Foundations of Construction: The early years of a steelmaking giant                           

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stelco historical image
"Forging 5.5, 80 pound shell forgings from blanks on a 500-ton press,” circa 1944.  Credit: The Steel Company of Canada or Stelco Inc. Copyright: Expired. Retrieved from https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=5067222&new=-8585730000872055766

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By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Hot rolled, cold rolled, annealed, or custom-ordered, steel is an integral part of the construction industry, whether it is residential, commercial, or agricultural. The Steel Company of Canada was established in 1910 and was Canada’s largest producer of steel for a century.

In 1879, the federal government established tariffs to protect Canadian iron and steel manufacturers. American industrialists stepped across the border to take advantage of the markets. Two decades later, the Steel Company of Canada was formed with the merging of Canada Bolt and Nut Company, Canada Screw Company, Dominion Wire Manufacturing Company, and Montreal Rolling Mills with Hamilton Steel and Iron. The company was later given the familiar name of Stelco.

Charles Seward Wilcox from Ohio was appointed the firm’s first president, located in Hamilton, Ontario. To boost business, Seward “insisted on delaying dividends on common shares in order to build up the company’s capacity and financial situation,” wrote John C. Weaver in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Upgrading facilities, some of the steam powered machines were replaced with a North American first—an “electrically powered combination rod and bar mill” and “the world’s second electrically powered blooming mill,” according to Hamilton Spectator, Aug. 27, 2007.

With improved production and service, the Steel Company of Canada gained the trust of customers and caught the eye of government. During WWI, the steelmaker was contracted to make munitions for larger weapons on the European battlefields. Produced at several of the Stelco plants, shell-making was hot, heavy work… and profitable for the company.

“The workers melted the steel in the blast furnaces and then poured it into rectangular moulds,” said Lucie Paquet in “Soldiers at the Front, Workers in Factories,” Library and Archives Canada Blog, November 21, 2018. The fiery hot ingots were carefully placed onto wagons with tongs then taken “to the forge, where they were rolled into round bars according to the dimensions required to form the various shell tubes.” By war’s end in 1919, Stelco workers produced over 2 million shells.

As well as wartime work, the steelmaker concentrated on future production by constructing a sheet mill in 1917 that would be “a bread-and-butter line of the North American steel industry a generation later,” said William Kilbourne in Elements Combined: a history of the Steel Company of Canada (Clark Irwin 1960). “The Stelco mill was of a very primitive kind, hand-operated and requiring great skill and immense strength in the operators.”

After the war, the plant continued to make steel ingots. Expanding production by 50 per cent, Stelco may have been Canada’s largest producer of steel but not the country’s largest supplier. International firms supplied the majority of needs.

Demand for steel increased over the decades and Stelco was ready. Government contracts for shells plus steel for vehicles and ships were accepted during WWII. A portion of workers enlisted for military duty and Stelco hired women to keep plants in production. At war’s end, the soldiers returned to their jobs and the women were let go. Labour strife flared up in 1946; the resulting strike was the first of many to come. Achieving recognition, the union won the bitter battle for shorter hours and better pay.

Four years later, the economy was flourishing. Demand for steel rose significantly, fuelled by a housing boom, vehicle manufacturing, and infrastructure projects such as highways and bridges.

“Stelco’s steel capacity triples to three million tons,” said Hamilton Spectator, “and the firm invests in a research and development department.” By 1963, the company was pumping out 3 million tons of ingots and was the country’s largest manufacturer of cold drawn steel.

Feeding the oxygen-rich blast furnace with limestone, ore and coke, the ingredients caught fire and melted. The pig iron was moved to the open-hearth furnace for transformation into steel as impurities oxidized and floated out into slag. Liquid hot steel was poured into ingots.

At one of the mills, a four-ton slab of steel, 4.57 metres long “(already rolled and sliced down into that shape from a portion of ingot steel) and under great heat and pressure reduce it to a scaly red thousand-foot [about 305 m] carpet in two minutes’ time,” described Kilbourne. The steel, “after it has been pickled in acid, rinsed and dried and oiled, can be cold-rolled in about five minutes into a shining, paper-thin coil a mile long.”

Water was a crucial element in the steel-making process, for cooling and as “solvent, catalyst, cleanser and producer of power,” added Kilbourne. “A hundred and fifty net tons of it are needed to make one ton of finished steel.”

The fortunes of the Steel Company of Canada rose and collapsed over the century. Under bankruptcy protection, Stelco was acquired by US Steel in 2007 but production ended in 2013. Bedrock Industries revived the company in 2017, introducing a new era for Stelco Inc.

© Susanna McLeod 2021. McLeod is is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History

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