“It was really something, it was kind of like the movies!”
Edited by Welcome Project Intern Ella Speckhard
Transcript for Fascinated by the Steelmills
When I was a kid, we heard the mills, we could see the sky light up because it was a different process then. It was a lot of open flames and that sort of thing. The sound was incredible. And really, pollution was kind of bad, too. And when the wind was out of the north, our neighborhood smelled like mothballs because it was coming right off the coke plant which was right across the street. If the wind was out of the north, if you put your laundry out on the line—because we didn’t have dryers in the 1950s—it would get covered in soot. And the wind didn’t have to be out of the north. If you could clean your windowsills and then maybe come back a couple hours later and put your finger on it, and you would see soot. It would be there. And, I mean, it was tremendous, and if it came—if the wind came across the sinter plant, it would blow a blue haze in our neighborhood. And there was a river that separated our neighborhood from the plant, and it looked like a river of used motor oil. It did not look like water. It looked like oil: used, black oil. And it had caught on fire a few times.
There was a place called Taylor Forge, and it was basically a giant hammer that would come down on a, kind of a hot piece of steel and just bang and bang with tremendous force. And when they were running, which wasn’t all the time, you could hear this boom, boom. And I would sit there at night, and we didn’t have air conditioning, head would be kind of hanging out the window to get some air, and you would hear this sound: boom, boom, boom. It was really something. It was kind of like the movies, I mean, to me it was. And you would also hear railroad engines. One sound in particular was really tremendous. At eight o’clock in the morning, four o’clock in the afternoon, and midnight, they had this huge whistle that would go off indicating shift change. And when that whistle went off, you could hear it all over the city. And when that whistle went off, most people didn’t have cars. They would open the gates. There was twenty-nine thousand people working there and maybe a third of them at one particular time. They’d open those gates when the whistle blew and the people were everywhere walking with their lunch buckets and everything, headed to the taverns. There was like, two or three taverns on every block.
And I was always fascinated by the steel mills because it was some place we couldn’t go, you know, when we were kids. But we had a good time. We snuck in a couple times when we were in our—eleven, twelve years old. We went through, they didn’t have gates, and we rode our bikes and were chased out of there. We were so unprepared for the things we saw. The fire and the smoke, because it was in the coke plant where we went, and it was smoky, and stunk, and dirty, and these people walking around like a Flash Gordon movie, you know, shoveling in these furnaces. We were just in awe. Our mouths were open and we just couldn’t believe the things we were seeing. Had no idea — no understanding of what the process was all about at that time. We were on our bikes and they had security and they had, like, little police cars, and they would maybe come find us, and we’d hide where we could and eventually when we got too scared because they were closing in on us, we left. You know, we would come in from the east end. It was places you could go. They didn’t have fences all over the place like they do now.
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