The vast Bethlehem Steel mill in Sparrows Point outside Baltimore once employed 30,000 workers. Now it’s on the brink of something new.
On Thursday, May 16, retired Bethlehem Steel worker Phil Pack will appear at “Workin’ It: Stories about Making a Living in Baltimore,” a live storytelling event from the Stoop Storytelling Series and CityLab, at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. For ticket and event info, go here.
The Sparrows Point steelworks was born in the first Gilded Age and died in the second. In the mid-20th century, more than 30,000 families lived on its wages; by 2012, when the hulking facility outside Baltimore closed its doors for good, fewer than 2,000 remained.
Working “down the Point” was a brutal and dangerous job. Death and accident rates were high. In its early decades, Sparrows Point employees worked in two grueling 10- to 14-hours shifts—with one 24-hour shift every other week to give the other team a day off. They had two unpaid holidays a year: Christmas and the Fourth of July.
But the passing of Sparrows Point is still mourned by survivors who regret not only the plant’s high-wage union jobs, but the sense of pride and purpose they shared. For decades, employees and their families lived in company-owned housing at a nominal rent, and they built a community that those who grew up there still recall fondly.
My father was born in the company town of Sparrows Point—his father, grandfather, and uncles all worked in the mills. When he and his brothers came of age, they did, too. The old town was demolished in the 1970s and many of its worker-residents migrated to nearby Dundalk, where photographer Joe Giordano and I were both raised. Giordano, who began his career at the Dundalk Eagle newspaper, began shooting images of the steelworks and the surrounding neighborhoods in the early 2000s, as the Beth Steel plant was shedding jobs. Images from that ongoing project, Shuttered: Images from the Fall of Bethlehem Steel, are currently on exhibit at Baltimore’s Museum of Industry.
Steel has deep roots in this region. The Pennsylvania Steel Company broke ground at Sparrows Point, a 2,000-acre peninsula jutting into the Patapsco River, in 1887. Two brothers, Frederick and Luther Wood, built and ran the mills: one was a brilliant MIT-trained engineer; the other was a Progressive-Era social reformer who persuaded the Maryland legislature to ban the sale or manufacture of alcohol on the peninsula.
The Bethlehem Steel Company bought Sparrows Point in 1918, building a pretty new town for their shipyard workers across the creek from the mills. It was named for a homesick Irishman’s hometown—Dundalk. During the two World Wars, workers flocked to the area. By the 1960s, Dundalk covered 13 square miles and its population topped 115,000.
Here, iron ore and limestone were melted in vast coal-fired furnaces, to be shaped into rails and rods and beams for ships and New York skyscrapers and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Represented by the United Steelworkers of America after 1941, Sparrows Point steelworkers enjoyed steadily rising wages and benefits in the postwar boom. The highest wage jobs were reserved for white men until sustained activism by black steelworkers led the federal government to issue two consent decrees in 1974, mandating equal opportunity for people of color and women.
By the 1980s, signs of advancing age began to afflict the Point—outdated technology, sclerotic management, and competition from newer and more efficient mills in the U.S. and overseas. The expense of cleaning up the environmental damage caused by nearly a century of steelmaking on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay—at a cost later estimated at $48 million—appalled Bethlehem Steel executives. In 1997 Bethlehem Steel signed a federal consent decree pledging to remediate contamination of the water surrounding the works, poisoned by toxic chemicals leaching into the bay.
When the World Trade Center fell in 2001, Bethlehem Steel was on its deathbed; the company filed for bankruptcy soon afterwards. In 2002, private equity investor (now Secretary of Commerce) Wilbur Ross offered to buy Sparrows Point and Bethlehem Steel’s other defunct steelworks if the deal allowed him to dump their legacy costs—retiree pensions and health care. The deal went through; less than two years later, Ross and his co-investors reaped $2 billion when he sold the infant International Steel Group after taking the new company public to boost its value.
Three other owners then moved on and off the Point in quick succession until private equity investor Ira Rennert finally pulled the plug in 2012. The Chicago-based liquidation firm Hilco bought the property for $72 million and over the next two years years demolished the old mills, leaving a waterfront wasteland ripe for redevelopment.
When the giant “L” furnace, topped by a brightly lighted star each holiday season, came down in January 2015, locals gathered to eulogize the works and their kin who had labored there. They tried to figure out what went wrong
Hadn’t they stuck to the social contract laid down way back in 1888 and tweaked and re-tweaked in successive union contracts after 1941? The deal was this: They would labor in dirty dangerous jobs for decades, and their families would live with the constant threat of the family breadwinner’s serious injury or death. In return, they’d get fair wages and benefits and the promise of a secure retirement. Hadn’t they held up their end of the bargain?
Working-class Dundalk, once a Democratic stronghold, is now solidly Republican: The town backed Donald J. Trump over Hilary Clinton in 2016 by 62 to 33 percent.
Today, the neighborhoods where red dust from the steelmaking process once blanketed every car are doing better economically than one might expect. The median annual income in Dundalk is $51,098, about two-thirds the median income for the state as a whole, but better than the $47,000 median across the city line in Baltimore. Most residents (66 percent) own their homes.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone is doing equally well, nor that lifelong residents of the community, many of whom worked at Sparrows Point, welcome the newer, comparatively poorer residents drawn by affordable but aging housing.
The changing demographics of the community are reflected in the elementary school age population. Though Dundalk remains overwhelmingly white (75 percent), many of the young families moving into the community are Latino. “The community is transitioning demographically, racially, and ethnically,” says Amy Menzer, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance, a nonprofit community development organization. “We think that’s a positive. But for longtime residents it’s a lot to process. The school population is way more diverse than the community as a whole.”
Despite its historical association with Bethlehem Steel, “by the time the plant closed, Dundalk and the plant were not synonymous,” Menzer says. “When I moved here in ’04, the plant manager was proud that 20 percent of employees lived in Dundalk. Most people here were not working at the plant.”
Now, a town that once made steel is in the process of remaking itself. The Sparrows Point peninsula is now home to a “global logistics park” dubbed Tradepoint Atlantic, created to leverage the transport assets—rail lines, highways, and deep-water berths for cargo ships—built to move steel. Giant distribution warehouses for Amazon, FedEx, and UnderArmour are rising on the site of the vanished mills.
Last year, Baltimore County pledged $78 million to build roads, water and sewer lines on the Point, updating infrastructure laid down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tradepoint Atlantic predicts that the upgrades will help create 10,000 jobs.
That investment, and the vision behind it, might be one of the few issues upon which local Democrats and Republicans agree. “Having grown up in the shadow of Sparrows Point—and having seen firsthand how the decline of an industry can devastate a community—I’m heartened to see the progress happening there now,” says the new Baltimore County Executive, John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr., a Democrat raised in Dundalk. “While the opportunities are different, Tradepoint Atlantic is connecting with people in communities where opportunities were badly needed.”
The workers laboring in tomorrow’s postindustrial Sparrows Point will not be doing the jobs their predecessors did in the last century. But the peninsula remains a microcosm of the American economy.