Companies & Industries

The Ode: Hamilton Works (1887-2013)

Generations lived on Stelco wages

A Stelco worker directs the pouring of molten steel

A Stelco worker directs the pouring of molten steel, December 1940. (Library and Archives Canada)

Born in 1887, Hamilton Works was for many decades Canada’s largest steel mill, owned and operated by Stelco, which was Canada’s largest steel producer for most of the 20th century. Sprawled over more than 1,000 acres on Hamilton’s waterfront, Stelco’s flagship was an ever-evolving assortment of blast furnaces, mills, coke ovens, rolling mills and coating lines, linked together by industrial processes only a veteran steelworker could comprehend. It churned out steel plate, sheets in every conceivable variety, hot rolled strip and reinforcing bars.

Operating every hour of every day, Hamilton Works provided financial sustenance for generations of families, and also for the city, as a major municipal taxpayer. By the time it was renamed Hilton Works in 1964 (in honour of a former company president), steel’s dominance in the local economy was near total. The price: the plant spewed emulsified oils into Hamilton Harbour, and belched noxious fumes into the sky. Flared gas from its furnaces burned through the night.

Stelco’s fortunes crested in the 1970s, but labour disputes plagued the plant, prompting debilitating strikes about once every decade—the longest, in 1981, lasted 125 days.

Confronted by growing volumes of dirt-cheap steel from China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, and so-called mini-mills closer to home, dozens of North American steelmakers retreated into bankruptcy protection during the early 2000s. Stelco joined the queue in 2004. It emerged two years later greatly diminished, having, for example, sold and dismantled its plate mill. Unremitting post-restructuring losses pushed Stelco into the hands of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel in late 2007. By then innovation at the Works had all but ceased, and most of its workforce was at or nearing retirement age.

The Canadian government never held U.S. Steel to production and employment levels promised at the time of purchase. Instead the company administered more temporary idlings and layoffs; globally, far too many mills continued churning out steel at prices the aging Works couldn’t match. During an Oct. 29 conference call, U.S. Steel declared steelmaking shall cease permanently at the Works. About 800 workers continue making coke, cold-rolled and galvanized strip at this otherwise dormant industrial graveyard, which silently memorializes a departed way of life.