The mill is long gone, but a virtual reality simulation created by a longtime steelworker aims to bring Bethlehem Steel back to life.
Andrew Morton, who played an integral role at the Sparrows Point mill and was one of the last steelworkers at the mill when it closed in 2012, is creating a fully interactive virtual reality simulation of the mill, consisting of over 25,000 individual pieces.
The simulation keeps the mill alive by allowing a user to walk around the mill and follow the journey of a piece of steel as it’s created.
“The purpose of it is to give tribute to the men and women that worked at Bethlehem Steel,” Morton said. “Bethlehem Steel played an integral part in the State of Maryland. So many people’s lives were intertwined with Bethlehem Steel.”
And as those people get older, the “image of Bethlehem Steel will be faded,” he said, adding that there’s “nothing that can capture” that image in 2D, but the simulation’s blasts of fire can show a user just how hot it was on the point.
“You don’t need VR glasses for the simulation,” he said. “You just pick your man, and get to work.”
At this point, he’s spent over 7,000 hours building the simulation over the years, having started in 2017 after giving an outline to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, who partnered with him for the project. He’s still working on completing a model of the massive “L” blast furnace that was unveiled at Sparrows Point in 1978.
It’s not the first time Morton has recreated parts of the mill in 3D. In the 90s, he became the first Black employee to have an hourly, union steelworking job and an outside contract for software when he created a training simulation for mill operators.
That interactive program, which Morton developed in Lightwave and Microsoft Office, cut down employee’s training time from about six months to four weeks.
“An employee could sit down and go through the screens, go through the work, and make calibrations and changes as if he was working the mill,” Morton said. The big difference being, if the worker messed up in the simulation, it wouldn’t be an expensive mistake shutting down the mill.
Having developed the simulation, Morton set up a meeting with Bethlehem, who had been seeking training software. There were two major software companies competing for a contract to create that software, but those programs would take a long time to develop, and Morton’s was already finished.
“I told them, ‘If I have a product that can benefit this mill, allow us to have a better product to give to our customers, and better trained people working here, don’t deny me this because of the color of my skin’,” Morton said.
Bethlehem chose Morton’s.
“I will say this, that program saved a lot of lives,” fellow steelworker Robert Price told The Eagle last month, aside Morton after the pair had been interviewed by a French TV station at Tradepoint Atlantic, on the ground that used to belong to the steel behemoth. Jobs at Sparrows Point were notoriously dangerous, and required a lot of precise training.
The simulation came from a unique love of the mill that Morton, who remembers his exact start date, June 25, 1970, held during his time there. He started in the “labor gang” and worked in the blast furnace for 17 years, learning all of the jobs there. He also worked in the coke oven and the 68” hot strip, becoming a lead trainer at the hot mill.
Eventually, he was staying after work and sketching machinery, jotting down the steelmaking process from start to finish.
“During that time period, I realized how the training was inadequate, and I decided I was going to use my computer skills and create the mill, and create a working simulation,” he said.
Manuals from that time were written “by engineers, for engineers,” he said, and didn’t make much sense to those with boots on the ground, so he decided to apply his computer skills, which he learned under a bargained education agreement the company had offered, which allowed him to attend computer classes at CCBC Essex in the 1990s. He later graduated from North American University with a 4.0 GPA, attending after the mill went down in 2012.
And he keeps going. Morton said he has been working on a 3D model of Turner Station as it was during the town and the mill’s heyday.
“So many people who worked at Bethlehem Steel lived there,” he said. He’s also working on a model of the company town of Sparrows Point, and an interactive Black history and U.S. history program for Baltimore City Public Schools that he wants to make available to all.
“Black history, and American history, are all intertwined” he said.
He’s also done lectures on the mill at Towson University, alongside longtime CCBC Dundalk labor studies director Bill Barry, whom he credits with pushing him to get his skills out there.