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Edition #160, October 15, 2011
Writer: Kevin N. Tomasic Photographer: Kevin Scanlon
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
Deep in the heart of the Conemaugh Valley, just down from Cambria City, birthplace of American steel, lies Gautier Steel. Nestled in several big red brick buildings, Gautier Steel is one of two remnants of what was once the vast Bethlehem Steel Johnstown plant, which in its heyday, employed most of the residents of this city best known for its disastrous floods. Bethlehem blew out of town over a decade ago leaving the three bar mills at Gautier and the rod mills at Johnstown Wire Technologies as its only legacy-everything else went to scrap or adaptive reuse.
The most fascinating thing about Gautier is their use of not one, but two hand mills. These are the last of their type in the USA (except for an 8-Inch hand mill at McDonald Steel in Ohio which is only run about two months a year) and possibly the world. Most steel rolling mills nowadays are straight through-continuous if you will. This is completely different from how things are done on a hand mill. The 9-Inch and 12-Inch mills at Gautier have their stands side by side, sharing one big mill motor. This arrangement forces the steel bars to seesaw back and forth between the stands as they make their reductions, shaping the raw steel into a finished shape. This requires strong arms and backs to feed the steel into each stand-hot, dirty, hard and dangerous work.
At the 9-Inch mill the process starts at the descrambler table, where the 2 inch square billets are readied for the furnace. The billets are shaken out of the bundle and put three aside on the charge table. This table rolls them into place in front of the pusher furnace, so named because the billets are pushed through the furnace by a great hydraulic ram. The 1920’s vintage furnace heats the cold billets to over 2300 Fahrenheit. She’s quite a beast-cracks in the brickwork and a couple of glory holes reveal a white hot interior with green flames dancing over the steel. When the furnace is really putting out hot steel, you better stand back else you get caught by a ten foot green “stinger” erupting from the discharge door. At that discharge door stands the “heater”, it’s his job to make sure the steel is discharged out of the furnace by the peel bar and that it’s at the right temperature (he also gives the billet a little bump to make sure it hits the three stand breakdown mill the right way) and he’s also the quarterback of the whole show. He has a whistle that he toots to let the rollers know that another piece of steel is on the way.
The steel travels a hundred feet or so from the breakdown to the first hand mill stand, and then the fun really begins. You are now in the land of heat and sweat and smoke-hot steel goes by at shin height and you better watch your step! The noise is deafening and most everybody communicates by glance or hand signal. The rolling itself is done in kind of a little dance-two steps back, grab the bar with tongs and two steps forward to jam the steel into the waiting rolls. With a solid “thunk” those rolls grab on and you better release the tongs or it’s a real bad day for you! As each stand does its thing the steel is shaped into some special configuration. Do it six times and you are done, then it’s off to the cooling bed and finally a shear to trim the product to its final length. The photograph above shows the 9-Inch mill on a day when they were rolling stock for railroad track joint bars.
These old mills-the 12-Inch is from 1894 (!) and the 9-Inch is from the early 1920’s-stay alive cause they make small lots of esoteric shapes that the big boys want no parts of. There’s just no profit for them in joint bars and bridge decking. Some day these old mills will no doubt die, but celebrate them now. They are a glimpse back into our great industrial past.
Kevin N. Tomasic
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Revised: 10/16/11 18:10:25 -0400