On this date in 1995, Bethlehem Steel shut down the blast furnaces in its hometown. So in recognition of all the hard work put in by the workers in Bethlehem and steel mills around the country, this week we take a look at some of the special equipment that makes the steel industry so appealing to modelers.
There is something just awesome about a steel mill. From the massive buildings, the maze of piping, the smoke, the smell, the noise… it is like something from another world. And scurrying about this labyrinth are strange locomotives and cars – many looking like they were created in Frankenstein’s lab and then tested through two wars. Steel mill trains run the gamut from highly specialized machines to repurposed freight cars that appear to be clinging to life by a prayer and perhaps a roll of duct tape. To be sure, the environment is hard on them all.
Although the steel industry encompasses a very wide range of production facilities, the most symbolic are the blast furnaces. Here raw materials by the train load are blended and melted to form the steel that builds the world. Here too can be seen two of the special cars most typically associated with steel production; hot metal and slag cars.
Hot metal cars, also called bottles or submarines, are used to transport the molten steel from the furnace to casting facilities where the steel is poured into ingots or slabs. This raw steel will be further refined into other shapes in another building. These torpedo-shaped cars feature heavy trucks on each end and can be turned to pour out their hot loads.
The casting building may be within the same complex, or it may be a few miles away. In these cases, the submarines are often handled over common-carrier railroads. Because of the nature of the loads, time is of the essence in these moves. Spacer cars, usually gondolas or flatcars, are placed between the bottles and the locomotive and caboose to protect from the heat and also often between cars to help with weight distribution over bridges and for added braking power. So you don’t actually have to model the furnace to model the train!
Slag pots are used to collect the waste products that collect on the top of a charge in the furnace. These byproducts aren’t needed in the steel, but they aren’t wasted either. When the furnace is tapped, the steel is directed to the bottle cars for production. The slag is then diverted to another set of loading spouts where these railcars are waiting. Again, the slag must make a trip by rail, usually over the steel mill’s own trackage or a railroad owned by the mill to a pit where the hot slag can be dumped. Like the bottle cars, these giant kettles can be tipped over to release their contents. After it has cooled, the solid slag is collected and used for the production of cinder blocks or by the mill railroad for ballast.
Of course, these operations are just the beginning. Even a small steel mill offers lots of modeling opportunities. From the big railroads that bring in raw materials and pick up the finished product, industry-owned railroads that handle the switching within the mill, and sometimes even much larger operations, even narrow gauge railroads within the mill to handle dozens of smaller duties – there is no shortage of variety. Small steam and industrial diesel locomotives, even electrics can be found. Then there are the gondolas, hoppers, ore jennies and flat cars that supply the mill and its customers. The modeling possibilities here are endless! You could add a steel mill to your layout, or you could make a steel mill your layout and never run out of projects.