So, if I am going to write about the Brown’s island explosion of 1972, why am I stuck in the 19th century? My belief is that a design flaw at the new plant, caused the explosion. Perhaps flaw is too strong a word. Let me say that I believe that one very small element of the plant’s design contributed greatly to the disaster. I don’t feel that I can do justice to the story without first explaining the need for coke, coke gas, and coke by-products in the development of the steel industry as we came to know it in Weirton, the Ohio Valley and really in the United States.
After the Civil War steel making came to our region in a BIG way. Some know that Andrew Carnegie who had founded the Keystone Bridge Company in 1865 was engaged to build a bridge across the Mississippi River, connecting St. Louis Missouri and East St. Louis Illinois. This was to be the first bridge built across the Mississippi below the point at which the Missouri River joins it, above that point the river is much more narrow and had been bridged. Working together, the designer, James Buchanan Eads, (for whom the bridge is named) and Carnegie realized that the then existing practice of designing and building iron bridges could not bridge a distance so wide, with a current so fast as there occurred. Eads focused on designing a steel bridge and Carnegie set about amassing the amount of steel necessary to bridge the river. Construction commenced in 1867 and was completed in 1874. It still stands today.
Necessity being the mother of invention, and Carnegie seeing that steel was going to be absolutely necessary to his Bridge building business, Mr. Carnegie entered the Steel business. In 1872, Carnegie visited England to see the Bessemer process first hand. Shortly thereafter he introduced it at his Homestead Plant. Within is few years the process was implemented at most of his competitor’s steel mills in the region. The Bessemer process was smoky and dirty, as could be said of the numerous blast furnaces lining the banks of our three rivers. The result was that much of the region was darkened during the day, but by night the sky was brightened with a red glow, which seemed to throb with intensity and vitality. In the Saturday Review, writer James Parton did his best to describe it and gave a credo to Pittsburgh which it lived with for most of a hundred years:
“There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of the bluff, from which you can look directly down upon the part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers. On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld … It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if anyone would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into—hell with the lid taken off.”
Pittsburgh wore the sobriquet “Hell with the lid off” for the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Of course the “Pittsburg” of which he wrote encompasses the area from Oakmont, PA to Wheeling, WV and back up to McKeesport and Clairton again in PA. However, by 1900 many of the Bessemers had been replaced by the open hearth process. The sky was still frequently dark by day and red by night. “Graphite” poured out of the mills, darkening white shirts and hanging laundry. When E. T. Weir came to Weirton he brought the open hearth process to town. The introduction of these two processes permitted American steel capacity to grow from a few hundred thousand tons per year 1870 to a world leading 60 million tons per year in 1920. The last 35 years of the 20th century saw American producers adopt the Basic Oxygen Process. Weirton had one of the first of the new plants. It was a little like the Bessemer process in that pure liquid oxygen was pumped through the molten charge, rather than air as in the Bessemer plant. Hence there was an oxygen producing plant near Weircrest. Later liquid oxygen was piped in from Beaver County PA. Like the open hearth furnace a portion of the charge was scrap metal. The cremation facility for old cars and appliances. With the rapid switch to BOP technology, Steel production in the United States peaked in 1973 at 111 Million tons.
While there were then a few electric arc furnaces steel plants in the U.S. introduction of BOPs increased the demand for blast furnace iron and above all for the baked coal called “coke.” Every Blast Furnace based steel producing facility had to have a source of coke to stay in operation. Hence the need for a coke plant.