought the Oraziba Iron Works in New Castle, Pennsylvania. They improved it and later renamed it the Shenango Iron Works, which at its height was the largest works in the country, occupying 20 acres and employing 1,000 men. George and his wife Elizabeth had eleven children, two of whom died in infancy. Their six sons—John, William E., Jared, George L., Edward D. and James W.—all joined their father in the family business.

In 1879, George C. Reis bought a farm in Polk County, Minnesota (Reis Township is named for him), and an iron furnace in Iron River, Michigan. In 1887, he was killed in an accident at the railroad yards adjoining the furnace. According to the Sault Ste. Marie Democrat,  “Mr. Reis was walking down the track when the train was set in motion by being struck by a switch engine. He was knocked down and dragged about a hundred feet. His legs and arms were broken and his body frightfully mangled.”

At the time of his death, Reis was the vice president of the New Castle and Franklin Railroad; president of Keystone Iron Mining Company in Marquette, Michigan; the vice president of the Shenango Iron Company and a director of the United Savings Bank of Pittsburgh. Eventually, the iron-and-steel empire he founded was swallowed by the National Steel Company, which was later merged into U. S. Steel. To this day, there is a Reis Street in New Castle, and it’s undoubtedly named for him.

The Reis boys paid a price for the family fortune—more than once in blood. Ten years after the death of his father, Edward Reis was killed at the age of 34 in an explosion at the Rosena Furnace in New Castle, where he was the manager. (He was also an investor in the Oliver Mine on the Iron Range.) In 1899, James Ward Reis, who was then manager of the National Steel Co. in New Castle, was overcome by fumes after an accident at the plant. As a result, he developed “typhoid pneumonia” and died in December of that year. Within a week of his death, his nephew James H. Brown, age 20, died after his legs were crushed in another industrial accident at the steel plant. The family held a joint funeral for the men; the cortege to the cemetery was led by millworkers . The National Labor Tribune of Pittsburgh wrote that organized labor had “lost a true friend” in James Ward Reis, who was said to be a fair man in dealings with his workers.

Meanwhile, the other Reis men were working in various leadership capacities in the industry. When U. S. Steel took over the Shenango Iron Works, eldest brother John became the manager of its Shenango Valley District. By 1905, he was the assistant to the president of U. S. Steel, William C. Corey. He was also well known as a moderator during strikes. When he retired in 1926, he was the vice president of the company. Jared Reis was also an expert in the coal and coke industry, assistant to the president of H. C. Frick Co, and later worked for U. S. Steel. (He was also a big sportsman, and introduced the ring-necked pheasant and the Hungarian partridge to Pennsylvania.)

William E. Reis Sr. was vice president of Shenango Valley Steel, and after a merger, was elected president of National Steel. During these mergers, state governments began to go after trust violations. In July of 1899, the state of Ohio investigated Illinois Steel Co. and National Steel under their new anti-trust law, and William E. Reis was forced to testify before the courts about corporate structures and agreements as the steel industry consolidated. The same year, Reis was honored as the namesake of a steamer newly launched for the Cleveland Steamship Company, which then had the largest fleet owned by an individual on the lakes. Captain John Mitchell was the owner, but the company was also to become a subsidiary of U. S. Steel.

When U.S. Steel was formed in 1901, it became the world’s largest corporation. In Minnesota, it controlled over half the mines on the Iron Range, and two of its subsidiaries had offices in Duluth: the Oliver Mining Company and the Pittsburgh Steamship Company. George L. Reis was in charge of building the Minnesota Steel Plant for USS; once it was completed, he ran the plant, serving as vice president and general manager He and his wife first lived in Duluth’s Ashtabula Heights neighborhood, but when Morgan Park’s company homes were completed, he moved there, living at what was then 205 N. Third Street (near present-day 87th Avenue West and Beverly Street). Reis retired in April 1920 at the age of 73 and promptly moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he died in 1933.

So where do Charles Bronson and Rue McClanahan come in? Well, when William E. Reis Sr. retired, he moved himself and his portion of the Reis clan to Pasadena, California. His children enjoyed the full fruits of American industrial wealth—his daughters and sons dabbled in theater, won prizes for motorboat racing and idled in the California sun. One son, William E. Reis Jr. (commonly known as “Billy”), lived at The Maryland, a famously chic hotel in Pasadena, and was, according to an article in the New Castle Times in 1917, “very rich, a clever kid at dancing or polo, tennis or bridge; in the center of the ring at either a ten fight or a real fight…” He was 28 and ready to do his patriotic duty by joining the military for service in what would become known as the first world war—and receiving pats on the back from the media for so doing:

…the doctors found him physically about ten points plus perfect, and he went back to the Maryland grinning his joy… and he felt so good that when he walked into the hotel and met Chief Bellboy McCaffery, he said, “Mack, I wish you could come along.” And Mack said, “I’d give a leg to go with you, Mr. Reis.” And “Billy” said, “By Jinks, Mack, you shall come.” And when it was found that “Mack” could not go as a soldier, “Billy” drew out his check book and with it made all arrangements for Mack to complete his education as an expert chauffeur: and arrange matters further so that Mack will drive an American ambulance up to the front where “Billy” will be bombing and gassing and going over the top—and, well, that’s the end of the first chapter of the story of “Billy” and Mack and here’s hoping that the next will end like a fairy story, and that both will come back with medals jingling and many notches on their six-shooters.”

There’s no record of what happened to “Mack,” but Billy served overseas for less than a year, suffered seven unspecified wounds at the Battle of Argonne, and was discharged at the Presidio in 1919, having achieved the rank of Master Engineer Senior Grade. After the war, Billy returned to Pasadena. He became close with a well-known group of actors, including the first director of the Pasadena Playhouse, Gilmor Brown. Through these associations Reis became heavily involved in the formation of the Pasadena Playhouse, and later served as its director.

Reis never married, and likely was gay; Brown and at least one other of Reis’s actor friends were admittedly homosexual at a time when being out was a career-killer. Reis bought a desert resort home in Palm Springs, which was managed by two male servants—one a 26-year-old “house man” named Ricardo. Palm Springs was then fast becoming the playground of the Hollywood elite, and gay actors in particular found it a haven from prying eyes and the morality codes imposed on them by film studios. Today, Palm Springs claims to have the highest percentage of gay residents in the world. When Gilmor Brown died of a heart attack in 1960, it was in Reis’s Palm Springs home. Reis himself died in 1965.

While we can only speculate as to Billy Reis’s sexuality, we can be certain that the Pasadena Playhouse enjoyed major benefits from its strong connection to the Reis fortune through William E. Reis Jr. Early on, the Playhouse founded an acting school which gave a lot of aspiring Hollywood actors their start—not only Charles Bronson and Rue McClanahan but also Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Raymond Burr, Sally Struthers and many, many others. And so there you have the line from Duluth’s Reis Street to Hollywood.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.