Original Document
Original Document
Charles Walker, from Steel: A Diary of a Furnace Worker, 1922.

Charles Rumford Walker was a young graduate of Yale University who "embarked on an idealistic project to explore an almost equal interest in the process of steelmaking, the administration of business, and the problem of industrial relations." Walker wanted the experience of being an outsider starting at the bottom of the steel industry, and in 1919, after his discharge from the Army, he came to "Bouton Mill in Bouton, Pennsylvania" to do just that. Bouton Mill was actually the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The identity of the mill and the town was disguised because Walker wanted to protect his sources in management who afforded him the opportunity to be an 'undercover' worker in the open hearth and blast furnace department at the mill. - Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh


At four o'clock I put on my paint-spattered pants, the coat with a conspicuous hole near one of the buttons, and my green hat. I climbed the little hill before the gate, among leisurely first arrivals, and found myself attracting no attention whatsoever. I felt for the brass check in my shirt pocket, found it, and rebuttoned the pocket. The guard peered into my face, as if he were going to ask for a pass, but didn't.

I walked the four hundred yards to the open-hearth, and noticed clearly for the first time the yard of the blooming-mill. Here varied shapes of steel, looking as if they weighed several thousand pounds each, were issuing from the mill on continuous treads, and moving about the yard in a most orderly, but complex manner. Electric cranes were sweeping over the quarter-acre of yard-space, and lifting and piling the steel swiftly and precisely on flat cars.

I entered the open-hearth mill by the tracks that ran close to the furnaces. The mill noises broke on me: a moan and rattle of cranes overhead, fifty-ton ones; the jarring of the train-loads of charge-boxes stopping suddenly in front of Number 4; and minor sounds like chains jangling on being dropped, or gravel swishing out of a box. I was conscious of muscles growing tense in the face of this violent environment, a somewhat artificial and eager calm. I walked with excessive firmness, and felt my personality contracting itself into the mere sense of sight and sound.

I looked for Pete.

"He's in his shanty - over there, " said an American furnace-helper, who was getting into his mill clothes. I went after Pete's shanty. It was a sheet-iron box, 12 by 12, midway down the floor, near a steel beam. Pete was coming out, buttoning the lower buttons of a blue shirt. He looked through my head and passed me, much as he had passed the steel beam. With two or three steps I moved out and blocked his way. He looked at me, loosened his face, and said very cheerfully: "Hello."

"I've come to work," I said.

"Here," he said, "you'll work th' pit t' night. Few days, y' know, get used ter things." He led the way to some iron stairs, and we went down together into that darkened region under the furnaces, about whose function I had speculated.

To the left I could make out tracks. Railroads seem to run through a steel mill from cellar to attic. And at intervals, from above the tracks, torrents of sparks swept into the dark, with now and then a small stream of yellow fire.

We stumbled over bricks, mud, clay, a shovel, and the railroad track. In front of a narrow curtain of molten slag, falling on the floor, we waited for some moments. We were under the middle furnaces, I calculated. Gradually the curtain ceased, and Pete leaped under the hole from which it had come.

"Watch yourself," he said.

I followed him with a broad jump, and a prayer about the falling slag.

We came out into the pit, which had so many bright centres of molten steel that it was lighter than outdoors. I watched Pete's back chiefly, and my own feet. We kept stepping between little chunks of dark slag, which made your feet hot, and close to a bucket, ten feet high, which gave forth smoke. Wheelbarrows we met, with and without men, and metal boxes, as large as wagons, dropped about a dirt floor. We avoided a hole with a fire at its centre.

At last, at the edge of the pit, near more tracks, we ran into the pit gang: eight or ten men, leaning on shovels and forks and blinking at the molten metal falling into a huge bucket-like ladle.

"Y' work here," said Pete, and moved on.

I remember feeling a half-pleasurable glow as I looked about the strenuous environment, of which I was to become a part - a glow mixed with a touch of anxiety as to what I was up against for the next fourteen hours.

Two of the eight men looked at me, and grinned.

I grinned back and put on my gloves. "No.6 furnace?" I asked, nodding toward the

"Ye-ah," said the man next me.

He was a cleanly built person, in loose corduroy pants, blue shirt open at his neck. Italian.

He grinned with extraordinary friendliness, and said, "First night, this place?"

"Yes," I returned.

" Goddam hell of a - - job," he said, very genially. We both turned to look at the stream again.
For ten minutes we stood and stared. Two men lit cigarettes, and sat on a wheelbarrow; four of the others had nodded to me; the other three stared.

