End of an era for Sparrows Point steel mill? Look back at the Baltimore staple through the years

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The new owners of the Sparrows Point steel mill plan to raze the closed plant, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said today. According to Kamenetz, officials of co-owner Hilco Trading “have indicated that they are going to liquidate every remaining asset and bring the structure down to the ground.”

What’s your reaction to the news? As we look back at images of Sparrows Point over the years, we’re collecting stories about the Baltimore institution and its workers. Share your thoughts, memories and photos of Sparrows Point in the comments.

The rise and fall of life and steel at `the Point’
Bethlehem Steel: Competition sapped the industry, bankruptcy brought down the company, and now the remaining workers fear for their future.
December 22, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki, SUN STAFF

In 1918, just back from World War I, Ernest Bartee traveled from West Virginia’s backwaters to Sparrows Point in Baltimore County and joined another army – the men with strong backs and distant dreams who made America’s steel. He worked there 30 years.

His son, Eddie Bartee Sr., would work for the Bethlehem Steel Co., too, for 42 years and retire with a comfortable pension.

His grandson, Eddie Bartee Jr., is ready to log his 29th year there as a steelworker and union official.

At the once-powerful industrial giant that spans more than the 20th century, the Bartees were there 80 of those years.

Surviving as a steelworker meant working in dirty, noisy and dangerous places and, in many cases, through the sting of discrimination. And to last for the duration – that 30-year promised land where a steelworker could collect a handsome pension – they will tell you, ironically, that working at Sparrows Point was a labor of love and immense pride.

But at a plant where the night skies used to glow orange from the heaving, sparking furnaces, the once-mighty steel titan is on its knees. Soon, it could be sold, closed or merged with another company.

And unlike his grandfather and father, the youngest Bartee discovered last week one of his worst fears coming true: He will narrowly miss making his pension eligibility.

He can’t believe, like so many others, that the sprawling mill along the Patapsco River, long having worn the local sobriquet “the Point,” could be gone forever.

Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2001. Last week, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. announced that it will take over Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s pension obligation, which is underfunded by $4.3 billion.

In the world of high finance and corporate strategy, there is little sympathy among industry analysts and economists for Beth Steel, which lost $270 million in the first nine months of this year and whose stock sells for little more than a dime per share.

At corporate headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., Chief Executive Officer Robert S. Miller Jr. said he is concerned that the federal pension agency’s action will make a potential deal less attractive to Cleveland-based International Steel Group Inc., which could merge with or purchase outright Bethlehem Steel’s holdings at Sparrows Point and Burns Harbor, Ind.

Expensive legacy

In addition to the $4.3 billion in pension payments, the Sparrows Point plant has another staggering legacy – $3 billion in health care obligations to retirees and surviving spouses, including 14,600 who live in the Baltimore area. ISG is negotiating to purchase Bethlehem’s assets, with a Jan. 6 deadline for a deal.

That – combined with news of Christmas week furloughs and expected job cuts – leaves former and current Beth Steel workers wondering whether a way of life so familiar to generations of families like the Bartees will end. Will the retirees and surviving spouses keep their pensions as they know them? Their health care? How many of the 3,300 workers still at the Point will keep their jobs?

“I’m the last family offspring to work here. Three generations put their sweat and blood into this mill,” said the youngest Bartee, 48. “We hope something good can emerge, but the steel industry in America is dying.

“I’ve seen entire mills shut down here, tens of thousands lose their jobs. Now I’m on the precipice. I thought Beth Steel would be here forever.”

Family success story

His father, Eddie Bartee Sr., 68, is a tall, dignified man with a full head of snow-white hair. He has a deep, resonant voice, and, as he sits in the dining room of his Northwood rowhouse, it wouldn’t be a stretch for a visitor to imagine jazz great Joe Williams sitting there, talking about making steel.

His family is close, goal-oriented and successful. Next month he and his wife, Christine, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Only two of their six children – Ernest, who worked making tin plates but drowned when he was 24, and Eddie Jr. – made a career at Sparrows Point.

“I am afraid we’ve seen the last of that tradition, a tradition that allowed families to rise into the middle class,” Eddie Bartee Sr. said. “Those days are gone.”

Generations of families like the Bartees traded grueling and dangerous work for good pay and financial security – the old guys in the mills called it “blood money.” Now they see the curtain dropping on an institution – their institution.

