The Goddess of Industry: Steel Week in Baltimore


Boom times at Sparrows Point steel mill

I spent this week at Steel Week, the AISC’s North American Steel Construction Conference (NASCC) in Baltimore, MD.  Every year, this conference is a great opportunity to share the CloudCalc philosophy with steel professionals.  Likewise, the week presents a wonderful chance to explore the highlights of the host city (as you can see from these dispatches I wrote from Nashville and Orlando in previous years).


So arriving in Baltimore, I had to check out the points of interest.  (Actually, once here, I realized that I have a little history with Baltimore.  My first job out of school was with Bechtel in Gaithersburg, MD…and as a young engineer I took my EIT exam — called the “Fundamentals of Engineering” exam these days — in the Baltimore Convention Center, the same building that is hosting the NASCC!)  Inner Harbor, check.  Fort McHenry, check.  Camden Yards, check.  And now Sparrows Point!


Did you have a chance to visit the CloudCalc booth this year?
If not, we hope to see you at NASCC 2019, in St. Louis, next April 3-5

What is Sparrow’s Point, you might ask.  Why, it’s the reason that it’s very appropriate that Baltimore served as the host of this week’s steel conference.  Sparrows Point is a Mecca of the steel industry, as well as an object lesson illustrating the decline of that once dominant industry – and maybe the decline of America’s broader industrial sector.  (Plus it also happens to be the name of the debut CD of singer-songwriter Richard Shindell.  I highly recommend it, but more on that later.)

Most people, when they think of the US steel industry, think of Pittsburgh, PA.  However for much of the 20th century, the largest steel mill in the world was located at Sparrows Point, MD, on a peninsula a mere 10 miles from Baltimore’s inner harbor.  Opened in 1889, the site was selected due to its proximity to a deep water harbor so close to the nation’s industrialized northeast.  The harbor provided easy access to iron ore from Cuba and Venezuela, while a network of railroads brought in coal from Pennsylvania and West Virginia and took finished steel products onward to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

In 1916, Bethlehem Steel bought the mill from the Pennsylvania Steel Company, and retained ownership of the mill (plus an associated shipyard) for nearly a century.  Under Bethlehem Steel, the mill became the world’s largest – in terms of physical size (it measured 4 miles end to end), employees (peaking at 30,000 workers in 1959), and capacity (1,000 tons per hour).  Sparrows Point provided the entire nation with steel.  For example, both the Golden Gate Bridge and the George Washington Bridge – a continent apart – were built using Sparrows Point steel.  The attached shipyard also became one of the nation’s most prolific, turning out nearly 90 ships during World War II alone.  For many generations of Baltimoreans, Sparrows Point became the main source of employment.  With the strength of the America’s steel industry (monopolizing 60% of the world’s steel production post-WWII), and the strength of the Steelworkers Union, a solid middle-class existence was assured for all.  (Or rather, for some.  Like most areas of the south, the Sparrows Point facility was segregated.  Black workers slowly gained rights – a young Thurgood Marshall was instrumental in winning union membership for black workers during the 1930s, skilled jobs gradually opened to non-whites in the 1940s, the mill was desegregated in 1962, and the union local elected its first black president in 1970.)  Sparrows Point steel mill deserved its nickname, the “Goddess of Industry”.


Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall helped
advance the rights of black workers at Sparrows Point

But then everything started to change.  Bethlehem Steel began to stumble in the 1970s, and Sparrows Point with it – 3,000 workers were laid off in 1971.  Changes in the industry, changes in technology, and threats from overseas competition continued the decline of Sparrows Point (and the rest of the US steel industry), despite an attempt to modernize the plant in the 1980s.  Bethlehem Steel continued to struggle going forward, and finally was liquidated in bankruptcy in 2003.  After that, Sparrows Point was passed from owner to owner.  International Steel Group, Mittal Steel, Severstal, and finally RG Steel, all witnessed a continuous decline in the fortunes of Sparrows Point.  When RG Steel declared bankruptcy in 2012, the last 2200 employees were laid off, the mill was shut down and sold for scrap (indicative of the changing focus of the country’s economy, today Amazon is constructing a new distribution center on the site).  The loss of the 30,000 industrial jobs at the Sparrows Point mill both led, and reflected, what was happening on a grander scale: today Baltimore has 160,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it had a mere 60 years ago.


