Back in the early 1960’s, Chicago and Pittsburgh were the steel capitals of the United States. The South Side of the Chicago, where we lived, showed evidence of this by the haze of smoke and pollution floating over Lake Michigan in the daytime. At night, the glow of the furnaces could be seen from the South Side extending fiery arms around the Lake all the way to Gary, Indiana. The steel produced by mills like US Steel and Republic Steel was the spearhead of the Allied weapons production that helped us win World War II, and was now producing the building blocks of the new skyscrapers that would remake American cities in the post-war boom. The Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe and all its bombed out factories, outfitting them with the newest and best methods of steel production, had already planted the seeds which were just starting to blossom. Faster, more efficient, capable of producing higher grades of material than our current old Bessemer furnaces, these new European plants would soon destroy the steel industry in our cities were it was still king. For now, steel workers were paid top wage, thanks to a strong union and demand for their output.
Most of my high school classmates had fathers employed in the steel industry. A high percentage of people working in the mills came from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany; countries that had big steel industries of their own. Lured by stories of how much money apprentice steel workers were being paid (over $10/hour at the time), I was anxious to get a job that paid more than the $0.50/hour I was being paid by the Y, or the only slightly better pay from Good Humor. The father of a classmate got me into the steelworkers’ union (the biggest hurdle in getting a job in the industry) and soon I had the opportunity to find out what it meant to be a man of steel.
The iron ore arriving by ship from Lake Superior as well as ore and scrap coming by train first needed to be melted down to extract the iron. The resultant waste called slag was being dumped at the time into Lake Michigan, despite the then feeble protest of those wanting to protect the environment. The molten iron coming out of the giant furnaces was poured into large metal containers, called pigs. When the iron began to cool, the forms holding them like molds were lifted up, leaving behind a red hot block of iron, the surface of which was covered with ugly black scales. This pig iron was placed in a vast pit, and sprayed with cold water, allowing the iron to cool, and for more impurities to show up on its surface. Men would stand in these pits using long metal rods ending in a knife-like wedge. It was their job to scrape the impurities off the iron block before it was moved along to the next step in the process. The scraping pit was the worst job in the mills, and the place where new workers first started. Temperatures in the pits varied between 120-130 F. Workers ingested salt tablets washed down with gallons of water, as the amount of sweat your body produced in these hellish conditions was prodigious. This is the origin of the expression, “This place is the pits.” Many of us who worked there, including me, fantasized about seeing reddish creatures with tails and horns on their heads in the ever present mist gleefully enjoying our misery.
From the pits, some rectangular blocs of pig iron were moved to the rolling mills, where the iron was pressed by giant machines into plates or custom forms. Others were sent to the blooming mills, miles long, where the iron was forced repeatedly through smaller and smaller orifices to be eventually extruded as iron cables or wires of varying diameters. During this process, a cable would occasionally jump the track along which it was being passed, and would come flying off into the surrounding factory. These loose cables called “cobblers”, consisting of still hot iron, would fly through the factory, and wrap themselves around anything or anyone in their path. If you heard someone scream “cobbler”, you’d immediately hit the floor. If you were lucky, you could soon stand up again. The mills definitely had a macho culture not accepting signs of weakness or fear. This was also before the era of OSHA, so other than wearing hard hats and goggles on the job, workers were not offered noise or any other significant protection. Noise levels in the mills were immense, and may account for some of my current hearing loss.
Working alongside these men made me appreciate what a hard life they endured. For many, it was what their fathers did for a living, and their fathers before them. It paid a wage that allowed them to own their own home, drive a nice car, and raise a family. Some encouraged me to go to college and get an easier life for myself, and hoped the same for their children. Most were proud of surviving in the rigors of their job, and wished for nothing else. Beers after work was part of the ethic of being at the mill; many of my co-workers were functioning alcoholics. I don’t stand in judgement of them for a second. It was hard to live with the level of pain the job entailed without some form of relief. They loved their families, most attended church, and were proud of being good providers. I survived one summer at Republic Steel, but despite the high pay, I chose a different job later on.
I met a number of good, honest workers at Republic Steel, and realize that without their real and figurative strength, we could not have the country we have today. The Steel Belt, in large part through short sighted company goals and lack of management vision, has turned into the Rust Belt. Today, we import much of our steel from Southeast Asia, as our steel industry has shrunk to small factories specializing in niche products. The men who worked at Republic Steel, and companies like them, were the last of a dying breed. Our country is poorer for their absence.