Inside The Gary Steel Works

By Thomas Keyes
Dec. 4, 2005

In the 1950’s I worked in the Gary Works of United States Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana for about a year. At that time, the Gary Works was the largest steel mill in the world. Later I worked also for Inland Steel Company for around five years. For another 20 years or so I worked for various engineering companies around Chicago that did work for those two companies, as well as other steelmakers, like Bethlehem and Republic. Mostly though, our work was for US Steel, and I visited the plant in Gary again and again, even after I stopped working there as a direct employee.

When I worked directly for US Steel, I was actually an employee of American Bridge Division, one of its subsidiaries, whose main office was on Bridge Street in Gary. However, I was among a small number of AB Division employees who worked in the main office of US Steel in downtown Gary, at First and Broadway. I lived in Chicago at the time and commuted to Gary by Chicago South Bend and South Shore Railroad, which had a stop right at the Main Gate of the Gary Works.

AB Division’s small crew that worked in the main office of US Steel was devoted to inspection and replacement of elements inside the plant. The Gary Works, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, covered 3000 acres and was 8 miles long, holding seemingly countless heavy-duty structures like blast furnaces, slab casters, open hearth furnaces, coke batteries, ore bridges, plate mills, shape mills, railroad trestles and on and on. Sometimes a structural element, like a column, a girder, a truss or a beam would get damaged or start rusting out. At other times, it was simply necessary to alter existing structures to accommodate new additions. In these cases, we would go out into the mill looking for the pertinent members and noting locations.

Later on, we would go through the vaults of the old drawings to see if they were still on file. In some cases, our work was merely updating and copying an old drawing to be issued to the shop for fabrication. In other cases, our work was more involved, and entailed designing and detailing new members. At any rate, I got to see the inside of the mill regularly, which to me was the most awesome and imposing sight in all the world.

If you ever lived in Chicago, you would know that whole southeastern part of the city, as well as northwestern Indiana, through Hammond, Indiana Harbor, East Chicago and Gary, was one gargantuan, superhuman mass of steel mills, petroleum refineries, cement mills and other major industrial installations. I just wish I could have visited every factory and every mill there. This was the backbone of the nation.

At that time, iron ore and coal came to the Gary Works from Minnesota and perhaps other locations by ships that sailed the Great Lakes. So the Gary Works had complete ore slips and a dock, and there you see the ore being unloaded on ore bridges and standing in massive conical heaps all around on the waterfront.

A blast furnace, which represents the older steel-making technology, is a giant tower, itself made out of slab up to a foot thick, which of course is lined with fire-resistant stone. Inside, iron ore, coal, limestone and other additives are fired to temperatures over 3000° F. The molten steel thereby produced runs off in channels into ladles, which may hold 50 to 100 tons of molten steel. The ladles are poured into molds to make ingots that weigh 10,000 pounds a piece. The red-hot ingots, standing upright on flatcars, were hauled to the various rolling mills to be converted into shapes and plates. In steel jargon, a ‘shape’ is just about any steel section other than a flat plate. For instance, beams, angle irons, channels and rails are all called ‘shapes’.

The older technology also included open hearths. The more modern steel-making technique employs basic oxygen furnaces. US Steel had several open hearths and two BOF shops also. The metallurgical processes were entirely out of my province, so I don’t know exactly what went on in these places, but you could see massive furnaces, white hot at the doors, and you could see huge ladles being filled and moving around on tracks to the points where the ingots were poured.

Another important feature of the Gary Works was its array of coke batteries. Coal, which does not burn hot enough to make steel, is converted to coke in ovens. The coal is hoisted on a series of conveyors, then crushed again and again, fired and delivered as coke. I actually worked on the design of Coke Battery #2, which followed a German patent process purchased by US Steel. When US Steel got the design for the building though, it didn’t conform to US practise, so it had to be revamped. That was what I did. But this was when I had already left US Steel, and was working for an engineering company that got contracts from US Steel.

The slab casters rolled steel slab up to more than a foot thick. Slabs of that thickness are used to fabricate nuclear reactors, to build up core columns in 100-story buildings and other landmark projects. There were also plate mills and sheet mills, rolling thicknesses from about 1/16 of an inch up to 3 inches. The thinner pieces are called strips, sheets, bars or plates depending on thickness and width. Anything over 3 inches thick is called a slab.

There were so-called skullcrushers, which broke up old railroad cars, trucks and cars and compacted them into blocks to be fed, along with iron ore, to make new steel.

The fabrication of members, like columns, trusses and girders for buildings and bridges, was assigned to American Bridge Division, which built Sears Tower, the Standard Oil Building, the John Hancock Center and other 100-story buildings in Chicago, as well as railroad and highway bridges, power stations and industrial buildings. Two power stations I recall by name are Byron Station and Braidwood Station, built in the 70’s, but still operating today. AB Division’s plant was a part of the whole steel-mill compound. AB Division received plates and shapes, processing them by cutting, sawing, punching, drilling, bending and assembling. When I began, fabricated pieces were generally riveted, but in the 60’s, welding superseded riveting.

Portland Cement was another subsidiary of US Steel, in nearby Hammond, Indiana. I saw it from the train every day, but never got to visit the facility personally. US Steel had another mill called the South Works, in Chicago, not more than 15 miles from the Gary Works.

Yes, the Gary Works was really a leviathan!


About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com

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