A Clean-Up's Job in the 'Pit' a Chapter in Steel

MAY, 1922


A SMALL torrent of khaki swept on to the ferryboat that was taking troops to the special train for Camp Merritt. They stood all over her deck, in uncomfortably small areas; there seemed to be no room for the pack, which, perhaps, you were expected to swallow. Faces were a little pale from seasickness, but carried a uniformly radiant expression, which proceeded from a lively anticipation of civilian happiness. The conversation was ejaculatory, and included slapping and digging and squeezing your neighbor. Men were saying over and over again: ‘This is about the last li’l war they’ll ketch me for.’

I succeeded in getting beside the civilian pilot. ‘What’s happening in America?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘it’s a mess over here. There ain’t any jobs, and labor is raisin’ hell. Everybody that hez a job strikes.’ He looked out over the water. ’I don’t know what we ’re comin’ out at. Russia, mebbe,’

Naturally, I wondered about my new job — my civilian job. It was not just an ordinary change from one bread-winning place to another. It was a new job, in a world never revertible, quite, to the one that had kindled the war. It was impossible not to feel that the civilized structure had shaken and disintegrated a bit, or to escape the sense of great powers released. I was unable to decide whether the powers were cast for a rôle of great destruction or for one of great renewal.

In that civil life to follow, I began to see that I wanted two things: first, a job to give me a living; second, a chance to discover and build under the new social and economic conditions.

I was twenty-five — a college graduate, a first lieutenant in the army. In the civilian world into which I was about to jump, most of my connections were with the university I had recently left; few or none in the business world. Why not enlist, then, in one of the basic industries — coal, oil, or steel? I liked steel — technically and economically it interested me. Why not enlist in steel? Get a laborer’s job? Learn the business? And, besides, the chemical forces of change, I meditated, were at work at the bottom of society.

The next day I sent in the resignation of my commission in the regular army of the United States.


Outside the car window, ore-piles were visible, black stacks and sooty sheet-iron mills, coal dumps, and jagged cuts in the hills, against greenness and the meadows and mountains beyond. There were farms here and there, let in by sufferance amid the primary apparatus of the steel-makers.

What an amazingly primary thing steel had become in the civilization we called modern! Steel was the basic industry of America; but, more than that, it was, in a sense, the buttress — the essential frame, rather — of presentday life. It made rails, surgical instruments, the girders of skyscrapers, the tools that cut, bored, and filed all the other tools. It was interesting to think that it contained America’s biggest ‘trust,’ the greatest example of integration, of financial, of managerial combination anywhere to be found. Steel was critical in America’s future, was n’t it — critical for business, critical for labor?

I gazed out of the window at the black mills. I was about to learn the steel business. I knew perfectly well that the men who built this basic structure were as hardy and intelligent as this new generation of mine. But the job — difficult, technical job though it was — appeared too simple in their eyes. ‘Build up business, and society will take care of itself,’they had said. A partial breakdown, a partial revolution, had resulted. Perhaps a thoroughgoing revolution threatened. I did n’t know.

I knew there was no ‘solution.’ There was nothing so neat as that for this multiform condition. But an adjustment, a working arrangement, must be found out somehow by my generation. I expected to discover no specific after working at the bottom of the mill; but I did expect to learn something of the practical technique of making steel; and, alongside that, — despite, or perhaps because of, an outsider’s fresh vision, — some sense of the forces getting ready at the bottom of things, to make or break society. Both kinds of education are certainly up to my generation.

The train jarred under its brakes, and in another minute I had stepped out on the platform. I found the Bouton station, built of gray stone, with deeply overhanging roof and gothicized windows. It seemed unrelated to the rest of the steel community. On the right loomed a dark gathering of stacks rising from irregular acres of sheetiron roofs. Smoke-columns of various texture, some colored gold from an interior light, streaked the sky immediately above the mill-stacks.

The town spread itself along a valley, and on the sides of encircling hills on my left. In the foreground was Main Street, with stores and restaurants and a fruit-seller. I went across the street to explore for breakfast.

‘Can I look at the job?’ I asked.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘you can look at the job.’

I walked from the square, brick office of the open-hearth foreman, and lost my way amid a maze of railroad tracks, trestles, and small brick shanties, at last pushing inside a blackened sheet-iron shell—the mill. I entered by the side, following fierce white lights shining from the half-twilight interior. They seemed immensely brighter than the warm sun in the heavens.

