The rise and fall of life and steel at 'the Point'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"Actually, I learned how to grocery-shop in the company store while still a little boy," Eddie Bartee Sr. said. "That was all around us, that responsibility to our family. I remember how my father walked to work and sometimes I would carry his lunch to him if he overslept and hurried to work without it. He always wanted to be on time. ... That was important to him."

Bartee went to a segregated elementary school and Sollers Point High School, also segregated. There he met Christine, graduated, got married and went to work in the tin mill. The couple had their first child within a year.

"I never realized the significance of discrimination until I went to high school," Bartee said. "We got all the second-hand books from white schools. I guess discrimination wasn't addressed by black workers in the plant until about 1955."

Bartee worked hard, paid his dues and was elected vice president of United Steelworkers of America Local 2609. He was helpful to workers who needed guidance to help collect unemployment or to file for a disability.

"Eddie was a good guy," said fellow retiree Bill Wright. "Because if you needed a ride to work or the union hall, if you wanted somebody to hold your hand when you went down Preston Street to deal with the state, or if you just needed somebody to talk to, you could always depend on him."

Toward the end of Bartee's career, he earned $1,000 a week. His pension is $2,000 a month.

The formula for a worker's pension has many variables, including whether he was a salaried or hourly worker, years of service, job title and when he retired.

Bartee and his wife have spent wisely, saving for their children's education and later their grandchildren's.

"I was happy in the tin mill, which was on the 'finishing' side, but blacks made more money on 'steel side' because the work was more dangerous," he said.

"You could always tell the ones who worked those hot places - they had singed eyebrows. And nearly everyone has tiny burn scars on their necks, chests and shoulders from tiny chips of hot flying steel."

There were attempts at protection. Those who worked around the blast furnaces and coke ovens wore 2-inch-thick wooden shoes so their boots wouldn't burn off. Others fashioned pieces of automobile tires around the bottoms of their footwear.

Tolerant and resilient

While Bethlehem's grime and poisons extracted much from the land, waterways and health of its employees, the workers and nearby residents were remarkably tolerant and resilient across the decades.

As an example, the omnipresent red ore dust that billowed from the mills into neighborhoods and coated automobiles, window sills and clean laundry hanging on clotheslines was not pollution - it was called "gold dust," a sure sign of prosperity to those dependent on the Point.

There were young men who worked at Sparrows Point and also had distinguished careers outside of steel: Calvin Hill, a star running back with the Dallas Cowboys, and Edwin F. Hale, president and CEO of 1st Mariner Bank. But mostly, the Point symbolized a gateway into the middle class.

"Guys with sixth- and seventh-grade educations could get a job for life at Sparrows Point making as much money as some professionals," Bartee remembered.

But, aside from Eddie Jr. and the late Ernest, Eddie Bartee Sr.'s grown children all avoided the steel mill. They became a psychiatrist, mechanic, secretary and finance collector.

For people such as Lil Tirschman of Dundalk, the Bethlehem Steel plant "is an icon to this community and to many others. It provided food for families, new homes and cars, college educations."

Her father, John DeLuca, worked 40 years making steel rods and wires in a mill that is now shut down. She remembers driving to the mill as a teen-ager in the 1950s, carrying iced tea and lemonade for her father and his fellow steelworkers.

"As a family, we never wanted for anything," Tirschman said. "If Bethlehem Steel closes, it will be devastating. I can't find the right words to describe what we'll be losing. There aren't words powerful enough."

'A very giving place'

Eddie Bartee Jr. is an overhead crane operator, perched 50 feet above the ground at Sparrows Point. He loads coils of cold sheet metal onto railroad cars and trucks, a ballet of man and machine.

He fondly recalls his childhood in the company town.

"Sparrows Point, the town, was a very giving place," Bartee Jr. said, seated in his office at Steelworkers Hall in the 500 block of Dundalk Ave. "If a family needed coal, a bucket of coal would appear on their doorstep."

Directly behind the Bartee house were the company's rail yards. When railroad cars were coupled violently, "Our whole house shook. And the shrill work whistles, they blew every eight-hour work shift, but you got accustomed to those."

When he followed in his father's footsteps into the steel mill, Eddie Jr. was struck by something - his peers were nowhere to be seen.

