Shared Stories: Making Steel

Many people in the area may know someone who worked in one of the heavy industry plants in nearby Vernon. Frank Novak describes the amazing machinery and conditions that produced steel at the Bethlehem plant before it closed in 1982. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Frank Novak
If you were driving on Slauson Avenue in the dark in the in the 1970s or 80s, in the city of Vernon, you might be treated to an amazing sight. Just past the chain link fence on the south side of the street, heavy tongs from up high would drop down to pull a glowing rectangular mass, 10 tons of orange steel, out of a high pit. 

As the overhead crane lifted the ingot clear and carried it toward the fence, you would feel the heat on your face through the car window.  

The crane would trolley along, parallel to the road, with the hot steel hanging upright until it was lined up with a set of rollers as thick as a man. The crane would bang the hot steel into the rolls and lay it down sideways, and as it did so crusts of molten metal would get knocked off onto the ground. 

Then the rollers would carry the heavy ingot out of sight into the dark bowels of the mill, leaving the pieces of slag to glow on the ground, casting eerie shadows as the metal cooled toward gray. 

This was the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Vernon, California, where I had the good fortune to work from 1973 to 1982. I had dropped out of graduate school in 1972. Heart-sick over the on-going Vietnam war, and no longer enchanted with the remnants of the 1960s counterculture, I began to work in a machine shop, looking for something more “real.” The pay wasn’t the greatest, and when I heard Bethlehem Steel was hiring, I jumped at the chance.

The Bethlehem Vernon plant was a sprawling affair. Its property stretched almost a half a mile along Slauson between Maywood Avenue and Boyle Street. The plant was a scrap re-melt plant, meaning that new steel was made by melting down scrap metal rather than extracting it from iron ore. Much of the property was open, filled with mountains of scrap metal tended by a few cranes that loaded and unloaded the rail cars.

The heart of the plant was at the north-east corner, on the south side of Slauson and nestled up against the railroad tracks along the Vernon-Huntington Park boundary. Large corrugated-metal sheds, each over one hundred feet wide and a quarter mile long, housed several rolling mills and the three electric furnaces. 

The roofs were so high that overhead cranes traveled up and down the bays just under the roof, riding on railroad-sized rails that ran along the eaves. When the mills were running there was an incessant clatter: hot steel in the shape of beam-like billets running down roller beds, cranes travelling overhead, the crude drive mechanisms of the mills themselves clanking as they turned the heavy mill rollers, and above it all the deep rumble of the electric furnaces.

It was into one of these mills that the ingots, rolling out of sight of the gawkers on Slauson Avenue, disappeared. This was the so-called 32-inch Mill, the mill where I worked during most of my years at Bethlehem. The 32-inch Mill was actually a series of two mills, two cutting machines called “shears,” and at the end a pair of cooling beds. These were positioned in a line along one of the long sheds with a lot of space in between. They were connected by conveyor beds made of steel rollers.

A rolling mill in its simplest form is two rollers, one above the other. Hot steel is rolled through these rollers, and is squeezed down as it goes through. Imagine rolling out dough to make spaghetti. Just like dough, the hot steel stretches out and becomes longer. 

But the dough we are talking about is steel so hot it glows orange, and at the first mill it is shaped like a large refrigerator. This can’t be rolled out to a smaller shape all at once, so the ingot is rolled back and forth through the two steel rollers that are 32 inches in diameter and as wide as a dining room table. 

The ingot rolls through one way and is squished slightly. The operator, operating the control levers in a little room over the mill, lowers the top roller down maybe in inch, then reverses the rollers and rolls the ingot back through. After a couple of passes, the ingot is flipped on its side, and rolled back and forth some more. This goes on, until the ingot is reduced to a billet about six inches one a side and almost two hundred feet. long, shooting down the conveyor at 30 miles an hour to the next step in the process.

I was a 25-year-old refugee from academia, and this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.