Steel Mills

Star of Bethlehem No Longer Shines Over Sparrows Point

Written by Sandy Williams

Once the site of the largest steel mill in North America, Sparrows Point is being demolished piece by piece. The former Bethlehem Steel plant was put into bankruptcy by its last steel owner, RG Steel and the new owners have sold off the equipment and the buildings have been scrapped. The last major structure left is the “L” blast furnace, once one of the largest blast furnaces in North America. The Sparrows Point blast furnace is scheduled for demolition sometime within the next few days or weeks, according to Sparrows Point Terminal LLC, the current owners of the site. Officials said the 320-foot tall L blast furnace will be imploded by Controlled Demolition Inc on a weekday in December.

The furnace from the former Bethlehem Steel Company was a community fixture holding aloft the lit Star of Bethlehem for many Christmas seasons. MCM Industrial Services, which has been managing demolition of the plant, has lit the star for the past two years at the shuttered plant.

Star of Bethlehem at Sparrows Point“I didn’t want us to be the guys who shut the star down,” said David Mardigan, the company’s chief executive officer, in a Baltimore Sun report.

The star was carefully lifted down 320 feet from its perch atop the furnace last month. At a ceremony at the site on Monday, former Sparrows Point workers were invited to pay tribute to the iconic steel mill and many posed for pictures with the star.

Mardigan said he will work with Sparrows Point Terminal to find a location for the star for this year’s holiday season. Mike Pedone, chief operating officer of Sparrows Point Terminal, said a permanent home for the star would be found as “part of a long-term plan to ensure an appropriate remembrance of the Point’s legacy.”

Sparrows Point grew its own town in the shadows of the blast furnace. Generations of families labored at the mill and the promise of jobs sparked migration of workers from West Virginia and Pennsylvania to the mill just east of Baltimore, MD. The company town was bulldozed several times through the decades to make way for expansions of the mill. In 1975 the company town was closed to make way for the L furnace.

Stephen Painter, SMU’s own workshop instructor, recalls living in Sparrows Point as a child and called the demolition of the mill “the end of an era.” “I lived in the town of Sparrows Point until I was in 5th grade, age 10, when we had to move as our home (owned by Bethlehem) was being torn down to allow for the expansion of the plant.”

Sparrows Point has been shut down for two years and crews have been working to demolish buildings on the 3,100 acre site. A dramatic video of the March 28, 2014 implosion of the BOF shop can be viewed here. The destruction of the L blast furnace, which once turned out 10,000 tons of steel per day, will be the largest demolition at the site to date.

The mill site will be repurposed for manufacturing, logistics and port operations after the $48 million cleanup is finished by Sparrows Point Terminal.

Sparrows Point, on the Chesapeake Bay, began as a joint venture of The Pennsylvania Steel Co and Bethlehem Iron Company in 1887. The mill opened as Maryland Steel in 1890 and was late renamed Bethlehem Steel. In the 1950’s, Sparrows Point was considered the largest steel mill in the world with over 31,000 union workers.

In September 2001, Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy and was bought by ISG for $1.5 billion. ISG was sold to Lakshimi Mittal in 2005. Following a monopoly suit by the US Dept of Justice, Mittal was forced to sell Sparrows Point which was bought by Severstal for $810 million in 2008.

Mill production declined during the recession and Sparrows Point was sold to RG Steel in 2011 and closed a year later when RG Steel filed for bankruptcy. In 2012, Sparrows Point (along with other RG Steel properties) was sold to Hilco Trading and, subsequently, to Sparrows Point Terminal in September 2014.

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