The rise and fall of a steel mill town


October 20, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

They tell me steel is made of iron, manganese

and carbon

They speak to me of "Open Hearth" and "Bessemer" and Gary

All these they say

Make steel - strong

But I know steel is made from more than

processes and alloy

It's the sweat and blood of a million men

from the puddlers to the call boys.- From Steel Is Strong, by Roy H. Westman

The news earlier this week that Bethlehem Steel Corp., whose Sparrows Point mill was once the largest in the world, had filed for bankruptcy protection recalled a time when nearly 30,000 workers toiled away there making steel around the clock.

Others lived in or will remember the company town of Sparrows Point. Grimy mills, belching smokestacks, roaring furnaces that lighted the night sky, constant red dust and a network of railroad tracks, where trains constantly whistled as they shuttled back and forth, formed the backdrop of the community, which boasted 9,000 residents during the 1920s.

The mill and town that sprawled on Patapsco Neck between Bear Creek and Old Road Bay had once been marshy farmland. Thomas Sparrow acquired title to the peninsula in 1692. It remained something of a rural backwater until 1886, when the Pennsylvania Steel Co. erected its mill, taking advantage of the nearby Chesapeake Bay and railroads. The company was bought by the Maryland Steel Co. in 1891, which in turn was purchased by Bethlehem Steel Corp. in 1916.

"Over the next 60 years Sparrows Point became a monument to the nation's ability to make steel cheaply and profusely. By 1910 the steel rails rolled at the plant spanned the vastness of Mongolia, climbed the Andes in Chile, breached the pampas of Argentina, and descended into the tunnels of the London underground," wrote Mark Reutter in his book, Sparrows Point, Making Steel: The Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might.

"Purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1916, the mill expanded relentlessly until, in the 1950s, it became the single largest steel complex in the world. Out of the blaze and hiss of its 35 furnaces came the tail fins of Thunderbird convertibles and Chevy Bel Airs, the tin plate for Campbell Soup cans, the hulls of ocean tankers, the rods and wire for the Mississippi and Chesapeake Bay bridges, and a thousand and one other products that were sinew and container of our culture of bigness and abundance," he wrote.

Reutter wrote that by 1957, when the plant's capacity reached 8.2 million tons a year, steel was being manufactured at the rate of 15.5 tons per minute at Sparrows Point.

Company towns such as Sparrows Point served as an inducement for the labor force, as well as a method of assuring a steady labor supply for the company. Like other such towns, it drew criticism from social reformers who labeled it undemocratic and examples of modern feudalism that turned men into modern-day serfs.

"Never before had human blight so universally been accepted as normal: Normal and Inevitable," wrote Lewis Mumford, American author and sociologist.

Residents of Sparrows Point, for instance, though part of Baltimore County, had no say in local governance.

"Normally some form of electoral democracy existed in a company town; normally there was an elected mayor or at least town commissioners. But owing to the gentlemen's agreement worked out between Maryland's Governor Jackson and Pennsylvania Steel, all ordinary governing powers were held by the company," wrote Reutter.

The tree-shaded streets of Sparrows Point were geometrically laid out with numbers and names. Housing, in brick and frame rowhouses or semi-detached clapboard houses, was determined almost by social Darwinism.

Superintendents and foremen lived on A, B, C and D streets in larger homes. Workers down the line lived in smaller homes. At the end were black workers, who lived separate and apart from the white co-workers with whom they labored during the day.

Rents were $35 a month for a six-room house. A company fire and police department and magistrate's court handled a variety of disasters and maintained order. Residents could attend one of six churches or shop in company-managed stores that issued credit. There were banks, groceries, restaurants, barbershops and several doctors. Residents could take a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train into Baltimore or catch a streetcar. Even bottles of chilled milk came from the company's own dairy.

In 1892, the first public kindergarten south of the Mason-Dixon line opened in Sparrows Point, and in 1927, the George F. Bragg School at 10th and J streets opened, offering black students a chance to get an education.

The town was torn down in stages starting in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, the last of it was removed for blast-furnace construction.

Edward Bartchat had rung the bell of St. Luke's Roman Catholic Church twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., for 46 years. He was proud he had rung it at the end of two wars, at the funerals for four pastors, and on the day President Kennedy was buried at Arlington Cemetery.

He rang it for the last time on Nov. 15, 1973. The church, built in 1888, was being demolished, and the ringing bell signified the end of an era.

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