Sunset at the Point


SIGNS OF LIFE still stir at what was once the powerhouse of America's industrial might.

A 150-foot-tall blast furnace twinkles with sparks of light as the molten iron is formed within its bowels. Billows of steam rise from lesser structures amid the scattered coils of cold, rolled steel. Occasionally one of the giant vehicles built to carry tons of metal suddenly moves across the vast millyard. The seaside air is acrid.

Yet there's no mistaking that the 116-year-old steel plant at Sparrow's Point is in its twilight. Bethlehem Steel, which has owned the plant since 1916, is selling out to a Cleveland-based firm that is expected to keep the plant open but probably trim further the already shrunken workforce.

The global forces that shaped the steel industry and developed the Sparrows Point plant into the single largest steel complex in the world by the 1950s have also conspired in its decline. Foreign competition, technological advances and corporate mismanagement have all taken their toll. Most of the 2,200-acre site on the Patapsco River near the entrance to Baltimore Harbor looks like an industrial graveyard strewn with empty buildings and fleets of rusty rail cars.

Even on a weekday there is an eerie stillness in the late afternoon -- little evidence of the 3,300 employees still on the payroll.

But there is a powerful presence of ghosts, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who spent their lives in what was the quintessential company town.

In the plant's heyday, the workforce was 39,000 strong, and able to make 15.5 tons of steel a minute. Those workers produced the metal underpinnings of modern America -- skyscrapers, sports cars, the Chesapeake Bay and Golden Gate bridges, the base for the first rocket to the moon. Their products went all over the world in peacetime. But they also helped forge the muscular armaments of America's war machine: tanks, ships, subs and artillery.

Sparrow's Point workers struck a Faustian bargain. They performed grueling jobs under miserable and dangerous conditions in return for financial security. Some of them called it blood money.

For the first 60 years or so, the workers lived in a self-contained community next to the mills that met all their needs; food, clothing, shelter, medical care. They had their own schools, churches, ballfields and bowling alley. Many still recall it fondly.

The houses were later razed to allow steel mills to expand over the entire Sparrow's Point peninsula. But the workers were paid well enough to live comfortably in Dundalk and other nearby communities, and even send their kids to college.

Union contracts won them guarantees of generous pensions complete with health benefits, no small matter for workers prone to lung ailments after years of breathing the byproducts of steel production.

Like others in the post-industrial age, the last generations of workers at "the Point" are finding it hard to cash in on corporate IOUs. They're luckier than some. A federal agency has guaranteed Bethlehem Steel's 95,000 retirees, including 19,000 here, will get most if not all of their pension benefits.

Health insurance is another matter. Congress is understandably reluctant, despite appeals from Maryland lawmakers, to underwrite those costs with so many other American workers in similar situations.

More promising are talks under way for a health insurance plan sponsored jointly by the new plant owners and the union.

In another lifetime, that marshy spit of land called Sparrows Point might have become a posh waterfront development. Maybe someday -- if the plant finally outlives its usefulness -- the site should be cleaned up and turned into a park, dedicated to the men and women of steel who built America.

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