Back Story: Chronicling the history of the Sparrows Point mill

The recent publication of Elmer J. Hall's "A Mill on the Point: One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years of Steelmaking at Sparrows Point, Maryland," marks the last of his quartet of books chronicling the work and social history of the once heavily industrialized eastern Baltimore County peninsula.

His earlier books include "Diary of a Mill Town: Recollections of the Bungalows and Sparrows Point, Maryland," "Shipbuilding at the Sparrows Point Yard: A Century of Pride and Tradition," and "The Patapsco and Back Rivers Railroad: Chronicles of the Push, Bump and Ram."

Hall is a retired Baltimore County public school educator and Sparrows Point native who grew up in the Bungalows, the now-demolished company town neighborhood.

With his usual thoroughness, Hall has produced a 360-page book that is lavishly illustrated with photographs, technical diagrams and maps that show not only the vast expanse of the steel mill, but the complexity of the operation where more than 30,000 workers once toiled.

"It had the largest payroll in Maryland," said Hall, whose father and three uncles came from the Virginia hills during the Great Depression to work at Sparrows Point and whose mother was a nail sorter in the nail mill.

It was common, he said, to have successive generations of fathers, mothers, sons, brothers and uncles go to work in the mill.

Interesting vintage photos show workers in the pre-Occupational Safety and Health Administration era devoid of proper clothing or hard hats, which serves as a grim reminder of how dangerous such work was at the time. Industrial accidents, not just in steelmaking but other manufacturing industries and railroads as well, were common, and many lost their lives.

The narrative is carried forward by former workers whom Hall extensively interviewed and who carefully explained the nature of their work. But he said, "This book is not a manual about how to make steel but rather a history."

The interesting minutia that Hall comes up with includes a menu from the Wire and Pipe Mill cafeteria from 1929. Then, a worker could grandly dine on a crabmeat salad for the cost of 30 cents, or roast beef, green beans and potatoes, also for three dimes.

The origins of the steel plant date to 1887, when the Pennsylvania Steel Co. acquired several farms at Sparrows Point and began building a mill, which started producing steel in 1889.

In 1891, the Maryland Steel Co. of Baltimore County was organized as a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Steel Co., which plunged into receivership as a result of the Panic of 1893 and was forced to suspend operations.

When the recession ended in 1897, the mill returned to operation and acquired its present name in 1904 when U.S. Steel Corp. magnate Charles Schwab purchased the mill from United States Shipbuilding Co.

In 1916, the mill was purchased by Bethlehem Steel.

It is staggering to contemplate what was produced at Sparrows Point — from steel rails and I-beams to nails and even steamships that rolled down its shipyard slip ways — through peacetime and wars.

Sparrows Point grew to have its own company town for its workers, including a hospital, schools, company store and the United Railways No. 26 streetcar line, which connected its citizens to Baltimore and the larger outside world. A Pennsylvania Railroad spur also transported not only raw materials and finished products but workers.

Hall also included a detailed timeline that marks the transition of Sparrows Point from its beginning to 2012, when its last owner, RG Steel, announced it was laying off the plant's remaining 1,975 workers and its furnaces went cold.

In August 2012, RG Steel sold Sparrows Point to Hilco Trading Inc., a liquidator that at the end of the year stated it would begin a 40-month program in 2013 that would dismantle the complex in its entirety.

"Sitting around kitchen tables and listening to the old-timers reminiscing and talking about their time at The Point always brought a sparkle to their eyes," Hall said. "My only purpose in writing the book was to save the memories of what used to be the largest tidewater steel plant in the world."

"It was hard work but an absolute labor of love," he said. "When you have a passion for something like this, the 14-hour days working on it are meaningless."

Hall will hold a book signing from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Greetings & Readings at Hunt Valley Towne Centre.

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