Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reconstructing Spaces

I never was inside the Homestead Works, despite the fact that I lived in the shadow of its smoke for the first 18 years of my life. Very few people who didn't work there got into the mill. It was just too dangerous. If you had political connections, you might have gone on one of the tours they occasionally offered. The rest of us saw it while shopping on the Avenue, or from passing cars, or from the steps of Munhall High School or the Carnegie Library, or from one of the hundreds of residences perched on the hillside.

Even out of view, the mill was constantly in the periphery of our awareness, manifest in the clouds of smoke hovering over the area, or the loud booms and crashes reverberating through the valley, or the steam whistles that thrice daily marked the turns of shift--audible for miles. At night, the sky would pulse with the glow of molten steel, punctuated by fireworks from the blast furnaces and more dramatically, the old Bessemer converters.

In telling the story of the Strike, I had to reconstruct the inside of the mill. Emlyn Phillips, the novel's protagonist, was going to be working there. Not having been in the twentieth-century mill, how was I going to describe it in the 1890s? I found a couple accounts of work inside steel mills of the early 1900s. In those days, working in a steel mill was extraordinarily dangerous. Every day, workers were hurt; every week or so someone was killed. They hadn't yet posted the sign at the mill gate: "This plant has worked ___ days without a disabling injury."  If you were one of the injured, tough for you. No workers comp. No health insurance. No OSHA regulations. If you were a dependent of a killed worker, tough for you. No Social Security. No big company payout for your future care.

In 1892 the Homestead Works had state-of-the-art equipment, a technology that didn't change much as the decades passed. By the 1940s, government regulations made the working in the mill much safer, but the process was basically unchanged. From the contemporary narratives and interviews with my cousin's husband Phil Krepps I managed to put together a vision of how the open hearths and other parts of the mill operated.
At Rivers of Steel, I saw an old film of men making back wall at an open hearth furnace, and it amazed me how casually the men went at this scary task.  Of course, I incorporated that insight into my narrative.

Here is an excerpt describing Emlyn's second day on the job at the open hearth. He and Virgil, an American worker, are assisting with the tapping of the molten steel:

Emlyn took the small, flat shovel and went around to the rear of the furnace near the tap-spout. He looked down into the pit where the giant ladles were kept. There some workers, the clean-up men, painstakingly were gathering up all the fragments of spilled or sprayed metal to save for another melting. They suddenly left the pit.

"Yeow!" shouted the senior melter, and Frank, the second helper, came up to the tap-spout with a pointed rod and poked it into the material at the spout.

"Now he’s gonna ravel ’er out. Pay attention," admonished Virgil. Frank suddenly leaped away as if chased by demons and the molten steel spilled out, terrible and red. Spitting flame, the concoction fell into the ladle with a great hissing and plopping sound. The first helper and Frank staggered up to the ladle with huge bags of a fine black material and dropped it into the contents of the ladle, with very dramatic results.

Emlyn gasped as flames erupted from the cauldron, shooting up to the roof of the pit, curling viciously along the platform on which they stood.

"They’re putting in fine anthracite,” said Virgil. "’Know what that is?"

"Of course. I’m from Wales, where they dig up a lot of it."

"Hmph," responded Virgil.

Frank and the first helper kept dumping in bagsful of the coal until they had an enormous conflagration going. Then they stepped back.

"Get ready,” said Virgil. “When he gives the signal, we’re goin’ to shovel manganese—fast!"

Emlyn gripped the handle of his shovel tightly.

The melter gave the cue and Virgil, followed by Emlyn, ran along the gallery to the side of the spout where the molten metal was coming out. He thrust his shovel into the pile of manganese and started tossing it into the ladle. 

Today, much of the process of steel-making is automated, controlled by computers.  Workers don't have to stand just a few feet from the zillion-degree tap stream shoveling manganese as the steel is is shifted from furnace to ladle. That's certainly to be desired--but I don't think it would make a very dramatic scene in a novel.

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