Man of Steel

Author: James McKenzie ’71Ph.D.

When I first came upon the grave I did not understand what I was looking at. The concrete cross flat on the ground bore the raised words “Andrew Posey” on a bronze plate; the sun-bleached little flag in its American Legion shield holder indicated Andrew was a veteran; a tarnished metal disc on a rod with a leaf-encircled star read US World War 1917–1918. A single clay pot of geraniums and the mowed grass told me someone cared for the site, cared for Andrew.

I was many miles from the nearest cemetery, jogging that late July afternoon in a once forbidden, and forbidding, place—the abandoned American Steel and Wire plant at Donora, the last of the 11 great steel mills of western Pennsylvania to be built and the first to be closed, “like disposable Kleenexes,” a writer friend once said. “They used up everything: the coal, the ore, the landscape, the people; and when they were done, they just threw those mills away, 11 giant Kleenexes.”

Towering weeds encroached on the grave, scraggly sumacs too, whatever aggressive plants first reclaim so toxic a site. Rusting twists of iron machinery and mammoth concrete hulks, neglected leftovers of the monstrous industry that once ruled the Monongahela Valley, loomed over the landscape I ran through, vying with the occasional buildings of a fledgling industrial park that had sprung up on the former mill site—latecomers trying to rekindle the dream of full employment.

What especially confused me about the grave was its expanse. The plain, functional 20-foot-long, low wall of aging yellow fire bricks, topped with concrete, outlined an area large enough to bury a dozen caskets, but there was only that single name, Andrew Posey. In front of the wall was a smaller rectangle of fire brick in square columns, connected by thick steel tubes, the words “American Pipe” and “Donora Mill” clearly legible at the joints. The whole grave site had a homemade, handcrafted feel about it; no chiseled names and dates, no perfect, granite angels.

What had brought me back to Donora was my father’s terminal lung cancer. A 48-year employee of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel’s Monessen Works across the river, another of the 11 mills, Dad had retired just two years earlier. Running in that wasted mill site, its surrounding hills still not recovered from decades of zinc and other heavy metal poisonings, and coming upon this strange, lone grave I knew nothing about, I felt an overpowering sense of the anonymous, difficult labor—and terrible labor struggles—that had taken place beneath those hills: club-swinging mounted police, the bullet through Uncle Nick’s window, Grandma Finsinger sleeping with a loaded shotgun. Posey (whoever he was), my father working across the river, both my grandfathers, many uncles, cousins and thousands of other people, mostly men, human faces in the story of steel, all swimming in my imagination as I ran that devastated landscape; all of it disappearing, like my father, faster than any of them could have imagined.

Recalling the anonymous ritual funerals of my Catholic youth, each ceremony differing only in the name of the person being buried as it left the priest’s lips (“your servant James,” “your servant, Catherine”), I resolved to speak at Dad’s funeral. I wanted more than formula; I wanted to say something of his life as a steelworker. When that time came, eight months later, I realized, even as I prepared my brief eulogy, how little I knew of steelwork. “Never go down to the mill,” had been one of Dad’s refrains, and none of his nine children ever did. So I spoke in generalities that Holy Saturday at Saint Charles Borromeo, recalling Dad’s constant shift work, his obvious dislike of grabbing his plain brown lunch bag and peeling away from the family circle, mid-afternoons, late in the evening, Sundays, holidays—whenever the clockwork rotation required him. His 48 years of labor at that mill, I said that morning at the funeral, was “the longest continuous relationship in his life,” mostly a mystery to his children.

Nothing made the stark anonymity of all that labor more clear than what happened when I visited Dad’s mill a year later, the only time I ever entered it. The shabby, poorly lit, yellow-brick office building hunkered behind a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. “Fort Frick,” I thought, remembering descriptions and images I knew from the 1892 Homestead Strike, a few bends of the river north. By then I knew, too, of the poor Southern black workers who had been off-loaded from barges on the Monongahela in 1919, snuck into the mill from the rear, most of them unaware they were strikebreakers.

Walking past red hard hats on hooks—“management,” I recognized, recalling Dad’s references to “the red hats"—I excused myself through queues of laid-off workers signing up for benefits to find a young, shiny male office face among the tin dividers, above him a sign reading “Industrial Relations.” At first my questions drew a total blank from Terry, the PR guy. But the letter I showed him from his boss in Pittsburgh, even though it promised me little, kept Terry on the case. After a few more minutes of well-intentioned bafflement, Terry figured out the problem. “Oh, oh, oh,” he said, “your father was on hourly.” For him, it was an immediate explanation of why no one in the office had ever heard of James McKenzie, even though Dad had worked there those 48 years, dying only a year earlier; his father, Jerry, an open-hearth foreman, had labored there for four decades. Together they had worked that mill for nearly its entire history, overlapping in its middle years.

