Sunday, August 30, 2009

Furnace Alley detail

Years ago I was talking with my Dad and he told me a story about "the alley" that seems to be what sticks most in my memory now. I didn't have much of an understanding of what went on there in the 60s, though I would try at times to imagine it. I didn't see the alley myself until the summer I spent on the MonCon when, one afternoon, I decided to walk up and take a look (from the carshop to the Eliza furnaces was about a ten minute walk). Dad wasn't working in there by then (1974), which fact I know made his life a lot less stressful.

Whenever I might have strayed out of the immediate shop area, though — and for whatever reason — I would feel apprehensive and not a little frightened. Nobody needed to tell me what sorts of dangerous business was going on constantly all over the plant; and if I hadn't been able to figure it out on my own, the Monday morning "safety meetings" in the shop would have done (and did) the trick.

(A sidebar note: irony is something some of us enjoy a little more than others for any number of reasons — just as some are drawn more to puns than others are, and so on — and I'm always interested in either noticing irony or bringing it to bear in my own writing when I can. What was ironic about those Monday safety meetings, or briefings, was that nothing untoward ever seemed to happen until an hour or so after we had left the lunch room and settled down to whatever jobs or tasks we were up to. It was always then, and almost no other time, that somebody would get hurt — stumble over some cable lying on the ground and then bang their head on a ladder stile on a hopper or a grab iron on a gondola, etc., or burn themselves, or a spark from a torch would fly up into somebody's [unprotected] eye, or somebody would drop a twenty-pound coupler part on their foot, and so on. None of these incidents were permanently maiming or very serious, but their timing was haltingly less than auspicious. What occurred to me, after I began to pick up on the pattern— something I thought should have been obvious to any observant individual [though which, knowing my place in the order of things, I never spoke to anyone about] — was how simple might it have been to have shifted these safety briefings to Fridays . . . say, and after lunch. Then the carmen would have the weekend to forget about these matters ["Safety is everybody's concern;" "Think before you act;" "Are you grounded sufficiently;" "Goggles atop your hardhat when they should be atop your nose is what's between you and blindness;" and so on] and come to work Monday morning with nothing on their minds but their jobs, which they were always able to do with great skill and grace, I think the frequency of the stupid little things that happened immediately after our safety meetings would have dropped off significantly.)

I approached the alley with trepidation that afternoon, not sure if, having wandered away from the carshop I wasn't somehow violating some rule, either one that might have been codified somewhere or was simply generally understood: "One does not go where one doesn't belong." I could write here about the noise that overwhelmed me the closer I got to the alley (my unprotected ears being assaulting in a way I'd never before experienced), or the strange silver flakes of something (like snow [it was graphite]) floating in the air, or the smells — smells I can't describe: sulfur, lemon, heavy and intense. I could write about the visual apprehension of that place when, standing at bottom of the yard office where my dad had spent so much time, I first looked down the alley at ground-level. It was so narrow . . . no more than the width of a small street in a city neighborhood, fifty feet or so across. Looking west the furnaces were on the right; on the left were various buildings — none of them particularly small — the length of the alley that served various purposes. The tracks themselves were set in asphalt — no crossties or "ballast" there — and, as I've mentioned elsewhere, serviced the furnaces themselves in a kind of maze of crossovers and puzzle-switches. Tracks went into one furnace in one way to facilitate the ladles receiving the molten iron — down one or more troughs — and in another way to take the slag that floated atop the hot soup in the furnace and would be poured off into cinder pots and taken away to be dumped somewhere — still hot. Another furnace would have a different arrangement of tracks. Six furnaces, and none of the trackage to each was the same. "Who designed this?" I asked my father once. He just chuckled and said, "If the person who'd done this had been known, he'd probably have been hunted down and killed a long time ago."

