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How U.S. Steel made (and nearly unmade) Duluth

This photograph of the plant built by the Minnesota Steel Company, part of the United States Steel Corporation, was likely taken around 1925. Photo courtesy of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, Duluth, MN 1501. 4 S3766 b1f18

No one ever underestimated the importance of the U.S. Steel plant in Duluth. Not in the early days -- when in 1912 the Duluth News-Tribune wrote poetic and detailed accounts of the plant's imminent completion -- and even less in the waning years, when local lawmakers Dick Palmer, Ralph Doty, Earl Gustafson and Sid Mason sponsored bills to give the company a tax break if it would build a modern plant. (Each bill failed, although not without political fireworks at the Capitol.)

In the end, the company that didn't scrimp during construction -- even building an entire model community for its workers in what would become Morgan Park -- balked at the prohibitive costs of modernizing and bringing its facilities into compliance with the state's air and water pollution control standards at a time when foreign competition meant demand for its products was decreasing.

It was a massive plant. Completed in 1916 at a cost of $45 million, the plant was made up of more than 50 buildings. There was a merchant mill, blooming mill, continuous mill, pit furnace, screening and mixing plant, coke ovens, ore bins, blast furnaces and stoves, a hospital, a machine shop, a separate cement plant ... the list goes on. Before work on the plant complex even started, workers were building a belt line and bridges to carry goods to and from the docks in Wisconsin.

And then there was "The Model City," the pre-eminent company town of Morgan Park: every piece built with company funds, from the more than 500 dwellings to the Lakeview store, the local clinic and the school and baseball field.

Thousands of men got jobs building all of it. In 1913, three years before the plant was completed, U. S. Steel Corporation President James Ferrell said 1,200 men were currently employed.

In 1925, Philo Brockway wrote that the steel plant at Duluth -- at full operation -- consumed about 735,000 tons of coal per year (that had to be shipped long distances to get here), more than 700,000 tons of iron ore, 222,000 tons of limestone, and 360,000 tons of scrap steel and iron, plus 30,000 tons of firebrick, equal to nine million 9-inch bricks.

Although the coal and some of the other products had to travel, iron ore was abundant in the Iron Range. A 1911 story in the Duluth News-Tribune noted that St. Louis County produced nearly 70 percent of all iron ore manufactured in the United States. The same story noted that the U.S. Steel Corporation owned and controlled approximately 76 percent of the ore deposits in the county.

"The stupendous import of the construction of the steel plant here will be appreciated," the newspaper writer continued.

Indeed, it was appreciated, as the plant became the largest single industry in Duluth and the only steel manufacturing mills in the state.

At peak production, the plant employed between 3,000 and 4,000 workers.

At times of war, the plant employed even more. During World War II, there were close to 6,000 people working there.

Here's an account of those busy days in Duluth published in the Minneapolis Tribune Aug. 30, 1942: "The stranger in Duluth has a difficulty. It's hard to get sleep. ... It's practically a one-street town. So the stores, movies, office buildings and hotels string along one avenue and the avenue strings along the harbor.

"The harbor drums day and night with the dogged, noisy fight to get iron ore out for the war machine. Day long the great ore boats slip by. Night long they toot in the dark. Fog horns puncture the night and ore trains scream into town from the Iron Ranges."

In 1945, the Duluth plant received the Army-Navy "E" award for production excellence.

After the war

Duluthian Bob Olson, 80, started working at U. S. Steel -- USS they called it then, for short -- when he got out of the Marines in 1948. He started as an apprentice pipefitter. USS was paying $1.18 an hour to apprentices; Olson got a journeyman's wage of $1.72 an hour with the government paying the difference through the G.I. Bill.

"When I started, there were seven open hearths, two blast furnaces, two batteries of coke ovens," he said. "We had our own coal dock, our own railroad. ... We were a fully integrated steel mill: We not only made the basic product, we also made finished products like nails, wire products, H-beams. We also shipped out a lot of billet steel to other places, where they would reheat it and produce other items."

Throughout the 1960s, steel production at the Duluth plant -- which was now called Duluth Works -- ebbed and flowed, depending on market conditions. When demand was high, seven of the 10 open hearths and both blast furnaces operated; when production plummeted, only three open hearths and one blast furnace functioned. Employee numbers fluctuated -- sometimes several times during a single year -- ranging from 1,700 to 3,000 workers.

Olson kept his job throughout. The former union president was still working as a pipefitter with the coke ovens, byproducts and wire mill in 1979.

"I was there when we closed the gate," he said.

Piece by piece

The final closure was no surprise. After all, by 1979, the steel plant in Morgan Park had been closing down piece by piece for years.

In November 1971, U.S. Steel had shut down the iron and steel making operations on the "hot side," laying off about 1,600 workers. The company's board chairman, Edwin H. Gott, said the market in the area didn't justify a "large investment for a modern integrated steel production unit."

