I spent part of this morning researching the smell of iron ore. Some sources said it has no smell; others that it has the smell of sulfurous acid. I am indifferent to this dispute. I know what it smells like. The smell of iron ore is in me because I am of it. I was reminded of this last week when I visited Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the first time. I was there to do a little television for PBS and, like itinerant workers everywhere, I found my way to my job site with little thought about the place itself. But as I drove down West 3rd Street to my hotel, everything began to feel familiar.
I am a child of the Midwest and of a steel-making family. My father and my grandfather worked in the blast furnace at Republic Steel in Canton, Ohio, from the thirties well into the early fifties. Once in awhile, my grandfather took me to work with him on payday. I took for granted the manic activity of the “plant” as he called the huge black, belching, grunting place he loved so much. There were so many men - calling out to one another, strutting around in overalls, work pants, and some wearing newsboy caps. Cars constantly pulled in and out of the parking lot as shifts changed. The big friendly guard who waved them in and out called out to my grandfather “Hey, George. You off today or what?” I laughed because I was ten and he was Gran to me, not George. Who was George?
And there was that big smell – sulfurous, acrid, and metallic. Like wet rust. I loved the smell because it was familiar. Its odor was always faint on my beloved grandfather’s clothing, but strong in the air around Canton and sometimes – if the wind was right – powerful enough to drift seven miles down the road to Massillon, where we lived. It was the smell of industry. It was the smell of work.
Now, more than a half-century later and one state over, like a movie with no sound, the hulk of the silent Bethlehem Steel plant – once the second largest producer of steel in the United States – appeared in the middle of my windshield. But there was no smell. It sat there dominating the landscape, darkening the sky; silent. I tried not to look at it.
After checking in at my hotel, I went out to eat. I refused to look up because I feared I’d be able to see the tops of the stacks as I walked toward Sal’s Pizza. Later, I got directions to the station at my hotel and set off to work, driving a mile back up 3rd Street toward the ArtQuest Center, never looking to my left. But I was told to turn left at the light and when I did, I was a steel worker’s kid again. I was at the old plant gate.
What was, according to Wikipedia, “one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world and one of the most powerful symbols of American industrial manufacturing leadership” is now a really cute arts and entertainment center and within an easy walk to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. I feared my heart would break.
I got out of my car to ask where to park but, instead of walking into the beautiful, new modern building on my right, I walked straight ahead. There it stood in the twilight, close enough to touch – a gorgeous, looming and abandoned giant, black against the fading light. I was embarrassed to be there; to see it like that, knowing what it once had been. I’m told they light it up in pretty colors at night and in red and green for Christmas. I’m sure it’s lovely. I lived in the South long enough to know to put my hand to my heart when I feel distressed, and I did. “Oh, Gran, I’m so glad you can’t see this,” I thought as I fished for Kleenex. I believe it is the first time a building has ever made me cry.
Then I smelled it in the air: Iron ore. It was faint, but if you grew up with it in you, it doesn’t take much to know it. I took in the deepest breath I could.
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