Yesterday’s Chimneys. (Sadly ours are gone.)

Thursday, February 16 2006 @ 09:56 PM

Contributed by: aub

Extract from Iron and Steelmaking 1998 Vol 25 No4.

All over the industrial world thousands of tall smokestacks have been demolished in the last few decades, and there's something fascinating about watching one of these giants crash to the ground.....

Nobody bids farewell, or appears particularly sad. Its just another step heralding the end of what has become known as the smokestack era. Goodbye those dark satanic mills and their contributions to atmospheric pollution; farewell to yesterday. The prosperity created by such mills and factories is no more.

Nevertheless the numbers of people interested in their national industrial past continue to increase and they want to learn more about these achievements. This is highlighted by a growing trend by which it seems that every town and city just has to have its own heritage centre. The problem facing preservation and reclamation schemes is that they cost money, and when this is not forthcoming in sufficient quantity, dereliction takes over and demolition generally follows. The sites are cleared; the heavy industries replaced with such things as smart new shopping malls, and units in which to house the mainly white coat industries which it is hoped will take the place of the old. The reclaimed areas are then described as business parks, enterprise zones, or leisure centres. Whichever way you look at it, this all comes under the general heading of property development.

For example, work is progressing on clearing the sites of Britain's redundant collieries at a cost first estimated at around £800m, the idea being that this will attract partnership investment which hopefully will create 50 000 jobs. Employment is always the overriding objective, and not to preserve unusable buildings and redundant machinery which, unless incorporated into a carefully planned and structured development, may have doubtful value as tourist attractions. Furthermore they need to be maintained and this can become very expensive, especially if there is exposure to wind and weather. Retired ships are particularly vulnerable in this respect.

There are wide and differing opinions about what should be preserved. Not all projects put forward meet with favour, or are perhaps even given sufficient consideration. It might also be said that many are also lacking in imagination. Others argue that we should care more about what is happening today rather than what we achieved yesterday.

In England, insofar as redundant steel sites are concerned, preservation has not been a priority, though some attempts have been made in this direction. There is a 25 ton Bessemer acid converter at Sheffield's Kelham Island Industrial Museum plus a few other artefacts. This is one of a pair of converters which were installed in Workington in 1934, and which ceased working in 1974. The second converter was stored for many years at a military base near Carlisle before someone ordered it to be scrapped. There were those interested in its preservation, but typical was the reaction by one lady town mayor when approached by local residents for help with their project. She replied to the effect that the Bessemer had dirtied her washing hung out to dry every Tuesday ever since she was a young bride. For that reason she would be glad to see the back of it!

Corby did have in mind some eight years ago the acquisition of one of the Workington converters. The intention was to place this in the centre of a new traffic roundabout, but this was supposedly ruled out because its presence would have been distracting to drivers.

A group of enthusiasts tried very hard to save a blast furnace up on Teesside but had no luck. Corby boasts a heritage centre with just a few relics of the area's once great steel industry. From what we are told these Corby exhibits were literally snatched from the disposal skips, or rescued just in time from the cutting torch. At another northern steelworks, a general manager said he cared more about today than yesterdays, so he ordered records to be destroyed. A caring historian put himself at personal risk as he rescued precious documents from a blazing bonfire, piled to a height of around 10 ft.

Other countries have a different approach to Britain and we have been taking a look at the international world of steel site development and preservation. In Sweden, for example, they have a very active historical society, and there are a number of parks where steel production is honoured by the preservation of old Bessemer converters and other objects.

Then there is Germany’s Ruhr, an area of about 100 miles long by 50 miles wide.

