Homestead Works – US Steel

By Joe Gribbin

Homestead Works -- US Steel
My dad started working at the steel mill in 1939, the year he graduated from high school. In 1941 or 1942, he and his 4 brothers (my uncles Tom, Frank, Bill, and Fred) signed up for the services to fight in WWII. They were in all the newspapers. I think they were on the front page of the Braddock Free Press. 

As long as I can remember, my dad worked at OH 5 (Open Hearth #5). Of course, he always told us about other places he worked, like OH 4, (which was abandoned or torn down by the time I worked there). My dad was an accountant. I remember him answering the phone (HO-2-4602), "Open Hearth Accounting".  I remember his best buddy at work was Joe Mulhearn, and there was a woman who worked there, I think her name was Betty or Sara or Lois or something. His hated boss was Charlie Hoag. He worked in a gray office building, just inside the Amity Street gate, below the Homestead Hi-Level Bridge. (It is the only building still standing.) Other gates included the City Farm Lane Gate (Hole in the Wall) that was used a lot when OH 4 was running, the 8th Avenue Gate, and the 48" Mill Gate. My dad got me, Tommy, Mike, and Marty jobs in the mill. 

First Real Job
My first job there was the summer I graduated from high school, 1969. I started in the labor gang in OH 5. Ace Grinnage was the labor foreman. He was a friend of my dad's from way back. It was fun and hard at the same time. I made real good money and worked three shifts. That was a summer I'll never forget.  I remember going down into the flues of the furnaces to clean out soot and slag. Sometimes we went in soon after the furnace was shut down. It was so hot and dirty! We even had to wear wooden pads on our shoes and knees so our shoes wouldn't melt! I worked any job I could to get out of going into the flues.

I worked third helper a lot. It paid more (different incentives), but was harder and more dangerous because of the traffic and activity on the furnace floor. Third helpers would have to prepare the spout with the second helper. This involved mixing 20-30 bags of a refractory type material (almost like cement) in a mixer. The second helper would spray this all over the spout in the back of the furnace. He would prepare a small hole where the melting foreman would later insert a 'charge'.

There were eleven furnaces in OH 5. Furnaces 65-69 were smaller furnaces, their flues were so small, we had to crawl in them and hand the shovels of soot to the other workers, like a bucket brigade. Furnaces 70-75 were much larger. Each furnace had a first, second, and third helper. The first helper ran the furnace, the second helper assisted him and was more like a first helper trainee, and the third helpers came out of the labor gang and did most of the dirty work. When a furnace was ready to tap, the melting foreman would set the charge and run wires to a battery. He would begin blowing a whistle, slowly at first, to let everyone in the mill know that a furnace would be tapped soon.

There was always so much noise. There were trains, cranes, the swooshing and burning of gases, people hollering, just to be heard over the mayhem. There was also a red flashing light so you would know which furnace was tapping. When we heard the whistle, the third helpers would all go to the furnace that was tapping and wait. When the furnace tapped, we would throw bags of chromium, vanadium, carbon, and manganese into the spout. This was the final 'mixing' that the steel would get. After the furnace would tap, we would go back to working on our own furnaces.

If I was lucky, I would get a job as test carrier. This job paid well too, but was clean and easy, except when a furnace was ready to tap. Basically, the first helper would stick this glass vial into the furnace and get some steel then he would drop it into a bucket of water. The test carrier would then grab the vial with tongs, break off the glass and carry the metal to the metallurgist shed where it would be tested for content. If the steel was bad, or they had to add a lot of stuff to it, we would have to do ten or fifteen tests on one furnace. That's as hectic as that job got. The rest of the time you told the second helper where you were and you were on your own. We usually hung out in or around the metallurgy shed.

That summer I also worked as stopper-maker helper and bricklayer helper.  As laborer we also swept floors, chipped refractory stuff off furnace walls, rebuilt furnaces, banked hot metal with dolomite, and cleaned ladles in the soaking pits.

Before each shift we had a safety meeting in the laborer's shanty. The labor foreman would look around and assign the laborers to the various jobs that shift. One day I was assigned to work as a stopper-maker helper. The stopper-makers were located behind and under the #65 furnace. The regular helper was on vacation, his name was 'Marine' and he was this older man who was in pretty good shape. He would stalk around the shower room and brag about how hard he worked and how these sissy hippies couldn't carry his shorts and stuff. Nobody messed with him either because he looked kinda crazy. So I get there and there is this older black guy who was very nice, friendly and sorta quiet, but who you could tell was a hard worker. He was patient as he showed me what I had to do to assist him in making stoppers. Stoppers were basically these long metal rods that you 'sleeved' with these refractory or ceramic pieces that would be 'mudded' or cemented together. Each stopper took about 18-20 of these pieces that each weighed about 20-30 lbs. The stoppers would later be put in large ladles and plug the hole in the bottom. Ladles would be moved by cranes over ingot molds where the stopper would be lifted by another hoist to release the molten steel and fill the molds. Marine had the record of 23 stoppers in an eight hour shift (there was a sign up on the wall with his record) and by lunch time we had 15 stoppers made. The stopper maker asked me if I brought my lunch and when I told him no he gave me one of his sandwiches. He wanted to beat Marine's record as much as I did! He said he was tired of listening to this 'bag of hot air'. We ended the shift with 28! I couldn't wait to change the record up on the board. I never heard from Marine again.         

