By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Last Sunday afternoon, I noticed a short article about the closing of a galvanizing plant in Benwood, a small mill town on the banks of the Ohio River a few miles south of Wheeling. During the five years of my life that I devoted to hauling steel, I hauled some — not a lot — galvanized sheet steel. I also remember Benwood, but I don’t remember hauling out of any plant called AZZ Galvanizing. When freight was running good in the early 1970s, I would visit at least eight steel mills every week. I can remember scenes, but I can’t always remember the name on the front gate.
The big mills like Weirton Steel and the U.S. Steel complex in Gary, Ind., were like cities unto themselves. However, even those big steel mills had intimate nooks and crannies where a visitor could hide away from the clack and clatter of rattling civilization and sift through the pulverized dust of past centuries, past decades and past times. The magnitude of the water-hugging settings for the river and lake-side metal-making behemoths that spit fire and melded global change for good or ill was merely the casing for a collection of eternal tableaus where nature battled progress and mankind could only spectate.
I always sought out the little babbling brooks that seemed so innocently pure before the chemical-coated sewers of civilization bathed the clear waters with the white-hot memories of what we were striving to become. Back in those years, there was a small stream that ran through the middle of a Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mill on 29th Street in Wheeling that was so quaint and personal, that I sought refuge beside it each time I loaded there. My heart knew that the spring-feed stream was just one of thousands of waterways that fed the mighty Ohio. But in that dark place, surrounded by reminders of 19th century steel-making equipment, I loved the water like I would love a child. The water had no idea of where it was headed and what it would become. I remember thinking of how I would love to build a spring house at that very site in order to protect those pure waters if only for a moment.
I have no idea why a Purina pet food plant in Red Wing, Wis.., needed sheet steel from Pittsburgh, but I took the good-paying load like any trucker would do. It was a long ride, but when one of the guys at the receiving dock told me that the headwaters of the Mississippi River were a short distance away, I wanted to learn more. He told me that some people walk into the woods where the stream is narrow enough, and stand with one foot on each side of the stream so they could say they stood with one foot on each bank of the mighty Mississippi.
Me being me, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the hike and earn a new bragging right. It was late winter, and although it was mid-day, it was already like twilight outside. I knew that later that day, I would be heading all the back to Edgerton, Wis., to pick up an east-bound load of coil racks out of the Dana Transmission plant. A low-paying back haul out of Wisconsin to Pittsburgh meant that I could see the iconic Magikist Lips sign off the Day Ryan Expressway in Chicago on my way back home.
The Purina factory was located near the Wisconsin-Minnesota state line — with plenty of nothing to see ... plenty of everything to see — in every direction. I couldn’t wait to secure my tarps and chains so I could see what the loading dock guy was talking about. Seeing the start of a river and taking a mental picture of it would give me something to remember forever.
Without a guide to point the way, I wasn’t sure what tributary he was talking about. I can’t remember how far I walked into the woods, but I can remember jumping over a few runoff streams. Apparently, Lord Fairfax hadn’t commissioned the placement of a stone to mark the location for posterity, like the Fairfax Stone that he had placed at the headwaters of the Potomac River. By the time settlers made it to the Minnesota/Wisconsin border on their exploration of North America, they were probably just looking for a place to dump their tin cans. Short story here ... I don’t think I found the headwaters.
But if those tin cans were galvanized, there’s a chance they might still be there just like the Fairfax Stone. Regular old tin would oxidize and become rust, but galvanized metal has a lot more staying power. I didn’t like hauling galvanized sheet metal though. Even though it looked clean, it seemed like it always left an oily substance on my tarps. Canvas tarps were made to repel all kinds of substances, but I would always get the galvanizing stuff all over my hands if I didn’t wear gloves when I folded my tarps back up.
I hope the 22 guys who were cut off last week at AZZ Galvanizing can find other work. I know it’s tough on a working person who doesn’t have a job to go to. For working people, it’s important to have a job to go to. Hopefully, something will come along.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.