Smiling, Terry looked up with relief: “Just a minute.” Rummaging around in a bank of wooden file cabinets older than both of us, the young man returned with two yellowed payroll sheets. On them was Dad’s entire work history in a few stark lines, from “12-3-28 open hearth laborer,” through “11-2-58 combustion chemist,” to “5-21-77 last day of work.” Little remarks in different hands—in pencil, black or blue ink—noted “wife sick,” “vacation,” “replace Louis Miller” or “Strike.” Our whole family was there, too, in the form of a single line of digits, increasing to nine then declining to two, a tick mark struck through each one as we left home, no longer dependents. Those two sheets were all they could find of him, all anyone there knew of his work.

The end of Dad’s life in the mill, when it came, had come abruptly, as with so many men. There was no retirement party, gold watch or balloons and cake. He had endured some new insult, and, at 67, his last child working at Mellon Bank, he just quit. When a surprised fellow worker called him at home to wish him well, Dad was taken aback. “What do you think of that?” my sister Gina remembers him saying, his voice wavering. “Dad couldn’t believe someone cared enough to call,” she added. “He just stood there by the phone, shaking his head.” Another worker, on vacation when Dad walked away for good, wrote him a letter. I read from it at Dad’s funeral, repeating Jesse Fox’s final line, “God Bless You Real Good,” as my own.

A few years after glimpsing those meager records of my Dad’s half-century in steelwork, the Monessen Works met the same fate as the ruined Donora mill I ran on that hot July afternoon when I discovered Andy Posey’s grave. Several square miles of long, rusting mill buildings were all leveled and carted away, leaving only despoiled landscape a decade after Dad had worked his last day.

Recently, I was delighted to learn that images of Dad’s old work place survive in RoboCop, filmed in late 1986, after Wheeling-Pittsburgh had filed for bankruptcy and shut down its Monessen Works. Cassandra Vivian, a historian of Monessen, tells how unemployed workers were furious that the blast-furnace alley, where “men had died . . . sweat their life’s blood to . . . build the country” was used as mere backdrop for a sci-fi thriller. She shares their anger. Director Paul Verhoeven’s donation of $10,000 to an unemployment committee to buy food for laid-off workers did little to soften their sense of violation and loss.

I couldn’t rent the film fast enough, pausing and replaying the relevant scenes, checking out the mill not as spectacular movie set but to better imagine the place where two generations of McKenzies had earned their way in the world, the site where Grampa Jerry once burned his leg with molten steel, an injury that never healed. RoboCop, with its satire of a corrupt, dehumanizing super-corporation, is a fitting repository for the imagery of that iconic place so central to my family’s and so many others’ 20th century industrial lives. Over time, however, it is Andrew Posey’s story that has become most emblematic for me of the anonymous labor and rough forces that shaped all those Mon Valley lives.

Posey was a stopper setter in the open hearth. His job sometimes required him to climb inside the 100-ton ladle at the back of the furnace, which is where he was January 8, 1920, when the accident happened. Recently back from World War I, only 21, he was “hustling, trying to learn a new job for advancement,” Mr. Pandrock told me. I was surprised at how quickly a circle of old-timers gathered at the Community Center when they heard I was asking about the Posey grave; he had died more than 60 years earlier. The ore they dumped into the furnace that January day was frozen and “an explosion blew out the back of the furnace,” his sister Margaret explained in a letter, “causing the steel to flow out and into the ladle.”

Joe Saxon, Posey’s nephew, one of the Community Center circle, told of fellow workers trying to pull him out as the steel rose in the ladle, “but the heat kept driving them back.” At 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, “he was just a puff of smoke,” added Mr. Biondi. Anne Stofko, a little girl at the time, remembers how “the mill whistles blew and blew, over and over and over. It was terrible. Mothers were all running out into the streets.” The newspaper, sensationalist in many other stories, indulged in extreme understatement at home, announcing “Mill Worker Victim of Accidental Burns.”

With no human remains except the steel itself, it became clear that the respectful thing to do was bury the entire heat, but that decision did not emerge without a struggle. Some family members longed to bury their young Andy in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery, but that was impossible without a major industrial operation at that distant site, inappropriate if it were even feasible.

The company, for its part, “didn’t want to waste the steel; they didn’t want us to bury any of it,” family members told me. “But U.S. Steel finally came around.”

“The ladle was picked up by an overhead crane,” Margaret wrote. “The steel was poured into two side pits; the entire 65 tons of steel are buried at the site in the company yard. They tell me it’s the only grave of this kind around.”

Andrew was one of 11 children. It was one of Posey’s brothers, Joseph, and other mill-working bricklayers who built the simple monument I had found on that July day I ran among the ruins, feeling the bite and gloom of my father’s cancer death sentence.