Other fond memories were going to the canteen for lunch and getting their meatloaf sandwiches. You needed tickets to buy food and I would usually go for everyone else and sometimes get a free lunch out of it!

I remember meeting my dad at Stein's Bar at Amity and 6th Street after working daylight. He worked from 6:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. and I would stop and have a soda then we would drive home. He was always proud of his kids, but it seemed never more so than when we would meet after work. He would introduce me to all his crones, and they all would offer to buy us drinks. Dad and I now had a lot of stuff and people in common. He knew about the mill and I guess 're-lived' the mill experience vicariously, through his boys. Stein's would cash your check, if you had your mill badge (my number was 41319) and you ate or drank there. You walked around to the other side of the bar and Bernie Stein would cash your check. There was a curtain next to him that supposedly a guy with a shotgun would wait to make sure they didn't get robbed.

Paydays in Homestead were wild times. On paydays, you could buy all kinds of stuff cheap. Going up Amity Street there would be people selling socks, clothes, shoes, watches, cigarettes, all kinds of stuff, right on the sidewalks. I would usually buy socks and tee shirts from these people. If I got to work early enough, I would sometimes stop at the Blue Goose Restaurant and get a couple of their chili dogs, they were the best. Or stop at the Gateway Restaurant and eat and/or get something to go. They always had stale donuts you could buy if you were running late. They were probably 2-3 days old, but they sold them at a premium.

In August, I was laid off, like all the college students, but I didn't go to school then because I didn't have the money and I knew my parents didn't have the money. Besides, I didn't have very good grades in high school and didn't think I would be accepted anyway. I worked at Conley's Motel in Monroeville as a busboy and then later as a front desk clerk. 

Reality Check
The mill called me back in the middle of the winter. I reported to the 100 inch mill, which was a rolling mill. They took slabs of steel, reheated them in small furnaces, then rolled them into plates with a maximum width of 100" (what a coincidence!) Of course, the plates were about 2-300 feet long. They would shear them to size and stack them to ship on trucks and trains. 

I'll never forget how I felt when I went back to the mill. Everything was different, literally! It was dark most of the time (being winter and all) and foreboding. The mill was different, darker and more sinister.  It wasn't the bright, warm days of summer, with young people, working for money for college. No sharp repartee with these guys. I worked with the real mill hunkies, lifers who had little or no formal education. Some didn't even speak English most of the time. Even the younger guys were not very bright. This was reality. I didn't know anyone at my new assignment. When I reported to the 100" I was supposed to be a painter, which is a job where you write on hot plates the dimensions for the shear operators. When I got there though, they didn't need painters so they put me in the labor gang. For the first month all I did was sweep slag left by the scarfers off the slabs before they were pushed into the furnace. This was a pretty lonely job and I was cold most of the time.

After I paid my dues sweeping slag, I joined the real gang and things got a little better. I met Jack Smith from Brookline, they called him 'Smitty', and we became good work friends. He had played softball for the BYM Club and then Lee Agency, both pretty good softball teams at that time. And he was a character! He was funny and friendly, and made me feel a lot better about working at the mill. I met him later at the Civic Arena. He worked there as a security guard with Gregg's Security. I worked as a laborer at the 110" rolling mill sometimes too.

One story I want to tell now concerns a suggestion I made while I worked at the 100". As I said earlier, I worked originally sweeping off scarfing slag from slabs before they were pushed into the reheating furnaces. See, the slabs would come up an elevator and they be pushed onto rolls where they would be rolled in front of the furnace and then pushed into the furnace. What a system! As the pusher 'pushed' a slab into the front of the furnace, a heated slab would 'plop' out the other side, onto rolls and then move along to be rolled (milled) into sheets. From there they would be cut to length (sheared), then stacked for shipping. Well, after they came off the 'elevator' and before they went into the furnace, a laborer would have to sweep the slabs. To me this was the dumbest job I could imagine, and believe me, there were plenty of dumb jobs in the mill. 

At that time you were rewarded with a year's salary if you made a suggestion that eliminated a job. I had an idea to eliminate the sweeper job by building a device that would jet the slag off the slabs with either air or water. This would be housed in such a way that the dust and slag would fall into a box that could be later removed by a crane and dumped. At that time the slag just went on the ground and every 5-6 weeks the labor gang would spend a day shoveling the slag into wheelbarrows and hauling it to a box.  The instructions on the suggestion form said that if you needed help filling out the form, you should see your supervisor, which I did, because I didn't know how technical the suggestion had to be. He looked at my suggestion and my drawings and told me, 'Nah, that would never work, and went on about how it would be too expensive, the company would never spend that kind of money, etc., don't waste your time submitting the idea.'