At that time, U.S. Senators Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey issued a statement saying they were "deeply disappointed."

"Neither the citizens of Duluth nor the state of Minnesota deserve this kind of treatment," the senators wrote.

In 1973, the next blow came: the "cold side" -- the rod and wire mills and fence-post fabrication departments -- would close in October. Another 700 workers lost their jobs.

Next to close was the cement plant, which employed 145 workers, in January 1976.

"Unlike the sentiments that prevailed when the steel plant closed, the vast majority of Morgan Park and Gary-New Duluth citizens welcomed the news that the severe air pollution problems caused by cement manufacturing were ending," author Arnold Alanen wrote in his book, "Morgan Park: Duluth, U.S. Steel and the Forging of a Company Town," published in 2007.

The coke-making facility endured for a few more years. But it was also a polluter, and the company was embroiled in a back-and-forth battle with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In 1971, even consumer crusader Ralph Nader got involved in the pollution argument, charging that some U.S. industries, including the Duluth plant, were practicing "environmental blackmail."

The coke plant was shut down in May 1979 and the last group of 250 U.S. Steel employees in Duluth lost their jobs.

Although it came as no surprise, the final closure was a tremendous blow to Duluth because it signaled an end to hopes that the company would decide to update or rebuild its facilities here.

"It was our major employer from the time it was built," Olson said. "Through all those years it provided a good living for 3,000 to 4,000 employees. In turn, that employs a lot of other people: at grocery stores, gas stations, other places.

"It was a major loss. We've never really turned around; now our biggest employer is the hospital. We never got any other major industry in here."

Olson blames the age of the plant more than the pollution-control measures for its closure.

"We were trying to compete with other steel mills around the country," he said. "In Duluth, we produced 150 tons of molten steel every seven to eight hours; later on we reduced that to six and a half. Compare that to mills in Gary, Ind. and Alabama, where they were producing 200 tons every 45 minutes.

"We became antiquated."

In his book, Alanen noted that replaced the existing plant in Morgan Park with a new or renovated basic oxygen furnace "would have required an expenditure of well over $100 million (1971 dollars) -- a significantly greater amount than the $10 to $20 million estimated to implement pollution control measures."

When the plant closed, many of its workers moved away from the area to find work.

Olson, who was president of the Local 1028 Steelworkers Union, found jobs for many of the workers at other U.S. Steel plants across the country; others found work on the Iron Range. He said Duluth had a "spectacular workforce," employees many other plants were eager to hire.

"Of course, five or 10 years down the road, many of those plants closed," he said. "We weren't the only one."

Even Olson took a job at 3M in Cottage Grove, Minn. However, now that he's retired, he has returned to his hometown. On Thursday, he had just come from lunch at the Olive Garden with a couple of his former U.S. Steel coworkers.

He also mentioned that the Local 1028 still represents workers at the foundary in Gary-New Duluth. Current and former union members meet the third Thursday of each month at the West Duluth senior center.

"The union's still here," Olson said. "Not to many of us retirees are still around."

The next chapter?

In late January, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority Board of Commissioners voted approved a purchase agreement with United States Steel Corporation to acquire a portion of the company's former Duluth Works site in the city's Morgan Park neighborhood.

This 123-acre parcel is part of one of the largest listed Superfund sites in Minnesota. The redevelopment of this first section will serve as a catalyst to the delisting, redevelopment and revitalization of the rest of the property.

State, city and Morgan Park community leaders are excited about the prospects for redevelopment as the 550-acre industrial property has sat dormant since the steel mill closed in the 1970s. In the interim, United States Steel has been working with the MPCA to decommission and remediate the site. Prior to closing on this acquisition, a soil investigation must be completed to determine if any additional remediation needs to be undertaken to delist the property from Superfund site status.

With the support of Morgan Park community leaders, the Port Authority has worked with United States Steel for nearly three years to acquire the first 123 acres of what could become a historic brownfield redevelopment project for this region.

"The Port Authority made the decision to acquire this property to satisfy the need for larger-scale industrial development sites within the port district," noted Executive Director Adolph Ojard, in a press release. "We've simply run out of space in the Duluth area. There is no suitable land in parcels larger than 10 acres, particularly in such close proximity to the harbor."

In an echo of years past, the Port Authority spokesperson said the organization has fielded several inquiries in recent years from large-scale manufacturing and distribution companies that would be prime candidates for 50-acre or larger parcels. Acquiring United States Steel's former Duluth Works site will go a long way toward satisfying pent-up demand.

"While it is our intention to redevelop this site into parcels suitable for large-scale development, the investigation and potential remediation of this property will not happen overnight." said Ojard, adding that they hope to have buildable sites available by 2012.

Press release