Remnants of Steeltown

Sleeping Amongst the Ruins

Sleeping Amongst the Ruins

The tearing down of a mini-mill, in fact the same one I shot four years earlier for “Old Steel Mill and the Cumulus castellanus”. A sign of industrial decline or positive change?


17 thoughts on “Remnants of Steeltown

    • Sad to say, they really don’t come back. It’s a reality that the city has yet to come to grips with. They are replaced by new jobs in the healthcare system, which is good except for the fact that people who completed trades training and spent years in the heavy industrial sector can’t adapt to those new jobs.

      This specific mill once belonged to Slater Steels; also known as Hamilton Specialty Bar (HSB). A very interesting story here:

      In 2001, USW (United Steel Workers’ Union of Canada) Local 4752 went on strike at Slater Steels, a “mini-mill” specialty steel producer in the US and Canada. Eventually, an agreement was reached but by August 2003, Slater publicly posted losses at its Hamilton Steel Specialty Bar Division due to a poor demand for stainless steel. Finding it difficult to operate with high losses while trying to meet union demands, Slater seriously threatened liquidation if the USW didn’t make $5 million dollars in concessions. Liquidation meant the loss of more than 300 jobs from the plant located between Sherman Avenue North and Birch (this shot is from Sherman, so is the older one). The USW quickly found a buyer in Delaware Street Capital, a US investment fund. In 2004, Delaware purchased the mill for $14.4 million, which became simply known as HSB (Hamilton Specialty Bar Corp.), and the workers’ jobs were saved under a new collective agreement, for a little while at least.

      By 2006, HSB was in financial ruin due to low sales and increasing scrap metal prices. In October of that year, DSC cited a “liquidation crisis” and threatened to renege on a deal to ensure the full pensions of more than 500 retirees. Most people know that the quickest way to get the back of any union up is to merely look menacingly at the pensions of current and former union workers. DSC soon quieted down about that but maintained that high pensions and benefits were preventing the sale of HSB. By November, the USW began hunting again for a new buyer. History repeating itself.

      HSB entered bankruptcy protection in January 2007. Royal Laser, a manufacturer of high-end wood and metal products and machines, became the exclusive bidder for HSB very early in the year but pulled out soon after as they couldn’t come up with an agreement with the USW. Royal Laser’s last offer was for them to assume all benefit costs and $30 million in pension liabilities but the USW would have to endure the loss of half of HSB’s workforce with 20 per cent wage cuts for those employees who remained. With HSB already cut down to a skeleton crew, the USW had to find another buyer or DSC would be forced to close the mill in a hurry. Of 25 parties that showed an interest in purchasing HSB, 22 were liquidators likely to sell off the firm’s machinery in pieces. Not optimistic prospects for the union workers, and the city and province proved flaccid in the dwindling struggle to prevent the inevitable plant closure. After racking up nearly $70 million in debt, the courts ordered HSB into bankruptcy. In the end, HSB closed its gates on May 30. It was the silencing of a steel plant that had operated for some 97 years.

      Not so fast! The courts gave DSC and the USW an extended opportunity to find a new purchaser by the end of the summer, and find some they did. On July 17, 2007, members of Local 4752 voted 93 per cent in favour of an agreement with US firms Woodside Capital, Pinnacle Steel and Sankaty Advisors that resulted in HSB’s sudden reopening. The agreement with the new owners, who bought HSB for $12 million, maintained all benefits, vacations and recall rights. Workers accepted a $3.75 decrease in wages during the period leading up to full production. An incentive plan based on average hourly tonnage over the previous four years was set to bring wages back up to the $3.75 once production reached the average. Production beyond that would yield further increases. In early October 2007, I watched as trucks were driven past HSB’s security booth and onto the site, preparing things for the iminent recall of employees. The recall was based on seniority, and the plant began to operate three 12-hour shifts of 120 workers over the first seven weeks. The recall was reviewed by the USW after five weeks. The idea was to re-employ as many as 250 workers by full production.

      HSB is still operating this way today. This union was able to come through for its workers (they don’t always; that’s the truth). Americans with some big money to invest came through for some Hamiltonians.

      Lightning has struck twice unfavourably in this place. The power-brokers need not tempt fate for a third and potentially truly fatal blow.

      • Industriella jobb ersätts med jobb inom sjukvård. Ganska så kontra produktiv. Det är ju industrin som är naven i ett lands ekonomi.
        Att montera ner industrin är ju rena självmord. Kina gnuggar ju händerna för där går industrin i högvarv.

  1. I’ve been lucky, working in the manufacturing sector for the last 20 years. No lay-offs ever and only one year I had to face hours cuts. It’s tough, for sure.

    • In the Hammer, there are workers who have lost their decades old jobs from steel giants like Stelco and Dofasco (now ArcelorMittal) and started their own businesses. A few have survived but many of those startups have failed. People who use to be some of the most proud in this town are facing some of the toughest times of their lives, and at their ages they are not likely to get hired into jobs that will help them make ends meet anywhere as well as they had become accustomed to.