I was conscious first of the blaring mouths of furnaces. There were five of them, and men with shovels in line, marching within a yard, hurling white gravel down red throats. Two of the men were stripped, and their backs were shiny in the red flare. I tried to feel perfectly at home, but discovered a deep consciousness of being overdressed. My straw hat I could have hurled into a ladle of steel.

Someone yelled, ‘Watch yourself!’ and I looked up, with some horror, to note half the mill moving slowly but resolutely onward, bent on my annihilation.

I was mistaken. It was the charging machine, rattling and grinding past furnace No. 7. The machine is a monster, some forty feet from head to rear, stretching nearly the width of the central open space in the mill. The tracks on which it proceeds go the whole length, in front of all the furnaces. I dodged it, or rather ran from it, toward what appeared open water, but found there more tracks for stumbling.

An annoyed whistle lifted itself against the general background of noise. I looked over my shoulder. It relieved me to find a mere locomotive. I knew how to cope with locomotives. It was coming at me leisurely, so I gave it an interested inspection before leaving the track. It dragged a cauldron of exaggerated proportions, on a car fitted to hold it easily. A dull glow showed from inside, and a swirl of sparks and smoke shot up and lost themselves among girders.

The annoyed whistle recurred. By now the charging affair had lumbered past, was still threatening noisily, but was two furnaces below. I stepped back into the central spaces of the mill.

The foreman had told me to see the melter, Peter Grayson. I asked a short Italian, with a blazing face and weeping eyes, where the melter was. He stared hostilely at me.

‘Pete Grayson,’ I said.

‘Oh, Pete,’ he returned; ‘there!’

I followed Ids eyes past a pile of coal, along a pipe, up to Pete. He was a Russian, of Atlas build, bent, vastshouldered, with a square head like a box. He was lounging slowly toward me, with short steps. As he came into the furnace-light, I could see that he was an old man, with white hair under his cap, and a wooden face which, I was certain, kept a uniform expression in all weathers.

‘What does a third helper do?’ I asked when he came alongside.

Pete spat and turned away, as if the question disgusted him profoundly. But I noticed in a moment that he was giving the matter thought.

We waited two minutes. Finally he said, looking at me, ‘Why a third helper has got a hell of a lot to do!’

He seemed to regard this quantitative answer as entirely satisfying.

‘ I know,’ I said, ‘but what in hell?'

He again looked at the floor, considered, and spat. ‘He works round the furnace,’ he said.

I saw that I would have to accept this as a prospectus. So I began negotiations.

‘I want a job,’ I said. ‘I come from Mr. Towers. Have you got anything?’

He looked away again and said, ‘They want a man on the night shift. Can you come at five?’

My heart leaped a bit at ‘the night shift.’ I thought over the schedule the employment manager had rehearsed: ‘Five to seven, fourteen hours on the night-week.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

We had just about concluded this verbal contract, when a chorus of ‘Heows’ hit our eardrums. Men make such a sound in a queer, startling, warning way, difficult to describe. I looked around for the charging machine or locomotive, but neither was in range.

‘What are they “Heowing” about?’ I thought violently to myself. But Pete grabbed my arm, with a hand like a crane-hook. ‘Want to watch y’self,’ he said; ‘get hurt’; and I saw the overhead crane, about to carry over our heads a couple of tons of coal, in a huge swaying box.

I looked around a little more before I left, trying to organize some meaning into the operations I observed, trying to wonder how it would be to take a shovel and hurl that white gravel into those red throats.

I said to myself: ’I guess I can handle it.’ And I thought strongly on the worst things I had known in the army.

As I stood, a locomotive entered the mill from the other end, and went down the track before the furnaces. It was dragging flat cars, with iron boxes as big as coffins laid crosswise on them. I went over, and looked carefully at the trainload, and at one or two of the boxes. They were filled with irregular shapes of iron — wire coils, bars, weights, sheets, fragments of machines; in short, scrap.

‘This is what they eat,’ I thought, glancing at the glowing doors. ‘ I wonder how many tons a day.’

I waited till the locomotive came to a shaken stop in front of the middle furnace, then left the mill by the tracks along which it had entered.

I followed them out and along a short bridge. A little way to my right was solid ground — the yards, where I had been. Back of Mr. Towers’s little office were more mills. I picked out the power house — half a city block. Behind them all were five cone-shaped towers against the sky, and a little smoke curling over the top — the blast furnaces. Behind me the Bessemer furnace threw off a cloud of fire, which had changed while I was in the mill from brown to brownish gold. In front, and to my left, the tracks ran on the edge of a sloping embankment, which fell away quickly to a lower level. Fifty yards from the base was the blooming-mill, where the metal, I knew, was being rolled into great slabs called ‘blooms.’ A vague red glow came out of its interior twilights.

