Steel Yourself for This Nugget Uncovered by Answer Man

The machine shop and administrative offices of the Washington Steel and Ordnance Co., built and operated by Firth-Sterling Steel Co., at Giesboro Point. Opened in 1907, it had closed by 1922.
The machine shop and administrative offices of the Washington Steel and Ordnance Co., built and operated by Firth-Sterling Steel Co., at Giesboro Point. Opened in 1907, it had closed by 1922. (Courtesy Of Wes Ponder)

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By John Kelly
Sunday, July 29, 2007

I come from McKeesport, a town in western Pennsylvania where my father had been general superintendent in a specialized steel mill named Firth-Sterling. Imagine my surprise when I moved to this area in 1959 and found that a street in Southeast Washington had the same name. Can you please let me know if the street is named after the steel mill and the circumstances that led to naming the street?

-- Ed Slack, Leesburg

In December 1905, The Washington Post published a plaintive letter from a reader under the headline "Opposes Projectile Plant."

The reader was responding to a series of rah-rah articles in The Post announcing plans for a steel plant on the banks of the Eastern Branch, at a place called Giesboro Point. More than 700 skilled men were expected to move to Washington to work in the plant, where they would churn out armor-piercing shells for the Navy.

It would be a $5 million windfall for the city, The Post predicted. It might even help transform Washington into a true center of manufacturing. The capital would finally have the "important industrial character dreamed of by its founder."

Not so fast, wrote the reader, who had signed his letter "Former Resident." He was not a former resident of Washington but of Pittsburgh, a place where every time the wind blows, "a cloud of smoke . . . will hang over the city like a London fog," he said. The smoke-belching steel plants there darkened the collars of any pedestrian who ventured outside.

"I ask," he wrote, "is it worthwhile?" Washington was a beautiful, residential city, free from the "grime and clatter" of more industrial cities. Manufacturing in the city would ruin that.

His appeal fell on deaf ears, and in 1907, the plant opened for business. Set on 360 acres, the plant itself took up 10 acres. Although it was usually referred to as the Washington Steel and Ordnance Co., the plant was built and operated by Firth-Sterling Steel Co. of McKeesport, Pa. Thus the name of the street.

A manufacturing facility has its own set of challenges. In 1908, some of the projectile turners -- the men who ran the lathes that shaved the shells -- went on strike, objecting to a series of what they said were punitive fines levied by a new foreman. Various grisly accidents also turn up in the pages of The Post, including one in 1917 involving a red-hot shell fragment that somehow pierced the groin of one Mason Henderson, 27, of 1125 E St. NE. The Post reported that the doctor who examined Henderson's body "would not discuss the case last night, stating he had promised not to talk about it."

The workforce -- and the output -- at the plant was doubled during World War I, but by 1922, Washington's only steel plant had closed, its memory living on in the name of a street in Southeast. The area was later developed into Bolling Air Force Base.

Washington never did become a center of industry -- except for the sort done in committee rooms and hotel lobbies, activities more suited to wingtip shoes than steel-toed boots.

Goodbye, Mr. Answer Man

And that's it -- Answer Man's last column until he returns from his year in England. He, oh heck, I have enjoyed answering your questions about our area, first in the pages of the Sunday Source and then in "John Kelly's Washington" in the Comics and in Metro.

There are still a lot of questions I haven't gotten to the bottom of: Why does the corner of 17th and L NW often smell like sewage? Who is the mysterious long-haired blond man you often see walking in Montgomery County and Rock Creek Park? Sometimes I worry that I'll run out of questions, but you always seem to come through.

Although I won't be answering questions until next year, I will take them, to squirrel away like acorns for my eventual return. Drop me a line at john@voxford.com.

And, please: Stay curious.

Julia Feldmeier helped research this column.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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