THERE ARE TWO types of steel in the world, Old Steel and New Steel. Old Steel was made with big blast furnaces and batteries of coke ovens, and by moving around vats of molten metal in integrated production plants that covered hundreds of acres. Old Steel transformed raw materials from the earth–iron ore, limestone, and coal–into a new material, hard enough for the bones and viscera of the new, manufactured nation. This began with the railways converting from brittle iron rails to Bessemer steel in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, and the empires of Carnegie, Frick, and Schwab. And it continued through the 1970s, with Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and U.S. Steel, for years among the largest corporations on earth. Then, at some point, there was enough steel in the world, and steel began to eat itself up.
New Steel, as the steel of today is called, is made from ground-up scrap, the very railways, warships, buildings, cars, appliances, and office furniture made by Old Steel, re-melted in electric arc furnaces, and drained into continuous casting machines. Even the old steel plants themselves are cut up and melted down in the vats of New Steel. Today, steel is the most recycled industrial material (besides, perhaps, concrete). More than 90% of the steel produced in the USA comes from scrap made in the USA. There are around 120 mini-mills in the country, most built after the early 1980s, which produce the majority of the domestic steel we consume, and all of which make steel from 100% scrap.
Then there are the remaining Old Steel sites, around twenty still producing at least some steel the old way. Even here, in these lingering mega-mills from the last century, they fill their blast furnaces with 75% scrap, or more. And though they are going away, it seems, one by one, their physical legacy is vast, and lasting. These sites are the largest industrial landscapes in the nation, and most of them have been at work at the same location for more than a century, long before industrial contamination was considered or environmental laws existed. These active and former Old Steel plants are places from another time, but they are here, amongst us, now, and in some ways, forever.
Despite the historic impact of Old Steel on the landscape, economy, and people of the nation, only a few efforts exist to preserve and interpret them. This is a great loss, as their scale, drama, and hubris might be hard to believe in the future.
The CLUI presented Old Steel for three months at its space in Los Angeles, starting October 12, 2012. The exhibit described the arc of the history of American steel, using text and hundreds of images of steel sites around the nation, taken by photographers from the CLUI mostly over the last year. It was a survey of the physical state of the industry at this moment, focusing on the large old production centers, what most people imagine when they think of steel mills, and what we call Old Steel. Researchers visited industry archives, met with retirees, historians, and local museum representatives, and visited more than a hundred former and current steel sites. Photographs were taken from the ground, and from the air.
The CLUI exhibit was divided into chapters that followed Old Steel geographically, starting from the early mills of Pittsburgh, where the site of the old Homestead Works is now a shopping center, and where U.S. Steel still presides over their remains of the industry. The exhibit traversed the national terrain, through the gone sites of Youngstown and Buffalo, to the still active barrage of mills along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan. It ended in eastern Pennsylvania, the land of Bethlehem Steel, whose flagship plant is now owned by a casino, and awaiting museumification.
An overview of the major steel producing regions:
Pittsburgh: Epicenter of Old Steel
Pittsburgh is where Andrew Carnegie’s empire was based, and where, around 1900, nearly half of the nation’s steel was produced. Pittsburgh was at the crossroads of the natural resources needed for steel–iron, coal, and limestone, all extracted in abundance from the area–and there were rivers and railroads to move things around. Today, Pittsburgh is still the headquarters of the U.S. Steel Corporation, the last large old American steel company, and the region still produces nearly five million tons of steel a year, more than half of it by U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Plant, in Braddock, a functioning relic of Old Steel.
Northeast Ohio: Cleveland and Youngstown
Historically, Ohio is the second most productive steel state, after Pennsylvania. Today, it is the second most productive steel state, after Indiana. Old Steel is clustered in the northeast, along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, and in the Mahoning Valley around Youngstown, which produced more steel than any other part of Ohio. Eventually the Mahoning Valley became comparatively logistically isolated, losing out to the rail and river access at nearby Pittsburgh and the iron and limestone ports along the shores of the Great Lakes (a proposed canal leading to Youngstown was never built). Youngstown was among the first of the Old Steel regions to fall.
Upper Ohio River
On the Ohio River, Old Steel was concentrated on its northern end, between Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia, a stretch of less than 100 river miles, with the densest stretch in the eight miles from Weirton, West Virginia, to Mingo Junction, Ohio. Along here are some of the most dramatic remains of the industry, for years teetering on the edge of production, in dramatic industrial townscapes packed into tight valleys, steel towns depicted in the classic American film The Deer Hunter. This region is on the verge of transformation–three of the main steel plants are now closed, and in new hands, with plans to demolish them.