I smoked a cigarette while standing at the steps of the alley yard office and somebody came along, stopped and asked me if I needed any help, did I need something? I was wearing my burning clothes, the green tunic and pants that marked me as somebody from the carshop, and he said, "You're a little out of your neighborhood, no?" I told him I'd come up just to take a look at the alley, that my dad had been the yardmaster there off and on for years, and that I was curious to see what he'd told me he hated so much . . . what the big deal about it all really was. I was not being facetious or sarcastic. He said, "So, what do you think?" "I don't really have much of a way of understanding this at all," I told him. "Well, let's go upstairs and get a cup of coffee," he said . . . and escorted me up the steps into the yard office. Once there, two or so stories above ground-level, the perspective was different. No less frightening, though, if perhaps a little quieter. We stood looking out, sipping our coffee. When I mentioned my dad's name he smiled and said, "Whitey was good in here and we miss him," he said. "Your dad had a lot of it figured out pretty well. It becomes a habit, really. The whole place is a fucking nightmare and you learn to adapt to it or you get out. That's all there is to it."

My dad had never talked much about what he didn't like about working in the alley but later, after he was retired, he told me on the golf course, once, that it nearly got to him. More years passed and he was beginning to suffer from emphysema. We talked late one night at home in Pittsburgh and I recorded the conversation on one of those small recorders — the ones with the little tapes. I wanted him to talk about the railroad and his memories. He wasn't a reluctant story-teller but one who, I think, wasn't sure that anything he might have to say would amount to much that anybody might be interested in. But I got him to talk, that evening, a little about the furnace alley. He asked me for a piece of paper and then drew a quick sketch of things. "What was so difficult about it all?" I had asked. This was of course years after my own brief moment in the alley but I had kept in my memory, and still keep, what I'd experienced there —saw, smelled, heard, felt, and so on.

Dad's story ended up being about how when those huge ladles would go down on the ground in the alley — when they would derail, for whatever reason — it would be a total mess. The first thing that happened would be somebody calling for the wrecker, a crane on rails they'd bring in to lift the ladle back onto the tracks. But that took time, and was an expense, so Dad would say "Hold on . . ," and leave the yard office and go down to take a look at things. There was a lot of spilled metal around those tracks, he told me, and if they were lucky enough they could get the car back up on the tracks just by dragging it a little, slowly, over that spilled and long hardened iron. The car would ride the iron and slide back up onto the rails, and then the three or four ladles full of their smoking hot metal would go on their way across the bridge to the South Side, and nobody was ever the wiser.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Historical Glimpse

Whether or not I end up in jail — making little rocks out of big ones, as the saying goes — remains to be seen, but I'm going to throw caution to the wind and, in addition to some of my own photos, will include a few I've either scanned from books or are pictures I've taken of other photos, etc. In the case of the latter, on the South Side of Pittsburgh where J&L's actual "steel-making" went on (the open hearth furnaces, later one or more electric arc furnaces) there's a series of plaques describing in some detail what used to be there. A few of the plaques explain the process of making steel (from beginning to end); one is a blue-line that shows the entire plant (both sides of the river), and another is a photograph of one of the open hearth departments. I have my own blue-line of the furnace alley (not included with this post) though it's not from what's on the plaque but a scan of something I was sent from an MCRR VP, upon request, about twenty or so years ago. I will have to rescan this but it shows the utter complexity of the trackage in the alley, which is what my father had to deal with as the yardmaster in there until he'd achieved the seniority that enabled him to avoid it. The representation here of the alley is a much less detailed one.

For those interested and so inclined, I highly recommend a rather lengthy book written by John P. Hoerr, published in 1988 by the University of Pittsburgh Press and entitled, And The Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. The book is 620 pages of text that describes, in perhaps more detail than the casual reader might wish to know, what happened between the 1950s and late 70s in the American steel industry and, in Mr. Hoerr's opinion, why it might have happened. A great amount of the book deals with the back-and-forth between the USWA (United Steelworkers of America) and the various integrated steel corporations, with most of the emphasis on what used to be called "Big Steel," which was of course United States Steel. Mr. Hoerr uses USS (as opposed to J&L [LTV], Bethlehem Steel, Republic, Inland Steel, and others) as his point of focus since it might be said that whatever was going on in the industry probably went on there at first, or if not so, then had the most repercussions there that might later have filtered down to the less notorious or well known companies. Mr. Hoerr's book is a narrative history, thus one is allowed into the minds of both union and industry leaders as well as other players and local (Pittsburgh and McKeesport, PA) individuals. We read these various people tell their stories and give their versions of what happened and it's at once extremely fascinating if not, in the end, a little distressing and sad.

