Joseph Wharton was the driving force in establishing the zinc and nickel metal industries in the United States.
Between 1853 and 1863, Joseph Wharton was the Manager and principal stockholder of the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company, with mines and smelters at Friedensville, Pennsylvania. Under his guidance, this company became the first successful producer of zinc metal in the United States. During the 1850s, Joseph Wharton also invested in the Bethlehem Iron Works, which became the Bethlehem Steel Company.
In 1863, Joseph Wharton sold his zinc interests to fund development of the Gap nickel mine, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The complex massive sulfide ores at the Gap Mine had been worked intermittently for copper since the early 1700s. Nickel was discovered in the Gap ores in 1853. Through the remainder of the 1850s, the Gap Mine was worked for nickel, and nickel metal was produced by a complex chemical leaching process at Camden, New Jersey. Processing costs were high, production was not profitable, and the Gap Mine and the processing plants at Camden were closed at the end of 1859.
Joseph Wharton first visited the then inactive Gap Mine in 1862. He acquired $1,000 worth of Gap mining stock and hired an experienced English Mine Captain, Charles Doble, to refurbish the mine. He acquired controlling interest in the property in January 1863.
In May 1863, Joseph Wharton leased the Camden works, and in December, he sold and shipped nickel matte to the Evans and Askin works in Birmingham, England. Wharton directed his efforts to improving the metallurgical process, and, in 1875, the Camden works refined the first pure nickel metal ever made.
Considerable lobbying by Wharton led to acceptance of nickel as a coinage metal in the United States in 1866. Then, in 1873, the Prussian government adopted coinage requiring large amounts of nickel. Nickel demand sky-rocketed, and the Gap Mine enjoyed its most profitable years. By the end of the 1870s, 12 shafts had been sunk on the Gap Mine to depths ranging from 100 to 235 ft.
During the 1880s, reserves at the Gap Mine declined, and new, more extensive sources of nickel were found in New Caledonia and at Sudbury, Ontario. Production at the Gap Mine ended in 1891. In 1902, the International Nickel Company purchased all of Joseph Wharton's then moribund nickel interests for $1 million in International Nickel stock, primarily to obtain Wharton's patented nickel refining processes.
Late in his life, having amassed a great fortune in the mining and metallurgical industries, Joseph Wharton funded the development of Swarthmore College and the internationally acclaimed Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He is now best known for his philanthropy. Joseph Wharton also deserves acclaim for his role in supplying metal to an industrializing America in the second half of the 19th century.