Birmingham: Southern Steel
The iron and steel industry started in Birmingham during the Civil War, after the region’s local resources of iron, coal, and limestone were discovered and exploited to produce weapons for the Confederate army. Later, spurred on by demand for steel for World War I and II, 26,400 people worked in steel-related industries in the four counties around Birmingham by 1970. By the mid-1980s, with the collapse of American steel, employment in the industry fell to just over 10,000. Today Birmingham is still a major iron and steel products center, though mostly making pipes, valves, and fittings.
Old Steel, which generally precedes World War II, hardly exists in the west. One exception is the relatively small Seattle Steel Company, which was established in west Seattle in 1905, a site which now has a Nucor Steel mini-mill on it, with the rest of the site redeveloped into housing and port facilities. Another exception, and the only large-scale Old Steel site in the west, is the Rocky Mountain Steel works in Pueblo, Colorado, which is still producing and occupying its original footprint. A few large integrated steelworks were made during World War II to provide steel for the shipyards that were built hurriedly in every major city on the west coast. Most of these plants were built inland, to be out of range of enemy ships and submarines. Though largely closed and demolished, the former Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California, still has some steel finishing activities at the site, and a large finishing plant in Pittsburg, California, which dates back to 1906, is now operated by U.S. Steel and a Korean steel company, though no new steel is made there either.
Detroit: Automotive Steel
Cars are a major consumer of steel, and Michigan is the largest producer of the 15 million automobiles made in the USA every year. Henry Ford, one of the main proponents of the concept of integrated production methods, placed steel plants into his automobile plant at River Rouge in 1917. Two other Old Steel plants around Detroit are nearby, along the Detroit River. One is defunct, the other still producing. These two operating steel plants together produce almost seven million tons of new steel a year, making the south side of Detroit the second largest localized steel production area in the nation.
The Lake Shore: Still There in a Big Way
This region, along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago, is the largest heavy industry area in the USA, and one of the most productive steel regions in the world. Three large plants dominate the area. The two on either end are currently owned by ArcelorMittal, the largest steel company in the world, with 260,000 employees worldwide. Based in Luxemboug, ArcelorMittal is the product of the consolidation of many American and international steel companies, including U.S. Inland Steel and ISG, former owners of these Lake Shore plants. The company produces 100 million tons of steel per year from its operations around the world, 35% of it in the USA, and 15% of it here, on the Lake Shore. In the middle, between the ArcelorMittal plants at Indiana Harbor and Burns Harbor, is the U.S. Steel plant at Gary. Built more than 100 years ago by U.S. Steel, this is the largest plant for the nation’s largest remaining domestic steel company. These three plants together produce more than 22 million tons of steel a year, 30% of the total produced nationwide.
Buffalo: Gone But Not Forgotten
Though other Old Steel plants around the Great Lakes still operate, steel production in Buffalo, New York has run its course from existence to memory. The Pan-American Exposition was held in the city in 1901, while the Lackawanna Steel Company was in the middle of constructing the first plant in Buffalo. This plant would become one of the largest steel plants in the world–it employed 6,000 people when it opened the following year. It closed in the 1980s, and by the end of the century, most of it was demolished and managed as a hazardous waste site. A small museum preserves the legacy of Buffalo’s steel heritage.
Eastern Pennsylvania, and Bethlehem Steel
The arc of Bethlehem Steel is the arc of Old Steel in America. It was perennially the second largest steel company, after U.S. Steel, and around 1917, it was the third largest corporate entity in the USA, after U.S. Steel and Standard Oil. The company started with iron making in the 1850s, in the little eastern Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, where its principal plant grew to immense size.
The company expanded with acquisitions, and eventually had nearly 300,000 employees at its mills and shipyards across the country. In 1973, at its post-war peak, it produced 23.7 million tons of raw steel and employed 150,000. In 1975 Japan surpassed the USA in steel production, and the decline of American steel was underway. By 1982, Bethlehem had 67,000 employees. When it filed for bankruptcy in 2001, its remaining 13,000 employees were laid off, and the home plant in Bethlehem closed.
The hometown plant is now mostly owned by the Sands Corporation of Las Vegas, which opened a popular casino at the plant site in 2009. The company has so far spared some of the blast furnaces and other old buildings from demolition, but others have been torn down. Bethlehem Steel’s thirteen-story Art Deco former headquarters building is completely empty, and full of mold.
The former Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, located in Baltimore’s outer harbor, is the only Old Steel plant on the Atlantic Coast, and is one of the largest and most modern integrated steel plants in the country. It has been closed for a few years. The current owners, Hilco and Environmental Liability Transfer, bought the 3,000 acre site for $72.5 million in August 2012, four years after the plant sold for $810 million. The current plan, as of January 2013, is to raze the plant. The Nucor Steel company, which pioneered scrap mini-mills in the USA, will use some of the facilities for parts. The rest will probably be melted down to make New Steel. ♦