Aluminum roll

Aluminum, cut to precise width and thickness, rolls at Alcoa Mill Products in Lancaster in this 2000 file photo. 

In the late 1950s, right out of college, I was employed in Lancaster by an aluminum company, the old Quaker State Metals Co. (later to become Howmet then Alumax and eventually Alcoa). The company manufactured a line of metal building products as well as being a producer of aluminum sheet and coil from the rolling mill department.

It was rough competing with the big boys in the industry, and we had to make do with a lot of well-used and tired equipment to keep our costs down.

The huge old United rolling mill was salvaged from the Ford Motor Co. River Rouge plant in Michigan, when they upgraded to wider mills. The annealing furnaces were quite old, but they were able to be cobbled together for use, bypassing the safety devices on the startup procedure. (These were in the days before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and stringent safety guidelines were in play.)

We had recently put in a used hot mill to roll aluminum ingots down from 8-inch-thick slabs to long coils of quarter-inch thickness, prior to sending the coils to the cold mill to be rolled down to lighter gauges. Before entering the mill rolls, the slabs had to be heated to almost 1,000 degrees in a special gas-fired furnace, also purchased used.

It was a tribute to the ingenuity and resourceful skills of a Lancaster County workforce, who got all this old equipment up and running and subsequently maintained.

In 1959, I was appointed as night shift superintendent to the factory. My work hours were from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Friday. I had Saturdays off but was asked to return at 9 p.m. Sunday nights to light the furnaces and stay until midnight or 1 a.m., after they were operating properly. I didn't mind; I chalked it up to furthering my education.

One memorable Sunday night, I came in at the usual time. Entering the deserted, dimly lit mill building alone was always a little unnerving, with just the sound of hissing pipes, distant chattering of an air compressor and assorted pumps, the creaking expansion or contracting of pipes and a few unidentified noises.

Starting up the two annealing furnaces were first on the list. On steel tracks, heavy carriages each contained about 80,000 pounds of aluminum coils, which, after cold rolling, had to be heated up to about 700 degrees to soften the metal for further rolling.

When starting these furnaces, the safety cut-off switches were worn or overly temperamental, so wooden popsicle sticks had to be inserted between the electric contact points to override the controls.

The sticks were to be removed immediately when the day shift arrived at 6 a.m. One time, the early morning guy did not pull the sticks, the temperature increased and large pools of molten aluminum dripped onto the floor below the carriages.

I salvaged a few pieces from these free-form melted blobs and entered two of them at a craft show as art. One won second prize. The largest measured about 4 feet long and appeared like an artist’s interpretation of a pending storm with a strange, almost human profile entering the boiling clouds. I had it set above my fireplace mantel for years.

The most memorable furnace adventure occurred one Sunday night with the lighting of the ingot furnace. The startup procedure involved about 10 steps. On summer nights, the temperature on the upper catwalk was about 125 degrees.

The last step was to open the main gas-flow valve to start the full temperature climb in the ingot chamber. It was always a thrill to feel the ignition of the main gas nozzles taking hold in the firebox, with a huge WHUMP, and to feel the vibrations.

This particular night, all went according to plan until I turned on the gas-flow valve — which was to be done gradually. As soon as I cracked open the valve, there was a huge explosion and the whole top of the furnace completely lifted off the top, accompanied by fire brick, chunks of mortar, dust and debris and a concussion that shook the whole factory.

Fortunately, I was at the main control panel and out of the firing range, and was able to hit the emergency cut-off switch to stop the action. It was a frightening experience, and I was thankful that no major fire had broken out or other equipment had been damaged.

It was later determined that the old pressure regulator had developed a deteriorated diaphragm that had perforated, allowing the whole gas-main pressure to enter the furnace at once, causing the explosion — not anything I had done wrong.

That incident started a safety program to update components of the old equipment to eliminate any future occurrences.

The vice president of manufacturing stated to me afterward that he was glad at first to welcome me to get this exposure in management experience at the production level, and hoped that my coming on board would start out with a bang.

But that this was not exactly what they had in mind.

The author lives in Rapho Township.

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