Down through the railroad ties on which I walked was open space, twenty feet below. Two workmen were coming out with dinner-buckets. I had a curiosity to know the arrangement and workings of the dark mill-cellar from which they came.

Turning back on the open-hearth mill, when I had crossed the bridge, I could see that it extended itself in a sort of gigantic lean-to shelter over what the melter had called the ‘pit.’ There was a crane moving about there, and more centres of light. I wondered about that area, too, and what sort of work the men did.

When I reached the end of the track, I thought to myself, ‘I go to work at five o’clock. How about clothes?’

No one in the mill wore overalls, except the carpenters and millwrights, and so on. The helpers on the furnaces were clad in shapeless, baggy, gray affairs for trousers, and their shirts were blue or gray, with a rare khaki. Hats were either degraded felts or those black-visor effects — like those worn by locomotive engineers.

The twelve-o’clock whistle blew. A few men had been moving toward the gate slowly for minutes. The whistle sent them on at top walking-speed. I stared at them, to assure myself as to the correct dress for steel-makers.


I walked the four hundred yards to the open-hearth, at a quarter to five, and noticed clearly for the first time the yard of the blooming-mill. Here sheets and bars of steel, looking as if they weighed several thousand pounds each, were issuing from the mill on continuous treads, and moving about the yard in an orderly, but most complex manner. Electric cranes were sweeping over the quarter-acre of yardspace, and lifting and piling the bars swiftly and precisely upon flat cars.

I entered the open-hearth mill by the tracks that ran close to the furnaces. The mill noises broke on me: a moan and rattle of cranes overhead, — fifty-ton ones, — the jarring of the trainloads of charge-boxes stopping suddenly in front of Number 4, and minor sounds, like chains jangling on being dropped, or gravel swishing out of a box. I was conscious of muscles growing tense in the face of this violent environment — a somewhat artificial and eager calm. I walked with excessive firmness, and felt my personality contracting itself into the mere sense of sight and sound. I looked for Pete. ‘He’s in his shanty,’ said an American furnace-helper who was getting into his mill clothes.

I went after Pete’s shanty. It was a sheet-iron box, 12 by 12, midway down the floor, near a steel beam. Pete was coming out, buttoning the lower buttons of a blue shirt. He looked through my head and passed me, much as he had passed the steel beam. With two or three steps, I moved out and blocked his way. He looked at me, loosened his face, and said very cheerfully, ‘Hello.’

‘I’ve come to work,’ I said.

‘Here,’ he said, ‘you’ll work th’ pit t’ night. Few days, y ’ know — get used ter things.’

He led the way to some iron stairs, and we went down together into that darkened region under the furnaces, about whose function I had speculated.

To the left, I could make out tracks. (Railroads seemed to run through a steel mill from cellar to attic.) And at intervals, from above the tracks, torrents of sparks swept into the dark, with now and then a small stream of yellow fire.

We stumbled over bricks, mud, clay, a shovel, and the railroad track. In front of a narrow curtain of molten slag we waited for some moments. We were under the middle furnaces, I calculated. Gradually the curtain ceased, and Pete leaped under the hole from which it had come.

‘Watch yourself,’ he said.

I followed him, with a broad jump, and a prayer about the falling slag.

We came out into the pit, which had so many bright centres of molten steel that it was lighter than outdoors. I watched Pete’s back chiefly, and my own feet. We kept stepping between little chunks of dark slag, that made your feet hot, and close to a bucket ten feet high, that gave forth smoke. Wheelbarrows we met, with and without men, and metal boxes, as large as wagons, dropped about a dirt floor. We avoided a hole with a fire at its centre.

At last, at the edge of the pit, near more tracks, we ran into the pit gang: eight or ten men, leaning on shovels and forks, and blinking at the molten metal falling into a huge ladle.

‘Y’ work here,’ said Pete, and moved on. I remember feeling a half-pleasurable glowas I looked about the strenuous environment of which I was to become a part — a glow mixed with a touch of anxiety as to what I was up against for the next fourteen hours.

Two of the eight men looked at me and grinned. I grinned back and put on my gloves.

‘Number 6 furnace?’ I asked, nodding toward the stream.

‘Ye-ah,’ said the man next me.

He was a cleanly built person in loose corduroy pants, blue shirt open at his neck. Italian.

He grinned with extraordinary friendliness, and said, —

‘First night, this place?’

