When I imagine the survivors emerging after the nuclear apocalypse, I think of those ragged few stumbling over the rigid footprints of the buildings in our flattened cities…
In Duluth, concrete foundations of a once-great complex rests with random and irrelevant signage poking above the shoulder-high grass. The sturdy railroad beds subdividing sidewalks attempted to organize countless piles of cinderblocks indiscriminately strewn everywhere in between.
This is what I found while standing in the footprint of the former Duluth’s United States Steel Plant.
Most people are surprised when I tell them about the steel plant that used to dominate West Duluth, even those who’ve spent all their lives in the city. It might be the lack of blast furnaces breaking the even horizon south of the city or a disinterest in local history. Duluthains are often aware of the effect of iron mining to the west on the regional economy, but there was a time that the ore wasn’t simply shipped from the city under nameless New England smokestacks, but forged right here.
Founding the Forge
Not much more than a century ago, just in 1910 in fact, Minnesota Steel Company began constructing the first of two blast furnaces on the shore of the St. Louis River near where it empties into Lake Superior. The investors saw the formula for steel come together in Duluth: iron ore, coal and an increasingly industrial market of shipbuilders, heavy manufacturing and infrastructure improvements.
Instead of shipping the ore to furnaces in Ohio and Pennsylvania, it could just go over the hill in Proctor, Minnesota and to the new plant. Coal docks are still profitable today in the Twin Ports, and they used to be more so because of plants like American Carbolite, which used more coal than most American cities when it was running.
By 1915, the new plant was producing.
Duluth labor was theorized to be more productive than that of other climates because it was though the low temperatures were more stimulating for the mind and body. Whether it was this that helped the plant turn-out more than half a million tons of steel in 1930 or simply the high-concentration Messabi Range ore, I don’t dare guess, but the success of the plant soon caught national attention.
Success, Syndicated and Social
American Steel and Wire Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, began leasing the plant’s two furnaces and built a nearby cement plant, Universal-Atlas Cement, to harvest the byproducts of the forging process. At its peak, the steel plant turned out more than 200,000 miles of barbed wire and 23,000 miles of woven fencing in a year—a period that probably overlapped the wartime employment of 6,000 in the 1940s.
This boom was most felt in the company town, Morgan Park, which was built by U.S. Steel for its workers. The village included a school, a community center and hospital, as well as modern amenities for the workers and their families. It still exists today as a somewhat isolated rural community—a psychological departure from the age-ripened Duluthian culture.
or AND Nothing
By the 1970s the steel-making process was so well refined that U.S. Steel turned out 1,000,000 tons of finished product from just one blast furnace. One might consider this a high-point in the plant history; doubling the capacity of the factory using half of the resources. One might consider it so, except that the following year production ceased altogether.
A Gallery of Bricks
The high-grade ore from the nearby Minnesotan iron ranges was drying up and was being replaced by taconite from strip mines, which required different chemical treatment than raw ore to be made into steel. Other factors contributed too: cheap imported steel, bituminous coal (required by the plant’s coking works) was getting more expensive and the production savings by having a steel mill near the source of ore was usurped by the potential savings of having a mill where the demand was centered.
Construction was booming in the West, not the Midwest, so in 1971 the last billet was trucked to the finishing mills a little to far from the action.
Coke Plant’s Upwind
Stockpiles for the finishing mills ran out in 1973, shutting it down, and in 1979 the last section of the steel works, the coking facility, went dark. A decade later, in 1988, much of the plant was razed—which in a sense is still ongoing, as waves of EPA dozers carve deeper into the polluted earth.
I stumbled between the piles of cinderblocks and torn electrical panels through what used to be a front door, judging by how the concrete block met a sidewalk, leading my eyes onward to another vague outline.
Stopping for a moment there in the causeway, where the trees had not yet taken over, in my minds eye I found myself looking at a solid wood door with cracked blue paint and rusting handle—the little window with crisscrossing safety wire overlooked a smoggy, polluted scene.
“The coking plant must be upwind,” I thought, as I stared at a screeching train full of wet, dirty ore. A real train whistle ended my fantasy between a line of shapeless concrete piles and trees; bare boughs intermixed with rusted reinforcing bars.
Part of me wanted to spend more time there, taking in the texture of the light switches and studying how the distant coal gas flares warped in the steel-threaded glass, but I held back, feeling the suspicious gaze of nearby steelworkers.
“Good night,” I said as I stepped lightly over the threshold and out the door onto the long, cracked road: the little thread of steel wire that kept the broken, grimy window of my imagination together that night.