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York Safe & Lock’s demise masterminded by Eliot Ness

Classics from YorksPast, plus Masell Manufacturing Plant

An Early Office Safe Manufactured by the York Safe & Lock Company, York, Pennsylvania

By the end of WWII, the York Safe & Lock Company had established four new plants in addition to their main plant, all located in York, Pennsylvania.  What became of all these plants?  What became of the Company?  Eliot Ness, a former prohibition agent, of The Untouchables fame, had a significant hand in the demise of the York Safe & Lock Company.



Israel Laucks established the York Safe & Lock Company in York, Pennsylvania in 1882.  S. Forry Laucks, Israel’s son, became general manager in 1890 when he was only 21-years-old.  S. Forry Laucks was up to the task, he was the driving force in rapidly expanding the business from a manufacturer of small office safes to the world-renowned manufacturer and installer of the largest and heaviest bank vaults in the world.

As WWII approached, the York Safe & Lock Company was the largest producer of safes and bank vaults in the country.  Besides countless banks, the York Safe & Lock Company installed many of the largest Federal Reserve Vaults in the United States, among them being the vaults in: New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  The Company had customers world-wide, among them: the Bank of Spain, Bank of China, Bank of Portugal, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of France and the Bank of Japan.  The Company also produced elaborate unusual vault products, such as the vault door for the inner entrance to the tomb and national shrine of Dr. Sun-Yat-Sen in China.

During WWII, the York Safe & Lock Company quickly diverted their facilities to production for the war effort.  The Naval Bofors gun, described in the previous post, was their most well known product.  However they also produced a host of other products for the Navy and for the Army.  They took on contracts to produce so many goods that additional plants were established around the York area.  Prior to WWII, there was one York Safe & Lock Company plant; located along Loucks’ Mill Road, in Spring Garden Township, just outside the city limits.  By the end of WWII, they had established four new plants in addition to their main plant, all located in York, Pennsylvania.

York Safe & Lock’s first new plant was established at a site along what is now Arsenal Road in Springettsbury Township.  Only months later a second plant known as the Special Ordnance Plant, and largely financed by the government for production of the Naval Bofors gun, was established by the Company on the same site.  These plants will be discussed in further detail in the next installment in the series: A Road Named N.O.P., Arsenal and Whiteford; Part 3 – Naval Ordnance Plant.

The third new plant was located at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Ogontz Streets in Spring Garden Township; it was known as the East Plant.  The fourth new plant was located on the northeast corner of South Pine Street and East Boundary Avenue in the City of York; it was known as the South Plant. Both of these plants produced for the Navy and the Army.  They produced an assortment of specialty bomb and detonating fuses, shells, and a host of parts manufactured from armor plate for use on tanks, airplanes, jeeps and ships.

The President of the York Safe & Lock Company, S. Forry Laucks, died April 12th 1942.  The Company had lost its driving force.  In 1944, the Levine Brothers, of Leominster, Massachusetts, sensed an opportunity, systematically began buying out York Safe & Lock Company stockholders at large prices; by year’s end they owned the company.  While this was going on, the Navy Department in essence took over the York Safe & Lock Company because of the essential war materials being produced.

With the end of WWII on September 2nd 1945, the Secretary of the Navy released their control of the York Safe & Lock Company.  However the facilities formerly commissioned as the U. S. Naval Ordnance Plant remained government property.  Harry Levine was named President of the York Safe & Lock Company.  On October 20th 1945, Harry Levine sold the Company’s South Plant to I. Unterberg Company, a shirt manufacturer.  On January 3rd 1946 Levine changed the name of the Company to York Industries, Inc.

In conjunction with the name change on January 3rd 1946, Levine sold the entire pre-war product line of safes, vaults and vault equipment; including trade names, patents, sales offices and franchised dealer organizations.  This sale was to Diebold, Incorporated, they had been the second biggest manufacturer of safes and bank vaults in the country prior to the war.  The sale did not include any of the plants in York; which Levine claimed would be filled with other products for plastics fabrication and microfilm equipment production, thus requiring the name change to York Industries, Inc.

Eliot Ness joined the Diebold board in 1944.  Eliot was the former prohibition agent; of The Untouchables fame.  Ness represented the Rex family, who owned the largest single block of Diebold shares.  Diebold company history notes that Eliot Ness, who became Diebold’s Chairman of the Board, is credited with engineered the spectacular takeover of York Safe and Lock Company.  It is quite possible he was working with the Levine Brothers all along in the void following S. Forry Laucks’ death. 

Did products for plastics fabrication and microfilm equipment manufacture fill the former York Safe & Lock Company plants.  Essentially no, it was all a smoke screen leading up to selling the plants.  The York community first learned that the plants were for sale by an advertisement in The New York Times on March 9th 1947.  York business groups were able to find an industry to occupy the 75,000 sq. ft. East Plant May 23rd 1947.  The Farm Equipment Division of Graham-Paige Motor Corporation of Detroit occupied this plant.

The 330,000 sq. ft. Main Plant located along Loucks’ Mill Road, in Spring Garden Township, did not sell fast enough so it was put up for auction.  It was at this site in 1882, with a modest brick factory, that the York Safe & Lock Company was established.  Following is the top part of the advertisement for this auction appearing in the July 13th 1947 edition of The New York Times.

Top Part of an Advertisement for the Auction of the Former York Safe & Lock Plant in York, PA; Appearing in the July 13th 1947 edition of The New York Times

After the winning bid of $675,000 at this auction was not confirmed; Harry Levine indicated he’d dispose of the plant through private sale.  On January 5th 1949, formal announcement was made that Cole Steel Equipment Company, Inc., fabricators of office equipment, purchased the former Main Plant of the York Safe & Lock Company.

The plant along Loucks’ Mill Road operated as Cole’s Masell Manufacturing Division.  By the end of the first year, the Masell Plant employed 300; with a steadily growing work force for years.  In 1965, ground was broken for the North Plant along Arsenal Road in Springettsbury Township.  With these two plants, in its heyday, Cole Steel employed more than 1,500.

In 1990, Cole Office Environments shut down its operations in both Spring Garden and Springettsbury Townships after 42 years in business within York County.  At the time, Cole was owned by Joyce International, a New York City based Holdings Company.  Here is a link to a 2013 Aerial View of the buildings remaining at the Loucks’ Mill Road site; the aerial photo appears at the end of the linked post.

Links to related posts include:

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts