The History of the American Steel Industry
American-made steel has a reputation for its quality. Nearly every industry uses metal, such as housing, transportation, infrastructure, packing, and machinery. The U.S. structural steel trade produces close to three and a half million tons every year. Read on to discover more about the incredible history of the American steel industry.
A Strong Start
Steel is made from iron and other components, such as carbon, for added strength. The Iron Age dates back to around 1200 B.C.E. Through ferrous metallurgy, humans created the first tools and weapons from iron.
Blacksmiths produced wrought iron goods as their knowledge of the metal and their skills grew. The process involved removing impurities from the iron by heating it and using a hammer and anvil to create better results. Today over 3,500 grades of steel exist, each with unique physical and chemical properties.
Before iron was formed into today's steel, it went through various other types. Cast iron artifacts date back to around the fifth century B.C. in Jiangsu, China. By the 15th century, cast iron had made its way to France, where it was used to build cannons. During the 1770s, the material was used to create the Iron Bridge in England.
In the photo above, a worker at the Lodge Manufacturing Company inspects cast iron cookware. The material is a popular choice for cookware because of its heat retention, durability, non-stick function, and ability to withstand high temperatures. The American factory is located in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.
Cast iron played a vital role in the production at textile mills. In 1941, the United States government helped bolster the economy by placing high-volume orders. Businesses such as the Georgia-based mill depicted below benefited from the national incentive during the Great Depression.
Fibers from the cotton, hemp, and wool manufactured in textile mills created a highly flammable environment. Iron frames became commonplace during the Industrial Revolution to help prevent the buildings from burning down. It was also used in the fabrication of industrial and agricultural machinery.
Women at Work
Before the Great Depression, steel production was primarily performed by men. In this photo from 1942, female steel mill workers prepared the product for exportation. Even though women performed the same task as their male counterpoints, they were paid significantly less.
During WWII, Rosie the Riveter became a cultural icon. The allegorical figure represented female factory workers who produced wartime supplies with American steel and other materials. Rosie the Riveter remains a symbol of feminism and women's contributions to the economy.
The photo above depicts the NLMK Indiana mini steel mill. The facility reportedly contributed one million tons of American steel from recycled scrap materials in 2018. Rebar, wire rod, structural shapes, steel plate, and sheet steel are the main items manufactured in mini-mills like this one.
The Men and Women of Steel Award
The Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI) presents the Men and Women of Steel Award to "honor innovators and heroes who are pioneering the use of steel in their work." The institute is a business department for the American Iron and Steel Institue (AISI). The SMDI promotes the advancement of steel for customers in the automotive, construction, and packaging markets. The AISI fosters the development and application of new types of steel and its applications.
Investors for SMDI in the automotive industry include AK Steel Corporation, ArcelorMittal Dofasco, ArcelorMittal USA, Nucor Corporation, and United States Steel Corporation. The first presentation of the Men and Women of Steel Award occurred on January 13, 2015. It was held at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Industry Innovator Award honors automotive designers or engineers who use advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) in a new and supportive way of the trade. The Community Hero Award celebrates individuals and organizations working to strengthen a community's quality of life.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are a part of the American Football Conference (AFC) North division. They play in the National Football League (NFL) and are the oldest franchise in the AFC. When the football team was founded in 1933, they were known as the "Pittsburgh Pirates." Before the 1941 season began, the group changed their name to the "Pittsburgh Steelers" in honor of the city's history as a major producer of American steel.
Pittsburgh was nicknamed the "Steel City" for its massive contributions to the nation's industry. Steel mills were built up and down the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. Although production has slowed over the years, Pittsburgh remains the center of a quarter of North America's steel mill manufacturers.
Workers of the Carnegie Illinois Steel Corporation went on strike in 1946. The plant was under fire amidst allegations that the company violated an agreement made to its employees. The workers were assured that a suitable amount of tradespeople would be hired to accommodate the city's heating gas and electric power for water supply in operation.
During WWII, it was common for labor unions to participate in a no-strike pledge. However, as the war raged on and scores of people joined the unions, grievances stacked up. Nearly 400,000 workers across steel, petroleum, coal, and lumber industries halted production until the disputes were settled. The Great Strike Wave of 1946 occurred directly on the heels of World War II's end.
