When Steel was King
Retired workers from Bethlehem and Republic Steel
keep local history alive at Buffalo's Steel Plant Museum
Nearly four decades have passed since the final bars of steel were rolled at the once massive Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna and Republic Steel in Buffalo. In December 1982, it was announced that steel making would be shut down — a sputtering end to a behemoth industry that had dominated Western New York for generations.
To understand the history of Buffalo, you have to acknowledge the role of steelmaking. With access to fresh water and shipping from the shores of Lake Erie, steel was king. Bethlehem and Republic were the two largest plants, but several smaller companies like Wickwire Spencer and Pratt and Letchworth produced steel as well. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, if a family member didn’t work in steel, you certainly knew someone who did.
“At one point, Bethlehem Steel had some 20,000 workers,” said Don Williams, a former Bethlehem employee and current president of the Steel Plant Museum of Western New York in Buffalo. “That number varied and went up during the summer. Republic Steel had about 2500 employees. Between those two companies, there was a significant impact on the Western New York economy. Steel wasn’t just consumed here. It helped build the Golden Gate Bridge. It helped with structural beams of buildings in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and the stainless steel gargoyles on the Chrysler Building. Our steel went all over the country.”
But forty years have passed. Men and women who worked in those mills have reached an age where preserving their memories has become a mission.
“People who weren’t there don’t understand that the mill was filled with bells, whistles, horns, sirens, and dirt,” reflected Tom Schifferli, a 15-year employee of Republic Steel. “And the heat. When I worked in the open hearth, I’d enter the locker room in street clothes, change into long underwear — both tops and bottoms. Then I’d put on heavy wool socks and wool pants. I wore safety shoes, a work shirt, a wool vest, coat and helmet. This could be on a humid day in July. By the time I had walked to the blast furnace, I was soaked through. We took salt pills, and you really had to keep your wits about you.”
The Steel Plant Museum is dedicated to keeping these memories alive, with a vibrant collection of artifacts — including photos, maps, samples of steel shapes, and gear that laborers wore. Originally begun in the basement of the Lackawanna Public Library, the museum occupies space in the former Buffalo Color Corporation building at 100 Lee Street off South Park Avenue, owned by the Western New York Railway Historical Society. The Steel Plant Museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Volunteers — all former steelworkers — are on hand to share their expertise.
“We’re almost 40 years away from the last heat of steel that was made in these plants, and if you ask a young kid these days, they have no idea how steel is made,” Williams said. “I feel that’s important. The history of the steel industry, as it relates to Western New York especially, is worth spending time on.”
Most of the museum volunteers have a similar outlook.
“Without us, I don’t think young people would really know about the industry,” agreed Noel Varela, a longtime Bethlehem Steel employee who serves as the museum’s treasurer. “It was a big part of Western New York, and we’re trying to keep that history alive. People who visit the museum now had grandfathers or great-grandfathers that worked in the plant.”
This is not an all-encompassing story about the regional history of steel. Rather, it is intended to reflect on a way of life, much of which was spent inside a bustling plant. Like many professions, these steelworkers share a casual vernacular familiar to them: looper, open hearth, B.O.F., J.I.T. Hardened by heat and grime, a common theme was the generational nature of steelmaking and the pride workers took in their job.
“I worked at Republic Steel for 15 years, longer than any single place,” reflected Schifferli, who transitioned to a successful second career in health care. Now 74, he is retired and lives in Cheektowaga. “When you went in the front door, and came out after 10 hours, you felt like you created something. Stuff came out of the ground, and you made steel out of it. There was value, I always thought, in what we did.”
Here are just a few memories about jobs from a former era.
After graduating from the University at Buffalo with a degree in industrial engineering, Gene Hanitz began his professional career at Bethlehem Steel on July 1, 1973.
“I was hired as a looper,” Hanitz explained. “Bethlehem would go into colleges and recruit people from different disciplines, like accounting or engineering, to work in the facilities. You were assigned a spot after you went through orientation. Looper was part of the terminology. There were different stories about why we were called loopers. We wore a white helmet with a stripe around it, which meant you were salaried. Others said that you looped around to different departments until someone said, ‘I want this guy.’ I don’t know which story is accurate, but we were called loopers.”
During the summer of 1969, while Americans landed on the moon and Woodstock became a generational touchstone, Hanitz worked in metallurgical inspection at the bar mill just after graduating from West Seneca High School. The following summer, he took a job in the hot strip mill as a millwright helper.
But even before his seasonal employment, Hanitz understood steelworkers and their culture. His father, Michael, was hired by Bethlehem Steel in the 1930s, left temporarily to be a flight engineer gunner on a B-25 Mitchell Bomber during World War II, then returned to work at Lackawanna following the war. Hanitz’s grandfather, several uncles, and cousins all worked in steel as well.