      It’s a raw deal.

  2. In my early years I worked in construction. In the beginning my job was to sort out metal, wood and glass from piles of rubble that was left after the machines had torn down the buildings. Needless to say: I deeply and intensely hated my job.

    • I hear you. Some of the best paying work or easiest to find is the hardest, grittiest, dirtiest most disrespected jobs going. These and those of us who have done them are exactly what built our countries; from farms to urban industrial plants. It’s undeniable.

  3. It’s always an interesting question isn’t it. Only the future will tell whether it’s for better or worse. For those effected my losing their job, it’s definitely it’s not a positive change.

    • Certainly not for both those who can’t move into a new job, and for the economy that will be burdened by the mutitude of those newly unemployed; or should I say unemployable.

      Just for the sake of the public assistance programs and plans for municipal advancement that will require loads, and loads of capital, now what do you do with literally thousands of people who need to make ends meet but can’t? We’re not just talking about the stereotypical welfare bums anymore. They have company. People who used to and still want to work for a living.

      What do you do?

      • That is really the big question isn’t it? Somehow the the city will have to find a way to encourage investors to build new industries and jobs. History shows that is not easy, unfortunately.

  4. Meanwhile over in China . . . . rivers are damned, the chimneys go up and all the dirty work of industrial manufacturing changes the landscape there all in the quest for cheaper prices. As you say, what do you do?

    • That’s here too. At the end of Sherman Avenue is a section of Hamilton Harbour known as Randale Reef. The name itself is quite the story but the environmental one amidst the industrial collapse is much more profound:

      The Hamilton Waterfront Trust is an entity that sticks out in my mind as a local body creating real and positive change for the environment and general surroundings. They are a member of BAIT (Bay Area Implementation Team). This team of environment specialists and stakeholder organizations is responsible for the carrying out of repair and replenishment work on Hamilton’s and nearby Burlington’s pollution damaged shorelines and bodies of water. They have been prompted to action by a community based watchdog group (I use that term lightly because BAIT doesn’t seem to need watching) known as BARC (Bay Area Restoration Council).

      BARC and BAIT have championed many ambitious causes to revitalize local wildlife and ecosystems, and from my point of view, not enough good can be said about their work. I think that one of the things that make BARC and BAIT so appealing is that they aren’t your stereotypical environmental group that seems to put the protection of wild and domesticated animals before we sophisticated beasts who pay taxes. That common and often misguided assumption of anyone remotely associated with animal and environmental causes (usually branded as annoying, vegetarian or vegan tree-huggers) is enough to deter many from paying any mind to those factions who try to make the world a greener place

      BARC and BAIT have done things to directly improve the living conditions of citizens where governments have been less proactive. From those efforts to protect sub-species Homo sapiens hamiltonian, they have created places where wild animals can survive. They have a truly realistic approach to things. One of BAIT’s biggest projects is the Canada RAP (Remedial Action Plan). A continuing effort to totally clean and beautify Hamilton Harbour with extra-special attention to the Randle Reef and Sherman Creek outlet area. An area of the harbour, located on the west side of US Steel Canada (formerly Stelco Hilton Works or Hamilton Steel), that is said to be the most polluted waterway in Canada.

      Before Stelco was purchased by US Steel, they vehemently denied creating the mess over the century that they pretty much dominated that patch of water with their steel-making operation. They’ve never really been held accounbtable so the Province of Ontario and interested groups like BARC are taking care of the problem.

      The disaster of Randle Reef is the second most polluted Canadian waterway, specifically by carcinogenic coal-tar (a by-product of turning coal into coke in the steel manufacturing process). The Sydney Tar Ponds of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia is THE worst coal-tar contaminated water body.

      Due to BAIT laying the foundation through the RAP, the Provincial government promised to contribute $30 million to a proposed $90 million, eight-year spill containment project for the reef in August of 2007. It was left up to local enterprise, possibly local taxpayers and mainly the federal government to come up with the remaining money with the hope of completing the endeavour by 2015.

      The plan; firstly build a 7.5-hectare steel containment structure over the worst part of the polluted area. Secondly, dredge less contaminated sediment from a 50-hectare peripheral area and pump it into the structure. Thirdly, remove water from the captured sediment. Next, cap the structure and lastly, turn it into a port facility with green space.


      If you think about the concrete sarcaphagus of Chernobyl, I guess it’s a much upscaled version of that. Not perfect but what else can you do about it? Absolutely no one has any better ideas, and no one else is actually doing anything about it.

      As for China, well, their industrial smog winds up in San Francisco and Los Angeles, just as 54 per cent of Southern Ontario’s is the result of coal-fired plants along the Ohio River, and Canada’s pollution is carried transboundary by the jetstream into Iceland and Europe.

      Globalized pollution.

    • Most will see it as you do Paula and yet the locals, as well as abroad where this sort of problem manifests, people do nothing realistic to prevent it because most of us truly are as helpless as we feel.

      We don’t trust the politicians and corporations to fix things adequately — as politicians always say the can, but we keep hoping they will.

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