Workers mourn Sparrows Point steel mill

For generations of Sparrows Point steelworkers, Micky's restaurant on North Point Boulevard was the place to go for a sandwich before work, a pile of chicken gizzards for lunch or a few Natty Bohs to cap off a double shift.

On paydays, when the eatery cashed checks, it was even more giddily packed than usual. "That's when lines were out the door," recalled Howard "Howie" Evans, an ironworker foreman who labored at the plant for more than 20 years.

On Tuesday, though, the place was quiet, the mood glum. A dozen or so workers, most already unemployed, sipped beers at the bar and faced the latest round of harsh news — that RG Steel LLC, which owned the steel mill, had sold it to an industrial plant liquidator, Hilco Industrial.

"Sparrows Point employed a lot of people for a lot of years. It's hard to believe it might be sold for scrap," said Evans, a 32-year member of Ironworkers 16, as he nursed a beer at the bar. "This will have a profound effect on the whole area. It's really going to hurt."

Micky's became a bar and package store two years ago after a succession of moves at the 120-year-old plant left more and more workers unemployed. The bad news continued this year, as RG Steel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, then laid off most of Sparrows Point's 2,000 workers and idled the plant.

Bartender Sarah Crum, a six-year employee, filled glasses below a bar mirror on which a sign announced a coming bash in neon letters: LUAU the 25th. BEER GARDEN. PIG ROAST.

She wasn't in a festive mood.

"Business has been up and down, depending on who has bought [the plant]. Lately, everybody has been getting laid off. This news is just the nail in the coffin," she said.

In midafternoon, images of Olympic sprinters flickered on several TV screens, and the occasional click of pool balls punctuated the quiet.

As Evans, 61, sat with friends like longtime steelworker Bill Cowger, 63, and Tony Cahoon, 55, a former railroad track maintenance man, their conversation came across as part nostalgia, part early stages of grief.

Cowger's grandfather was a shipbuilder at Bethlehem Steel, his father a millwright, and both worked at Sparrows Point for more than 40 years. Cahoon's father and two of his uncles did the same.

Cowger and Cahoon grew up in Sparrows Point, fondly recalling a time when life on the mill grounds felt stable and predictable — when the plant itself housed workers in rowhouses and managers in bungalows, when the Point included a grocery store, a church, bowling alleys, rifle ranges and a streetcar line.

You didn't even need money to function there; you could show your work badge, and "they'd take it out of your paycheck," Cowger said. "You could pretty much live without ever leaving the Point."

When he was a kid, Cahoon said, it was routine for traffic to be backed up along the local streets when shifts changed at the plant.

"This was the most happening place," he recalled.

On Tuesday, as Micky's patrons tried to process word of the sale, all of that might as well have been centuries ago.

When bricklayer Vernon Conroy came in for a brew, the news was so fresh he hadn't even heard it yet.

Told what had happened, he appeared stunned.

"They're not going to reopen the plant?" said Conroy, 42, who was laid off in May by his Alabama-based company, Bisco Refractories, which did considerable business at Sparrows Point. "I was told something [good] was going to happen. That was all I had to look forward to. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

Some wondered why the state and federal governments had not stepped in to help. Others, including construction technician Yogi Elliott, said they were not surprised at the bad news — and blamed what they described as mismanagement by RG Steel, including excessive attention to safety regulations.

"This plant is capable of making the best steel in the world, but you need the right people to run it. We were hoping someone would buy the plant and run it like a steel company," he said.

Elliott, 57, who was laid off in May, three years shy of qualifying for his pension, said he was "one of hundreds" of workers in similar straits.

Hilco has made no public statements about its intentions for the plant, and the customers at Micky's traded rumors that the firm might merely sell off some nonessential pieces, then try to sell the site to an international steelmaker such as CSN, a Brazilian company that had expressed interest in May.

"I think something's still going to happen," said John F. Houserholdt, 80, an ironworker who had labored at the site for 56 years before being laid off three weeks ago. "Who would take a place like this and sell it for scrap?"

Elliott wasn't so sure. He just hoped he and his laid-off colleagues would have jobs again soon.

"There are so many rumors swirling around," he said, taking a draw on a beer. "That they're going to scrap the place. That they're going to turn it into an Indy [racecar] track or an amusement park. Who knows? We're just hanging on, hoping for some good news."