Pennsylvania boilermakers want you to know that they helped build the Arch, too | St. Louis Public Radio

Pennsylvania boilermakers want you to know that they helped build the Arch, too

Oct 22, 2015

It’s headed for St. Louis, an arch to the sky;

A Gateway to the West, 630 feet high.

A hundred generations will see what you’ve made

Risin’ on the Mississippi with glory and grace.

— “An American Dream” by Ike Erdman and David Bush

Retired welder Ike Erdmann is proud of the work that he and nearly 300 Pennsylvania boilermakers did on the Gateway Arch 50 years ago, so he wrote and recorded a song about them.

These workers never set foot on the Mississippi levee during the monument's construction. They didn’t balance on sky-high scaffolding, with the sun in their eyes and the wind on their faces. They did their work — the cutting, grinding, bolting and welding — in a now-shuttered Pittsburgh-Des Moines (PDM) steel plant in western Pennsylvania, about 700 miles from St. Louis.

When the last whistle sounds, and the last train is gone,

I’m gonna follow it to Missouri and see it glisten in the sun ...  

Warren, Penn., was home to a Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel factory that fabricated the sections of the Arch.
Credit The Baby Arch project

And some of them never saw the completed Arch until 2012, when they got on a bus together and drove to the Gateway City to see for themselves the icon they helped build.

As St. Louis celebrates the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Arch, the Pennsylvania boilermakers have launched a drive to build a small-scale replica “Baby Arch” to commemorate their work in Warren, Penn., the home of their old PDM plant.

And some of the workers will be in St. Louis for the anniversary celebration. The National Park Service Foundation has invited them to participate in a “Meet the Builders” event on Oct. 28 at the Missouri History Museum

'What is this thing, anyway?'

Erdman, 78, is hoping to sell recordings of his ode to the boilermakers — titled “An American Dream” — to help with the fundraising effort.

Ike Erdman, right, speaks with historian Charles Jones of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers during the group's visit to the Arch in 2012.
Credit International Brotherhood of Boilermakers

“The majority of the people who live in Warren don’t know that the Arch was built there. They thought that was all done out in St. Louis, ‘’ Erdman says. “That whole thing was made in Warren. Other than the sections underground, they were all fabricated at PDM in Warren, and they were erected in St. Louis by the ironworkers.”

Erdman says he was hired by PDM in the spring of 1964 and paid $2.18 an hour, eventually working his way up to welder and a raise: to $2.81 an hour.  He'd heard that the Warren plant was working on a big project, and he had a young family to support.

The work was demanding; the hours long. But he says it was a good job with steady pay.

“It wasn’t like working in a grocery store. In the wintertime it was as cold inside as it was outside,’’ Erdman said. “And all they had in there was a pipe burner, like a potbelly stove. You had to wear long underwear.”

Erdman, who plans to attend the anniversary events,  says he left his welder’s mark  — a “T” — on every section of the Arch that he completed, including the final section that was put into place on “topping out day,” Oct. 28, 1965.

He had one of the final tasks: welding the windows on section 142.

“So I did that, and I think the next day I got laid off, ‘’ he said. “That was the keystone section they called it. “

Erdman says the Warren boilermakers took pride in their work, even though they didn’t really understand what they were building.

“I heard guys say, ‘Well, what is this thing anyway?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s an arch.’ For what? We didn’t really care what it was, I guess, as long as we had a job,’’ Erdman said. “They kept telling us, ‘This is going to be something.’ But we worked 10 hours and drove home.’’

Retired boilermakers from Warren, Penn., pose for a group photo at the Arch in 2012.
Credit International Brotherhood of Boilermakers

 'I saw the majesty of it'

The Pennsylvania workers were the craftsmen — welders, burners, machinists, fitters — who fabricated the double walls of the Arch sections: polished stainless steel on the outside surface and carbon steel on the inner skin.

The project required 900 tons of stainless steel; at the time, it was the largest use of stainless steel on a single project.

The walls, referred to as “sandwiches,” were shipped by railcar to the St. Louis riverfront, where PDM’s construction crew took over. 

Erdman says he saw the Gateway Arch for the first time in 1990 when he visited St. Louis for a Navy reunion and stayed at a riverfront hotel.

“That’s when I come to appreciate that thing. When I saw the majesty of it,’’ he said. “I was pretty thankful and honored that I got to work on something like that. To them people in St. Louis it’s like the eighth wonder of the world.”

James Phillips, a retired boilermaker from Warren, Penn., peers out the windows at the top of the Arch during the group's visit to St. Louis in 2012.
Credit International Brotherhood of Boilermakers

The International Boilermakers union arranged the trip for the retirees — now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s — in 2012 to recognize the role they played in building the Arch. The union has also produced a film honoring their work.

Liz Forrestal, senior director of programs for the Jefferson National Parks Association, said that in past years, the anniversary events primarily featured Arch builders who live in the St. Louis area.

“We in St. Louis kind of take it for granted that the Arch is wonderful,’’ she said. “We forget that others around the country, including these gentlemen who had a role in building it, are also very proud of their role.’’

Engineer Jack Wright of St. Louis, who worked on the Arch, regularly participates in the anniversary event. He believes the Pennsylvania men ought to be included, and he is looking to forward to meeting them.

“Some of the men are going to see the structure for the first time. That’s going to be kind of neat,’’ Wright said.

For his part, Erdman said he is looking forward to finally meeting some of the engineers and ironworkers who took the pieces of Arch made in Warren and stacked them 630 feet into the sky.

Makin’ history in Warren

The Warren PDM workers have formed the Committee of Retired Boilermakers to raise funds and awareness for their “Baby Arch” project. A local artist has produced a prototype of the replica Arch in black steel, but they estimate it will cost about $10,000 to buy the stainless steel they will need for the final version. A regional nonprofit has developed a website for their project.

A 1965 ad for Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel.
Credit The Baby Arch project

The group hopes to put their model of the Arch outside a visitors center in Warren.

Erdman says that it’s important to remind Americans that “we used to build things here.” He believes the Arch stands as a testament to everyone who helped build it,  including the boilermakers in Pennsylvania and the engineers and ironworkers in St. Louis.

“We were just plain old people. Wasn’t nothing special about us,’’ Erdman said. “We’re just good old American boys wanting to make a living. You know what I mean? It’s just an honor for me to have been part of that generation.’’

And that was the message Erdman says he hoped to convey in his song.

Hey, what are we makin’, where is it goin’?

He said, “You might not believe this, we’re makin’ history in Warren.”