‘Yes,’ I returned.

‘Goddam hell of a——job,’ he said,

very genially.

We both turned to look at the stream again. For ten minutes we stared.

I was eager to organize into reasonableness a little of this strenuous process that was going forward with a hiss and a roar about me.

‘That’s the ladle?’ I asked, to start things.

‘Ye-ah, where yer see metal come, dat’s spout; crane tak’ him over pourplatform, sec; pour-man mak li’l hole in ladle, fill up moul’ — see de moul’ on de fiat cars?’

The Italian was a professor to me. I got the place named and charted in good shape before the night was out. The pit was an area of perhaps half an acre, with open sides and a roof. Two cranes traversed its entire extent; and a railway passed through its outer edge, bearing mammoth moulds, seven feet high above their flat cars. Every furnace protruded a spout; and when the molten steel inside was ‘cooked,’ tilted backward slightly and poured into a ladle. A bunch of things happened before that pouring. Men appeared on a narrow platform with a very twisted railing, near the spout, and worked for a time with rods. They prodded up inside, till a tiny stream of fire broke through. Then you could see them start back to escape the deluge of molten steel. The stream in the spout would swell to the circumference of a man’s body,and fall into the ladle—that oversized bucket thing hung conveniently for it by the electric crane. A dizzy tide of sparks accompanied the stream, and shot, out quite far into the pit, at times causing men to slap themselves, to keep their clothing from breaking out into a blaze. There were always staccato human voices against the mechanical noise, and you distinguished by inflection whether you heard command, or assent, or warning, or simply the lubrications of profanity.

As the molten stuff filled toward the top of the ladle, curdling like a gigantic pot of oatmeal, somebody gave a yell, and slowly, by an entirely concealed power, the 250-ton furnace lifted itself erect, and the steel stopped flowing.

But it splashed and slobbered enormously in the ladle at this juncture; a few hundred pounds ran over the edge to the floor of the pit. This, when it had cooled a little, would be our job to clean up, separating steel scrap from the slag.

When a ladle was full, the crane took it gingerly in a sweep of a hundred feet through mid-air, and, as Fritz said, the men on the pouring platform released a stopper from a hole in the bottom, to let out the steel. It flowed out in a spurting stream three or four inches thick, into moulds that stood some seven feet high, on fiat cars.


‘Clean off the track on Number 7, an’ make it fast,’ from the pit boss, accompanied by a neat stream of tobacco juice, which began to steam vigorously when it struck the hot slag at his feet.

We passed through to the other side of the furnaces by going under Number 6, a bright fall of sparks from the slag-hole just missing the heels of the last man.

‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I said to myself angrily. ‘Why do we have to dodge under that slag-hole?’

We moved in the dark, along a track that turned in under Number 7, into a region of great heat. Before us was a small hill of partially cooled slag, blocking the track. It was like a tiny volcano actively fluid in the centre, with the edges blackened and hard.

I found out very quickly the ‘why’ of this mess. The furnace is made to rock forward, and spill out a few hundred pounds of the slag that floats on top. A short, ‘buggy’ car runs under, to catch the flow. But someone had blundered — no buggy was there when the slag came.

‘Get him up queek, and let buggy come back for nex’ time,’ explained an Italian with moustachios, who carried the pick. ‘Huh, whatze matter goddam first helper, letta furnace go,’he added angrily. ‘ Lotza work.’

This job took us three hours. The Italian went in at once with the pick, and loosened a mass of cinder near one of the rails. Fritz and I followed up with shovels, hurling the stuff away from the tracks.

The slag is light, and you can swing a fat shovelful with ease; but mixed with it are clumps of steel that follow the slag over the furnace doors. It grew hotter as we worked in—three inches of red heat to a slag-cake six inches thick.

‘Hose,’ said someone.

The Italian found it in behind the next furnace, and screwed it to a spigot between the two. We became drowned in steam.

We had been at it about an hour and a half, and I was shoveling back loose cinder, with a little speed to get it over with. ’Rest yourself,’commanded Moustachios. ‘Lotza time, lotza time.’

I leaned on my shovel, and found rather mixed feelings rising inside me. I was a little resentful at being told what to do; a little pleased that I was, at least, up to the gang standard; a little in doubt as to whether we ought not to be working harder; but, on the whole, tired enough to dismiss the question and lean on my shovel.

The heat was bad at times: 120 and 130 degrees, when you’re right in it, I should guess. It was like constantly sticking your head into the fireplace. When you had a cake or two of newly turned slag, glowing on both sides, you worked like mad to get your pick work done, and come out. I found that a given amount of work in heat fatigued me at three times the rate of the same work in a cooler atmosphere. But it was exciting, at all events.