I was eager to organize into reasonableness a little of this strenuous process that was going forward with a hiss and a roar about me.

"That's the ladle? " I said, to start things. "Ye-ah, w'ere yer see metal come, dat's spout, crane tak' him over pour platform, see; pour man mak li'l hole in ladle, fill up moul' - see de moul' on de flat cars?"

The Italian was a professor to me. I got the place named and charted in good shape before the night was out. The pit was an area of perhaps half an acre, with open sides and a roof. Two cranes traversed its entire extent, and a railway passed through its outer edge, bearing mammoth moulds, seven feet high above their flat cars. Every furnace protruded a spout, and, when the molten steel inside was "cooked," tilted backward slightly and poured into a ladle. A bunch of things happened before that pouring. Men appeared on a narrow platform with a very twisted railing, near the spout, and worked for a time with rods. They prodded up inside, till a tiny stream of fire broke through. Then you could see them start back in the nick of time to escape the deluge of molten steel. The stream in the spout would swell to the circumference of a man's body, and fall into the ladle, that oversized bucket thing, hung conveniently for it by the electric crane. A dizzy tide of sparks accompanied the stream, and shot out quite far into the pit, at times causing men to slap themselves to keep their clothing from breaking out into a blaze. There were always staccato human voices against the mechanical noise, and you distinguished by inflection, whether you heard command, or assent, or warning, or simply the lubrications of profanity.

As the molten stuff rose toward the top of the ladle, curdling like a gigantic pot of oatmeal, somebody gave a yell, and slowly, by an entirely concealed power, the 250-ton furnace lifted itself erect, and the steel stopped flowing down the spout.

But it splashed and slobbered enormously in the ladle at this juncture; a few hundred pounds ran over the edge to the floor of the pit. This, when it had cooled a little, it would be our job to clean up, separating steel scrap from the slag, and putting it into boxes for remelting.

When a ladle was full, the crane took it gingerly in a sweep of a hundred feet through mid-air, and, as Fritz said, the men on the pouring platform released a stopper from a hole in the bottom, to let out the steel. It flowed out in a spurting stream three or four inches thick, into moulds that stood some seven feet high on flat cars.

"Clean off the track on Number 7, an' make it fast," from the pit boss, accompanied by a neat stream of tobacco juice, which began to steam vigorously when it struck the hot slag at his feet.

We passed through to the other side of the furnaces, by going under Number 6, a bright fall of sparks from the slag-hole just missing the heels of the last man. "Isn't that dangerous and unnecessary?" I said to myself, angrily. "Why do we have to dodge under that slag-hole?"

We moved in the dark along a track that turned in under Seven, into a region of great heat. Before us was a small hill of partially cooled slag, blocking the track. It was like a tiny volcano, actively fluid in the centre, with the edges blackened and hard.

I found out very quickly the why of this mess. The furnace is made to rock forward, and spill out a few hundred pounds of the slag that floats on top. A short "buggy" car runs under, to catch the flow. But somebody had blundered - no buggy was there when the slag came.

"Get him up queek, and let buggy come back for nex' time," explained an Italian with moustachios, who carried the pick. "Huh, whatze matter goddam first-helper, letta furnace go?" he added angrily. "Lotza work."

This job took us three hours. The Italian went in at once with the pick, and loosened a mass of cinder near one of the rails. Fritz and I followed up with shovels, hurling the stuff away from the tracks. The slag is light, and you can swing a fat shovelful with ease; but mixed with it are clumps of steel that follow the slag over the furnace doors. It grew hotter as we worked in - three inches of red heat, to a slag cake six inches thick.

"Hose," said someone. The Italian found it in back of the next furnace, and screwed it to a spigot between the two. We became drowned in steam. We had been at it about an hour and a half, and I was shoveling back loose cinder, with a little speed to get it over with. "Rest yourself," commanded Moustachios. "Lotza time, lotza time."

I leaned on my shovel and found rather mixed feelings rising inside me. I was a little resentful at being told what to do; a little pleased that I was up, at least, to the gang standard; a little in doubt as to whether we ought not to be working harder; but, on the whole, tired enough to dismiss the question and lean on my shovel.

The heat was bad at times (from 120 to 130 degrees when you're right in it, I should guess). It was like constantly sticking your head into the fireplace. When you had a cake or two of newly turned slag, glowing on both sides, you worked like hell to get your pick work done and come out. I found a given amount of work in heat fatigued at three times the rate of the same work in a cooler atmosphere. But it was exciting, at all events, and preferable to monotony.

