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Men of Steel

Steel Plant Museum’s archives recall a vocation as it longer exists

Artist Norman Rockwell had an uncanny way of turning reality and something more like saccharine. A series of full-color illustrations of steel plant workers in various jobs he made in the mid-1960s is a case in point. The series is currently on view in the Steel Plant Museum (100 Lee Street).

The trove of black-and-white photos the museum has on file of operations at the Bethlehem and Republic and other plants in Buffalo and Lackawanna are so much more real and more interesting. Likewise so much more real and interesting the recently added exhibit wall entitled “Ed Walker Went Down Swinging.” Like John Henry, steel-drivin’ man.

For years Walker fought the federal bureaucracy to obtain justice for former Bethlehem Steel employees involved without their knowledge in nuclear materials production during the Cold War years 1949 to 1952. In 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law an agreement to pay $150,000 to each worker who contracted one of a number of different cancers after employment at Bethlehem in the nuclear work.

Walker and 2,000 other workers filed claims. Nothing but red tape ensued. Apparently that number was more than the government payment entity had been anticipating. Whereupon, Walker organized the claimants into the Bethlehem Steel Action Group (BSAG) to press their claims. Eventually, they got the attention of then Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Charles Schumer, among others.

Finally, in 2010, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services designated former Bethlehem workers in the bar mill as eligible for compensation. The text of the museum display states that “this was a significant victory for the BSAG, representing all of the affected employees and their immediate surviving families.”

Though too late for Ed Walker personally, who had fought tirelessly until he died, two years earlier, in 2008.

The Norman Rockwell project was for a publicity campaign for the Sharon Steel Company in Pennsylvania. Each illustration of an individual worker, taken from an original photo, was turned into a separate magazine ad with a brief write-up about the company. The illustrations have a quality of straight from central casting. The worker ladling a molten sample from a larger vessel could be the leading character in a Hollywood movie about Olympic athletes.

And everybody’s neat and clean and looks recently shaved and showered, and nobody perspires inordinately—just enough to create an attractive facial glow reflection of the pleasant red-orange radiance of process fires and liquid metal. And the work environment is neat and clean. No hazardous-looking piles of scrap metal and broken molds and general industrial detritus (hazardous to negotiate around during work performance, and possibly hazardous also as chemically or nuclear contaminated).

What’s missing from the Rockwell illustrations is what the museum photos and other display materials clearly show. The grueling nature of the work, the sweat, the grime, the dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions—a display item blackboard lists lost time accidents in one column, fatalities in another column, through the years at the Bethlehem plant—as well as environmental effects, the semi-permanent ambient air pollution miasma, except in high wind situations, the acres of created land mass of the slag dumping grounds along the lake shore, the contaminated materials dumping. The magnitude and magnificence of the collective operations, the heroic dimension of the work and individual workers.

What Norman Rockwell’s tame sentimentalist vision doesn’t see, doesn’t convey. Why working at the steel mill wasn’t just a job, it was a vocation.

Lee Street is in the First Ward, off South Park Avenue, between the bridges over the Buffalo River and the railroad tracks. The building that houses the museum is called the Heritage Discovery Center, and also houses the Western New York Railway Historical Society museum. Admission is free.

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