One of the plants was Rheinische Stahlwerk, Duisburg, Meiderich. It was built in 1902, eventually becoming part of Thyssen Stahl AG until it was closed down in 1985. The now redundant steelworks has become part of an ambitious project known as Landscape Park Duisburg?North. This is situated between two suburbs on various reclaimed lands of the coal and steel industry. A blast furnace and most of the equipment which comprised this former steelworks has been preserved and 36 main exhibits are listed in a tour guide. Visitors can proceed individually or are conducted on tours. These start with its early history and an introduction to iron, held in a former storeroom. Here a permanent exhibition depicts the life and work in the steelworks and in the town. Visitors receive an illustrated guidebook which can be helpful during their tour. As they proceed they are aided and informed via numerous signposts with pictures and text. A sketch shows where they can walk and which points of interest are next in turn.

Some areas can be seen only on guided tours, which take place regularly at weekends ? but special arrangements can be made for individual groups. The guides are usually former employees whose stones make the history even more interesting.

Tourists are warned to be careful and to look out for possible obstacles on the floor and overhead. They are also cautioned not to enter any buildings or areas which are closed off. The trail also offers an impressive panoramic view of the works, the park, and part of the town from the top of a blast furnace. It is pointed out that this is not dangerous but it is possible that the height could frighten some people. In bad weather this facility might be closed. Visitors are reminded that all of the works, even to the smallest screw, are part of its history and not just debris or old iron and should be left undisturbed.

Scheduled for final completion in 1999, the park offers a great variety of recreational, sporting, and cultural facilities. Due tribute is paid to many former employees who not only contributed photographs but also recorded their work experience. It is mentioned that without their participation the park would never have been built or preserved as a monument.

The landscape park is said to have already made its name as a cultural venue. The unique scenery of the blast furnace plant is appreciated not only by musical groups and theatre ensembles, but also by photographers, film makers, and television companies. This suggests that there can be a financial gain from industrial preservation if you go the right way about it.

The American steel industry went on to become one of the most inventive and efficient in the world. Its fascinating history is such that many Americans consider steelworks preservation as essential.

Take Pittsburgh, once known as the American workshop of the world. Here the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, a non?profit historic preservation organisation, is the owner and master developer of an area of 52 acres known as Station Square and on which work began in 1976. They have created a lively urban environment, by combining the renovation of five Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad buildings with new construction.

This has been so successful that more than 3,000,000 people visit Station Square each year which is in fact a city within a city. It houses 134 businesses giving employment to over 3,000 people. And this in only Phase One of the project.

Phase Two also included what is termed a riverwalk of industrial artefacts, claimed to be the world's first. There is Bessemer Court which is described as a place where people listen to concerts, browse through the railcar shops, or relax during lunch and which features a 1930 built, 10 ton Bessemer converter.

Work began in 1993 and when completed the outdoor park and museum, which takes in part of the south shore of the Monongahela River, will be over a mile in length. On show will be equipment, much of it salvaged, and representing Pittsburgh's former industries including of course steel, coke, oil, and iron.

A 45 ft tall petroleum vacuum distillation tower is to be installed as will a 30 ft high Bessemer converter. The largest exhibit so far is a 600 ton Mesta blast furnace blowing engine which has a pair of 24 ft flywheels.

It is estimated that this Phase Two, estimated in 1996 to take a total of 15 years, will employ over 5000 construction workers and that 60 new businesses will employ 2500 people. It also means that a further 2,000,000 visitors will visit Station Square, bringing the annual total to 5,000,000. By this time Station Square will have built out 40 acres, leaving 12 acres to be developed under Phase Three.

In Youngstown, OH there is the Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Society which has as its goal a reminder that steelmills such as this were the backbone of the USA's development into a world power. Jeannette, built in 1918, is the oldest blast furnace in the USA and the preservation association's aims are that it should become a museum of the iron and steel industry. The project also incorporates the Mahoning Valley Railroad Collection.

At one time America had 13 steel producing areas named Bessemer. One such city still bearing this name is in Alabama where there is also an excellent museum.

No doubt we shall be hearing more of former industrial site preservation schemes and reports of disappointment when such ventures fail to achieve their objectives. True, nostalgia can become expensive, but as the Germans and the Americans have proved, in the right hands it can also be profitable.

Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association