Sparrows Point during the Steel Age

An updated look at that vanished life and times

February 10, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Across Jones Creek, the jagged, vaporous industrial landscape of the Sparrows Point steel works lies cool and calm and hazy blue-gray in the sharp winter sunlight.

Mark Reutter looks out over the ice breaking up in the creek and talks about men who made steel there when the Bethlehem Steel mill was the biggest in the world.

"Here you've got these blue-collared guys who are incredibly skilled and they need a Homer," he says.

He laughs at his own hubris. He's no Homer, but he's making a nostalgic odyssey. His book, Making Steel, chronicles the lives of the men he talks about and the spectacular rise and ignominious decline of Bethlehem Steel and Sparrows Point. The Bethlehem Steel company, once an industrial giant that powered World Wars I and II, sputtered out of business in bankruptcy two years ago.

"When it fell," he says, "like Humpty-Dumpty, it cracked into a thousand pieces and those thousand pieces have put a black hole in the economy of Baltimore and the lives of actually tens of thousands of working-class people."

Reutter's book is out in a new expanded and updated edition published by the University of Illinois Press (496 pages. $21.95 paperback). The original 1988 book was immediately acclaimed as a lively, human and definitive study of a giant American steelmaker. Now he's touring the Point again, looking for old landmarks. He'll talk about Making Steel tonight at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson Theatre in Highlandtown, where many Sparrows Point steelworkers lived and died.

"The main subject is Sparrows Point, the plant, that's the character," he says.

But the plant is only a shadow of the mill where 30,000 people worked during World War II producing massive amounts of steel - 73 million tons - and launching 1,085 ships. Just 2,500 workers make steel here now. Vast portions of the plant have been demolished, many of the great sheds are empty. The shipyard is inactive and the town of Sparrows Point has vanished.

This battered relic of U.S. industrial might is owned now by a steel entrepreneur born in India named Lakshmi Mittal. With the acquisition of Sparrows Point, Mittal's company has become the world's largest steelmaker. Steel prices are booming, boosted by huge demand from China's burgeoning industries. But thousands of retirees have been left in the dust of the bankruptcy, bereft of promised pension and medical benefits.

"I realized when I completed the book," Reutter says, "that three [people], and I love 'em all, were the heart, the mind, the soul of Sparrows Point. The heart was Ben Womer, the mind was Mike Howard and the soul, absolutely, was Charlie Parrish."

The color line

Charlie Parrish broke the color line at Sparrows Point. Four years before the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordered integration of public schools in the United States, Parrish won an arbitration that promoted him to a coveted millwright job at a blast furnace. Reutter last talked to Parrish in 1998 when the Society for the History of Technology met in Baltimore.

"Both he and his wife - they were close to 90 years old - were in wheelchairs," Reutter says. "He had been a huge man. Very powerful. ... He grabbed my arm. He was incredibly strong and he said `Man, I love you.' It was like he had given me a benediction or something. He then fell asleep during the talk."

Howard was a helper at an open hearth furnace and an ex-communist who was too independent for the party. He was expelled long before he refused to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. After he left Sparrows Point in 1953, he took engineering courses at Johns Hopkins when he was about 38 and eventually worked in space research.

"He was a very thoughtful guy," Reutter says.

Howard painted expressive watercolors of steelworkers at work. One of the few that survives shows a crew trying to open a clogged taphole at an open hearth furnace. They recall the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Steelworkers felt a kinship with frontline troops in both World Wars. Their jobs seemed almost as dangerous.

"Ben [Womer] was such a character," Reutter says. "He hated the union. He was the ferocious independent. He was kicked out of school because he didn't want to learn French."

Reutter tells the story of the end of Womer's formal schooling in Making Steel. When Womer was in Sparrows Point High School, the principal's wife, Nellie Blair, gave a talk in French. Womer's homework was to write a paper on the talk. He said: "I wrote on my paper. `I don't know what the lady was talking about because she was speaking a foreign language.' "

Reutter asked one day if he ever read fiction: "And he glared at me. `I don't go for fiction. I go for fact.' "

They've all passed, gone on to whatever reward men get when they've worked all their lives a step away from the fiery furnace.

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