“You are a little harder when you come out of a steel mill than when you went in.” – Austin McLelland, a Sparrows Point retiree, who was one of 45 individuals who were part of the “oral histories,” that are the crux of the book.
In “Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town,” Deborah Rudacille vividly recreates the lives of the workers who lived in the company town of Sparrows Point, aka the “Point,” and the surrounding community of Dundalk, Md. During WWII, as many as 36,000 were employed at the sprawling facility, then owned by the Bethlehem Steel Co. and located on the water’s edge, just east of Baltimore, where the Patapsco River meets the Chesapeake Bay.
The author dives right in. The Point was a “segregated company town” for much of its existence, Rudacille reports. Within the “White” part of the hamlet, you could tell who had the better jobs at the plant by what street they lived on. “B and C Street” were where the foreman or manager hung their hard hats, while “H” street folks were “looked down on.” The “Blacks” were cut off from the Whites “by a wide creek spanned by a bridge.”
That “color” line, which prevailed during most of the last century, followed the residents of the Point into the plant itself. Whites had the better positions, particularly if they were “Masons,” while Catholics were generally “low man on the totem pole.” Blacks got the worst of it, usually placed in the most dirty, dangerous aspects of steelmaking, like at the “blast furnaces.”
The managers of the plant preferred “Southern blacks,” since they believed they were “less independent than blacks in Baltimore,” who might just tell the boss: “I’m not going to do this job!”
When I was on the waterfront as a longshoreman, (Local 829, ILA), back in the late ’50s, I recall working on cargo ships docked at the Point. The vessels would load up with steel plates and pipes, and head, via the Panama Canal, for the West Coast ports such as Portland, Seattle and Long Beach. You had to go through the town of Sparrows Point to get to the terminal.
I found the company town ugly and covered in a thick orange dust. The parking lot next to it was huge, the kind typically found at a stadium, such as where the Baltimore Colts used to play. In the late ’50s, I went to work at 7 p.m., at the Point’s maritime terminal, parking on one of its lots. It snowed that night. When I got off around midnight, it took me over an hour to find my car!
Steelmaking, I noticed, gave off an extremely bright, reddish glow. I wondered as I walked to the dock area, how the men working near the “coke ovens,” for example, could stand the intense heat, later measured by OSHA inspectors, “at 127 degrees,” according to author Rudacille. Just imagine what it was like during the barely tolerable dog days of July and August in the Chesapeake Bay region. The Point was so immense, measuring about four miles from end to end, that it had its own railroad, dispensary, sports teams and police force, too. It was an autonomous world.
What about the working conditions at the Point? Think — mostly appalling! Rudacille shows that, in the pre-WWI period, “39 men were killed on the job and 15 disabled” in a four-year period with no Workers Compensation benefits. And even as late as 1947 to 1952, there were “an average of five deaths per year.” Behind every statistic, Rudacille underscores, there was “a grieving family.” It was only after OSHA, a federal agency, arrived that safety concerns at the Point improved.
Then there was the lethal issue of “asbestos fibers,” which cause the dreaded disease “asbestosis.” Its discovery in scores of workers at the plant resulted in a precedent-setting lawsuit. It was filed against Bethlehem, in 1981, on behalf of “six former bricklayers” at the Point by a young, gutsy local attorney — Peter G. Angelos. That litigation was successful, and many more cases like it followed. Later, in 1993, Ms. Rudacille tells us, “Mr. Angelos bought the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.”
Rudacille was raised in the blue-collar community of Dundalk, where the Point’s union, the United Steelworkers (USW), had a dominating presence. Dundalk is only a stone’s throw from the Point. Most of the author’s relatives, including her father, worked at “one time or another” at the Point, or in its nearby shipyards “rimming Baltimore harbor.”
When Bethlehem went belly up in 2001, it was a federal agency, the “Pension Guaranty Corp.,” which gave some relief to the Point’s retirees. This was a measure championed by liberals, and not egregious labor-bashers, like Ronald Reagan. “The retirees,” Rudacille said, “were very bitter,” over the deal that permitted Bethlehem to discharge its pension, health and life insurance obligations to the retirees in the bankruptcy proceedings. Eventually, the buyer, ISG, paid $1.4 billion “to take over all of Bethlehem’s property,” including the Point.
Rudacille details the economic loss, the trauma, the psychic blows, that the collapse of the Point had on its workers, retirees, the USW and the community. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the area also saw “Lever Brothers, General Motors, Crown Cork and Seal, Eastern Stainless Steel,” pull up stakes and leave town.
For years, Dundalk was a Democratic Party stronghold. But, it went conservative with the emergence on the scene of that pious hypocrite, Ronald Reagan. Ironically, he is the same dimwit who pushed the pro-Globalization policies of deregulation, outsourcing of jobs overseas and privatizing of public assets, championed by the predators on Wall Street. Those policies helped to speed up the decline of steel making in the U.S., led to the “Financial Meltdown of 2008,” and contributed to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Reagan advocated “family values” as bait, while taking jobs away from the middle class. It was all a big con game and the workers–lost!
Even as late as the presidential election of 2008, Dundalk was voting in the Republican camp. Rudacille cites this electoral returns for the area: “8,322 votes were cast for [Barack] Obama, versus 9,783 for [Sen.] John McCain [R-AZ).” I was shocked when I heard the then-President of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney, say, on April 8, 2008, at the University of Baltimore Law School, that “25 percent of its members were Republicans!”
Do you also want a concise history of steel making and shipbuilding at the Point? Well, you will get it in Rudacille’s comprehensive book. First, it was the Pennsylvania Steel Co., way back in 1886, that saw the value of having a plant “on tidewater,” to forge “pig iron” for its mill in “Steelton, PA, ninety miles north.”
In 1916, Bethlehem took over the Point, until its demise in 2001. In between, the Point survived two World Wars, layoffs, unionization, strikes and discrimination claims based on race and gender. Later, it briefly ended up in the hands of Mittal Steel. Recently, it was purchased by OAO Severstal, a Russian steelmaker. Rudacille writes, that in 1959, “[The Point] claimed the title of the largest steelworks in the world!”
Rudacille interviewed 45 individuals for her book, including an ex-USW official, Ed Gorman. The vast majority of her sources were Point retirees. At least two of the 45 individuals interviewed by the author are labor historians and educators Bill Barry and Roderick Ryon. Another one of Rudacille’s sources was Kenneth L. Johnson, a retired judge of the Circuit Court of Baltimore. In his early days at the Bar, then-attorney Johnson was a Civil Rights litigator, par excellence.
Their compelling “oral histories,” and much more, about the rise and decline of the Point as a steel making behemoth, are what makes her well researched tome, a must-read for area residents, social historians and labor buffs alike.
Bill Hughes is an attorney, author, actor and photographer. His latest book is “Byline Baltimore.” It can be found at: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hughes/e/B00N7MGPXO/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1