While on the subject of books, another offering from the same publisher is a volume called Big Steel: The First Century of the United States Steel Corporation 1901-2001, written by Kenneth Warren and published in 2001. As the title indicates, this is a corporate history and as such is a bit more sterile than John Hoerr's book and is rife with facts, figures, and charts (which seem to accumulate in dizzying fashion). The text itself is chock-a-block with statistics and as a result the reading is a little dry, to say the least. But if one is tolerant and patient one might begin to get hold of an understanding of the huge scale, costs, and significance of this (or any) integrated steel operation.

In the future I'll post some other photos I've taken over the recent years of the USS Edgar Thompson works, located in the Braddock section of Pittsburgh and still in operation. Along with these I'll add a few of the now derelict Carrie Furnaces, across the Monongahela River (down river) from Homestead. I'll also include excerpts from some autobiographical writing regarding own my summer in the MCRR's carshop and, I can only hope, get back to posting photos of my modeling work.

For now, though — a brief trip back in time:

From the plaque on the South Side of Pittsburgh placed by Rivers Of Steel Archives

Aerial view of J&L, 1952: Rivers Of Steel Archives

Blue-line of the Eliza furnaces ("the alley") at J&L; Rivers Of Steel Archives. Note: the furnaces themselves are indicated by P1, P2, and so on. The High Grade is immediately beneath Second Avenue (though in reality it was above street level and behind a large stone wall). At the bottom of the drawing is the Monongahela River; the tracks running parallel to it are those of the Low Grade. At left, the tracks curving toward the river lead to the two bridges mentioned on the plaque above (photo of those are at the end of this post).

Eliza furnaces, date unknown, but probably in the mid-60s (source unknown). The two tracks running along the bottom of the photo are the B&O mains from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh and on to Chicago; we are looking west. The commuter cars here are Budd cars which ran from McKeesport into downtown Pittsburgh. Second Avenue is between these tracks and the furnaces, below in this photo and out of sight. The structure between the Budd cars and the furnaces is the stock house.
Second Avenue looking east, 1948. Middle photo is the B&O mains; lower right is the hot strip mill complex, new in 1937. Middle right are the MCRR main offices on the High Grade; behind them the stock house and the six blast furnaces. Pittsburgh Press photo.

J&L open hearth department #2, date unknown. Left background are the railroad bridges and the Eliza furnaces across the river. The gondolas pictured here were known as X-cars and belonged to the MCRR. I worked on these types of cars in the carshop, summer of 1974. Tracks below the overpass were the P&LE RR (owned then by the New York Central). Rivers Of Steel Archives.

MCRR yard known at "the Eastern," 1952. This is one of a dozen or so photos my father took on the railroad from the Eastern's yard office.

MCRR carshop; winter, 1987. There was no activity in the shop since it was a weekend. The X-cars are ready to be attended to Monday morning. These are the kinds of cars I worked on in 1974. They were the workhorses of the railroad and were ubiquitous — and as a result took constant pounding and abuse. Author photo.

Carshop, March 2007. Top of US Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh at far left. The Eliza furnaces would have been a thousand yards or so west (in the direction of downtown). Author photo.

Carshop, 2007. The slightly elevated area at the right had been utilized as a general junk yard of parts: wheels, wheelsets, couplers, brake parts and pipes, and piles of ladder stiles and grab irons. When we might have to replace one of those in the course of fixing a car, I'd have to trudge up the little hill, pick through the mounds of junk, and find something that I felt could be used. Often I'd have to do a little blacksmithing on my own to make the part serviceable. I would heat, with my torch, the ladder stile or grab iron and then bang away at it with a hammer on an anvil. My great grandfather, Adam Haenel, had done similar work for a living. Author photo.

Low Grade, 2007. This single track is all that remains of the MCRR's Low Grade. The line is owned and operated now by an entity I don't know the name of. I don't know where it originates, where it terminates, or what its purpose is. Author photo.

MonCon railroad bridges, 2008. I'm not positive but believe the bridge at the right was the railroad bridge (which now carries auto and truck traffic) and the one at left was the hot metal bridge, now a foot and bicycle bridge. The photo looks north across the Mon River. The Eliza furnaces would have been just to the right of the lower bridge; downtown Pittsburgh is out of the photo to the left. Author photo.