Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number 3

From Sand to Steel

by Elizabeth Hunt

Imagine building one of the largest and most technologically advanced factories on earth, using only farm animals and human labor. Or creating a bustling, futuristic “City of the Century” out of a sleepy village of 300 souls. If these feats were possible, wouldn’t you love to see pictures?

They were, and you can.

One of the latest projects of IU’s Digital Library Program (DLP) focuses on the U.S. Steel Photograph Collection, a series of about 1,900 images documenting the development of the company’s Gary Works steel mill and chronicling the construction of Gary, which was built by U.S. Steel as a model city around the mill. The photos were taken between 1906, when ground was broken for the Gary Works, and 1941.

“They’re very dramatic,” says Stephen McShane, librarian and archivist at IU Northwest’s Calumet Regional Archives, which houses the photo collection. “They show the construction of the mill from day one. Often the same area was photographed in six-month intervals, so you can see the tremendous change that took place in a very short time. The whole mill was built in two years using only mule- and horsepower.”

The history of the city of Gary is also told through the photos, as tidy homes, thriving businesses, and tens of thousands of residents appear where once there were mainly sand dunes.

Images of a steam steel mill, an English class full of adults in suits, and the Gary Works baseball team capture the human side of the Industrial Revolution in Gary, Ind. About 1,900 images from the U.S. Steel Photograph Collection, including the ones pictured here, will be featured in an online exhibit set to open in July 2001.

Information about origins of the photograph collection is scant, says McShane, and no one is certain why U.S. Steel commissioned the series. “My guess,” he says, “is that the company wanted to document state-of-the-art steel technology—because that’s what the Gary Works exemplified—and that they wanted to record the building of the city.”

The Calumet Regional Archives acquired the photographic collection—in the form of more than 1,900 eight-by-ten-inch glass negatives—in the 1970s. A U.S. Steel executive, recognizing the collection’s historic value, encouraged the company to give the collection to IUN.

Preserving and protecting the fragile negatives was an important first step after the archives acquired the collection.

“A number of them had already cracked and broken,” McShane recalls.

In the 1980s, the archives began creating a traditional exhibit based on the photos. Working with a grant from the Indiana Humanities Council, the archives opened “Steelmaker-Steeltown” in 1990, giving the public its first look at the photo collection since 1976, when U.S. Steel had mounted a small exhibit.

Now McShane is working with the DLP to develop an exhibit of the entire set of photos online. Also titled “Steelmaker-Steeltown,” the online project, which recently won a $19,000 grant from the Indiana State Library, will include essays on Gary, its steel mills, and the photo collection.

“We’re also planning to reproduce some magazine articles from the period,” says McShane. “These articles show how much attention Gary received as it was being built and what people were saying about it.”

Digitization of the exhibit’s materials is currently underway in Bloomington. The exhibit is scheduled to open online in July 2001.

The online exhibit should attract a wide range of visitors, McShane predicts. It’s aimed not only at the general public, but also at students from kindergarten through high school, some of whom may find that the exhibit is included in their Indiana history curriculum.

Seasoned scholars may take advantage of the exhibit as well, as part of their research in the fields of labor history, the history of technology, or regional history. “In fact, several scholars have already used these photos online,”McShane says. The U.S. Steel Photograph Collection is one of the archives’ most requested sources.

The main impetus for creating the Web-based exhibit came from the archives’ twin missions of preserving the history of the Calumet Region and serving the public. “But it’s also a chance to explore the digitization process,” McShane says, adding that the archives has other collections that would lend themselves to this medium. A set of colorful posters advertising the South Shore Line electric train and the papers of a prominent civil rights leader in Gary are future candidates for digitization.

McShane says the archives may reap two important public relations benefits from working with the IU DLP on the U.S. Steel project. “The exhibit will increase awareness of the archives,” he says. “We want people to know that the resource is here and available to them.”

But just as important, exhibit visitors may stop to consider whether they might have a little Indiana history gathering dust in a filing cabinet or box of their own.

“Every day, people discard materials that have historical significance,” McShane says. “We want to let them know that their files, photos, or other materials could be worth preserving for future generations.”

For more informatio:
• Preview of the “Steelmaker-Steeltown” exhibit
• Calumet Regional Archives

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