Armco Open Hearth Shuts Down Tuesday

Armco’s Open Hearth furnace began their production record on Feb. 17, 1917, when Frank Shimek, first helping under “Red” Cunningham, tapped Number 2 furnace.

Tuesday night, if things go as scheduled, the last heat will tap. In the 52 years between, 30,000,000 tons of steel have come out of the eight masonry containers which comprise the Ashland Open Hearth. More importantly to Ashland, at least a thousand men have paused on the employment record of that division to make a mark on its history, and on their lives.

Taylor Barber, 404 Laurel Ave., Westwood, is typical of those who were there when the facility started. He poured concrete for its foundation, then hired on and stayed a lifetime. He is now retired, recently receiving his Armco 50-year watch.

Charles Robert Holbrook, Shopes Creek, represents a different generation. Mr. Barber’s son-in-law, he hired in the Open Hearth 20 years ago. Still not yet 40, he is young enough to look ahead to a related but technologically different future in Armco’s new melt shop, the BO, or Basic Oxygen, which now produces all the steel made at Ashland.

“It won’t take the BO nearly so long to produce those 30 million tons,” Bob Holbrook pointed out.

Tonnage has always been the name of the game in steel production, and tonnage and quality have been the continuing theme in the Open Hearth.

The advent of oxygen-fired furnaces, where ease of charging and speed of production have combined with promise of lower air pollution, spelled the end of the Open Hearth when it first started construction ten years ago. Some of the melting crew shifted upriver to the new facility then, but others preferred to wait with the old one. Those who waited will be changing their jobs, or leaving or falling back to scrap-handling this Tuesday.

Of the 180 men on the Open Hearth roster in recent months, 20 will remain to continue working in the scrapyard, 130 will shift to other jobs in the mill—many to the BO—and 30 will just hang up their shovels and glasses and head for home.

A long range cooperative effort between union and management appears to have eased the shock of change. The handwriting went on the wall 10 years ago, but only in the past year did the company confirm its final plan to close the Open Hearth. Before public announcement the men were told face-to-face.

Some of the retirees, in their early fifties, look toward new careers outside the mill. Others not much older, anticipate rocking a long time. There was a time when other steel companies might have snatched them up for their experience, but the firms now building mills just aren’t putting in open hearth furnaces. . . .

The Open Hearth wasn’t built by Armco. A local firm, Ashland Iron and Mining, started the construction in 1916, and it was not until 1929 the American Rolling Mill, with headquarters in Middletown, came on the scene.

Ashland wasn’t so big in those days, just a downriver suburb of Catlettsburg. Construction and operation of the furnaces and mill brought a boom which raised the population in 10 years to a point nearly where it is today. At least two men who now can be called old-timers were around when ground was broken. Taylor Barber had a job elsewhere, “But I came to help pour concrete in that first hole when my father-in-law called me.” (Note that family habit and see how it grew.)

Martin Patrick Tierney worked for AC&I, which was a railroading firm related to AI&M. He was in the Sixth Street shops, later to become part of the C&O Railroad, and made the foundation bolts which were sunk into the concrete poured by Taylor Barber.

Though both men kept an eye on what went on at the Open Hearth, neither became an employee right away. Taylor Barber went to the coal fields on the Tug River, and with outbreak of the Great War, “loaded coal until the Armistice” when he returned to work at Bellefonte Furnace. He hired in the Open Hearth on July 10, 1919, and tops the seniority list among non-salary employees.

Mart Tierney went to the Big War and came back to Ashland to join the Open Hearth, but he was lured away by the romance of the rails, staying with the C&O until 1933 when he again rejoined the furnacemen.

It was a time not far removed from the manual power days of the Civil War, and much of the work was (and is) done by hand and strong back.

None of the Ashland men knew about the work, so furnace leaders were imported, principally from the north. Frank Shimek came from Pennsylvania country, and two of the more colorful characters of Open Hearth history, “Red” Cunningham of Erie, Pennsylvania, and George Montgomery of Newport, Kentucky, entered the picture about this time.

Both were large men and both were leaders who earned the respect of their crews. Any conversation with an Open Hearther brings forth their two names.

“Mr. Montgomery was a fine fellow to work for, a man of the old school,” recalls Mart Tierney.

A first helper still on the floor grins to recall the time big “Red” tapped a heat without a ladle. It probably wasn’t so funny that day, but imagine the consternation of a melter who found he had flooded 100 tons of molten steel out on a dirt floor. Aside from that one ‘goof’ which has been laid to him, and for which he perhaps should bear full responsibility, “Red” Cunningham is almost universally praised for his knowledgeability in cooking steel.

