Francis R. Dravo, founder of the Dravo Corporation, received a Mechanical Engineering degree from Lehigh University in 1887. In 1890, he decided to go into business for himself as a Pittsburgh representative for a manufacturer of steam engines. In 1891, he hired a mechanic by the name of Thomas Doyle. Doyle was engaged only 35 hours per week, but remained with Dravo for 35 years as both a partner and friend. In 1893, Francis' brother, Ralph Marshall, joined the business. He too had graduated from Lehigh University, but with a degree in Metallurgy.
In the late nineteenth century, nearly every office had a steam engine to generate its own electricity, and the exhaust steam was used for heat in the winter. F.R. Dravo & Company sold such engines, but also sold all the accessories, completed the installation, and operated the equipment for a trial period before acceptance. This was a new idea that was fraught with financial hazards, but which attracted customers.
In 1898, the firm expanded its activities into the general construction field in building mine shafts and, later, reinforced steel caissons, the first in the United States. At this point, it was decided to divide the business into two parts: the Dravo Contracting Company, which would do construction work, and the Dravo-Doyle Company, which would handle the sale and installation of machinery.
In 1902, a contract was obtained covering the lock, guide walls, and abutments for a dam at Six Mile Island, on the Allegheny River. Dravo was soon building locks, dams, and bridge foundations for many subsequent projects, including those for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Needing a dependable supply of raw materials, the three men established the Keystone Sand and Supply Company. This led to the construction of dredges, barges, and towboats to produce, handle, and transport, these materials. It also led to the development of deck-type barges to save time and money that was being wasted on the repeated pumping of water out of wooden hopper barges, in use at that time. Dravo launched its first steel barge in 1915, and shortly thereafter, a steel dredge. A steel steam-powered towboat was built the following year, but soon, steam power was replaced by the diesel engine. Following World War I, a barge assembly yard was established at Wilmington, Delaware, to serve the East Coast market and to provide floating equipment for construction projects in that area. A subsidiary, the Fullerton-Portsmouth Bridge Company, was established to operate bridges being built by Dravo.
Due to inadequate terminal facilities for handling sand and gravel, Dravo designed and installed full-revolving broad base cranes of large capacity. These became popular among shipbuilders, and many were sold, especially during the boom after World War I. Another advance in marine construction was the use of welding to replace riveting. Dravo's first all-welded hull was launched in 1929. Simultaneously, the sale and installation of machinery was broadened. The centrifugal pump geared to a high-speed steam turbine was introduced for water works and industrial services.
In 1929, Dravo completed a nine-foot channel in the Ohio River from its origin in Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, enabling year-round barge traffic and leading to increased transportation and industry along the Ohio. Dravo acquired interest in the Union Barge Corporation, which provided lower cost river transportation, and in its subsidiary, the Southern Transfer Company at Memphis, a river-rail transfer terminal. The Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers became such major river ways that the Port of Pittsburgh became the largest inland port in the world, handling more freight than either the Panama or Suez Canals, or the Ports of Philadelphia, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
In 1930, a holding company was organized under the name of the Dravo Corporation. It acquired all the stock of the various enterprises that had been established by Dravo previously. R.R. Dravo was Chairman and R.M. Dravo, President. Doyle had already retired in 1926. In 1934, both brothers died. Subordinates who had been carefully selected and who had already been given maximum responsibility replaced them. During the worst of the Depression years and the gradual recovery that followed, Dravo's activities initially declined but then resurged. Shaft, tunnel, bridge foundation, dam and power plant construction, and the production of towboats, barges, material-handling equipment continued, as did sand and gravel dredging and transportation and the barging of coal.
In October 1941, Dravo launched the Submarine Chaser "PC 490," the first of 385 ships built by Dravo during World War II. Included were 150 landing ships for tanks (LST's), 65 landing ships medium (LSM's) and a variety of other vessels. Dravo undertook numerous other production and projects, totaling nearly $500 million in government contracts during the war. Dravo's work schedule increased to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and its workforce increased from 1,500 to 25,000. Dravo was given the first All-Navy "E" Award presented to a company and later received five renewals.
The post-war era required downward adjustments. Employment was cut back to 4,500 in 1946. Many practices and procedures had to be eliminated or reduced, and efforts were made at diversification. There were renewed emphasis on the use of steel sheet pile cells for icebreakers and dock structures. Construction of dams and locks, which had been suspended during the war, was resumed. Gravel production methods were improved. Towboat efficiency was increased. All of these efforts have continued through the years.
The Korean and Vietnam Wars too resulted in increased defense contracting. A new venture for Dravo was the construction of carriages for mobile artillery pieces capable of firing nuclear weapons. Subsequently, Dravo has become heavily involved in the production of and installation of heating and air conditioning for industrial plants and for large commercial and waste disposal plants, gas compressor stations, and oil pipeline pumping stations.
In the late 1970s and 80s, Dravo was affected by adverse economic conditions and forced to sell some of its facilities, including its light metals plant, which produced heating and air conditioning equipment.