Duluth’s Metal Fabricators

The blast furnace at the USS Minnesota Steel Plant in Duluth. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Organized in 1906, Edward G. Hilliard’s Duluth Brass Works produced brass and copper castings for use in manufacturing under the management of W. F. Baile. Its complex, constructed at 5002 Ramsey Street in 1909, was made up of “commodious buildings” including a foundry and machine shop where it employed thirty men when it first opened. The West Duluth site was chosen because Duluth Brass made “brass castings of all kinds,” most of which were used by other manufacturers in the neighborhood. The company, which sold its goods throughout northern Minnesota, expanded its facilities in 1916 and added bronze and copper castings to its product line. By 1926 they were casting aluminum, some of which was used to adorn the top of Denfeld High School’s 120-foot clock tower. The company’s name changed to Duluth Brass and Aluminum in 1968, the same year it moved out of the Ramsey Street site to  a new facility at 6900 Polk Street. In 2001 it moved to 2301 Commonwealth Avenue, where it operates today as the last of Duluth’s nineteenth-century metal fabricators. The original buildings were demolished for expansion of Interstate 35.

Ever since mines operating on Minnesota’s Missabe Iron Range started shipping iron ore through Duluth to eastern markets in the 1890s, Duluthians envisioned a local plant to make steel in the Zenith City. Just after the turn of the nineteenth century, the idea of bringing a major steel plant to Minnesota became a major issue and was fiercely debated in the state’s 1907 legislative session. From that debate a two-part bill was proposed to force the creation of a plant: first, a tonnage tax would be added to all ore shipped out of the state; second, that tax could be avoided by any company that built a plant in Minnesota. As the nation’s largest steel-making concern, J. P. Morgan’s United States Steel (U.S.S.) purchased a great deal of Missabe ore and balked at the idea of paying higher taxes on that ore, but resented being forced to open a plant in Minnesota. The company resisted at first, but later relented and in 1907 announced it would build a “monster plant in Duluth.”

The project began in 1909, but construction progressed slowly and the factory did not produce an ounce of steel until December 1915. Meanwhile, U.S.S. built the nearby company town of Morgan Park for its officials and highly skilled workers (mostly Scandinavians) and developed land south of the plant as Gary and New Duluth, where many of its lesser-skilled employees of Serbian or African-American descent found housing.

U.S. Steel’s huge complex on the St. Louis River, officially called the Minnesota Steel Company, included two blast furnaces, ten open-hearth furnaces, ninety coke ovens, a blooming mill, a rail mill, a power plant, a pumping station, machine shops, storage shed, a merchant mill that stretched over one thousand feet long, and other buildings — more than fifty in all. Most of the facilities were constructed of steel frames enclosed by concrete blocks. When it first opened, its two blast furnaces could produce 1,000 tons of pig iron every day.

In the 1930s the Great Depression forced U.S.S. to re-organize some of its struggling facilities, and the Duluth plant’s focus turned to wire product. In 1932 the Minnesota Steel Company’s holdings were placed under the umbrella of the American Steel and Wire company, another division of U.S. Steel. American Steel and Wire Company ran the Morgan Park facilities until 1964, when U.S.S. absorbed it under its Operations Division, and afterwards the company called their Minnesota plant the “Duluth Works.”

The boom years of U.S.S.’s Morgan Park plant lasted until the 1960s. During World War I more than 3,500 workers were employed at the facility, increasing to over 5,000 during World War II. By the 1960s numbers had dropped, and through the decade anywhere from 1,700 to 3,000 people worked at U.S.S. in Duluth. During that time the plant’s aging steel-making facilities — and the water and air pollution they produced — became major concerns. By 1971 only one blast furnace remained in operation and 1,600 employees were discharged, leaving less than 1,000 workers to man the plant. The facility held on for eight more years, but in 1979 the coke plant closed and the last employees left. Some buildings were put into use by other Duluth companies and some were demolished. The last remnant of the plant was razed in 1988. The Morgan Park residential neighborhood remains as a Duluth historic residential district.

In 1984 the Pollution Control Agency placed the site on the National Priorities List for the federally funded “superfund” pollution clean-up program. U.S.S. was required to clean up heavily polluted portions of the site, and the process is ongoing, as are plans for the site’s reuse. In 2009 the Duluth Port Authority received a $50,000 investigative grant from the State of Minnesota to determine if the former steel plant could be used for a warehouse and light industrial park designed to store electricity-producing windmills. The feasibility research continues.

Inside the Minnesota Steel Company

After World War II, a wire mill was added to the Minnesota Steel Company plant, and focus turned to producing wire, barbed wire, nails, and staples  as well as fence posts, fences, springs, and concrete reinforcement bars. But just how did Minnesota Steel — and other steel manufacturers for that matter—make steel out of iron ore in the first place?

A steel company’s blast furnace turned iron ore into pig iron — an iron-carbon mix — in a process called smelting. Essentially, the furnace extracted sulfur from the ore. The furnaces (huge chimney-like cauldrons lined with refractory brick) were loaded with ore, coke, and limestone, then pre-heated air was forced into the middle of the furnace — that’s the blast. The mixture was heated in the middle for more even burning. Through this process, the unwanted materials formed a heavy liquid — called slag — which was poured out of the bottom of the furnace through a valve. Another valve allowed the pig iron, lighter than slag, to be removed separately. The brittle pig iron then had to be processed further to lower its carbon content. To accomplish this, the pig iron was placed in a special rotating container, which in turn was blasted with high-pressure oxygen. The impurities were removed from the pig iron, leaving behind both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The purified pig iron was then used as wrought iron or converted to steel with the Bessemer process, wherein further impurities were removed by blowing air through the molten pig iron. The cooled steel was then shipped to various mills for processing into a variety of products.

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