It was indeed with sadness that I read of the closing of the Abex Corporation's New Castle Plant and the resulting loss of employment borne by its workers. As I read the article of March 5 , 1986, I thought of the impact this Plant has had through the years on so many New Castle families. The Plant was known by several names during its history, but it was in 1909 when it was known as "Tropenas Steel company", that an explosion shook the area. Here is a partial account from the Wilmington Evening Journal of August 18, 1909. "By the explosion of an acetylene gas tank in the machine shop of the Tropenas Steel Company yesterday afternoon, James T. Ryan received injuries from which he died in the Delaware Hospital, Wilmington, three hours later. Ryan was on top of the tank when the explosion occurred and his body was blown to the roof of the building. When picked up, it was found his arms and legs were broken and his body was one mass of bruises. He was conscious and fully realized his condition. Between times that he uttered fervent prayers, he asked those about him to take care of his wife and five small children."
The oldest of the children (who would later become my father) was but twelve years of age. Four years later on May 21, 1913, he was hired by the company as a "weigh clerk" in the cleaning department at a starting wage of $5.47 per week. His employment card was signed by Ed Butler and Bill Brinton. Except for serving overseas with the 42nd "Rainbow Division" in World War I, my father's service with the steel plant was essentially uninterrupted until his retirement in 1962. Interestingly, he had become foreman of the cleaning department where he had started with the company.
The presence of the American Manganese Steel Plant, as I knew it, had considerable economic effect on the New Castle area through the years. Many of us were clothed, fed put through school and lived on earnings from the sale of railroad frogs, steam shovel buckets, drag buckets, points, lips , links and the vast variety of steel castings fabricated here at New Castle. The molds were made by Roy White, Ed Cline, Dick McGrory, Lou Stidham and others, all working under the watchful eye of Grover Ingle, the foundry foreman. The castings would be shaken out and sent over to the annealing furnace where Ed McDaniel's team would don their asbestos suits and fasten the crane hooks to the pile of six or eight tons of cherry red steel. He would then guide Dominick Chirilli's crane over the water pool and signal "lower". The resultant steam explosion and flying water was a dramatic sight to witness.
Equally dramatic would be watching Tom Bungy move his crane in to position with a big ladle to receive molten steel from the electric furnace. And many of us remember Tom trying bravely to prevent an explosion he realized was about to happen by maneuvering his crane. The explosion splashed him with molten steel, badly burning him.
The Plant was not an easy place to work as indeed no steel foundry is. It was physically demanding on its workers. The air was always dust filled and you breathed it - and yes, choked on it and you had the odor of manganese steel on you. But somehow you had pride in associating yourself with this work. It was an invaluable experience working with men like Alex Garneski, Joe Medora, Ralph Divito, John Gilkey, Joe Armpriester, Joe Rossell, Harold Emery, Bill Dalby, Dominick DiSabatino, Fred Rush, Edgar Bowen, Mope White, Bill Denny, Grover Ingle, Harry Ingle, Chick White, Bill Payton, Charlie Hewlett, Joe Mullin, Frank Kelly, Tony Esopi, Hughie Ryan (Sr) , Ed Butler, Ed Cline, Horace Conover, Harry Gallagher, Bill Peden, Barney Williamson, Cliff Ivery, Francis White, Johnny Proud, Earl DiSabatino, Johnny McDevitt, Mike Indellini, Emmett Covelli, Frank Yaccucci, Johnny Hall, Claude Phillips, Norman Banks, Don Nichols and many others.
But the incident I remember as the town's finest hour in its association with the Plant came because of another tragic accident. I was a crane operator at the time and was shocked beyond belief to see a friend of the family and neighbor, Mr. "Bob" White, suddenly become critically injured in some massive moving machinery used to crush coke. Mr . John Proud climbed up and freeing Bob, lowered him gently to the ground. A lot of us had tears of sadness and frustration on our faces that day. That evening, dignity and faith replaced fear and sorrow. Hundreds of New Castle citizens went quietly to their churches. No plan, no signal, they just moved . . . . . and were heard.
But all that was yesterday, and within a few hours the Edgar Allen, Tropenas, Amsco or Abex Steel Plant, whichever name you care to use, seems destined to also become yesterday......
March 9, 1986
Contributed by Mabel Ryan