He started in the mills at age 11, and with little formal education became the man Armco called on when it needed an expert. He made the first heat of shell casing steel concocted in the United States, a metallurgical mixture which became an Armco pride, gave Ashland additional industry and aided us through World War II.

A man still living who carries some of the same reputation is Karl Barber, 838 French Broad St., Westwood. One of four melters not retired, all older than the senior hourly employee, he is noted for being able to peer through the dark blue melter’s glasses into the peephole on a furnace door and tell when a heat is ready to tap.

The other three senior men are Milty Fairchild, Freddie Fosson, and Lester Stemmer, all melters.

When the department shuts down Tuesday, step-up melters (Zone Z1) will receive a daily wage of $42.40, plus about $9 bonus.

In the years when Taylor Barber and Martin Tierney hired on, they earned $13 a shift. “But now those were long shifts, putting in 11 hours on a day turn and 13 at night.” Every other week a crew would double over, putting in 24 straight hours. “When Armco came, they put each man on an eight-hour shift.”

There were other characters, and it seems most of them have departed: Joe Walitza, who carried his Prussian military bearing from Europe; jolly round maintenance foreman Jimmy Mullins, who could knock a large man down with a belly-bump. In his own way, every man who stayed on at the place gained some sort of personal recognition from his peers.

In fact, the place had a character all its own, ranging down several scales of contrast. The air could be sweet and clear, full of summer, or it could carry kish iron (dross), burners’ smoke and dust. You could stand on the floor and feel the 2,000 degrees of heat on your face and the winter’s zero cold on your backside. The gloom of night turn was spasmodically brightened by the glare of a tapping heat.

Many of the workmen were close relatives . . . count the in-laws, uncles and cousins, and the crew melds into a big family.

The furnaces which stand today to represent the same construction done in 1916-17, but they have been expanded to hold nearly four times the capacity of that era. The first crucibles, which are brick-lined to withstand temperatures of 2,000-plus degrees, were built to 75-ton capacity. Today, with elongation, widening and a raised bath, they hold 200 tons. Production in 1924 was 201,000 tons; in 1955, the peak year, 938,954 tons. Oxygen jets made most of the difference.

In those days, there were no charging cars, and scrap had to be loaded off a flat car, by hand. Ore wasn’t put in until a heat began to work. If iron content of the heat measured high, ore was hand-shoveled in; if low, pigs of iron thrown in by hand.

Then, as now, the container was sealed with a cement mixture of dolomite. To allow a heat to tap, or flow from the furnace, the orifice has to be opened. In those early days, it was done with a metal rod; today, an electronically detonated dynamite cap cracks open the tap hole.

Down through the years, Open Hearth has been a safe place to work, safer than outside. Right now the department is marking 1.5 million man hours since its last major accident 4½ years ago, and the floor has over 2 million and the yard over one million safe hours behind.

Two fatalities have been recorded in 52 years. In 1925, a workman fell into a ladle, heated to dry its masonry. He died of a fractured skull and severe burns. In 1937, a freak explosion sent a minute particle of metal through the open door of a furnace to pierce five layers of clothing and the heart of a charging crane operator. More men have died outside the mill from fires and auto accidents, unrelated to their work.

Not that there haven’t been chances for injury. Molten metal and water just don’t mix without eruption or explosion, and two such meetings literally blew the pipes and brought down the roof.

About 20 years ago, Number 6 furnace spilled steel out its front. When the metal hit the water pipes on the floor, they turned the water inside to steam and there were serious explosions up and down the floor. Workmen spread out every opening to flee, but three who stayed behind to tap the heat were cited for bravery. They were Milty Fairchild, Charlie Stemmer and Clarence Blevins.

More recently, Number 1 blew out its roof when a water cooler got in hot metal, doing severe furnace damage.

The furnace facility will not be destructed immediately, but like Norton Furnace, held vacant.

As the crews begin their last week this morning, George Hale is senior man, hiring in on Dec. 9, 1927. Right behind him is Tom Francis, 18 days younger on the job. Youngest on the list is Lloyd Felty, who joined the Open Hearth May 5, 1968.

These men, old and young, took a pride in the special heats the Open Hearth could produce, and in the fact it could start up cold pig iron, something the BO cannot do.

But the most succinct criticism of any old timer came from one retiree who commented on the new process with a shake of his head: “They just don’t cook it long enough.”

Updated: November 26, 2017 — 11:22 am
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