Men of Steel

Once, the sprawling Bethlehem Steel complex ran for miles along the Lake Erie shore in Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, N.Y. Belching from its smoke stacks, a dark feathery array of industrial pollutants colored and scented the air. If you were born hereabouts, you never noticed either.

A dark brown patina of old paint and newer rust stains colored most of the buildings that housed the basic steel making and warehousing operations for the plant. Bethlehem had come to the Buffalo area in the early 1900's, bringing thousands of good paying jobs with it. Some 23,000 souls were employed there in its heyday, during the late 1960's. Three shifts of metal-making acolytes tended the medieval furnaces that belched smoke and fire into the evening sky. From the nearby village, of Hamburg on the Lake, you could watch brilliant splashes of color and fire light up the night-time sky whenever molten steel was poured into its ingot frames.

Inside the plant was a world of noise, fire and danger. An errant slip, a careless motion could cost a man an arm or a leg or even his life. My own uncle Bill Edwards was killed in a gas explosion near Three Gate. His shift as a millwright was over, but he had stopped to help a gang unsnarl a dangerous situation. It was a typical brotherly action for a great guy like Bill. The explosion had killed him instantly, another sacrifice to the god of steel.

Anyone who worked there wore safety boots, with metal toe guards, long sleeved shirts and pants, plastic eye goggles and thick work gloves. The projecting and razor sharp burrs, on a length of unfinished steel, could slice open a hand or arm like a fileting knife slicing a soft-bellied fish. We also wore a hard hat to protect our heads. The sturdy, plastic helmets had different colors, denoting the various ascending ranks of its employees, from white colored newbies to big deal green-hatted supervisors. The helmet wouldn't save you though if some steel broke loose from the massive overhead cranes. They roared above us with clanging alarms, scurrying along tracks on giant u-shaped gantries and carrying massive loads of finished steel. Whenever you heard the crane alarm, you ran like hell to get out from underneath, just in case.

The tougher jobs were those who worked around the open-hearth furnaces where steel was forged from iron ore, coke and manganese. The heat was sun-searing and enervating. All personnel were required to consume salt tablets several times a day, to retain bodily moisture and prevent fainting. The men were blackened with soot and grime, with runnels of sweat clearing tracks of white runnels on their faces.

The noise was everywhere around us. Cranes, machines and trains carrying products or iron ore. The scene was reminiscent of a Dante painting depicting the circles of hell. Still, the work paid and it paid well. We were given extra money when a shift exceeded its quotas.

After a long shift or a ”double,” the men would walk slowly and quietly into the locker rooms for a shower and a half-hearted attempt at scrubbing some of the grime from their faces and bodies. It was a daily ritual. The bone-weary men would then trudge through the seven plant gates, streaming happily to their cars and a much-anticipated meal at home with family. Some guys would stop at one of the legions of gin mills that surrounded the plant, for a little “grime cutter” to moisten their throats. In places like “The Red Spot,” “Three Gate,” and other quiet havens of the befuddled, a shot and beer, or several of them, were a mood elevator after a long and hard day's work. None of the guys ever complained about their jobs. They made good wages that helped feed their families and pay their bills. We all considered ourselves lucky to have jobs here.

The end neared as the Viet Nam war wound down in the late sixties. The demand for steel was down all across the nation. On a world-wide scale, the USA had helped rebuild the post W.W.II steel industries in Japan, Korea and Germany. These new industrial sites had much more modern equipment and could produce steel more cheaply than we could. Environmental laws, higher wages and a host of other reasons doomed the basic metals industry in the U.S. The return on equity, at the time, for the mills was less than five per cent. At the time, this was a much lower rate than that of simple savings accounts. Owners could get much more than that by just putting their money in the bank, with no risk or trouble.

The announcement, in the mid-seventies, that Bethlehem would curtail much of its steel-making operation at its Lackawanna plant, still came as a shocker. New York State had recently given the company massive tax breaks to help install new scrubbers to clean their smokestack emissions. Everyone thought that the train would keep on rolling along. But, it had run off the track. Many thousands of men lost high paying jobs. The area's economy could not absorb them. Some moved away. Some just drank away their loss. The area has not yet recovered from the mortal blow.

Just around where we lived in South Buffalo, 23,000 jobs at Bethlehem, 12,000 jobs at Republic Steel, 2,000 at Jones and Laughlin and a few more hundred at Donner Hannah Coke vanished, seemingly over night. The ripple effects, through loss of business with area suppliers, and the resultant lack of consumer purchases only added to the miasma. Bethlehem might not have been pretty, but it was a life sustainer while it operated.

I will long remember the sounds and smells of the place, the medieval visage, the flash of molten steel at night and the sense of vibrancy that emanated from the now quiet precincts along the Lake Erie shore in Lackawanna. There are a thousand stories about these men of steel whose memories lie in that rusting pile of steel and abandoned buildings. They are all as yet untold.


                     ( 1,029 words)

                    Joseph Xavier Martin