These steel-made structures also have a history of attracting peculiar attention. In 1981, Dan Goodwin dressed in a homemade Spider-Man costume. Using suction cups and skyhooks, he climbed the Sears Tower. Goodwin claimed afterward that the stunt was meant to draw awareness to "shortcomings in high-rise rescue and firefighting techniques." Nearly two decades later, Alain "Spider-Man" Robert copied the action using his bare hands and feet.
The railroad system was both built of steel and helped in the production of the material. The photo below depicts steam engines with cars waiting to be filled in an open-pit iron mine. Railways first appeared in the United States in the 1820s. Today, America claims the title of the world's largest rail transport network size.
The most widely-used method for mineral mining is open-pit mining. The surface technique is implemented when mineral and ore deposits are found near ground level. The process does not require workers to dig as invasively as other forms of mining, lending to the strong preference for this form of extraction.
America is a record-breaker when it comes to steel rollercoasters. The highest steel rollercoaster is located at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. It stands a whopping 456 feet tall. When the Kingda Ka opened on May 21, 2005, it was named "the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in the world."
The nation also tops the charts in other categories of the famed amusement park rides. Seven of the world's longest steel rollercoaster drops exist in America. The nation also holds the record for five of the fastest steel rollercoasters ever made.
Bethlehem Steel and WWII
The Pennsylvania-based company Bethlehem Steel played a crucial role in helping allied forces win WWII. The manufacturer's ability to rapidly produce warships and other essential military equipment led to historians memorializing Bethlehem Steel's contributions. They contributed more than 1,100 warships to aid in defeating the Nazi party.
In this photo, the United States Navy members can be seen onboard the USS Yorktown watching as the Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter prepares for takeoff. The aircraft carrier first arrived in Pearl Harbor on July 24, 1943. The F6F launched from the ship's deck on November 20, 1943.
Andrew Carnegie and Skibo Castle
Carnegie became one of the wealthiest Americans in history as he pioneered the American steel industry. The innovator financed the construction of 7,000 church organs and Carnegie Hall, one of the top global venues for classical and popular music. He donated nearly 90 percent of his wealth to charities, foundations, and universities.
His home in Scotland, Skibo Castle, dates back to 1211. The steel magnate's legacy continues to thrive throughout the 8,000-acre estate. Today, the castle is known as The Carnegie Club's members-only residence and private golf course. On December 22, 2000, the society hosted the American singer Madonna's wedding to Guy Ritchie.
The Bessemer Process
Sir Henry Bessemer FRS created the 19th century's most effective technique for steel manufacturing. He experimented with various methods to reduce the military's costs for steel. As a result, the English inventor created a system to remove the impurities from the molten pig iron by blowing air through it. The Bessemer Process made steel quicker, easier, and cheaper to produce. Structural engineering saw significant advancements following Bessemer's methods, and he contributed over 100 more inventions for iron, steel, and glass.
American steel manufacturers made good use of the Bessemer Process. Eight cities throughout the U.S. were named in honor of the inventor's vast contributions to the field. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recognized Henry Bessemer as a Foreign Honorary Member in 1895.
Spruce Iron Mine
Minnesota's Spruce Iron Mine was once a medium-sized producer of the material. The mineralization of the metal found within the region dates back to the Neoproterozoic era. The mine was part of the Mesabi Mining District while it was operational. Now, the location is designated as a historical piece within the Superior National Forest.
The Mesabi Range Spruce Iron Mine was a costly investment due to its remote location. Duluth's Merrit family took on the challenge of prospecting and discovered a massive hematite ore deposit in 1890. The Duluth, Missabe, and Northern Railroad (DMNR) was formed to transport the ore once mining operations expanded.
The United States Steel Company, among others, transported the material aboard ships. During WWI, the American government ordered their construction to carry cargo and support the troops. The metal had to be stowed and secured correctly to prevent injuries to the crew or damage to the ship. Unsafe practices also put the steel transported onboard boats at risk of being lost at sea.
