Ralph Marshall Dravo graduated from Lehigh in 1889 with a degree in metallurgy. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, the Whist Club, the Engineering Society, the Toothpick Dining Club, and St. Andrew's Guild. Despite his engineering major, Dravo found his true calling as a financier managing the fiscal affairs for the fledgling Dravo Corporation, founded by his brother, Frank, in 1890. When a cousin left the firm in 1893, Dravo became the company's treasurer. The corporation had built a reputation for quality and customer service, and the new treasurer was able to use that reputation to secure funding for the firm's expansion.
The Dravo Corporation
Dravo's shrewd business sense and management of finances allowed his brother to concentrate on building and installing quality products. While his brother designed, built, and sold equipment, Dravo concentrated his efforts on maintaining a cash balance. He restricted the number and magnitude of projects the company could encounter at one time and still have a sufficient cash and credit balance. The company continued to grow through the 1890s and broke into the area of general construction in 1898 with the sinking of a mine shaft for the Pittsburgh Coal Company. Later that year, the company sunk the first successful concrete caisson for a pump well for the American Steel & Wire Company prompting even more orders of a similar kind.
By 1901 the company had grown so much that the Dravo brothers decided to break the firm in two parts to accommodate further growth. The Dravo Contracting Company complete all general construction orders, and Thomas Doyle ran Dravo, Doyle & Company which handled sales and equipment installation. In 1902, the Dravo brothers formed another company, Keystone Sand & Supply Company, to keep control over the price of concrete. A few months later, the company received its largest order to date. The brothers were to construct the lock guide walls and abutment for the Lock and Dam No. 2 on the Allegheny River. Over the next seven years they built three more dams on the Ohio, Monongahela, and Black Warrior rivers. During that time period they also constructed six bridges and sunk the first concrete-lined mine shaft. Over the next fifteen years they built dozens of mine shafts, bridges, and dams.
Meanwhile, the Dravo & Doyle Company was also growing. The firm opened new offices in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. In 1913 it installed the first 100-million-gallon-per-day, turbine-driven centrifugal pump in Pittsburgh. It went on to install similar outfits in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Toledo, Indianapolis, Columbus, Omaha, and St. Louis.
As the firm branched out into new fields, Dravo guarded against overexpansion without stifling growth. In 1897, the total value of the company's completed work was $21,000, by 1902; it was more than $784,000 for that year alone. With the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, Dravo was appointed Pittsburgh district chief of ordnance for the U.S. Army, a position he held until 1932. After the war, he was a member of the War Settlement Contract Adjustment Board and received the Distinguished Service Medal from Congress for his work in both positions.
Dravo served on the board of governors of the Lehigh Alumni Council and was an alumnus trustee from 1915-1928. Elected to another term as an alumnus trustee in 1934, he died in November of that year, just eight months after his brother. Dravo left a substantial bequest to Lehigh. His wife, Jane, continued his generosity to the university. Dravo House, built in 1948, honors the contributions of the Dravo family.
- A Company of Uncommon Enterprise: The Story of Dravo Corporation 1891-1966, The First 75 Years, 1974.