Steel Mill Adventures Part 1
By Ken Brady
When I was at the mill, I worked in the Pipe Mills hot end, the Rolling Mills, Galvanized, Pipe Mills finishing end, and then was a Millwright Apprentice, all in less than five years. You could jump around in the mill if you watched the job postings.
In the summer of '78, I worked in the Rolling Mills Inspection department – checking the billets for cracks and/or imperfections. They used a technique called magnaglow, in which a solution was sprayed on the pipes. Then, you would examine the billets under black light to look for cracks (if any), mark them with chalk, and then "scarfers" would melt the cracks off with scarfing torches. They had an automatic section on kind of a ferris wheel, with tarps covering the sides so it would be dark, and that was a prized job – so of course, I didn't work there. Business was still booming, and the automatic, easy process couldn't handle the volume.
So they came up with a manual process. There were two large racks that would hold four billets (fifty foot long square end pieces of steel, about six by six inches wide). We would have to mix up the solution in big vats, and then spray it on the pipes, pull a huge tarp like a shower curtain from both ends, then walk around with handheld black lights, marking the cracks. Then the craneman would take them and put them on the floor a little farther down for the scarfers. (The scarfers in this case were two jerks who we called Frick and Frack, who only enjoyed their own company and wouldn't talk to the rest of us, except to complain that we were going too fast or too slow.)
The interesting part was that we had to set up operations in a building that hadn't been used in a long time. I remember two of us from inspection walking up to the building on day one of the project with the foreman. When we got to the door, it had a huge rusty chain and lock securing it. We couldn't cut the lock with our bolt cutters, but were able to cut the chain. Then we couldn't get the door open, and the foreman sent us back to maintenance to get a chain come-along to force it open.
When we finally got into the huge building, everything was dark and dirty, and I was amazed to see bomb casings – World War II bomb casings – everywhere, lying on pallets all over the place! We made jokes about being blown up, and a few of us were a little nervous.
After they installed a huge magnetic crane, the craneman made quick work of the casings, dropping them in a railroad car to go to the Hot End to be melted down.
There was an office area, probably the foreman's offices, with World War II-era posters on the walls. I got in trouble for rummaging in one of the offices that was open. There were papers from 1946 in there, and stacks and stacks of old records. I suppose when the war ended, they just padlocked the building and walked away from it, never thinking that it would be thirty years before anyone would come back.
It struck me as strange that a building could sit there so long. It had an old creepy look and was way back from the huge main buildings, kind of between the rolling mills and pipe mills, closer to the river. There was a graveyard back there too, but it was behind a fence and padlocked, so I could never get at it.
In a week, all the bomb casings and old junk were gone, and water and power were turned on. The vintage posters remained on the walls and in the locker room, exhorting us to higher productivity for the war effort. Nobody thought it was that strange.
Tomorrow: More adventures at the steel mill – tunnels and layoffs