WASHINGTON, September 19, 2012 — Broad dark shadows angle across the outside lane and shoulders of historic Route 30, America’s first coast-to-coast highway.
The shadows are those of a 28-truck convoy and the massive steel cargo the Mack trucks haul from New York City. The cargo, the steel girders which have become recognizable icons to every American and to people around the world, are the largest remnants of the fallen World Trade Center. The picture of them is virtually etched in our minds. We see them standing ghostlike, proud protectors of the revered ruins of the twin towers. Long have they stood watch, like wounded centurions.
On April 14, 2010, this caravan of flatbed trucks could be seen rolling slowly, methodically, along old Lincoln Highway toward their destination. Perhaps some think the steel structures should have stayed in New York as part of the WTC memorial at Ground Zero, along with other artifacts. Only one girder, however, was left behind for that purpose. Ten were coming home, that April day, returning to their place of origin, the city that manufactured them more than 40 years earlier. That place was Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
This holds special interest to me because Coatesville is the city where I was born and raised. Most Washingtonians hail from somewhere else and frequently or periodically visit their hometowns. Like them, I take pride in my own hometown.
The City, The Mill
Lukens Steel Company churned and thrived when I was a child during WWII. This productive mill galvanized Coatesville into a busy and prosperous city in which to live. This was especially true during those war years because it manufactured the largest steel plates in the world.
I played and slept within the sound and fury of Lukens’ full-capacity 24-hour operation.
I recall the roar of Lukens’ furnaces, the horn blasts, the loud whistles, and the rattle of steam engines and freight trains chugging out of its shipping area, across Main Street, tracking east toward Philadelphia, just 40 miles away.
My father fired the furnaces at Lukens during WWII. My older brother joined the Lukens team after his discharge from the Army. My brother-in-law worked there, after fighting aboard the USS Cabot for 30 months in the Pacific. My cousin worked at Lukens after returning from the Korean war.
You may understand my pride as the flatbed trucks, almost 30 of them, move somberly, in a mile-long procession, carrying some 500 tons of structural supports. “Steel trees,” as they were dubbed, when they pulled out of Lukens Steel headquarters, in 1969, destined for New York City to become part of the two tallest buildings in the world.
As the caravan approached Coatesville on that April day in 2010, fire trucks of the city and Chester county idled in a roadside formation, flashing lights in welcome. Hundreds of residents lined the sidewalks and waved American flags, many reaching up to touch the wreckage as it passes. Folks posed for pictures, some smiling, some weeping, some saluting — all proud Americans.
These beams, vivid remnants of the most horrific destruction waged upon the United States homeland, were forged by Lukens Steel Co. These 10 five-ton support structures framed the perimeter of the first nine floors and lobbies of the twin towers before the horrendous attacks reduced both 110-story towers to rubble. One beam was torn from the South Tower; the nine others were from the northeast corner of the North Tower.
“We’re happy to receive them,” said one resident, Mary Sullivan. “But, really, we didn’t ever want them back. Certainly not for the reason they’re coming home.”
Officials hope to use the steel structures as the centerpiece of an industrial history museum. Graystone Society, a local historical preservation group overseeing the museum which was opened three years ago is presently displaying just one of the beams. The other nine are in secure storage, while Graystone seeks additional funding in order to add the remaining nine beams.
Remembrance of the Birth of the Steel Trees
The Lukens Steel Company enjoys another distinction. It is the only manufacturing company to have been managed by a woman. In 1825, upon the death of her husband, Rebecca Lukens assumed leadership of the operation, becoming the first female industrialist in the United States.
Scott Huston, a descendent of the Lukens family and president of the Graystone Society, said of these structures, “They were born here, but they lived and died in New York.”
These twisted steel supports, planted and angled in the debris of Ground Zero, became an iconic image of defiance and strength for our mourning nation.
John Gillen, who worked for Lukens when the steel structures were being forged, remembers the moment the girders were shipped out of the Lukens lot in 1969, on their way to the Big Apple aboard railroad cars specially configured to carry such massive beams.
He told how Lukens employees have always been proud of everything they made from armored plating for aircraft carriers in WWII to sonar spheres for submarines to the steel skin of what were among the tallest skyscrapers in the world.
“When we saw those beams still standing,” Mr. Gillen shouted, “we were proud.” Then he adds reverently, “And we built them.”
More information may be obtained at: www.steelmuseum.org.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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