The Legacy of Sparrows Point. . .

Steel mill, company town, center of community life

August 05, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

For the better part of three decades, as Richard Offley grew from a boy to a man on the peninsula between the Patapsco and Back rivers, the Sparrows Point steel mill was at the center of community life.

Back then, it was still owned by Bethlehem Steel Corp., as it had been since 1916, and many of its employees lived in its namesake company town. The mill put food on their tables, maintained their schools and churches and sponsored the softball teams.

"`The Company,' we called it, whatever the Company wanted, that's pretty much what happened," said Offley, 62. "They owned the town, they owned the fire department, they owned the police department. Basically, they ran everything that had to do with our lives."

But those days are gone. For some locals, Sparrows Point is essentially dead and news of its pending sale to a group led by Chicago-based Esmark Inc. unremarkable. When the announcement was made Thursday, it drew little more than comments about domestic owners versus foreign ones and the occasional shared memory.

"This is the fourth owner in four years," said Lionel van Dommelen as he perched on a bar stool and surveyed the lunchtime crowd at his Dundalk restaurant, the Sea Horse Inn. "It's not a big shock."

Back when the mill was in its prime, steel workers drank their way through 70 barrels of beer at the inn every week, he said. Now, the bar sells 10 to15 barrels' worth, mostly to retired General Motors workers. Only a handful of van Dommelen's customers work at Sparrows Point.

The mill that armed America during World War II and helped turn Baltimore into a major port has a tenth of the work force it had in its heyday.

Shopping plazas that once bustled with mill family business are barren. Many of the bars where mill employees had their first after-work beers are gone, as is the town of Sparrows Point itself, dismantled in 1973.

The pensions of many retirees have been gutted. And graduates of Sparrows Point High School now head off to college, not the mill.

"It's only the older people who remember what it was like," said Offley, who spent summers toiling at the mill while he was in college, preparing to become a teacher. Now retired, he volunteers at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society and Museum.

"The younger people, their interests are elsewhere, their employment is elsewhere for the most part. I don't think it means as much to them by a long shot."

For many of those raised in the area, the mill's ghosts are everywhere -- on street signs with names like Steel Avenue and Bethlehem Boulevard; in the independent welding and excavation shops dotting Dundalk and Edgemere, many begun by laid-off mill workers; and in the Turners Station neighborhood, which is still predominantly African-American. Black mill workers were allowed to live there -- but not Dundalk -- during segregation years.

Across the street from the mill, machines could be heard faintly humming. The dirt they stirred up lingered in the air over nearby Edgemere, where new homes mingle with the old.

And at North Point Boulevard and Sparrows Point Road, Jocelyn Palmer, 19, stood behind a restaurant counter on a recent afternoon, taking orders.

The structure was built in 1941, originally a Gulf station selling gas for 19 cents a gallon, but Palmer knows it as Pizza Roma. She's worked there three years, returning this summer after semesters spent in college out of state studying hospitality management.

From the front door, Palmer can see the mill, straight ahead on the horizon. Her grandfather worked there once. So did an uncle.

"Way back, when our parents were growing up, it was booming, and now it's dead," she said.

No one she knows from her 2006 graduating class at Sparrows Point High School went to work at the mill. No one even talked about it. "I think, one day," she said, "there will be no business there at all."

Teenagers of the 1940s, '50s and '60s living in the Sparrows Point company town, and in neighboring Dundalk and Edgemere, knew that well-paying careers were always waiting for them at the mill. They counted on it.

But their successors, who watched parents and grandparents lose mill jobs one by one as the company cut costs, rarely even consider it.

"What kid wants to go to work at a place where their father was laid off more than he worked?" said Joe Cristy, who grew up in Dundalk and still lives there.

"Now, when kids come out of school, they have to find jobs that they use from their shoulders up, their mental faculties, not from their shoulders down, their physical labor. Those jobs don't exist anymore."

Cristy was a third-generation mill worker, taking his first position there in 1966, when he was 18, before he earned a degree from the Johns Hopkins University. At the time, Sparrows Point had about 27,000 employees, down from a peak of almost 31,000 in 1959. The numbers kept falling as the demand for steel waned. Today, fewer than 2,500 people work there.

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