The Rusted Cathedral of American Steel

Imagine a round steel tower 30 feet wide at the bottom, tapering to half that width at the top, and 90 feet tall, with 60 of those feet thrusting through a hole in the roof of a brick building. It is held together by a number of rusted vertical ribs, and surrounded by miles of iron pipes. At its base is a concrete spillway where 1,200 tons of molten iron used to flow every day. From a distance of 100 feet, or up close at arm’s length, it is a photographer’s paradise of moody colors, exotic shapes, and raw textures.

This is Blast Furnace 6 at the U.S. Steel Carrie Works in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, which was built in 1884 and abandoned in 1978. When mills like this were in full operation, they gave us the steel that built the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the USS Missouri. Today, Carrie Works is one of the only pre-World War II blast furnaces to survive. It’s a National Historic Monument operated by the Pittsburgh-based Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp.

With furnace temperatures of 2,200 degrees, and nearly 200 degrees air temperature, it used to be a superheated hell so hot you had to have thick wooden soles on your shoes to insulate you from the steel floors, which were hot enough to melt through rubber soles. God help any poor man who had the misfortune to trip and fall. 

It’s always been a bloody place. The guide who took us through every corner of the mill said 1,000 deaths were officially documented but that workers estimated the number of deaths inside its walls to be closer to 2,000, with another 2,000 dying in their homes after sustaining workplace injuries.

One story about the grit of these workers stuck with me. A worker was on the ground floor when a worker above him accidentally dropped a pipe wrench. It hit the first worker on the hand, nearly severing his thumb. Did the injured man call 911 or go to the infirmary? There were no such things, so he asked for a roll of duct tape, taped the thumb to his hand, finished his shift, then went home, never to work in the mill again. He might have reported the accident to his human resources department, if such a thing existed at the time. So he toughed it out, because if his coworker’s mistake were known, both of them would have been unemployed instead of just one.

They were that kind of men. Before 1923, when the eight-hour workday became law, they worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week, with every other Sunday off. They were paid 14 cents an hour, but had the option to spend $2.50 out of every paycheck to buy insurance for a coffin when they died, and a $1,000 death benefit for their widows. This death benefit helped a number of widows open boarding houses near the mill where steelworkers could live, and sometimes the widow would marry a new steelworker. 

As if 14 cents an hour weren’t low enough, in the summer of 1892, the contract between the steelworkers’ union and Carnegie Steel was set to expire. So Carnegie asked his operations manager, Henry Clay Frick, to break the union before they demanded a better contract. Frick’s first move was to cut the workers’ wages. As he knew they would, the union rejected the wage cut. Frick responded by locking the workers out and building a massive fence around the plant.

A few days later, he fired all the workers and brought 300 Pinkerton guards up the Monongahela by barge to occupy the plant. That set off the Homestead Riot. At least three Pinkertons and seven workers were killed in the bloody battle that ensued. The workers overwhelmed the Pinkertons and took over the plant. But not for long. Frick asked the governor for help, who responded by sending 8,500 National Guard troops. A few days later, the plant was running 24/7 again, but with replacement workers, who are usually referred to as scabs.

Fast forward to 1978. The Carrie Works had their most recent technology upgrade in 1937, but when U.S. Steel permanently shut down the blast furnaces, they were leading the trend to close steel mills everywhere. At its peak, the U.S. steel industry employed 700,000 workers and produced 40 percent of the world’s steel. Today, the U.S. industry has just over 70,000 workers and only produces less than 4 percent of the world’s steel. China produces 57 percent.

What happened? It was an unholy combination of several factors.

For one, the U.S. steel industry was reluctant to upgrade its technology. Instead of evolving to basic oxygen furnaces or automated electric arc furnaces, they stayed with centuries-old open-hearth technology, which is far less energy efficient.

Then, at the worst possible time, the energy crisis of the 1970s hit. From 1974 until 1986, the U.S. steel industry plunged into a deep depression, mostly caused by the OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian revolution. With gas rationing, gas lines stretching around the block, a national 55 mph speed limit, and the golden age of the muscle car at an end, most Americans lost their appetite for new cars, and the demand for steel dropped like a rock. 

Faced with increased competition from imported steel, American steel companies were losing money. In 1982 alone, shipments of steel totaled just under 60 million tons, the lowest level since 1949. The losses added up to $3 billion.

With no money to invest in modernization, and no way to sustain such huge losses, the answers throughout the ’70s and ’80s were bankruptcies, shutdowns, unemployment, and rust.

Today, the U.S. steel industry has “restructured” itself by opening mini-mills that recycle scrap steel, mostly from crushed autos, and with a few maxi-mills that are joint ventures between Japanese and American companies. But our 4 percent of the world’s steel supply does not equal China’s 57 percent, and never will. Blast Furnace 6 at the Carrie Works is a haunting reminder of that reality.

As I stood there in awe of its rusted mass, I felt like I was in a cathedral whose god had abandoned it.

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