We used the crowbar and sledge on the harder ledges of the stuff, putting a loose piece under the bar, and prying.

When it was well cleared, a puffy switch engine came out of the dark from the direction of Number 4, and pushed a buggy under the furnace. The engineer was short and jollylooking, and asked the Italians a few very personal questions in a loud ringing voice. Everyone laughed, and all but Fritz and me undertook a new cheekful of ‘Honest Scrap.’ I smoked a Camel and gave Fritz one.

Then Al, the pit boss, came through. He was an American, medium husky, cap on one ear, and spat through his teeth. I guessed that Al somehow was n’t as hard-boiled as he looked, and found later that he was new as a boss. I concluded that he adopted this exterior in imitation of bosses of greater natural gifts in those lines, and to give substance to his authority. He used to be a workman in a tin mill.

‘All done? If that———

first helper on the furnace had any brains . . .’ and so forth. ‘Now get through and clean out the goddam mess in front.'

We went through, and Fritz used the pick against some very dusty cinder that was entirely cool, and was massed in great piles on the front side of the slag-hole.

‘Getta wheelbarrow, you.’

I started for the wheelbarrow, just the ghost of resentment rising at being ordered about by a ‘Wop,’ and then fading out into the difficulties I had in finding the wheelbarrow. Two or three things that day I had been sent for — things whose whereabouts were a closed book. ‘ Where in h—,’ I thought to myself, violently disturbed, ‘are wheelbarrows?’ I found one at last, near the masons under Number 4, and started off.

‘Hey, what the h—? what the h—?’

So much for that wheelbarrow.

I found another, behind a box near Number 8, and pushed it back over mud, slag, scrap, and pipes, and things. I never knew before what a bother a wheelbarrow is on an open-hearth pitfloor. Only four of us stayed for work under Number 7, a German laborer and I coöperating with shovel and wheelbarrow on the right-hand cinderpile.

We had been digging and hauling an hour, and it was necessary to reach underneath the slag-hole to get at what was left. I always glanced upward for sparks and slag when shoveling, and allowed only my right hand and shovel to pass under.

Just as arm and shovel went in for a new lot, Fritz yelled, ‘Watch out!’

I pulled back with a frog’s leap, and dodged a shaft of fat sparks, spattering on the pit-floor. A second later the sparks became a tiny stream, the size of a finger, and then a torrent of molten slag, the size of an arm. The stuff bounded and splashed vigorously when it struck the ground.

It did n’t get us, and in a second we both laughed from a safe distance.

‘Goddam slag come queek,’ said Fritz, grinning.

‘How you like job?’ he added.

Before I had any chance to discuss the nuances of a clean-up’s walk in life, Fritz was pointing out a new source of molten danger.

We were standing now in the main pit, beyond the overhanging edge of the furnace.

‘Look out now, zee!’ said Fritz, pointing upward.

Almost over our heads was Number 7’s spout., and, dribbling off the end, another small rope of sparks.

We fell over each other to the pit’s edge, stopping when we reached tracks. Looking back at once, we saw that the stream had thickened, like the other in the slag-hole. But here it was molten steel, and with a long drop of thirty feet. The rebound of the thudding molten metal sent it off twenty-five or thirty feet in all directions.

The stream swelled steadily, till it reached the circumference of a man’s body, and fell in a thudding shaft of metallic flame to the pit’s floor. Spatterings went out in a moderately symmetrical circle forty feet across. The smaller gobs of molten stuff made minor centres of spatter of their own. It was a spectacle that burned easily into memory.

The gang of men at the edge of the pit watched the thing with apparent enjoyment, and I wondered, slowly, two things: one, whether anyone ever got caught under such a molten Niagara; and two, whether the pit was going to have a steel floor before it stopped. How could it be stopped anyway?

The crane man had been busy for some minutes picking up a ladle from Number 4, and at that instant he swung it under, and the process of steelflooring ceased. About ten tons had escaped, out of a furnaceful of 250.

What the devil had happened? I talked with everybody I could. It was a rare thing I learned: the mud and dolomite (a limestone substance) in the tap hole had not been properly packed, and broke through. My companions told me about another occasion, some years before, when molten steel got loose. It caught twenty-four men in the flow — killed and buried them. The company, with a sense of the proprieties, waited until the families of the men moved before putting the scrap, which contained them, back into the furnace for remelting.