By Tim Rowden
Sr. Staff Writer
At the time, it seemed like just another job, Ken Wright said of the period, nearly 50 years ago, when he worked at Pittsburgh-Des Moines (PDM) steel fabricating plant in Warren, Pa., crafting the steel sections that would form the Gateway Arch.
Last week, Wright rode to the top of the monument for the first time.
The Arch was completed in 1965 and stands 630 feet tall.
“When we were first working on this, we just went ‘Hmmm, another job,’ and took it for granted,” Wright said. “We never dreamed it would be this magnificent and this great of a thing. There’s nothing like this in the whole world, and I doubt if there ever will be anything like this ever built.”
Wright was among a contingent of 11 retired and former Boilermakers and one manager from PDM, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who traveled over 700 miles to St. Louis to see the monument – some, like Wright, for the first time – at the behest of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which arranged and recorded the trip.
National Park Service officials and representatives of the Boilermakers were on hand to welcome the men and document their contributions, which until now have largely gone unnoticed.
A PLACE IN HISTORY
About 80 percent of the Arch sections were constructed by Boilermaker Local 659 members at the PDM plant in Warren. The base sections were constructed at a separate PDM facility at Neville Island, Pa.
The PDM facility in Warren included about 150 craftsmen. That number swelled by more than 100 as the firm began fabricating the wedge-shaped carbon steel/stainless steel sections that would form the Arch.
“Ironworkers, along with other trades, did a masterful job of erecting the Arch on site,” said Boilermakers International President Newton B. Jones. “But there is another story that has gone largely untold.
“The men who did the front-end work, who crafted the individual Arch sections to the exacting specifications before shipping them to St. Louis by rail, are a part of the monument’s history, too,” Jones said.
“By organizing this event, we hope to recognize their contributions and secure their place in history.”
Wright was in his 20s when he started work on the project. A fitter, he worked on the framing for the windows in the monument’s observation deck.
Now 74, Wright was visibly awed last week when he saw the finished product of his work.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “All I’ve ever seen is pictures. But when you get down here, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s magnificently beautiful.”
‘A PART OF IT’
Jim Phillips, 75, who like Wright was seeing the monument for the first time, threaded the tie-rods that pulled the sections together from the inside.
“I feel great about having something to do with part of it,” Phillips said. “It’s a great memorial. The people of the St. Louis area have to be really proud.”
Archie Brittain, 79, worked on the project in 1964 and ’65.
“I was a layout person. I laid out all the sizes of the stainless steel plates.”
It was a nice job, as he recalls, and produced steady work.
Brittain has been to the monument before, but he still gets excited when he sees it.
“It’s exciting just to be able to go up on the inside and see what is there, because I know how it’s all put together,” Brittain said. “It looks a lot better than I thought it was going to. When you see one piece at a time it doesn’t amount to too much, but when you get it together, it’s awesome.”
Donald Chambers, 73, worked the nightshift at PDM and helped form the pieces, sometimes using a block and a hammer.
“Some of those parts, when they got up to the top, you couldn’t straighten them by tightening bolts and loosening them, you had to try to bend it. ”
Using a block and hammer was unconventional, Chambers said, but it was necessary given the size of the pieces with which they were working.
“You couldn’t bend them just heating them; it had to take some force,” Chambers said. “You couldn’t put it in the press. That was the only way we could straighten them out.”
Chambers has one of the stainless steel sections that were cut out for the windows as a souvenir of his time on the project.
This was his fourth time to visit the Arch, and he says he’ll be back. “I’ve got to bring my grandchildren,” he said.
He wants to make sure they and other people know what he and his coworkers did.
“You tell people in the town that we live in that you worked on the Arch and they say ‘What arch?’ ” Chambers said. “They have no idea that it was manufactured and put together eight miles up the road.”
‘A GOOD JOB’
Ike Erdman, 75, was a welder on the project, working on the boiler plate steel located inside the structure.
“It was a good job,” he said. “And we made good money. I was an A-rate welder. It paid $2.81 an hour, which was not bad back then.”
Erdman had been to the Arch once before in the 1990s, but he says he’d still like to see the interior. He’d like to find one of his stamps on the finished welds.
‘IT’S PRETTY NICE’
Bob Youngquist, 93, was a burner on the project and watched the sections move out piece by piece on the train. This was his first visit to the monument.
“I never realized how big it was going to be or anything like that,” Youngquist said. “I never thought it would be so well known. It’s pretty nice.”
‘NONE LIKE THIS'
National Park Service Superintendent Tom Bradley presented Youngquist and the other Boilermakers with a copy of the book “The Gateway Arch, An Architectural Dream,” written on the 40th anniversary of the monument’s completion, to commemorate their visit. He also invited them to come back for the monument’s 50th anniversary on Oct. 28, 2015.
“We’ve had many reunions here of workers over the years, but none quite like this one,” Bradley said. “Many of you were instrumental in building the Arch, this incredible memorial, yet never saw it when it was completed. But it’s due to your hard work that we’re here today.
Bradley said the Arch receives about 2.5 million visitors a year.
“You get an idea of the impact that your work has resulted in,” Bradley told the Boilermakers. “People come here from all over the world to appreciate this.”