Human civilizations accumulate strange landmarks, odd structures that resound with the echoes of ancient mysteries, strange rituals and arcane power. The Great Pyramid, Stonehenge and the silent, brooding temples of Machu Picchu in Peru all whisper to us murmurings of lost arts and secret knowledge.
In Dundalk, such a site stands at the mystery shrouded corner of Merritt Avenue and Merritt Boulevard. At the edge of the known, on the corner of a street many people don’t even know exists, stands a bizarre edifice.; a collection of vertical girders of steel, some naked to the elements, arranged in a pattern guided by the dictates of some hidden learning veiled to the eyes of the uninitiated.
Don’t believe me? Go see for yourself. Go to Merritt Avenue, if you even know where Merritt Avenue is. There, at the end of a commercial block that includes an electronics repair shop, a Chinese restaurant and an auto parts store [Note from 2015: the Chinese restaurant and the auto parts distributor are still there] sits this structure. Just a relic of our industrial past, you say? No. My investigation rips away the shroud of mystery surrounding this occult temple of steel, this mysterious monument of metallurgy, and reveals the fantastic, inescapable truth.
After exhaustive research, including consultation of texts and two quick phone calls, I learned the structure is owned by a secret and powerful brotherhood known as the Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers, Local Union 16, AFL-CIO. At the tower, they train their initiates, whom they call “apprentices,” in the venerable art of ironworking.
In the mid 1980s, the union erected the girder tower as a hands-on learning tool for apprentice training. New union members go through a four-year apprenticeship during which they learn the fundamentals of the ironworking trade. Trainees are taught how to work with structural steel, the backbone of our modern office towers and stadiums, how to place and install precast concrete and steel-reinforced concrete, how to rig heavy building materials and equipment for safe movement and how to make glass curtain walls and ornamentation from such materials as brass, glass and cement.
At the girder tower, apprentices are taught rigging, scaffolding and suspension float techniques Suspension floats are platforms hung from the structure itself to allow members to access hard-to-reach spots where they must work. The tower is also used to teach column climbing .
In my business, “column climbing” is an attempt to improve one’s social standing by making glowing references to famous people under one’s byline in the hopes that the celebrities so honored will notice and be appropriately appreciative. My column, however, never includes such sniveling, sycophantic attempts at shameless self-promotion, largely because my editor and my wife constantly remove my not-infrequent references concerning Minnie Driver and Helena Bonham Carter.
But, in ironworking, column climbing is the art of physically hauling yourself up a vertical shaft of steel to perform necessary work and, in the process, not die. The tower is so ideal for this sort of training that that it is the site of the regional Ironworkers column-climbing competition. Union members from all over the mid-Atlantic will gather this summer to pit their strength and ability against one another to win a coveted spot at the international competition in Belle Harbor, Fla. (which makes them luckier than last year’s competitors who had to climb in Anchorage). The two girders facing Merritt Avenue are left unpainted because the competition rules require, as apprentice coordinator Frank Piccione explained, that the steel be “raw.”
Raw steel and iron men are the legacies of a union founded more than a century ago in Pittsburgh to represent the craftsmen who build in hard metal and reinforced concrete. While this legacy lives on in our community, training at the tower has, alas been suspended until the weather clears. Trainees will begin learning how to construct a glass curtain wall when conditions permit. In the meantime, in the spirit of solidarity, they lend their premises to Painters and Allied Trades, District Council #51 for sandblasting training. The shrink wrap that currently obscuring the lower portion of the structure is there to protect the community from this activity [Note from 2015: it was pretty weird looking at the time].
So there you have it. The girder tower really is a site where secret arts are taught and special knowledge imparted. As for moonlight rituals, furtive sacrifices or offerings made in homage to the god of iron, the union didn’t say and I didn’t ask. Sometimes it’s safer not to know.
(first printed 2000)