"Out of my 1973 graduating class at Sparrows Point High School, I am the only black guy working at the plant," he said. "In a way, I felt that my grandfather and father helped lay a foundation for all workers. I wanted to keep that family tradition alive."

Decades before the company town was razed, many black families moved to nearby Turners Station, including the Bartees.

Eddie Jr. is a trustee for USWA Local 9477. That's the "new" union representing the remaining workers at Sparrows Point - consolidated in May from five locals. There are now just about 3,300 steelworkers at Sparrows Point, compared with 35,000 in 1959.

As foreign steel became more competitive, the number of workers at Sparrows Point's steel mills diminished. In 1960, 17,193 were employed at the plant; in 1976, 11,779; in 1985, 9,414; and in 1991, there were 6,212. Production also diminished drastically while the company's health and pension costs soared.

Bartee and others say the "new" union is a far cry from the 1930s, the early days of union organizing at Sparrows Point. Because the men would be fired for championing a union, their wives and daughters laid most of the groundwork, rallying on street corners and in community halls.

The hotbed of union activity then was the southeast corner of Eastern Avenue and Lehigh Street in Highlandtown, where many of the immigrant workers lived. They met above a bar owned by an Irish family.

It was a time of political intrigue, secret meetings and company spies dispatched to disrupt the gatherings and jot down the names of those advocating the union.

Congress passed the Wagner Act in 1935, providing some protection for workers fighting for union representation. In 1942, the United Steelworkers of America was formed.

That didn't stop the discrimination against black steelworkers. Equal treatment for blacks didn't arrive until the late 1960s, after favorable court rulings in Maryland and Birmingham, Ala.

Eddie Jr. knows that bitter history well. That's why he took office in the union, why he has spent nearly 29 years working in the steel mill - and loved it.

"When I started here as a kid, my father and two uncles worked at Sparrows Point and that was a blanket of security in a pretty rough world," he said. "Work there was a plant thing, a family thing. If you screwed up, you let your family down and you let your fellow workers down."

In 1983, when he was laid off after the pipe mill closed, his wife, Cynthia, became pregnant. It was tough, he said, but he learned how to drive a tractor-trailer and hauled loads until he got back to work at Sparrows Point.

The most difficult times lie ahead, he thinks.

"My wife and I had it all planned out," he said. "I was going to work until I got my 30 years at the Point." He had hoped to retire at age 50.

"I would have had a nice pension and health insurance package. I was going to start a handicapped van service."

He still will be vested in the pension system with 29 years, "but now, it looks like I will have to work - here or someplace else - until I'm 62. It's a broken promise, something I worked toward my entire working life."

And he has one more concern.

At his recent annual physical, a physician detected a small spot on one of his lungs. "As a young guy you don't think about industrial disease like asbestosis, but that's what my doctor says I have," he said.

However the Sparrows Point story plays out, Eddie Jr. and his wife are certain about one fact: None of their six children will ever work in the steel mill that was so much a part of their family's rich fabric.

The three youngest - 18, 17 and 16 - are in school; the others are a homemaker, an accountant and a mechanic.

"Everything has its day, and Bethlehem Steel has had its day," said Cynthia Bartee, who works as a real estate agent. "I swore one thing, that my children would not work in a steel mill. And they aren't."

The sprawling Sparrows Point plant sits off the southern portion of the Baltimore Beltway, mostly stilled, its massive, brooding structures colored with the grime of yesteryears.

There are stone buildings that have survived a century, once part of the company's railroad. Others, hundreds of feet tall and stretching the lengths of four or five football fields, are sad monuments to the past, weeds bristling on their exteriors.

Now, with winter, a cold wind whistles through the company's 2,200 acres, still not able to chase away the omnipresent metallic aftertaste in the air. Massive plumes of white steam, the byproduct of burned-off gases, billow, dance and then dissipate into the gathering twilight.

"We are witnessing the ending of a civilization, the American steelworker," said Bill Berry, professor of labor studies at the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. He is gathering videos of steelworkers for a project sponsored by the Maryland Humanities Council.

Work around the clock

Today, it's a far cry from the glory days in Sparrows Point, when the place hummed like an angry, gargantuan beast - hissing, belching, clanking and exploding with controlled fury. During World War II, workers toiled around the clock, often in double shifts.

