Down in the Hole: Steelmaking Pittsburgh in the 1950s

Harvard University Press
4 min readJun 21, 2023

In The Next Shift, Gabriel Winant takes us inside the Rust Belt to show how America’s cities have weathered new economic realities. The following excerpt describes the intergenerational pull of class by focusing on the personal stories of steelworkers at Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh. Out now in paperback, The Next Shift was called “eye-opening” by the New York Times and was the winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, among other accolades.

“I recall in high school, the warning was given to us that if we didn’t study, do our homework, go on to college, we were going to end up in ‘that damn steel mill.’ That’s the terminology. ‘You’ll be a loser,’” remembers Howard Wickerham. “Well, I ended up going into the steel mill.” Fresh out of high school in 1966, Wickerham got his first job at United States Steel’s giant Homestead Works. His father worked there too; having risen from the ranks to become a foreman, he helped his son obtain a skilled-trade apprenticeship to become a welder at the mill.

A path now unrolled in front of Wickerham, unplanned but easy enough to travel. “I still wanted to be a rock singer. It was just to pay bills. I’d gotten married, had a little girl.” He could feel himself, though, being tugged into the working-class slipstream, the current of years — measured out in shifts, pay periods, and seniority — that could pull him all the way to old age.

In his early days at Homestead, Wickerham brought his lunch in a paper bag, finding someplace to leave it until his break. When lunchtime came, he went to retrieve his sandwich, only to find it torn apart by rats, which were everywhere in these semienclosed, filthy, hot, riverbank environments. The more senior workers, he knew, brought lunches in metal pails for this reason. But Wickerham resisted buying one. He kept bringing sandwiches in paper bags, and he kept losing his lunch to rats. The pail was expensive, but that was not the problem. The problem was that if he caved and bought one, it meant that he was staying. As a young man facing for the first time the furnaces and gas lines, the terrific heat and noise, and the weathered men whose whole lives had been spent there, he preferred to imagine that he had a fresh choice every day.

Edward Salaj worked in the same department as Wickerham, also having obtained his job with the help of his steelworker father. Warned about rats, he opted for a lunchbox right away. His anxiety expressed itself in another way — about his father, whose last years at the plant overlapped with Edward’s first. The son’s first day at Homestead, April 2, 1964, was twenty-eight years after his father’s, to the day — a symbolically laden coincidence. “My father had a fear during his last days working,” wrote Salaj in an unpublished memoir. “He had a fear he would be seriously injured or killed in the mill.” It was a reasonable fear. Almost every steelworker had some near-death experience. All could tell stories of horrible things they had seen.

On his last day at Homestead, Salaj’s father was given a dangerous assignment on the mill roof, uprooting the trees that had sprouted there after a rainy period. He refused, instead accepting a discipline slip rendered meaningless by his imminent retirement. For his part, the younger Salaj soon found himself paired with an older welder, Joe Yatzko, who had been hired decades before

at age thirteen, after his own father had been killed on the job. Death was in the mill’s fabric, part of its history both institutionally and personally. Mortality signaled the intergenerational continuity of class and the way that hard and dangerous work was not so much good or bad fortune but more simply fate — something passed from fathers to sons.

Edward Stankowski Jr., a contemporary at Jones & Laughlin Steel, a few miles downriver from Homestead, wrote a memoir of his childhood on the city’s South Side and his life working at the mill, where he too had followed his father to work. To him, these factories seemed endowed with near-supernatural power. “I studied the mill every day of my life, wondering why the old men cursed and worshiped her,” wrote Stankowski. “What was beneath her rusty sheet-iron skirts? What caused the flashes of fire that lit up the night, the explosions that shook our house, the soot that stained laundry my mother hung in our backyard?”

The mill was an elemental force, like a Greek god — in fact an early union had been called the Sons of Vulcan. Impetuously, the mill might take command of your entire life and could cast you aside again easily. It demanded awe and sacrifice and instilled terror and resentment. But in return it yielded a living, and indeed a world, for its people and their city.