For all the grimness and dehumanizing machinery, the fire, smoke and brimstone that filled J&L’s Four Shop, joy blossomed among the massive, brick and iron furnaces that transformed molten iron into blinding-bright, liquid steel.
Tom Williams was a sturdy man with dark, curly hair. He remembered his own beginnings at J&L. “I worked as a laborer, first,” said Williams, “then worked as a stocker, which is actually part of the job line up onto the furnaces.
“The stocker, at that time, used to load the stuff by hand. We used to shovel ores into the charging boxes so that the charging machine could” load the ores and scrap metal “into the furnace. It was a backbreaking job. You just shoveled all day.
Williams chuckled. “I think it was more fun in the old days, too. … You could carry on a little more. Like, you know, you’d be walking along and the next thing you know you’d get hit with a water hose, or somebody would be dropping bags of water from up above on top of ya. … And, once you got hit,” he grinned, “you always planned your revenge.”
Eyes twinkling, he said, “We used to have contests to see who could wheel the heaviest wheelbarrow. Everything in those days was, like I say, by hand.” Back then, in the 1950’s, “you had to wheel all your stock behind the furnace.”
Some old time steelworkers actually moved a thousand pounds. They painstakingly positioned the heavy but dense manganese over the wheel. “You really weren’t picking up too much,” Williams said, “but still, it was pretty hard to do because those wheelbarrows in those days weren’t all the greatest either. … They were primitive type things. “
Williams followed his father’s footsteps and worked his way up the job line from labor gang to Melter. Remembering those wheelbarrow races, he added, “You had to be real careful, because you could end up skinning your knuckles. And, if the wheelbarrow tilted on ya,” he laughed vigorously, “there was no way you were gonna stop it. Many a time you’d come out of there, boy, your knuckles would be all goofed up from hitting the (furnace) railings, but you wouldn’t let that thing go! Well, you’re young and foolish, you know, and it’s just lots of fun.”
Photo (c) Sandra Gould Ford
Image: In Four Shop, a ix-foot-three-inch man stands beside two charging buckets used to fill the furnaces.