Even into the 1980s, roads leading to the steelworks on the peninsula that once was a quiet peach orchard and farm were choked with the vehicles of workers leaving or reporting for their shifts.

Until 1997, Bethlehem Steel also made ships at Sparrows Point - employing upward of 8,000 workers - but the company sold that once-bustling yard and another great Baltimore tradition was gone.

Now, huge employee parking lots sit empty.

For a century, the Bethlehem Steel plant symbolized economic and emotional stability in Maryland, industrial muscle at its mightiest. For generations of families who grew up in Baltimore, Bethlehem Steel was a guaranteed job.

The present-day company was started in February 1916, when Charles Schwab, a former stakes driver in one of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie's mills, bought Maryland Steel Co. on the Sparrows Point peninsula from Pennsylvania and Reading railroad and renamed it Bethlehem Steel Co.

Through Schwab's early leadership, and later across the 20th century, Sparrows Point became a megaforce in Maryland and in the industry.

Now, the 3,300 workers and tens of thousands of pensioners worry about the future, feeling betrayed by an industry and company to which they dedicated their lives.

"You are witnessing the rape of the working man and woman," said retired steelworker Ed Gorman of Dundalk, whose grandfather and father came from Ireland to work at Sparrows Point.

"It was like the Army - you complained about those awful working conditions but you were tough; to be a steelworker meant you were the backbone of the nation."

What a legacy those steelworkers left. They made the steel for California's Golden Gate Bridge and the Delaware Memorial Bridge. From the furnaces and forges on the Patapsco came girders for countless skyscrapers and rails for railroads across Siberia, South America and Africa. When America went to war, the Point provided propellers, artillery pieces, tank armor and, later, the skins for planes, trains and automobiles.

It even made the distinctive tail fins for the classic Ford Thunderbird.

Steelworkers and retirees today still cling devotedly to, and buy, products made with or packaged in steel from the Point - from American cars to Pet Milk, King Syrup and Kiwi Shoe Polish.

Blame can be spread around for the gradual but clear decline of U.S. steel-making. After World War II, industry leaders failed to modernize U.S. plants to keep pace with competition from today's steel leaders in Japan, South Korea, Germany, France and Brazil.

Historians also point to an agreement in the early 1970s between steel management and labor that provided unprecedented job security in exchange for a no-strike pledge. From 1972 until 1982, wages in steel work rose nearly 180 percent, but productivity fell far behind.

While steel imports rose, competing mini-mills in the United States that are not burdened with exorbitant pensions and health care costs offered even more competition.

No rescue plan

And, for a local company that carries a $210 million annual payroll and paid $3.3 million in state and local taxes last year, some analysts said there should have been a rescue plan years ago for Sparrows Point from Annapolis or Washington.

To understand the scope of Beth Steel's descent and how its rippling economic power has declined, you needn't venture far from the Point.

One recent evening after the day shift knocked off, Madonna cooed over a jukebox at Memories, a North Point Road bar that steelworkers once packed.

"Just 12 years ago when I bought Memories we were always crowded, offering buffets for the steelworkers, sending daily fliers to the plant with our luncheon specials," said owner Pat Donoho.

Now, she said, "there's not a steelworker to be seen. It's like that up and down North Point Road."

For Eddie Bartee Jr., the unthinkable has become reality.

"Control of my life is gone," he said. "It hurts a lot to think about my family's long history at the Point and to realize now that I am just a number. I want to maintain hope, but will I make the cut, will I have a job if the plant survives under a different owner?

"I could have been eligible for my 30-year pension in a little over a year.

"And every day now, I find myself asking, 'Am I going down with the ship?'"

Other voices

Joe Kotelchuck, 73, machinist at Bethlehem Steel for 44 years until he retired in 1991. Kotelchuck served two terms as president of Local 2610, United Steelworkers of America, and chaired the Grievance Committee:

"I worked in Machine Shop No. 2, which was about three city blocks long and a block wide, but I also went into the mills when things broke down because I had to fix them.

"Everywhere you went it was hard, dirty and dangerous. But you didn't have to be hit over the head to know that this wasn't a pie factory. We were making steel.

"I moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, New York, and after I graduated from Poly I took the test at Sparrows Point, was hired in 1947. Back then, the mills of Beth Steel represented a job for life, good pay and good retirement. It was a trade-off for the hard work, and we were willing to do it.