From the 1870s until 1900, iron-hulled sailing ships were frequently built. Steel hulls became sought-after around 1885 for their strength to weight ratio. Those vessels did not require space for coal or freshwater for steam production. As a bonus, the steel-constructed sailing ships were faster than steamers.
The blast furnace shown above was part of the Carnegie Steel Corporation. The facility was part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's rich history in the American Steel industry. The rail cars were used to bring materials to the mill and transport the plant's goods to purchasers.
Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company
J.P. Morgan advanced the wave of American industry consolidation from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1901, his newest organization purchased the Carnegie Steel Company. The United States Steel Corporation paid $492 million for the acquisition, equalling $14.8 billion in 2019. Out of that impressive sum, Andrew Carnegie personally received $226 million. The new subsidiary underwent a name change in 1936 to the "Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company."
Workers at the Duquesne Steel Works were photographed in 1936 as they tapped a heat of steel from an open-hearth style furnace. The mill was a part of the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company in Pennsylvania's growing Monongahela River steel manufacturing region. During the 1960s and 1970s, Duquesne Steel Works heavily produced semi-finished steel products. The facility closed in 1984 as the industry faced a decline.
Giant Shovel Extractors
Giant shovel extractors became symbolic of environmental battles during the 1960s and the 1970s. Those opposed to the vast surface mining practices often held protests. The largest shovel extractors in the world weigh upwards of 800 tons. The shovel on the current champion, Caterpillar's Bucyrus RH400, is capable of scooping 45m³ of rock in one movement.
U.S. Steel Homestead Steel Works
In 1892, the mill was at the heart of one of the most severe labor disputes in American history. The "Homestead Strike" was not the last strike steelworkers would undertake at the plant. The image above was captured in 1956 during another halt in production. The banner in the background reads, "Safety Comes First in This Plant, Know Your Safety Rules."
In 1861, an engineering student named J.E. Hanger designed an artificial limb. During the Civil War, he lost his leg and was among the first people to create their own limbs. The entrepreneur founded the J.E. Hanger Company to produce prosthetic legs for others. Similarly, A.A. Winkley invented an artificial limb with the aid of Lowell Jepson, and the pair started the Winkley Company in 1888.
Artificial limbs were constructed with steel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wood was also commonly incorporated into the manufacturing process. The results were heavy and rudimentary. Above-knee prosthetics were released that contains a built-in computer capable of matching the individual's natural gait. The field has advanced drastically and offers far more options for patients today.
Construction Industry Boom
When iron and carbon are combined, carbon steel is formed. Manufacturers add different amounts of carbon to reach the desired results. For example, lower carbon content creates easily workable steel. Wrought iron, typically used for decorative ironwork, is made in this way. Structural steel is formed by adding a medium amount of carbon to iron. Industrial-strength tools and wire require much more of the material in their composition.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Need for Trees
The Iron Act
Anthracite Coal and New Settlements
In the early days, blister and crucible steel required a slow and costly process. The "hot-blast method" was picked up by the Scranton brothers to solve the problem of impurities from the coke, burning them off. They founded the Iron & Coal Company along with two partners. The entrepreneurs advanced the American steel industry with their experimentations and a fresh outlook.
The siblings bolstered the American economy in several ways through their innovations. By developing an improved method for manufacturing T-rails, they improved the speed and efficiency of railroad construction. George Scranton became a famous industrialist. As a result, he eventually headed the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad.
According to reports, steel is the most recycled material in the United States. Every year, nearly 70 million tons of the nation's steel scrap is altered through special furnaces that allow the material to be reused. The practice creates a smaller environmental footprint and leads to advances in the industry.
Steel can be recycled repeatedly without losing its strength. Reusing the metal also reduces production costs. A total of 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone are saved for every ton of steel that is recycled.
Space Shuttles and Rocket Boosters
The Automobile Industry
American car manufacturing began in the 1890s, and the country quickly became the world's biggest producer of automobiles. In 1629, the first steel plant was built in Massachusetts. Now, the nation owns more than 100 mills. Detroit and Michigan purchase most of the steel produced in the United States for use in the automobile industries.
In the photo above, a Rivian R1T electric vehicle (EV) pickup truck is being manufactured. The facility is located in Normal, Illinois. The Rivian Automotive company produced 2,553 automobiles in the first quarter of 2022.