Now 71, Hanitz tries to put in context what the steel industry meant to Western New York, and also the nation at large.
“In order for a country to be strong, it needs to have a good metal industry, a good transportation industry, and a good energy industry,” he said. “Everything radiates from those three. If you’re not making something, it’s a false economy.”
Hanitz claimed that in 1951 — the year he was born — there were more than 200 steel companies in America. With much of the industrial world rebuilding after World War II, the U.S. produced 23 million more tons of steel than all other nations combined. As economies evolved, those numbers changed.
“Today, about 95 million tons of steel are made domestically,” according to Williams. “Domestic consumption of steel in the current economy is about 125 million tons. So the difference is made up in foreign steel. The steel industry these days is truly global.”
From his beginning as summer help to working in a steel mill for much of his career, Hanitz had a bird’s-eye view of changes. He disagrees with the notion that steel manufacturing is a dirty industry. As far back as the early 1970s, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, developed ways to combat pollution. Bethlehem Steel, he observed, followed regulations so that water discharged into Lake Erie was cleaner than intake water.
“They were working on a coke oven operation that captured all the emissions and bagged it. You could sell the byproducts of that. Ninety-eight percent of our input was recyclable. Scrap steel could be sent out to be remelted. Some useful chemicals could be sold. At the bar mill, we had a contractor come in and suck out the waste acid, precipitate out the salt and use it for fertilizer. If it’s done right, it’s not a dirty industry.”
Steel Making Division
Don Williams, 80, began working in the management training program at Bethlehem Steel on December 12, 1967, shortly after being laid off from Chevrolet Tonawanda. A native of Eden, Williams graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in business administration.
His father, Marvin Williams, was a foreman in Bethlehem’s electric motor shop. An uncle, Franklyn Galsgie, was a mill provider. Like many steelworkers, the industry was deeply ingrained in Williams’ family history.
When he began in the steelmaking division, there were two open hearth shops and a Basic Oxygen Furnace, nicknamed the B.O.F.
“Basic does not mean fundamental,” Williams explained. “It has to do with the basic chemistry of brick that was used in the lining of the vessel.”
Williams remained in Lackawanna until the end of 1983, at which time he moved with his family to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to continue working for the company. Five years later, they relocated back to Buffalo.
“There were still operations going on in Lackawanna,” Williams said. “Even though we weren’t making steel, it was being processed to turn steel into a product. That means they brought in steel coils that were made in Burns Harbor, Indiana, or Sparrows Point, Maryland. We galvanized them to sell to the automobile industry. We sold a lot of steel to the Ford Stamping Plant across the street. They loved us.”
When Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy in 2001, Williams was 60 years old. He took on another career in purchasing and customer service in the electronics field, before his final retirement.
“Over the last 40 or 50 years, there have been a lot of changes in the mechanics of making steel,” he reflected. “With those changes, some of the older blast furnaces were rationalized and deleted. There weren’t many people making new plants, because that takes a lot of money.”
The last major steel plant that Bethlehem built was in Burns Harbor, Indiana, which began operations in 1964. The location was a selective choice, according to Varela.
“Bethlehem had tried to buy a steel plant around Chicago,” Varela said. “The customer base is there for light flat roll. Automotive stamping plants and heavy construction equipment like Deere and Caterpillar are in the Midwest. You’d like to have a plant located near your market. The company poured billions of dollars into Burns Harbor. You could see that with a newer, more modern plant, they were going to take away Lackawanna’s business.”
‘Nails in our coffin’
Noel Varela, 81, grew up in North Buffalo and now lives in Orchard Park. His father, Joseph, was a carpenter at Bethlehem Steel. After earning an engineering degree from the University at Buffalo, he began working at Bethlehem’s corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania in 1966, addressing air pollution. He transferred to Lackawanna in 1968 to work as the environmental health engineer. He also worked in accounting, analysis, and long-range forecasting. After retiring in 1991, he occasionally consulted for the company for another seven years.
“I saw changes happening in the steel industry, particularly in Lackawanna,” he said. “As we progressed through the 1970s, they shut down No. 2 Open Hearth, then No. 3 Open Hearth. They were shutting down structural operations. They weren’t going to build a continuous caster in Lackawanna.”
Traditional steel was poured into ingots, Varela explained, then cooled and sent back to the slabbing mill, where those ingots would be re-heated and rolled into slabs.
“That was a long process,” Varela said. “With a continuous caster, you pour steel into a tundish and then as it goes down through cooling rolls, you wind up getting a slab that comes out the other end. It saves you close to $100 per ton and improves quality. It’s a win-win-win situation.”
Other Bethlehem plants employed that technology — sometimes more than one.
