by FERN SHEN
The images in Deborah Rudacille’s new book on Baltimore’s Sparrows Point steel mill will stay with you.
There was “metal pouring like lava through a trough,” one worker told her, recalling how “cinder snappers” straddled the troughs and had legs covered with sores. Another explained how you could tell that someone worked in a process called “pickling” because ‘their teeth are black.”
She’s got black workers describing the day busloads of them brought their complaints about discrimination to company headquarters in Pennsylvania and simply blocked the revolving doors, demanding to be let inside. And she’s got others recalling how merchants and lenders would treat them like royalty. “People were like ‘Oh you work at Sparrows Point, wow, come in, come in.’”
But vivid details and anecdotes are just part of what drives “Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town,” Rudacille’s intimate and in-depth attempt to tell the story of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, once Baltimore’s economic powerhouse, now Russian-owned and drastically downsized.
((Inside: Sparrows Point photo slideshow))
Growing up beside the mill, in the working class community of Dundalk, Rudacille has memories of the area that are both fond and fraught, she said, in an interview with the Brew.
Turns out, she found conflicts and themes in the century-plus narrative of “The Point” that are not only national — the collapse of American industrial might – but deeply personal.
Weaving them together into “Roots of Steel,” she realized, “was a kind of healing process.”
Story of Boom and Bust
More than three years of reading and research went into the book, including oral histories obtained from family and friends and mill people Rudacille tracked down at union halls and senior centers.
Asked at a recent City Lit presentation at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library to summarize the history she covers in the book, Rudacille began with the mill rising from a marshy piece of wetlands in the late 1880s and moved smoothly through the key milestones:
“Bethlem” produced the steel for bridges and skyscrapers and two World Wars, and of its employment peak of over 40,000 (at the mill and shipyards) in 1959. Eventually the crippling impact of imported steel and management missteps led to the 2001 bankruptcy and sale of the company, in which retirees lost benefits and pensions. Then came the multiple ownership changes, ending with the current Russian Severstal company, which employs about 2,500.
But explaining what drove Rudacille to take on the project is more subtle to tease out. In an interview at Lauraville’s Red Canoe book store and coffee shop, she recalled listening to the way national political commentators and candidates talked about blue collar workers angry about job losses.
“Something about it bothered me,” she said. “It struck me as really condescending.” It’s not hard to see why, considering her deep familial roots in the iconic steel plant.
“It goes all the way back to my paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father and all his brothers – they all worked in the mill,” she said. Her mother worked in the United Steel Workers’ office.
There’s generally a nostalgic tone when Rudacille talks about her childhood. She remembers “the sense of freedom” she felt, hanging with a pack of neighborhood kids riding bikes to a little bridge and looking across Bear Creek at the mill. She marched in Dundalk’s annual Independence Day parade and loved the ritual of the annual “Steel Bowl,” held in Pennwood Park, across the street from the mill.
“Every year there would be a grudge match, Sparrows Point against Dundalk’s football team,” she said. “The Baltimore Colts judged the MVP, my father would come.” Rudacille’s father coached one of the teams for years.
Still, Sparrows Point had not been something she thought much about, consciously, for years. “I always knew that I would write about Dundalk, but I never imagined I would write about the mill,” she said. “It was just there. I never really noticed it.”
Her father eventually left steel work (“I don’t think he liked it very much”), put himself through college (with the help of a friend who took his 3-to-11 shifts for him) and got a white collar job with a state agency.
As for Rudacille herself, who left Dundalk when she was 20, there were things about the place that made her “uncomfortable….For one thing, I was a bookish child and that sometimes made me feel like an outsider.”
She started a family and when she began writing books, they were science-oriented and scholarly. (“The Scalpel and the Butterfly: the War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection” and “The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights.”)
If Sparrows Point was in her mind at all it was in the form of a recurring dream: “I’m inside the mill and it’s a scary and foreboding place.” Maybe those anxieties were fueled by the sight of the fiery glow she could see through the mill’s big windows, she thinks now, or the red dust you would see on cars: “that’s how you knew which kid’s father worked there.”
We are family
What propelled the project along, she said, was the moment when the title, “Roots of Steel,” just “came to me one day while I was sitting in front of my computer.”
But how to organize a tale with so many threads?
There was the labor union organizing, the racial and gender tensions, the environmental problems, the workplace safety issues, the corporate machinations, the curious concept of the “company town.” The framework for it came after she began interviewing former employees and hearing their stories.
“I listened to how they talked about the place,” she said, “and I realized, more than anything else, it was the story of a community, a community that was a family.”
And like all families, they had stories.
“They all had something to say,” she said. “They knew how the air and water was filthy, they lived the black and white tensions.” They also talked about people helped each other, through layoffs and other tough times.
Her overwhelming impression, she said, was “what a world unto itself that mill was.”
“It was like a city, they all had nicknames for each other. It was like ‘The Wire!” she observed, with a laugh. “There were all kinds of vendettas, alliances, great stories about the goofing off, the camaraderie, the warmth of the place. It was an incredibly rich, complex working environment.”
Even in the meticulously researched chapters discussing race relations, air and water pollution or workplace hazards, “Roots” retains its personal, narrative quality.
In the section on workplace hazards and their toll on worker health and the environment, for instance, she’s found documents detailing horrific and rarely-reported fatal accidents (page 38)
But she also has firsthand accounts, from family members of workers exposed to asbestos on the job who died from mesothelioma, including her uncle. She’s got workers recalling washing their faces in benzene, her mother warning her not to step into the shallow, cloudy waters near the mill: “your toes will fall off.”
Even the chapters on early history have a storyteller’s touch, thanks to documents she found, like the report filed by a company spy who infiltrated a 1919 union organizing meeting or Pinkerton company invoices for tailing union organizers.
Despite all the tensions and troubles that plagued the place over the years, Rudacille said, most people she interviewed spoke glowingly of the sense of security the mill imparted: “These were good jobs, with good benefits, it always came back to that.”
The loss of that feeling, across Baltimore and across the nation’s economic landscape, is what gives her story its added weight, Rudacille said.
“Everyone immediately relates to it, because it is, essentially, the story of what happened to industry in our country.”