As we enter the month of December, 2021, we approach the forty-ninth anniversary of one of the most tragic events ever to befall Hancock County. On December 15, 1972, there was a gigantic explosion at Weirton Steel when the new Coke Plant being built on Brown’s Island, for want of a better phrase: “blew-up.” Industrial explosions do occur, and when they do, the physical damage and the personal toll can be large. In this instance nineteen people were killed and twenty or more were injured in the blast. I want to write about the accident. But, I find that as I research topics, one column doesn’t give the topic its justice. By that I mean just telling about an incident and not providing background begs a lot of questions.
In this instance it is conceivable that someone outside of our region would wonder how a Coca-Cola bottling plant could explode with such force. I really think that is a pretty far-fetched example. But some might think that a coke plant was a bottling facility. However, steel and bricks and china made Brooke and Hancock counties. I worked for Weirton Steel. I know its history. I have written some columns about E. T. Weir building his company in Weirton and expanding into Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. But I never wrote much about the steelmaking process. Without at least a basic understanding of the process, and how the region’s geography assisted steel manufacturing and distribution, one cannot understand the impact of steel and particularly Weirton Steel on our locale. Moreover the forty to fifty people killed or injured at Brown’s Island were not strangers. Many of them were neighbors, former school classmates, parents of friends, supporters of our businesses, clubs and churches. They should not be forgotten. Neither should any other of the killed or injured steelworkers at Weirton, Wheeling-Pittsburgh or the various steel plants that operated in Midland be forgotten. Whether they lived among us and raised their families here or commuted to do a job here and lived elsewhere, they had an impact on our community. John Donne said in his oft-quoted Meditation 17: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The loss of one member is a loss for the community
Although, steelmaking was a centerpiece of the industry along the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, for more than a century, today while still a presence, it is not what it once was. The making of steel required two primary raw ingredients: coal and iron ore. Of course there were other ingredients such as limestone, silica and manganese, and there were energy and transportation requirements. Our region, for steelmaking purposes was centered on Pittsburgh. The answer to why can be answered in one word: “geography.” Pittsburgh was where the three large rivers of the region met. The Monongahela is one of the few American Rivers flowing generally from south to north. As such it was a thoroughfare for the transportation of various grades of Bituminous coal from the mines of West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania to steel mills established in points around Pittsburgh. Iron Ore was found in large quantities in Minnesota, and in smaller quantities elsewhere, even not far from here. Minnesota ore was transported by steamer across the great lakes to port cities such as Cleveland and Ashtabula in Ohio and then transported south by river at first and later by rail. And once steel was made it could be transported by river and rail from Pittsburgh into the heartland.
Again I get ahead of myself. Prior to 1857, steel was a rare metal. Steel is essentially 98+% iron and .2 to 2.0% carbon. It takes a chemical reaction to reach this happy balance. Most of us know of, and/or have seen the reconstructed Peter Tarr Furnace located in the Kings Creek section of Weirton. From the 1790’s to the 1840’s the furnace was in operation producing pig iron to be used for grates and cooking utensils. Local lore says that it produced cannonballs for Oliver Hazard Perry’s ships which defeated the British in a naval engagement on Lake Erie during the war of 1812. This type of iron output was about 90% iron and up to 10% carbon. It was much more brittle than steel. However, steel was made in the world, but in small quantities. It typically found its way into weapons such as swords, knives and bayonets, or was made into body armor. Around the time of the American civil war a new process was developed in the United Kingdom and the world would enter into large scale steelmaking that was finally affordable. The process was called the Bessemer Conversion process. It enabled a furnace of molten iron with a high carbon content to be cleansed of carbon and turned into steel by blowing air through the bottom of the conversion furnace. To reach the temperatures necessary for the process to work, coal became a fuel replacing wood-based charcoal previously used. The oxygen in the air stream bonded with the carbon atoms and was driven off as Carbon monoxide. Other ores, such as manganese, were added during the process, making the steel more malleable and formable. The resultant metal was quality steel for the times. And it was steel that was made from iron in three to five ton quantities in a process taking only twenty to thirty minutes. Compare this to the Peter Tarr furnace which could reportedly produce two tons of iron on its best day.
The process was patented in the U.K. by Henry Bessemer in 1857. It did not reach America in time to influence the War Between the States; otherwise the battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor would not have been known as the battle of the iron clads but rather of the steel clads. Rather what Bessemer produced steel first influenced was transportation and construction. Until steel was made in quantity in America, the railroads travelled on iron rails, which frequently failed, resulting in accidents. Steel rails were great improvements, enabling more miles of track, and higher speed with fewer accidents. Steel enabled the building of bridges across rivers like the Mississippi on which railroad traffic could cross, and also the building of the earliest “skyscrapers.”