“Lackawanna was kind of a swing plant,” Varela noted. “We were the last ones to pick up business when business got good, and the first ones to lose business when business turned bad. Corporate politics played a role, too. You were never going to shut the home office plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so they were safe. Then in 1977, there was a huge flood in Johnstown (Pennsylvania). It practically destroyed the plant. Everyone in corporate said, ‘Well, that’s it.’ However, the chairman was an old Johnstown boy. He fought tooth and nail to get the plant going again. It was probably one of the worst decisions the company ever made.”
The Lackawanna plant came under scrutiny in part because of New York State’s high property taxes, Varela observed. Worker’s compensation and disability costs were higher than in other states. He also believes the union’s past practices played a role.
“One example happened as I monitored a job at a coke oven,” he said. “Two millwrights came up to unbolt a motor. Then an electrician and an electrician’s helper unbolted the wires. You had a rigger and a rigger’s helper pick the motor up and put it down. So you had six guys doing what should have been a simple job. Electricians couldn’t touch the bolts and millwrights couldn’t touch the wires. Other plants didn’t have so many of those bad past practices. And once it’s established, you can’t change it, unless the union agrees. All that stuff helped put nails in our coffin."
Steel was a male-dominated industry. Although women had assumed manufacturing jobs during World War II, society reverted to traditional roles when men returned from battle. According to industry veterans, it was rare to find a woman on the floor of a steel mill in the 1970s.
“When I started at Bethlehem in 1966, the females working for the company were in clerical,” Varela said. “There were none in any operation or supervisory position. It was not until maybe the mid-70s when they started hiring females as engineers, put them in as supervisors, or even for hourly jobs.”
It was a similar timeframe at Republic Steel, according to Schifferli.
“In the early 1970s, women worked in administrative support. When women began to come into the plant, as you can well imagine, they were not treated warmly.”
One of the Steel Plant Museum volunteers is Mary Jane Michalski, who recently retired after 41 years in the steel industry. An Evans resident, Michalski, 65, began as a clerk at Seneca Steel, soon transferring to sales. In 1987, nearly five years after the last bar of steel was rolled in Lackawanna, she was hired by Bethlehem Steel as an outside processing supervisor, tasked with ensuring that properly gauged steel was shipped to customers “just in time,” or J.I.T.
“Very seldom did I have other females with me,” she reflected. “There was some attitude about being a woman. Men thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, so you had to work harder. I met a lot of males, but I can guarantee you that I was always paid less. As an operational manager, I’d be in a meeting with 40 people, and I was the only female. I was able to talk about steel with clients from 7 a.m. to 10:30 at night.”
By the time she moved to sales, Michalski understood most aspects of the industry. She had spent time “on the floor” learning assignments, and was experienced at inspecting steel. She understood the required chemistry specifications for different coils.
“I made sure end users got what they needed,” she said. “Normal lead time was about six weeks, and there were always unanticipated issues. Companies needed steel for their product. If an auto manufacturer was making 1.5 million of a certain type of car, they needed a heavier gauge where a door has a hinge, and a lighter gauge for its handle. Many things took place on the commercial end.”
Hanitz observed the transition of women entering the factory. He claimed that many bosses were unconcerned with gender — only with whether the job was done right.
“Women were coming on board even when I worked as summer help,” he said. “By the time I was at the bar mill in 1976, I had several women on my crews. One particular lady was the best guide assembler we ever had. It was a male-dominated position, but her guides were meticulous. They never failed.”
Yet it could be shocking when men encountered women at work.
“Bethlehem hired a female engineer for the fuel department,” Varela recalled. “Because I was familiar with the plant, they asked me to take her around for orientation, so I did. She wore a supervisor’s hat. We walked into one department, and a guy looked at her and burst out, ‘That’s a broad!’”
In a steel plant, workers of all ages, races, and abilities gathered for a common goal.
“The words segregation and integration didn’t exist in steel plants,” Schifferli said. “Some of the nicknames guys had reflected their ethnicity, but overall, you didn’t care.”
Hanitz was proud to work alongside World War II veterans. As time passed, older men were replaced by veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He believes that soldiers who had experienced combat were adept at working under pressure. They were able to focus on a common goal.
“I appreciated that every guy had a story and a reason for being there,” Hanitz said. “You never judged a guy if he was a janitor. When you became part of a unit, you were all in the same boat. You’re worried about saving your job and defending the guy next to you. We were competing against the world.”
Immigrants who worked in the mills were provided opportunities that were unique to the times, Varela suggested.