We used the crowbar and sledge on the harder ledges of the stuff, putting a loose piece under the bar and prying. When it was well cleared, a puffy switch-engine came out of the dark from the direction of Number 4, and pushed a buggy under the furnace. The engineer was short and jolly-looking, and asked the Italians a few very personal questions in a loud ringing voice. Everyone laughed, and all but Fritz and I undertook a new cheekful of "Honest Scrap." I smoked a Camel and gave Fritz one.

Then Al, the pit boss, came through. He was an American, medium husky, cap on one ear, and spat through his teeth. I guessed that Al somehow wasn't as hard-boiled as he looked, and found later that he was new as a boss. I concluded that he adopted this exterior in imitation of bosses of greater natural gifts in those lines, and to give substance to his authority. He used to be a workman in the tin mill.

"All done? If the son of a - - of a first-helper on the furnace had any brains, . ." and so forth. "Now get through and clean out the goddam mess in front."

We went through, and Fritz used the pick against some very dusty cinder that was entirely cool, and was massed in great piles on the front side of the slag-hole.

"Getta wheelbarrow, you."

I started for the wheelbarrow, just the ghost of a resentment rising at being "ordered about" by a "Wop" and then fading out into the difficulties I had in finding the wheelbarrow. Two or three things that day I had been sent for - things whose whereabouts were a closed book. "Where the devil," I muttered to myself, violently disturbed, "are wheelbarrows?" I found one, at last, near the masons under Number 4, and started off.

Charles Walker, Steel: A Diary of a Furnace Worker (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1922), pp. 31-38.

Charles Rumford Walker was a young graduate of Yale University who "embarked on an idealistic project to explore an almost equal interest in the process of steelmaking, the administration of business, and the problem of industrial relations." Walker wanted the experience of being an outsider starting at the bottom of the steel industry, and in 1919, after his discharge from the Army, he came to "Bouton Mill in Bouton, Pennsylvania" to do just that. Bouton Mill was actually the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The identity of the mill and the town was disguised because Walker wanted to protect his sources in management who afforded him the opportunity to be an 'undercover' worker in the open hearth and blast furnace department at the mill. - Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh


"HAVE a cigarette, Pete," I said, offering a Camel to a very fat and boyish-looking Russian.

"No t'ank."

"What, no smoke?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, no smoke."

"No drink?" I asked, wondering if I had found a Puritan. "Oh, drink," he said with profound emphasis; and continuing, he told me of other solaces he found in this mortal life. "Look!" cried some one.

Herb, the craneman, in a fit of extreme playfulness had thrown some wet green paint forty feet through the air at the pit boss, greening the whole side of his face. Al was doing a long backward dodge, and slapping a hand to his painted face, supposing it a draught of hot metal. When he perceived that he wasn't killed, he picked up cinder-hunks and bombarded the crane-box. It sounded like hail on tin.

Pete, the Russian melter, came out on the gallery behind the furnaces, and I could see by the way he looked the pit over, that he was picking a man for furnace work. Somebody had stayed out and they were short a helper. He looked at the fat workman beside me, and then grunted.

This was the third time he had picked Russians in preference to the rest of us, who are Serbian, Austrian, and American. The next day I went on the floor, and tackled Pete. "How about a chance on the floor?" I said, standing in front of him to keep him from lurching away.

"Y' get chance 'nuff, don' worry."

"If I can't get a crack at learning this game in Bouton, I'll go somewhere I can," I said, boiling up a little.

Dick Reber, the Pennsylvania-Dutch melter, came up.

"I want a chance on the floor," I said.

"All right, boy, go on Number 7 to-day."

I made all speed to Number 7. "Is he doing that," I thought, as I picked up my shovel, "because I'm an American?" I looked up and saw the big ladle-bucket pouring hot metal into a spout in the furnace-door, accompanied by a great swirl of sparks and flame, spurting upward with a sizzle. "At last," I said, "I'm going to make steel."

