Mill Story #31 – First Job in the Mill

Mill Story #31: First Job in the Mill

steelton brass check tag

(Steelton Employee Brass Check from Rail Mill)

The Mill wasn’t my first industrial job.  I had been working for Fruehauf Trailer Corporation, riveting together Tractor Trailers in their Middletown, PA plant.  But the Mill was a definite step up the job ladder, and I was feeling pretty good about getting hired.  My dad worked at the Mill and he seemed pleased that I was coming to work there as well.

The hiring was done by a humorless guy who seemed to disdain most of the new recruits and was particularly suspicious of the class of the 1970’s.  Whatever his standards for Mill workers were, we didn’t meet them.  This was particularly true because his total autonomy in hiring had been curbed by new civil rights laws that forced him to hire women and minorities.  As gatekeeper for the patronage and favoritism of Mill jobs, his world was slipping away.

So he sternly had us fill out our employment papers, took our official hiring picture with a dual lens Polaroid, had us sign up for United Way (not really voluntary) and issued us a brass employee check with our employee number on it.  Next was a stop at the Plant supply store, where we were fitted for mill boots.  These were clodhoppers with special metatarsal toe and arch protection.

Then we were given a visit to our new work area.  For most of us it was the Splice Bar Shop.  Right after the civil war, a group of Pennsylvania Railroad executives and investors built Steelton as the first integrated rail mill in the nation.  It’s main and critical purpose was to supply railroad rail and accessories to a nation that was expanding its industrial might through railroads.  The Splice Bar shop made parts needed in rail construction.  Specifically it made the steel connector pieces that bolted on to the ends of two rails and spliced them together.  It also made the Tie Plates, which were installed under the rail and held the rail to the wooden ties in the rail bed.  Other parts were made that accommodated places where rails came together and switching equipment was integrated into the rail system.

The Splice Bar Shop clearly hadn’t changed much since its post-Civil War creation.  Hulking two story Press and Punch Machines straightened, punched spike holes in, and sheared tie plates to length.   Gas fired furnaces heated splice bars red hot, another row of Presses and Punches created the splice bars and a long covered tank of oil took red hot splice bars through it on a chain drive, to harden them through an annealing process.  The floor was ageless, oil saturated dirt.  The feedstock was totally out in the open and the Machines were under roof, but pretty much shed-like, open to the elements.  Freezing in the winter and oven hot in the summer.

The human task was to take long bars that came from the 20” Mill, man-wrestle them on to manual roller lines, take a crude steel hook and pull them as fast as you could into a motor driven “pinch roller” that then fed them into the Punches and Presses.  Machine Operators ran the Presses and Punches up and down as they used tremendous force (and ear shattering noise) to punch holes into cold steel.  On the other end of the machine, a worker picked up the sheared plates and bars and neatly stacked them in a huge bin.  Once the bin was filled, an overhead crane took the plates or bars to a shipping area where they were inspected and counted.  Then, in true Mill irony, the neatly stacked bins were upended into rail cars, and sent on to the customer or next processing step.

On the “hot line”, where the splice bars were processed, men manually stacked the cold blank bars at the back of the furnace, then pulled the hot ones out with steel tongs.  The bars were passed by steel tong from machine to machine, until they were position to go into the oil annealing tank.  Then they were removed by hand and again stacked neatly for counting and dumping.  With the exception of the quality inspectors, the Splice Bar Shop was entirely hard manual labor.  Even the people who set up the Machines used sledgehammers, pry bars and long heavy bars to knock the machine fixtures in place.  It was like boot camp in the Marines.  If you survived the Splice Bar Shop you were pretty much ready for whatever the Mill had to throw at you.  One day we processed a four foot “base plate” that took four of us to stack into the bins.  The foreman told us that two men handled the base plates in another area of the Mill. When we asked how they did that, he smiled and said “bigger men”!

Our first visit to the Splice Bar was misleading.  We arrived at the 9am break time.  All the men were sitting at long picnic type benches in a narrow “welfare room” that had exposed brick walls and a concrete floor.  Their clothes were smeared with grease, but they seemed happy and bantered amongst themselves.  We heard them snicker to each other that we were the “fresh meat”, but we figured that a job that gave people a break at 9am was going to be a piece of cake.  First impressions can be so wrong.

Turned out that we started at 7am and worked to 3pm.  We got a 9am break and a 20 minute lunch.  In between was a workout worthy of Charles Atlas.  You were either pulling around bars that weighed twice or three times what you did, lifting and stacking 50-75 pounds of plate or bar, or trying to hang on to a hot piece of metal with metal tongs.  All of this was done under incentive rates that paid out by the number of pieces you processed in a day.  And these guys went after the money.  To succeed in the Splice Bar Shop, you had to become part of the machine.  Clang (the bar hit the machine stop), Crunch (the holes were punched into the plate), Swish (a plate dropped into the pickup slot), ugh (you picked up two or three plates and swung them into the bin.  All day, every day.  That 9am break was necessary.

The machine operators swabbed the Press punches with a mixture of oil and white lead paste.  The mixture would get up the sleeves of the Operators and more than once I saw it dripping on sandwiches my coworkers were eating in the break room.  Later, the lead would be replaced under health and safety standards.  One day I heard a holler and the Number 9 machine stopped clamoring.  The Pickup guy had misplaced his hand and the machine had sheared off some of his fingers.  They put the fingers into a cooler and the guy into a plant ambulance and rushed them to the hospital.  If you looked around the shop at the long-timers, a number of them no longer had ten digits.  We wore heavy fabric gloves to handle the plates and bars.  But a common injury were slices and punctures from steel slivers that were sharp as razors.  All of this was taken as the price you paid for hanging on to a decent paying job.

At lunch, most of us trudged up the alley outside the Plant to the Danube Café.  The couple that owned it had most of the Bar and tables already filled with quarts of Rheingold Beer and sausage sandwiches.  Twenty minutes wasn’t much time to swig down the beer and hog down the sandwiches.  Since you sweated out your clothes in the first hour of work, the beer didn’t stay with you very long.  But it helped you make the rest of the day.

I wasn’t the best worker they ever had in the Shop.  Nor were many of the guys that hired in with me.  We were the 70’s kids that didn’t quite understand why we had to come to work all five days, or be on time when we did show up.  There were pot heads and screwballs amongst us.  Looking back, the employment guy probably had reason to be a bit cynical about our generation.  But the Splice Bar Shop was not just a job.  It did teach you what it took to make a living.  What hard work was about.  And for me, a lifetime respect for workers.  The Splice Bar Shop is gone now.  A victim of changing technology and a failure of the company to reinvest and keep up.  But the workers in that Shop are still a touchstone for me.  When someone wants to cut overtime pay, or strip workers of their pension, or make healthcare unaffordable, or any of the millions of ways that the greedy try to take advantage of decent and hardworking people, I think back to my co-workers at the Splice Bar Shop and get angry.  The fact is that we can never be a great society unless we respect those who work.  And by and large today’s America does not.

copyright 2013 – Ike Gittlen


One thought on “Mill Story #31 – First Job in the Mill

  1. Ike,
    Damn…how authentic a narrative…this highly descriptive telling of the splice bar shop reminds one of Steinbeck except yours is not a novel.
    After reading this I could have done with a quart of that Rheingold and one of those sausage sandwiches.

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