To begin with, the steel mill is not a simple mill. It is composed of thousands of individual units—cells. A city composed of thousands of neighborhoods, many of them totally different from the one that’s two blocks away. A steel mill—the one I worked in was Inland Steel—covers an area probably the size of Trenton or bigger and it arched along the shore of Lake Michigan.
The way they continued to get more ground to build the steel mill was by filling in the Lake. All the steel mills—Gary, Carnegie, are slowly moving towards Canada. They’re filling up Lake Michigan. There are long fingers sticking out in the Lake. The tin mill is sticking way out there, a mile out in the Lake on a man-made peninsula, and when I was working with the labor gang, on my second night, at two o’clock in the morning, I saw stuff I never had seen from outside the mill. You saw these long lines, like spidery, glowing centipedes moving out into the Lake on rails. These strange little molten slag cars, all moving out to the dark sea. And then they would almost disappear and you would see them stop way out in the Lake where the wind was howling in and the waves were getting higher. Then they would dump these loads of molten slag—actually lava—pour it out and you’d hear the hiss and see the steam rise. They’re building that lakefront out further and further.
It is always fantastically cold or unbelievably hot in the mill. My first week in the mill I’m assigned to a labor gang in the forty-inch soaking pit. Well, the forty-inch soaking pit is my idea of what Hell must be like. It is Dante’s idea of Hell. It is black and dusty and it is a long, high, metal shed that is so high you can’t see the ceiling, and moving through the darkness are moving cranes high above. The scariest sound in the mill, the most dangerous sound is like that of an approaching shell if you’re a frontline combat soldier. The sound of a moving overhead crane. More guys are killed by overhead cranes then by any other thing in heavy industry. Great cranes move along at tremendous speed and you hear the sound of the whistle that goes woop woop woop woop woop woop. Everybody ducks and you see this crane moving along, and attached to the bottom would be this great metal clamp and a huge hook and tremendous, thick, glowing cables, and swinging from side to side like a massive pendulum would be a nine-or ten-ton, red hot pig-iron ingot, moving through the darkness. Everybody’s waiting on the walls, waiting for this thing to go by. And when it moves past you, maybe a hundred yards away, this thing is so hot you feel this blast of searing dry heat on the hairs of your face.