The steel starts in as "scrap" in the mill-yard. Scrap from anywhere in America; a broken casting, the size of a man's trunk, down to corroded pipe, or strips the thickness of your nail, salvaged in bales. The overhead crane gathers them all from arriving flat cars by a magnet as big as a cart wheel, and the pieces of steel leap to meet it with apparent joy, stick stoutly for a moment, and fall released into iron charge-boxes. By trainloads they pass out of the stockyard and into the mill, where the track runs directly in front of the furnace-doors. There the charging machine dumps them quickly into the belly of the furnace. It does its work with a single iron finger, about ten feet long and nearly a foot thick, lifting the box by a cleat on the end, and poking it swiftly into the flaming door. Old furnaces charged by hand hold from twenty-five to thirty-five tons; new ones, up to two hundred and fifty.

That is the first step in starting to make a "heat," which means cook a bellyful to the proper temperature for steel, ready to tap into a ladle for ingot-making. Next comes "making front-wall," which signifies that no self-respecting brick, clay, or any other substance, can stand a load of metal up to steel-heat without being temporarily relined right away for the next draft of flame. We do that relining by shoveling dolomite into the furnace. The official known as second-helper wields a Brobdingnag spoon, about two inches larger than a dinner-plate and fifteen feet long, which a couple of third-helpers, among them myself, fill with dolomite. By use of the spoon, he carefully spreads the protection over the front-wall.

But the sporting job on the open-hearth comes a bit later, and consists in "making back-wall." Then all the men on the furnace and all the men on your neighbor's furnace form a dolomite line, and marching in file to the open door, fling their shovelfuls across the flaming void to the back-wall. It's not a beginner's job. You must swing your weapon through a wide arc, to give it "wing," and the stuff must hop off just behind the furnace-door and rise high enough to top the scrap between, and land high. I say it's not a beginner's job, though it's like golf - the first shovelful may be a winner. What lends life to the sport is the fact that everybody's in it - it's the team play of the open-hearth, like a house-raising in the community.

Another thing giving life is the heat. The mouth of the furnace gapes it widest, and you must hug close in order to get the stuff across. Every man has deeply smoked glasses on his nose when he faces the furnace. He's got to stare down her throat, to watch where the dolomite lands. It's up to him to place his stuff - the line is n't marching through the heat to warm its hands. Here's a tip I didn't "savvy" on my first back-wall. Throw your left arm high at the end of your arc, and in front of your face; it will cut the heat an instant, and allow you to see if you have "placed" without flinching. It's really not brawn - making back-wall - but a nimble swing and a good eye, and the art of not minding heat.

After that is done, she can cook for a while and needs only watching. The first-helper gives her that, passing up and down every few minutes to look through the peepholes in her furnace-doors. He puts his glasses down on his nose, inspects the brew, and notices if her stomach's in good shape. If the bricks get as red as the gas flame, she's burning the living lining out of her. But he keeps the gas blowing in her ends, as hot as she'll stand it without a holler. On either end the gas, and on top of it the air. The first-helper, who is cook of the furnace, makes a proper mixture out of them. The hotter he can let the gas through, the quicker the brew is cooked, and the more "tonnage" he'll make that week.

"Get me thirty thousand pounds," said the first-helper when I was on the furnace that first night. Fifteen tons of molten metal! I was undecided whether to bring it in a dipper or in my hat. But it's no more than running upstairs for a handkerchief in the bureau. You climb to a platform near the blower, where the stuff is made, and find a man there with a book. Punch him in the arm and say, "Thirty thou' for Number 7." He will swear moderately and blow a whistle. You return to the furnace, and on your heels follows a locomotive dragging a bucket, the ladle, ten feet high. Out of it arise the fumes of your fifteen tons of hot metal. The overhead crane picks it up and pours it through a spout into the furnace. As it goes in, you stand and direct the pouring. The craneman, as he tilts or raises the bucket, watches you for directions, and you stand and make gentle motions with one hand, thus easily and simply controlling the flux of the fifteen tons. That part of the job always pleased me. It was like modeling Niagara with a wave of the hand. Sometimes he spills a little, and there is a vortex of sparks, and much molten metal in front of the door to step on.

She cooks in anywhere from ten hours to twenty-four. The record on this floor is ten, which was put over by Jock. He has worked on most of the open-hearths, I learn, from Scotland to Colorado.

When it's time for a test, the first-helper will take a spoon about the size of your hand and scoop up some of the soup. But not to taste. He pours it into a mould, and when the little ingot is cool, breaks it with a sledge. Everyone on the furnace, barring myself, looks at the broken metal and gives a wise smile. I'm not enough of a cook. They know by the grain if she has too much carbon or needs more, or is ready to tap, or isn't. With too much carbon, she'll need a "jigger," which is a few more tons of hot metal, to thin her out.

