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File photo of Bethlehem Steel Company. The company once employed 30,000 people at the mill and another 4,000 in its adjacent shipyard.
File photo of Bethlehem Steel Company. The company once employed 30,000 people at the mill and another 4,000 in its adjacent shipyard. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Just six years ago, news photographers gathered at Sparrows Point to record the controlled demolition of the “L” blast furnace, once the largest in the world.

There were other superlatives at Bethlehem’s Steel sprawling industrial complex. Many years ago, it was the largest employer in the Baltimore area and the world’s largest steel mill.

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The Point, as it was so well-known, is as we knew it, replaced in what seems like no time by TradePoint Atlantic.

“It was just like it was wiped off the earth,” said Georgeen Nistico, a resident quoted in a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. “I felt so sad for the people who had to move out.”

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Beth Steel once employed 30,000 people at the mill and another 4,000 in its adjacent shipyard. The place demanded very hard work, but the wages were good. The mill’s slow decline and the eventual loss of those paychecks in 2012 cost Baltimore and tortured the urban economy.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry has given the local steel industry a place of honor in its new exhibit, “Fire & Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel.”

The exhibit faces a large window overlooking a majestic harbor view. Perhaps some of the buildings in the distance were framed with Beth Steel. That same steel once built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and uncounted bridges, heavy equipment and ships.

Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant and workers’ housing were its own empire and world.

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“The workforce was diverse. For years the company recruited whites from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, Blacks from the South and immigrants recently arrived from Europe,” the show’s narrative says. “All showed tremendous pride in working at Bethlehem Steel.”

Geographically removed from Baltimore City, a ways down Dundalk Avenue and over a bridge, the furnaces and mills were surrounded by a fence. Guards watched the entrances. It existed on its own terms and everybody else remained a distance away.

Snow did not remain pristine at Sparrows Point. It and everything else was covered by a red dust. Some thought it looked like ground paprika.

“On some days it looked like it was raining red peppers outside,” said an anonymous resident of Bosses’ Row, a reference to the way the Sparrows Point residential neighborhood had a hierarchy of living places that is documented in the show.

In 1889, agents of the Pennsylvania Steel Co. found 400 acres of farmland that belonged to the Fitzell family in eastern Baltimore County.

The spot had deep water docking for iron ore from Cuba and a potential rail connection for coal from Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. A Bessemer furnace began making steel here in 1891 and a shipyard opened the next year.

At a time when the average Baltimore business employed 20 workers, the mill opened with 2,000 workers. The two world wars kept the Point on overtime.

Fire & Shadow is accompanied by other related shows, one by photographer Joe Giordano of the last days of the mill when its workers learned of unemployment and diminished pensions, and another featuring women at the mill.

Deborah Weiner, the curator who researched the show, located artifacts such as the flame-resistant clothing worn in the mill’s furnaces, aluminum lunch pales and workers’ ID cards.

Claire Mullins, a museum spokesperson, showed off a pair of wooden oversized sandals that workers used to fit over their shoes so that the soles would not melt from the intense heat.

“These are the most popular artifact from the show,” she said.

It’s difficult to say what killed the mill, which changed hands several times in its final years, but there is some agreement that the facilities there were never upgraded and modernized to match those of competitors.

A 2002 Sun news article cited in the exhibition sums up the workers’ plight: “But if this place closes, who’s going to want me? I’m 54, hurt. Working in this place was the American dream, a job for life. Now it’s nothing but a nightmare,” said Edie Papadakis, who donated her old hardhat to the show.

The show was underwritten largely by the Davis Family Foundation, Tradepoint Atlantic and other donors.

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