My Summer in the Mill

Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

I was born in the fall of 1960 into a steel mill family in Beaver County. My father worked as a rigger for the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation O&L) in Aliquippa for thirty-two years. As a young girl I listened to his stories of work and always wondered what it was like inside the mill. I never got any farther than the mill’s main gate where we would wait for him at the end of his shift. What was inside was left to my imagination – ­until 1979. During my summer break from college, I got the chance to work at my father’s mill.

How thrilling it was for me to enter the world that had always been my father’s! He was so proud and I was so excited. Somehow – despite all the stories my father told­ – none equaled what I would discover myself on the inside. Wearing my green mill outfit, with lunch in hand, I walked through the same main gate where we used to wait. I felt important and, oddly, patriotic. I was a young, proud American going to work just as my father and neighbors had. I really felt alive.

During orientation we were taken around to visit all the mills and shops and see how each fit into the whole process of steel making. It was all so interesting. The molten steel reminded me of active volcanoes – the bright red liquid metal spewing forth, the heat waves rising up and the metal cooling into a darker reddish-black color.

My main job that summer was as a scrap burner in the strip mill. My work began when the crane operator, using a huge magnet, would bring over the cobbles, steel strips that had been caught on the rollers and jumbled into wave-like shapes similar to pieces of candy my grandma kept in a glass jar. From my landing area, I used my torch to carefully cut the high-carbon steel into small pieces that were recycled. The cobble strips emitted intense heat while cooling. The air around me was a mix of that “steely” smell, which I will never forget, and the burning smell from my torch. Once, they shut down the strip mill furnace for repairs and I helped tear down the brick “nose.” We used small jackhammers to break into the brick­work and we wore wooden shoes under our work shoes to keep them from melting. It was the most intense dry heat I had ever felt! Even though the furnace had cooled for days, the walls and floors were still so hot that they appeared to be moving.

Sometimes out in the strip mill, when the sun streamed through cracks in the building, the steel “dust” would sparkle and catch my eye. It was magical. I would look up and think of my father working here for decades and how the magic had probably worn off for him.

Each day as I rode home – my nostrils and ears caked with dark mill dust – I realized the sacrifices my father made for us. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about his work.

I felt the tradition, the pride of being a Pennsylvania steelworker. I, too, was bonded to others by that common steel link In my heart I felt even more strongly the love for my father, Beaver County, and our Pennsylvania steel. That summer in the J&L mill is still the shiniest thread in the fabric of my life.


Crystal A. Cheuvront, a resident of Syckesville, Maryland, is a forester for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. In addition to vegetation and tree management along utility paths, she writes for the company’s customer newsletter and Web site to educate the public on what and how to plant near utility lines. She enjoys working in stained glass, birding, and cross-country skiing. Her father, Ronald Cheuvront, retired after thirty-two years with the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, resides in Shippingport, Beaver County.