Strong unionists, they hold a deep cultural distrust of the company and big government and wonder what will happen to them, their families and the steelworks they curse, yet love.

“I’m scared to death,” said Don Kelner, who put in more than four decades at Sparrows Point and served 16 years as president of the Local 2610, United Steelworkers of America. “All of us worked hard to secure a good life for our families. … Now it’s one big question mark.”

Early in the last century, there was little such uncertainty. Immigrants flooded to America and were happy to land a job in a steel mill that had a mark of permanence.

Then, gang bosses assigned new workers to jobs based on ethnicity – Irish with Irish, Germans with Germans, Poles with other Poles. Mostly, it was so they could talk with each other in their native tongue.

Sometimes, it was absurd. Finnish workers were assigned to the coke ovens and blast furnaces because, the thinking went, they had saunas in the old country and could withstand the withering heat of those jobs. Black workers who came up from the South got the lowest, dirtiest jobs.

When Eddie Bartee Sr. talks about Sparrows Point, he always begins with his father, Ernest, who worked hand-feeding pieces of steel into a machine.

“My dad died at the age of 50, in 1951, from chronic asthma and, through all the tough times in the mills, all the dirty work, he never said how hard it was,” Bartee said. “Dad was as strong as a mule and not much got him down until he became really sick.”

Heyday of industry

Eddie Bartee Sr. worked at the Point when it was at its zenith in the late 1950s. He was an operator of a line that dipped the steel product into a solution that converted it into tin. He also was a crew chief.

In 1957, the Sparrows Point mills churned out more than 8 million tons of steel, making it the most productive plant in the world.

The Bartee family lived in the 800 block of I Street in Beth Steel’s company town called Sparrows Point. The town was started sometime after 1887, when the first steelworks there was called Maryland Steel Co.

The town had about 2,000 families, with the black families shoved to the two back streets in a robust little city that boasted its own schools, churches, stores, dairy, bakery, police force, fire department, dispensary, railroad and sports teams.

The Bartee home was a six-room wooden structure like most on the street, a two-story duplex with an attic that served as a bedroom. The exterior was covered with asbestos shingles.

Beyond the rows of houses, the Bartees maintained two gardens where they grew vegetables. Mrs. Bartee canned beans, beets and sweet potatoes and put them up in an outdoor wood shed.

There were two company stores, also wooden structures, one for blacks in the 900 block of I St. and a larger, more comprehensive clothing and grocery outlet for whites on D Street. Workers could get credit at the stores and pay their employer back with deductions from their earnings.

Cattle, hogs, chickens and sheep were raised on company property and, once butchered, were sold to Point residents in the store. Virtually everything else was sold at the company stores – except alcohol.

The town was torn down for a new blast furnace in the mid-1970s.

While a worker and his family could live cheaply – $10 a month in the early years – in one of the company town’s houses, the caste system was clear.

The plant’s top executives lived in single Victorian homes, beginning on B St., with screened-in porches, nearest the Patapsco River. Homes in the next rows housed the managers and skilled workers, and so on down the line.

The general manager’s home stood on a lot the size of a city block with a landscaped rose garden. In sharp contrast, the “grunt” workers filled the rowhouses in the streets farthest from the water and its welcome breezes.

When families could, they eventually moved to Dundalk, Turners Station, Highlandtown and West Baltimore.

In the controlled environs of Sparrows Point, segregation was common. “The plant had two bathrooms, not for ladies and gentlemen, but for whites and colored,” Bartee said of a long-standing policy that ended in the 1960s.

Beth Steel’s elite swam at a company beach; black workers and their families swam in nearby creeks they called “bathing beaches,” although the most popular one was under a bridge.

Back then, people didn’t lock their doors in Sparrows Point. Once they could afford a car, the key was usually kept in the ignition.

Dr. Theodore Patterson, of Millers Island, was a neighbor and friend of the Bartee family. He remembers them as a conscientious, church-going family. After the elder Bartee died, the family “persevered because of the cohesion of that family, the community and a strong mother,” he said.

A good way of life

The Bartees enjoyed their life in Sparrows Point.

There were little joys, such as the tissue-thin Christmas cookies Mrs. Shelton baked. Or exotic food samples from Mrs. Darkins’ trays – she catered the Sparrows Point Country Club. The water was clearer then, and the boys would fish with bamboo poles near the plant’s slag pit – where the leftovers of steel-making were left to sit.

Always, there was the shadow of the steel mill.

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