Sparrows Point today, sold for scrap

Richard Shindell, in the songs of his CD Sparrows Point, displayed the emotional highs and lows that these changes must have brought.  In “The Kenworth of my Dreams” he perfectly recreates the joys of the blue collar worker.  “Are You Happy Now” (spoiler alert: it’s not a happy song) captures the lows of betrayal and abandonment.

The lyrics of the title song itself capture both the promise of the prosperous Sparrows Point Mill:

 “So I left there in boomtown
When I reached fifteen years
I traveled mostly northeast
With my head held mostly down

‘Cause they said there was more in Baltimore
Where those shipyards never close
You can sell the man your labor
And send the money home”

As well as the despair of the downturn:

“I found myself at Sparrows Point
With a slingshot in my hand.
Standing there around me
Two thousand idle hands
Their heads bowed low, their hopes not high
Their hearts weaned of their homes
Their pockets full of photographs
Their eyes full of goodbyes
I took my place among my kind
And I held my place in line”

What caused the fall of Sparrows Point?  What caused the decline of the dominant American steel industry?


Mark Reutter has made a career out of
documenting the fortunes of Sparrows Point

According to Mark Reutter, author of the book Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might, there were a number of reasons.  Among them:

  • Outdated technology. Sparrows Point used the obsolete open hearth method, which was severely energy and labor intensive. Newer, overseas facilities invested in more efficient steel making processes.
  • Poor strategy by arrogant management who thought the American steel industry would never lose its monopoly (and not just to overseas competition). For example, the steel industry lost the entire beverage can market during the 1960s (to Richmond, VA’s Reynolds Aluminum) simply because the steel companies didn’t feel that they needed to make the changes that the beverage companies were requesting.
  • Head in the sand union. Union leadership (especially in the case of Sparrows Point) constantly made bad decisions, obsessing over minutiae while signing away their members’ pension and health care benefits.  Despite selecting one new owner after another over the last decade of Sparrows Point, they were entirely unprepared when a new white knight did not appear to save the mill in 2012.
  • Geo-political-economic changes. The location that benefitted Sparrows Point in 1890 no longer made any sense in 2012.  Cuba and Venezuela were no longer good sources of iron ore, and the US northeast was no longer a large consumer of steel.

So what really killed Sparrows Point?  It was mostly the lack of innovation and complacency.  An industry can’t expect to remain competitive if it persists in doing business as it has for a hundred years, simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

The closing of the world’s largest steel mill cannot be summed up just in facts and figures.  The Baltimore Sun published a nice article documenting the impact it had on the lives of a number of the ex-workers.  Troy Pritt, one of the more resilient alumni, used the closing of the mill as an instigation to enroll in college, 26 years after high school graduation, in the hopes of starting a career in business.  He recently wrote a poem about his final experience at Sparrows Point:

The furnace is cold, and the steel no longer flows.
Silence enveloped the land that hadn’t heard silence in over a hundred years.
He stood in the parking lot, not knowing what to do next.
Four generations of his family gave their life to the mill.
When the boss passed him in the parking lot, he yelled out, “Where do I go?”
The boss replied, “You go home.”
He nodded in recognition. However, he didn’t understand.
“I am home,” he thought.

Maybe if Troy doesn’t make it in business, he can become a singer songwriter.  A CD called “Sparrows Point 2”?  I’d buy it.



Congratulations, Mark, on winning the one year subscription to CloudCalc!

PS:  We at CloudCalc would like to thank everybody who visited us during NASCC 2018.  The free one-year subscription (as well as the iPad on which to run it) was awarded through a drawing to Mark Lasby, P. Eng., Structural Engineering Consultant, of Heriot Bay, British Columbia, Canada.  Thanks again to everybody who entered, we look forward to working with you all in the future!

Is the steel industry still booming for you?  Make sure that it continues to do so, by using the most innovative solutions, such as CloudCalc — the collaborative, scalable, cloud-based structural engineering software.  (Or are you just a music fan?  In that case, check out Richard Shindell, you won’t regret it!) – Structural Analysis in the Cloud

By Tom Van Laan

Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2018

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