Shortly after that I was recommended for a craneman's position at the 48" mill. This looked like a good, clean job that paid a lot more than laborer, so I took it. About two years later I was 'bumped' back to the labor gang at the 100" because of a slowdown of orders at the 48" mill. I didn't have to sweep slabs this time though; they had a machine then that jetted the slag off the slabs, into a box. They say my old, retired, benevolent foreman made about $8,000.00 on his suggestion.

Joe Craneman
I trained to be a craneman on an EOT (Electric Overhead Travelling) crane in a building that was used to store parts for the various machines and furnaces in the mill. As you can imagine, after making steel in the same town for over 100 years, there were many odd shaped, often special handmade tools that were developed to keep the various steel furnaces going. I was in a class of about 5 people who would be sent to various departments throughout the mill. We learned about the different parts of the crane, how to inspect them, oil them, and basically take care of them. We learned safety procedures, emergency procedures, and how to operate the cranes. An important part of the training besides learning coordination, timing, and accuracy, was learning hand signals and working with the guys in the hook-on gang, affectionately known as 'hookers'. I remember that it was always a pleasure to work with hookers that took pride in their work, knew the safety rules, and made right decisions when hooking up lifts. And I'm sure that they felt the same way about working with certain cranemen. I am proud to say that I had an excellent safety record, and that hookers and foremen sometimes asked for me to work on their shifts.    

EOT cranes had a hoist, trolley, and a bridge control. The hoist went up and down, the trolley went in and out and the bridge moved the whole crane. Most cranes that I operated had two hoists because of the long lifts loading steel plates into gondola railroad cars and trucks. 

The 48" mill had cranes that were numbered from #118 to 127, and I ran every one of them at one time or another. Cranes #'d 118 and 119 were outside slab yard cranes. These cranes were like baby cranes for beginners. You didn't normally have hookers and couldn't do much damage because basically all you did was unload steel slabs from railroad cars as they came from the slab mill and then stack them in rows. A slab yard man would come along and mark identifying numbers on every slab. Each slab was numbered and tracked to fill certain orders, almost in a queue.  The #118 crane had 'dinky' controls that were DC, direct current. These controls had metal plates on a wheel or disk and as you moved the control to each succeeding plate, more juice would go to the device you were operating. This was sort of like a standard shift on a car, a lot of jerks and stop and starts. The #119 crane had master controls that operated on alternating current and were a lot smoother to run.  You could 'throw' the switch open all the way and the device would speed up gradually, like an automatic transmission. Crane # 120 was the most important crane of all and was known as the production crane. On this crane you took slabs off the railroad cars (that were loaded by cranes 118 & 119) and loaded them in their heating order onto small railway buggies. These would be pushed into the bull pen, the area in front of the furnaces. From there, the charging machine (crane#121) lifted the slabs up and placed them into the furnace to be heated.  The charging machine would then take the heated slabs out of the furnaces and run them down to crane #122, the roll crane, which lifted them onto the mill rolls. This was the most monotonous crane to operate because you basically did six movements, hoist, trolley, bridge, lower/raise hoist, bridge, trolley, etc. for an eight hour period. The slabs were then rolled through the 'mill' which would mill them to the desired thickness.

The mill crane was crane # 123 and was run by an older man named Tim. He was affectionately known as 'Quizzy' because he always asked everyone a million questions. He was well liked by everyone. Crane #123 was 'manned' but really didn't do anything for days on end. It was used during production in the event of emergencies (such as a slab getting stuck, etc.) and on roll changes (about once a week). Even on roll changes you made about 10 moves in an 8 hour period. This was the best crane job you could get, because besides not doing anything, you were paid a lot of incentive because it received production incentive. That is probably why the oldest craneman in the mill ran this crane. The #124 (flame-cut) shared duties with the #125 (shear) crane as both a shear crane and also a shipping crane. These cranes used a double hoist with chains on them to lift the plates onto the storage piles after they came out of the shear. Later we would load trucks and gondola railroad cars with the plates.

I remember that we made a lot of Cor-ten steel plates, which was steel that rusted to its own finish. We also made a lot of steel plates for a steel mill in Orange, Texas. Sometimes the plates would be so long that they had to cut the doors off the gondola cars and the plates would be laid into both of them. The cranes in the annex area, cranes #126 & 127, required the most skill to operate and were run by guys with the most seniority.        

Ronnie McKay, Kasuba, Johnnie Losz, Ed Krull were the names of the foremen that I remember from working at the 48" mill.


The 45-Inch Mill

The 45-Inch Mill
Constructed in 1942 as part of Homestead's World War II expansion, the 45-inch mill was in operation until the early 1980s.