Did you know that it was a common practice in the American steel industry to name blast furnaces after real women? "Lucy," shown below, was among those built at the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Edith," "Isabella," "Ann," "Carrie," "Eliza," and "Dorothy" were the names given to the city's other five furnaces.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were 75 blast furnaces throughout the region. Although family members were honored by having the "manmade volcanos" named after them, there are no records of large dedication ceremonies. In modern times, steel is recycled more often than it is produced. As a result, the number of blast furnaces in existence declined substantially.
Pieces of pig iron, or "cast iron," iron, and occasionally steel are melted together to form crucible steel. Sand, glass, ashes, and other fluxes, are added to the mixture during the process. Once melted, the steel is poured into iron molds. A uniform crystal structure is produced once the molten steel is completely cooled, increasing the material's tensile strength and hardness.
The process of creating crucible steel dates back to the medieval era. In the United States, the practice took off in the 1880s. The material was used to produce cutting tools, and it is still used today to create other specialty steels.
Electric Arc Furnaces
Charlotte, North Carolina, is home to America's largest steel producer. The Nucor Corporation came about, in part, from a metallurgist's dissatisfaction with steel prices in 1968. The company's first steel bar mill was founded in Darlington, South Carolina, utilizing electric arc furnaces for production. Smart business deals allowed Nucor's stocks to skyrocket by 1972.
U.S. Steel Company
On February 10, 2022, U.S. Steel commenced building a "next-generation highly sustainable and technologically advanced steel mill" in Osceola, Arkansas. The company's newest facility has been dubbed "the steel mill of the future" and will sit adjacent to their Big River Steel plant. David B. Burritt, the President and CEO of U.S. Steel, stated that the new venture is intended to bring customers profitable and sustainable solutions.
Building the new plant will create thousands of construction jobs and 900 steel plant jobs. Once completed, the two facilities will be jointly known as "Big River Steel Works." In an interview, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson called U.S. Steel's undertaking the "largest single project investment in the state's history."
If union workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions, production at the plants ceased. Steel companies discovered that contracts with local prisons were mutually beneficial. Government and state officials regulated the labor contracts, correctional facilities gained funds to maintain their systems, and steel manufacturing continued. Some companies in the industry chose to build housing for the convicts nearby. The manufacturers supplied clothes for the prisoners and hired guards as needed.
The cities of St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, are connected by the Eads Bridge. Construction on the combination road and railway bridge began in 1867, and the structure was opened in 1874. Through the Keystone Bridge Company, Andrew Carnegie supplied the steel and owned shares in the project. Building the Eads Bridge was a milestone in steel technology and served as a proof-of-concept for the market.
Better Hours and Pay
As American cities were rapidly growing, the demands on steelworkers climbed too. In 1923, President Harding and social reformers worked to end the 12-hour workdays faced in the industry. The eight-hour system went into effect, and many who worked in the plants received pay increases.
Cyrus Eaton and Republic Steel
American Federation of Labor
Industrial Ups and Downs
President Johnson described steel as a vital part of America's economy and security. Countless jobs are created to manufacture the raw materials and equipment needed to produce the metal. The "steelmark" is a unique symbol representing products made by the industry.
AISI and Steel Grades
The AISI implemented a numbering system for wrought stainless steel. Some grades contain a one-letter or two-letter suffix to indicate a modification has been made to the material. Austenitic stainless steels are differentiated as a 200 or 300 series grade. Many stainless steel cookware pieces and utensils are made of 304 steel, for example. Those in the 400-series are either ferritic or martensitic.
Myron C. Taylor
Watches and Jewelry
Jewelry has been worn as a symbol of social rank, personal style, and lucky talismans for thousands of years. Pieces created from steel became prominent when early 20th-century artists designed them. Heavy and fine wire, sheet metal, and metal cast in a mold are used to make one-of-a-kind fashions and those created in bulk.
The famous American sculptor Alexander Calder created massive sculptures and mobiles. His steel Cheval Rouge, or "Red Horse," shown below, is located in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The garden was opened to the public on May 23, 1999, and features work from numerous modern artists.