Editor’s Note: This is the first in a semi-monthly column by the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s Jack Burkert, who is a Dundalkian. Burkert will be writing about Bethlehem Steel and the history of Sparrows Point.
The invention of a railroad was exciting but often dangerous. The railroad companies, the signalmen, the boilermakers and alarmingly, the passengers, were all learning how many things could go wrong. One at a time, exploding boilers, head-on collisions, and devastating fires became problems largely solved. One major problem remained.
Trains rode on tracks, and the earliest tracks were flat and made of iron. Iron rails were subject to breakage under the weight of the train and when an iron rail broke, some of the broken pieces or iron rail would go upward, piercing the wooden floor of the passenger compartment. Riders were injured, even killed from what were known as “Snakeheads”.
The Pennsylvania Railroad learned that a stronger metal would solve the Snakehead problem. When it became available, they created a new company, the Pennsylvania Steel Company (1867), to manufacture rails made of steel. In time, this company learned of a location that was perfect for making steel: a farm deeded to Thomas Sparrow, later owned by others including the Fitzell family. By 1887, negotiations concluded and the Fitzell’s peach orchards soon became a steel mill. Furnace “A” began producing in 1889.
The work of building the mill, and the attached town, fell to two brothers: Frederick and Rufus Wood. Fredrick the engineer focused on the plant, brother Rufus developed the life and living part of the project. The work of these two brothers led the Pennsylvania Steel Company to create a new name for the company, the Maryland Steel Company, with the brothers in charge.
By 1916, the Maryland Steel operations caught the eye of another admirer. Sparrows Point was indeed an excellent location for steelmaking, and the Bethlehem Steel Company soon became the new owner of the mill, through changing times and changing conditions for the remainder of the 20th century.