Men of Steel

Steel Statue at the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, 1926. Jones and Laughlin Company, Pittsburgh, PA (

“Steel is perhaps the basic industry of America” wrote Charles Rumford Walker, an Ivy Leaguer with a passion for Big Steel. In the summer of 1919, Walker “bought some second-hand clothes and went to work on an open-hearth furnace” at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.

“In a sense it is the industry that props our complex industrial civilization, since it supplies the steel frame, the steel rail, the steel tool without which locomotives and skyscrapers would be impossible.”

Walker “believed that basic industries like steel and coal were cast for leading roles either in the breaking-up or the making-over of society.”

As a “hot-blast man on the blast-furnace” stationed at a pit deep inside the mill, Walker learned “the grind and the camaraderie of American steel-making.” Here are excerpts from his book Steel; The Diary of a Furnace Worker.

The pit was an area of perhaps half an acre, with open sides and a roof. Two cranes traversed its entire extent, and a railway passed through its outer edge, bearing mammoth moulds, seven feet high above their flat cars. Every furnace protruded a spout, and, when the molten steel inside was “cooked,” tilted back-ward slightly and poured into a ladle. A bunch of things happened before that pouring. Men appeared on a narrow platform with a very twisted railing, near the spout, and worked for a time with rods. They prodded up inside, till a tiny stream of fire broke through. Then you could see them start back in the nick of time to escape the deluge of molten steel. The stream in the spout would swell to the circumference of a man’s body, and fall into the ladle, that oversized bucket thing, hung conveniently for it by the electric crane. A dizzy tide of sparks accompanied the stream, and shot out quite far into the pit, at times causing men to slap themselves to keep their clothing from breaking out into a blaze. There were always staccato human voices against the mechanical noise, and you distinguished by inflection, whether you heard command, or assent, or warning, or simply the lubrications of profanity.

As the molten stuff rose toward the top of the ladle, curdling like a gigantic pot of oatmeal, somebody gave a yell, and slowly, by an entirely concealed power, the 250-ton furnace lifted itself erect, and the steel stopped flowing down the spout. … When a ladle was full, the crane took it gingerly in a sweep of a hundred feet through mid-air, and … the men on the pouring platform released a stopper from a hole in the bottom, to let out the steel. It flowed out in a spurting stream three or four inches thick, into moulds that stood some seven feet high on flat cars. …

I looked up and saw the big ladle-bucket pouring hot metal into a spout in the furnace-door, accompanied by a great swirl of sparks and flame, spurting upward with a sizzle.

 “At last,” I said, “I ‘m going to make steel.”

 “Get me thirty thousand pounds,” said the first helper when I was on the furnace that first night. Fifteen tons of molten metal! …  The overhead crane picks [up the ladle] and pours [molten steel] through a spout into the furnace. As it goes in, you stand and direct the pouring. The craneman, as he tilts or raises the bucket, watches you for directions, and you stand and make gentle motions with one hand, thus easily and simply controlling the flux of the fifteen tons. … It was like modeling Niagara with a wave of the hand. Sometimes he spills a little, and there is a vortex of sparks, and much molten metal in front of the door to step on. …

 At a proper and chosen instant, the senior melter shouts, “Heow!” and the great furnace rolls on its side on a pair of mammoth rockers, and points a clay spout into the ladle held for it by the crane. Before the hot soup comes rushing, the second-helper has to ‘ravel her out.’ … Raveling is poking a pointed rod up the tap-spout, till the stopping is prodded away. You never know when the desired but terrific result is accomplished. When it is, he retires as you would from an exploding oil-well. The brew is loose. It comes out, red and hurling flame. Into the ladle it falls with a hiss and a terrifying “splunch.” … The tap stream at steel heat is three feet from your face, and gas and sparks come up as the stream hits the ladle. You’re expected to get it in fast. You do. …

In a few seconds the stream fills a mould, and the attendant shuts off the steel like a boy at a spigot. The ladle swings gently down the line, and the proper measure of metallic flame squirts into each mould.

A trainload of steel is poured in a few minutes.

Source: Charles Walker, Steel; The Diary of a Furnace Worker (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1922).

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