Original Document
Original Document
Charles Walker, "Blast Furnace," 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

I shall remember for all time the "blowing in" of Number 9, which means its first lighting up. A blast-furnace, once lit, remains burning till the end of its existence. I got inside her, and was delighted to satisfy a deep-seated curiosity: we crawled in the cinder notch. The hearth of the furnace lay six or eight feet below the brick flooring, and the effect of standing inside, with the fourteen round blowpipe holes admitting a little sunlight, was like being in a round ship's cabin, with fourteen portholes, except that the hollow furnace shot up to dark distances that the light didn't penetrate.

We built a scaffolding six or eight feet above the hearth to hold firewood, and filled in beneath with shavings and kindling. Then we took in cords upon cords of six-foot sticks and set them on end on top; there were two or three layers of these, and on top of them, according to the orthodox rule, were dumped quantities of coke, dumped down from the top, of course, by skips; and above that, light charges of ore. Below the scaffold, we spent half a day arranging kindling, with shavings placed at each blowpipe hole. When the wood was arranged, - a three-days' job, - the crane brought us some barrels of petrol, and we poured about half a one in each blowpipe hole. The cinder notch was likewise thoroughly provided with soaked shavings. That was to be the torch.

Men assembled as at a house-raising. Nobody worked from 11.00 to 12.00 on the day of blowing in Number 9. From all parts of the blast-furnace they came, and arranged themselves about the cinder notch, and on the girders above. The men and their bosses came. There was the labor foreman, and the foreman of all the carpenters, of all the window-glass fixers, all the blowers, the electricians, the master mechanic. Then came the superintendent of the open-hearth and Bessemer, Mr. Towers, and Mr. Brown his boss; and, finally, Mr. Erkeimer, the G.M., with an unknown Mr. Clark from Pittsburgh.

We waited from 11.00 to 12.00 for Mr. Clark to come and drop a spark into the shavings. When he arrived the crowd parted quickly for him, and, with Mr. Erkeimer and Mr. Swenson, he stood talking and smiling for some minutes more at the notch. Mr. Clark was a tall slender person, with glasses and an aspect of unfamiliarity with a blast-furnace environment. No one knew, or ever found out, who he was. Mr. Swenson showed him, very carefully, how to ignite the shavings with a teapot lamp. Twice the photographer, who had come early, got focused for the awful moment, and twice Mr. Clark deferred lighting the shavings and went on talking with Mr. Swenson. Finally, he bent over and lit them. Mr. Swenson rapidly turned to the gang behind him.

"Three cheers for Mr Clark!" he cried, raising his hand. When it is recalled that none of us knew the man we cheered, it wasn't a bad noise. The furnace smoked lustily in a few minutes, and several helpers rushed around it to thrust red-hot tapping bars in the blow-holes. They ignited at once the petroleum and shavings packed around them.

Immediately after the cheers, Mr. Swenson's bright-looking office-boy hurried through the gang with a box of cigars, another immemorial custom in operation. The more aggressive got cigars, then disappeared. It was a little odd during the afternoon to see a sweat-drenched cinder-snapper at his work with a long black cigar between his teeth. When they were burned out, the department settled back to normal production.

Many years might pass before such another occasion in that place. During that period there would be no slackening of the melting fires, or of the work of the helpers who kept them alive.

I stood on the platform waiting for the 10.05 train, and turned for a look at the landscape of brick and iron. I remembered a Hunky who had worked in the tube-mill for eighteen years and at length decided to go back to the old country. On the day he left, he went out the usual gate at the tempered after-work pace, walked the gravel path to the railroad embankment, and stopped for a moment to look back at the mill. He stood like a stone-pile on the embankment for a quarter of an hour, looking at the cluster of steel buildings and stacks. He had spent a life in them, making pipe, and I haven't a doubt this was the first time it came to him in perspective. From my own brief memories, I could guess at those fifteen minutes: pain, struggle, monotony, rough-house, laughter, endurance, but principally toil without imagination.

I thought quickly over my summer in the mills, and it looked rather pleasurable in retrospect. Things do. There's a verse on that sentiment in Lucretius, I think. I thought of sizzling nights; of bosses, friendly and unfriendly; of hot back-walls, and a good first-helper; of fighting twenty-four-hour turns; of interesting days as hot-blast man; of dreaded five-o'clock risings, and quiet satisfying suppers; of what men thought, and didn't think - and again, of how much the life was incident to a flinty-hearted universe and how much to the stupidity of men. I knew there were scores of matters arranging themselves in well-ordered data and conclusion in my head. I had a cool sense that, when they came out of the thinking, they would not be counsels of perfection, or denunciations, but would have substance, be able to weather theorists, both the hard-boiled and the sentimental, being compounded of good ingredients - tools, and iron ore, and the experience of workmen.

Is there any one thing though that stands out? I heard the train whistle a warning of its arrival. Perhaps, if a very complicated matter like the steel-life can be compounded in a phrase, it had been done by the third-helper on Six. On the day we had thrown manganese into a boiling ladle, in a temperature of 130°, he had turned to me slowly and summed it all up. "To hell with the money," he said; "no can live!"

Credit: Charles Walker, Steel: A Diary of a Furnace Worker (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1922), pp. 136-39.
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