That's about the whole game - abbreviated - up to tap-time. It takes, on an average, eighteen hours, and your shift may be anything from ten to twenty-four. Of course, there are details, like shoveling in fluor-spar to thin out the slag. Be sure you clear the breast of the furnace, with your shovelful, when you put that into her. Spar eats the dolomite as mice eat cheese.
At intervals the first-helper tilts the whole furnace forward, and she runs out at the doors, which is to drain off the slag that floats on top of the brew. But after much weariness it's tap-time and the "big boss" comes to supervise.

Move aside the shutters covering the round peep-holes on her doors, at this time, and you'll see the brew bubbling away like malt breakfast-food ready to eat. But there's a lot of testing before serving. When it is ready, you run to the place where you hid your little flat manganese shovel and take it to the gallery back of the furnace, near the tap-spout. There you can look down on the pit strewn with those giant bucket-ladles and sprinkled with the clean-up men, who gather painfully all that's spilled or slobbered of hot metal, and save it for a second melting. The whole is swept by the omnipresent crane.

At a proper and chosen instant, the senior melter shouts, "Heow!" and the great furnace rolls on its side on a pair of mammoth rockers, and points a clay spout into the ladle held for it by the crane. Before the hot soup comes rushing, the second-helper has to "ravel her out." That function of his almost destroyed my ambition to learn the steel business. Raveling is poking a pointed rod up the tap-spout, till the stopping is prodded away. You never know when the desired but terrific result is accomplished. When it is, he retires as you would from an exploding oil-well. The brew is loose. It comes out, red and hurling flame. Into the ladle it falls with a hiss and a terrifying "splunch." The first and second helpers immediately make matters worse. They stagger up with bags (containing fine anthracite) and drop them into the mess. They have a most damning effect. The flames hit the roof of the pit, and sway and curl angrily along the frail platform on which you stand. Some occult reasoning tells them how many of these bags to drop in, whether to make a conflagration or a moderate house-burning.

The melter waits a few minutes and then shouts your cue. You and another helper run swiftly along the gallery to the side of the spout. At your feet is a pile of manganese, one of the heaviest substances in the world, and seeming heavier than that. It's your job and your helper's to put the pile into the cauldron. And you do it with all manner of speed. The tap stream - at steel heat - is three feet from your face, and gas and sparks come up as the stream hits the ladle. You're expected to get it in fast. You do.

There are almost always two ladles to fill, but you have a "spell" between. When she's tapped, you pick up a piece of sheet iron and cover the spout with it. That's another job to warm frost-bitten fingers. Use gloves and wet burlap - it preserves the hands for future use.

One more step, and the brew is an ingot. There are several tracks entering the pit, and at proper seasons a train of cars swings in, bringing the upright ingot moulds. They stand about seven feet high from their flats. When the ladle is full and slobbering a bit, the craneman swings her gingerly over the first mould. Level with the ladle's base, and above the train of moulds, runs the pouring platform, on which the ingot-men stand.

By means of rods a stopper is released from a small hole in the bottom of the ladle. In a few seconds the stream fills a mould, and the attendant shuts off the steel like a boy at a spigot. The ladle swings gently down the line, and the proper measure of metallic flame squirts into each mould. A trainload of steel is poured in a few minutes.

But this is when all omens are propitious. It's when the stopper-man has made no mistakes. But when rods jam and the stopper won't stop, watch your step, and cover your face. That fierce little stream keeps coming, and nothing that the desperate men on the pouring platform can do seems likely to stem it. Soon one mould is full. But the ladle continues to pour, with twenty tons of steel to go. It can't be allowed to make a steel floor for the pit. It must get into those moulds.

So the craneman swings her on to the next mould, with the stream aspurt. It's like taking water from the teakettle to the sink with a punctured dipper: half goes on the kitchen floor. But the spattering of molten metal is much more exciting. A few little clots affect the flesh like hot bullets. So, when the craneman gets ready to swing the little stream down the line, the workers on the platform behave like frightened fishes in a mill pond. Then, while the mould fills, they come back, to throw certain ingredients into the cooling metal.

These ingots, when they come from the moulds virgin steel, are impressive things - especially on the night turn. Then each stands up against the night air like a massive monument of hardened fire. Pass near them, and see what colossal radiators of heat they are. Trainloads of them pass daily out of the pit to the blooming-mill, to catch their first transformation. But my spell with them is done.

Credit: Charles Walker, Steel: A Diary of a Furnace Worker (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1922), 16-23.
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