Furnaces fall with bang to end era of steel

STEUBENVILLE – The two 100-year-old blast furnaces at the former RG Steel Corp. Steubenville plant disappeared in two thundering blasts and clouds of dust Thursday afternoon, officially ending a steel-making era in the city.

The demolition of the two blast furnaces by the Joseph B. Fay Co. of Pittsburgh are part of a major cleanup of the steel mill site that is now owned by Strauss Industries of Wheeling as it transforms the property into an industrial park area.

Fay employees had spent several weeks preparing for the controlled explosive demolition of the towering iron structures that produced molten iron for more than a century.

Earlier Thursday, the the demolition crew could be seen placing the C-4 charges on the columns or “legs” that supported the 120-foot-tall furnaces.

“This job is an interesting one because we have a railroad on the south side of the furnaces, so we want to bring them down to the ground toward the north open side,” explained a demolition company employee.

The No. 2 furnace fell at 3:28 p.m., when the explosive charges could be witnessed flashing across the columns.

But the No. 1 furnace did not go quietly and required the demolition crew to return to the base of the furnace to reset charges that took that structure down at 5:14 p.m.

“It was a successful job. The blast furnaces are on the ground and no one was hurt,” said a Fay employee.

“I have had my eye on this property for probably the past 10 years. But I had to wait until we had the opportunity to purchase this property in 2011 after RG Steel filed bankruptcy. Some of these buildings date back to 1904. We will demolish and remove a number of structures and save buildings we can use in the future. We also plan to move our scrap operations from Weirton to this site where it will be under a roof and will be a more equipment-oriented operation,” Ken Burns, Strauss Industries chief operating officer, explained during a May tour of the 119-acre site.

“The potential for this property is amazing. We are currently negotiating with a large company interested in locating here. We are not looking for short-term tenants, but we are interested in companies who want to be here for the next 30 years.The Panama Canal is preparing to re-open in 2014 and we believe that will mean the Los Angeles docks will be slowing down and the docks in New Orleans will be building up again. You will see a major increase in river traffic starting next year. We want to be prepared for that event and are looking for potential development of the property along the river. We have a great transportation system in this area with the highways and river. Transportation is key to our business and our plans include changing the rail system into the property. I really believe this general area is prime for future development. The taxes are more reasonable than other areas and this is a good area for housing development. We are excited to be here and a part of the future,” Burns added.

Nick Mancuso of Tiltonsville was 24 when he started as a management trainee at the Steubenville blast furnace department in 1951.

“I went to school at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and we would take field trips to different area steel mills. I remember going to a blast furnace in the Pittsburgh area and telling a friend in the class I was leaving. There was no way I would ever work in a place like that. I retired from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. after working 42 years around the blast furnaces in Steubenville and Mingo Junction,” related Mancuso, who served as an assistant superintendent for Wheeling-Pitt.

“Sure, it was scary when I first went to work there. There is always a lot going on around a blast furnace. I didn’t know what I was looking at when I first went there. But you just get accustomed to it. Unfortunately, those two Steubenville blast furnaces were small and outdated,” he said.

“Its the end of an era. But I don’t feel too badly about those two furnaces going down. The No. 5 blast furnace in Mingo Junction was the best furnace we had. It would respond to every move. But the two furnaces in Steubenville were unique because they faced each other and had a single casthouse floor. So you could only cast one furnace at a time,” Mancuso noted.

Bill Ellis of Steubenville spent almost all 33 years of his Steelworker career working at the two blast furnaces in Steubenville.

“I started on the trestle and stayed there for 11 years. Then I moved to the cast house floor and it was scary at first. When it was time to get dirty we went out and worked hard. It was dangerous work that a lot of people who had never been there never realized. I was 15 feet away from a stove once when it blew up. I remember one time when it was raining and water collected in a slag ladle. It blew up and burned one of the guys. It was a dangerous place and I saw a lot of guys get hurt. Every day we walked by the furnace we took chances,” Ellis recalled.

“I remember once I was working as a water helper on the blast furnace.Tar blew up in front of me and hit my face. But I was lucky and didn’t get burned too badly,” said Ellis.

“I had about 20 years in the mill when a big kid came into the department. They brought him up on the cast house floor and when he saw them drill open the tap hole and sparks started flying out and that iron started flowing, that kid turned around and left. He never came back. It could be very scary when you first came on the furnace,” explained Ellis.

“I don’t miss the mill, but I do miss the guys I worked with those years. Sometimes it was just plain miserable there, but other times it was OK. I stayed on the blast furnaces because I got a steady daylight job and I could watch my kids play baseball,” he said.

“Those two blast furnaces were the best in the world. They would put out great iron. It was sad to see them shut down. It is sad to know they are gone forever. It was a tough job working there, but we were all family. Guys would help each other,” commented Ellis.

Ellis also remembered the casthouse employees hanging their shirts next to the blast furnace to dry out.

“You were sweating all 12 months of the year. So, after a cast we would take off our shirts and let them dry out using the furnace heat,” he noted.

Eric Stoddardt of Mingo Junction is a third generation Steelworker who spent 20 years as an hourly employee and 12 years as a supervisor.

“It took me two or three times to get a job application and to get hired. I could have gone to college, but I knew I belonged in the steel mill and working with my dad in the blast furnace department,” Stoddardt stated.

“I got married right out of high school. My first week on the job I was working on a different turn than my dad because I was getting married on Saturday. When I came back after my wedding I went on my dad’s turn and was glad. My dad is one of a kind. He also made sure I learned every job on the blast furnace so I was qualified to work all of them,” recalled Stoddardt.

“My worst memory of working there came when I was a water tender. The guys on the trestle needed a water hose and I was bringing one out to them. I took a step back and my shoe missed a bent ladder rung. If I had continued backward I would have fallen into the skip tub hole and would have ended up going to the top of the furnace and being dumped inside. I would have just disappeared,” said Stoddardt.

“My turn made the very last cast on No. 2 blast furnace. Then we spent a week shutting the furnace down. After that I was sent to No. 5 blast furnace in Mingo Junction. When they shut that furnace down for a reline. my boss told me it would be a good time to get my knee replacement and I ended up with a total disability,” said Stoddardt.

“My dad was a boss at the Steubenville blast furnaces and I followed him into the mill. When you are a Steelworker you live and breathe the job. When I first started at the Steubenville blast furnaces, there were 12 to 14 people working on each furnace on a turn. At the end there were just three people on each shift,” said Stoddardt.

“We worked around 2,700-degree molten iron and slag. Every day no one was injured was a good day. Working there was our livelihood. We probably spent more time at the blast furnaces than we spent at home with our families. It was a way of life and now its gone,” he said.

(Gossett can be contacted at dgossett@heraldstaronline.com)