"If you were Italian, the bosses put you with other Italians. Me, I was Russian-Polish so at first I went with a gang of Polish guys. The black workers were treated the worst, they got the dirt jobs. My mother flipped tin and two of my brothers worked there, too. I stayed the longest.

"My proudest time ... was when we made this special base plate for the rocket that made America's first moon shot. It was a great point of pride, of workmanship.

"Overall, the work took its toll on a lot of Beth Steel people, you know, industrial disease. There were accidents, asbestosis, lung disease caused by gas, dirt, fumes and smoke, things like sulfuric acid.

"Nowadays, there's lots of uncertainty, lots of rumors Sparrows Point will shut down forever. Something should happen soon. My sons all went to college, they didn't head toward the Point. In their minds, the Point wasn't the place to go."

Other voices

Van Reiner, a chemical engineer who has been president of the Sparrows Point Division of Bethlehem Steel Corp. for 2 1/2 years and who has been with the company for nearly 29 years:

"The U.S. steel industry is suffering an overstaturation of the availability of worldwide steel. The supply has outstripped the rate of need and, because of that, Sparrows Point has been affected. There just aren't as many orders for steel. There is a general level of frustration felt by the steelworkers and the retirees, partly because of how the situation is portrayed in the media and because of other factors.

"For instance, the Sparrows Point plant was labeled a dinosaur and people feel we're getting a raw deal. There is a lot of prejudgment going on in quarters where people have never set foot in a steel mill.

"Here at Sparrows Point we have the most modern coal mill in the world and a world-class blast furnace. As far as the steelworkers and retirees go, there is sense of frustration.

"But they should know that if their pension goes, mine goes, too. If their health insurance is adversely affected, mine is, too."

Other voices

Mark Reutter, business and law editor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of Sparrows Point: Making Steel: The Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might:

"Steelworkers have a phrase for it - 'blood money.' That's how they describe the good salary and benefits they earned for working in those mills where it was noisy, dirty and dangerous.

"How do you wrap your arms around a century, possibly hundreds of thousands of workers?

"One thing for certain, a job at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant was for many a ticket to the middle class, a place on the road for more classic American advancement. Working there as a steelworker meant a community spirit, the job of building things with steel-bred pride.

"Sparrows Point was a world, a universe, that Baltimoreans thought would never end, that it was a permanent fixture in the rise of Baltimore as a modern industrial center, the centerpiece.

"As the retirees and current workers now see Bethlehem Steel in real danger, they are just shaking their heads because they never thought they'd see this happen. Sparrows Point had 35,000 workers in the good days of American steel. Now they are approaching 3,000.

"There's plenty of blame to go around. It makes me very sad, not because of the company, a mismanaged, complacent outfit if there ever was one, but that nobody in power in Baltimore and Annapolis effectively tackled this problem. Someone like Peter Angelos could have stepped in to save the plant - something far more valuable than the Baltimore Orioles.

"The people really taking it on the chin are the families, but also the entire city of Baltimore and state of Maryland. It is a human tragedy."

Other voices

Edie Papadakis, 54, crane mechanic, at Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point for 26 years:

"Only a miracle is going to save this place now. It's like a graveyard, all these empty, dreary buildings that boomed with life and work. It's like ghosts have taken over. I'm worried sick every day that I won't make it to the 30-year mark to collect my pension, that the plant will be closed. And my health benefits, what's going to happen to them?

"I counted last night - 21 members of my family have worked or work for Bethlehem Steel. My father got hurt in one of the mills, and my mother was a tin flipper. They're both still alive and remember the good days.

"I grew up in Dundalk, so Sparrows Point was a natural for all the kids to go get jobs. When I got hired and sent into No. 68 hot strip mill, the men didn't like me, they laughed at me. I overcame the abuse and became a good worker.

"The boys say now that I'm tough as steel. I can swing a maul with my left arm, I can swing a maul with my right. That makes me proud.

"But this job has taken its toll on me. Three surgeries, little scars on my neck and shoulders from orange-hot steel chips, working shifts, holidays. I was looking forward to walking out of this plant one day, hanging up my tool belt and having a comfortable retirement.

"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."

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