“Sometimes they came into the mill without a lot of education or training. As an immigrant, you’d come into the plant, and they’d give you a broom and shovel. For guys that had smarts and were willing to work hard, the company would train them to become millwrights, electricians, supervisors, machine operators. We all had apprentice programs. There was a path for immigrants to move up and improve themselves. Most companies now want people to come in with all the education requirements and hit the ground running. It’s a lot harder for people coming into this country today.”
Bethlehem Steel’s 13” Bar Mill still operates in Lackawanna, employing approximately 300 workers. But Lackawanna is no longer an integrated plant — facilities that start with raw materials going into a blast furnace and end with a finished product being shipped out the door. The glory days of steel in Buffalo are no more.
There is no simple answer, according to veteran steelworkers, but a combination of factors, including changing technologies, shifts in supply and demand, and failure to plan ahead.
“Generally speaking, senior leadership and boards of steel plants — this is Bethlehem, Republic, Inland, I don’t care who you’re talking about — were not forward thinking folks,” Schifferli said, with the authority of a fourth generation steelworker. “They were not visionaries. The majority of leadership came up through ranks. They started in open hearth shops and that’s all they could see. They didn’t like nor did they trust any new technology. They would spend millions on something that became obsolete in a few years.”
Today steel companies have migrated to the South and Midwest, and are nicknamed “mini mills.” Raw materials are heated in an electric furnace, which is cheaper and more efficient.
“An electric furnace has a cold charge,” Schifferli explained. “It has a switch to turn on and off. You can run it Monday from 8 to 4, or Friday from 2 to 3. In an integrated plant, once you light up a blast furnace, you have to keep it running to maintain the heat in the lining. You’re stuck for two or three years, otherwise it degrades and falls apart.”
The heat causes brick in the blast furnace to expand, then stay tight, Varela said. In a newer mill, an electric furnace is switched on, and molten steel is poured into a continuous caster. A slab is produced immediately.
“You’ve saved how many millions of cubic feet of fuel,” Schifferli said. “It’s far more efficient.”
Company leaders were slow to embrace new technology.
“Bethlehem had the distinction of building the last slabbing mill, the last blast furnace, the last coke oven, and the last open hearth,” Varela lamented. “The people who ran the corporation were dinosaurs. They were building open hearths in the 1960s, at which time the basic oxygen furnace had already been developed. You could make a slab of steel in an open hearth in eight hours, but with a B.O.F., you could make the same slab in 50 minutes.”
When Varela worked at Bethlehem’s corporate office, numbers were calculated using the metric system. For written reports, however, those numbers were converted to the English system. It was a tedious, repetitive, and unnecessary process.
“One of the guys I worked with made a remark I’ll never forget,” Varela recalled. “He said, ‘If Bethlehem was in charge of astronomy, the speed of light would be measured in furlongs per fortnight.’ I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It’s sad, but that’s the way it was.”
After World War II, Varela said that the U.S. government offered Bethlehem use of aluminum plants that had constructed airplanes. The company declined, unwilling to expand into an ancillary product.
“The only future they could see was increasing capacity,” Schifferli said. “There were hundreds of tons of overcapacity, and eventually, the fulcrum tipped. At the same time, we were importing steel from all over the world.”
Perhaps the company’s goal was misguided, according to workers.
“Bethlehem’s motto was to be best steel company in world,” Varela said. “If you think about it, that’s not what you want to be. You want to be best materials provider to transportation and construction industries. Plastics are a big part of cars now. So is aluminum, but Bethlehem never wanted to get into aluminum.”
When mills closed in Western New York, it wasn’t only steelworkers who were affected. Layoffs rippled through the entire economy. According to Hanitz, every job inside a steel plant generated eight to 10 indirect jobs outside the plant. A truck driver who delivered raw materials, for instance, or railroad workers who shipped iron ore and coal.
“Even to the point where restaurants lost business,” Michalski agreed. “Think about the cookie people that we ordered from. At one time, Bethlehem Steel spent $10,000 a year in Christmas decorations. That supplier was always local. We tried to work with local businesses, depending on availability. We hired a local caterer, or a local light guy. When our business went down, all that went away.”
While the industry has changed, many remain nostalgic for the past. Through the Steel Plant Museum, volunteers are eager to share their stories.
“What the steel industry meant for this country was strength,” Hanitz said. “What it meant was jobs. My dad was able to put me and two other brothers through college. We weren’t rich, but we never felt poor.”
Michalski, the most recent retiree, explained that steel remains vital to the world.
“The little tip on top of a pencil is a tin plate,” she said. “The chair you’re sitting on probably has steel. It’s everywhere, and it’s not going away. I was constantly learning, and the job gave me opportunities to travel and see places I would never have seen. It was a great, exciting career. Steel touches everybody’s life every day.”
text © 2022 by Jeff Schober
Jeff Schober is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, Growing Up Gronk, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. He has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and history from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School in Hamburg. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
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