In steel country, mythic tales of what actually happened to Andrew Posey have been around as long as the dangerous processes and courageous workers they celebrate. Renowned labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse claimed, in Men and Steel, written the year before Posey’s death, that the distinct possibility of terrible, accidental death “obsesses men’s minds.”

I have heard it told in different ways.
They tell you of a man made into iron rails, of another who went into the structure of great buildings.
The story is as old as time. There was a great bell once which was cast and re-cast and would not ring true until a human being was sacrificed to it.

The heroic figure who stands for all these myths, Joe Magarac, graces the lobby of United Steelworkers of America union headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh, the right panel in a 9-foot-high, stained-glass triptych, Heart of the Quench, the lobby’s most prominent artifact. A muscular, standing Joe bends an arc of steel with his bare hands, his helmet and legs the golds of molten steel. The center panel features a blast furnace against the skyline of Pittsburgh, an arch of bridge up front; the left one foregrounds a ladle pouring steel, with rolling mills, coke ovens and a coal conveyor behind it.

Magarac, the steel industry’s John Henry, had the protection of steelworkers as one of his legendary missions, and the entire piece is dedicated to all the men who died, 1853 to 1997, at the Pittsburgh Works of J&L and LTV Steel, the home plants of the steelworkers who made the monument. Folk hero Magarac could not protect the workers who invented him; they needed, and made, unions for that.

I don’t get back to Donora very often, but when I do I visit my parents’ graves at Sacred Heart Cemetery, high in the hills west of town; their tombstone remains unblackened by any smoke or chemical pollutants such as once tarnished all the granite of the Monongahela Valley. But I never return without also finding my way down to the Posey grave at the old open-hearth site.

Posey’s plain, unobtrusive monument is harder to locate now. A company that processes highway salt has built a plant directly in front of it. Once I figured that out, my last time back, I worked my way along their chain-link fence to the back of the property, wondering if I was trespassing. A worker hosing off wooden pallets never looked up as I walked, with increasing confidence, toward the line of half-grown trees and brush between their warehouse and the rising two-lane curve of road leading out of town.

Soon I was standing over Andy’s grave again. The grass was mown; a faded American Legion flag marked the site; there was no pot of geraniums. Some of the yellow bricks were cracked and crumbling; I resisted an impulse to pocket a broken fragment. Such a keepsake felt as if it would be a violation of the buried, anonymous lives I intended to remember by taking it.

Before that most recent trip I googled “Andrew Posey” and was surprised to learn that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had studied his grave in the mid-1990s, concluding it was eligible for registration as a national historic site. It illustrates “an event that portrays the hazardous industrial environment confronted by many men in the iron and steel labor force of southwestern Pennsylvania during the early to mid-20th century,” their report concludes. In spite of the bureaucratese, a genuine empathy for the harsh terms of those steelworkers’ lives bleeds through the language. Andrew Posey, I also learned, had been born on the Fourth of July.

“Name? He doesn’t have a name; he’s a product,” _RoboCop_’s creator says after he’s transformed the gravely injured Murphy into the film’s namesake supercop. Steelworkers took great pride in the products they made. I cannot cross certain bridges without remembering that the 42,000 miles of cable for Michigan’s great Mackinac Straits suspension bridge, The Mighty Mac, were made at American Steel and Wire; I read every word of the display at our Mellon Bank branch in the early 1950s when Donora steelworkers were fabricating that wire.

As I walked along that fence on my way to Posey’s grave, I recalled that woven wire fence was invented at Monessen’s Page Steel, where Grampa Jerry first worked. My cousin Greg, who worked in Donora from the time of the killer smog, 1948, to the plant’s 1961 shutdown, tells me that some workers discussed whether the Posey steel should have been dug up and melted for the war effort; it happened during both World War II and Korea. “After all, Posey was a vet,” Greg, himself a Korean War vet, said. “He would have understood.”

I’m not sure what should be done with Andrew Posey’s grave. The Disneyfication, for profit, of so much American history is not a far remove from the processes RoboCop satirizes. The company that creates him is called OCP, Omni Consumer Products. But for me, descendant of steelworkers on both sides of my family, it’s names I care about most, not the products those workers helped create. The bridges, girders, fences and rails outlive their makers, but it is the humans who dreamed and made them we need to remember.

I walked around the back of Posey’s grave before leaving, still undetected by the worker at the salt-milling plant. A rustling in the wooded, trash-strewn gully below the two-lane drew my eye. One, two, three, a fourth white-tailed doe, disturbed by my encroachment, bounded up the slope. The last I knew of them was the metallic klong of their hooves as they grazed the guardrail they were clearing, a soft music, ringing back across the gully to where I stood at the edge of Andrew’s grave.

James McKenzie, a University of North Dakota professor emeritus of English, lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.