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Universal Steel - Goodbye and Teenage Memories

Some recollections of Charlie Schialdone and the times before a brownfield.

If all goes as planned, by the time you begin to read this sentence the yellow, cinder-blocked building on the Universal Steel site will be under the wrecking ball.

And years of neglect, followed by tax issues and an eventual seizure by the city, will finally come to a merciful end.

Most people seem to know this property as a federally designated brown fields site that sits just off of the North Street overpass. It has been long vacant and contaminated with polychlorinated byphenyls (PCB's), known to cause cancer and other dangerous metals, to include lead and arsenic.

In the winter of 1976 Universal Steel hired a scrawny Salem High School distance runner to help out in the what was known as the yard. That skinny kid was me. A winter of working weekends led to more hours in the spring when things got a little busier. The hours and pay were enough to convince me to bypass the spring track season in order to work after school every day.

My duties were varied. Sweeping the place up was an every day task but I also helped to weigh and sort metals with the late Charlie Schialdone. Charlie was a true Salem character who made every moment interesting as he worked the scales. He knew everyone that came in and would keep a running conversation going throughout the day. 

Some days found me out in the yards pulling lengths of angle iron from the racks or removing copper and brass parts from old stoves, refrigerators and plumbing fixtures. All of the copper and brass fittings went into 55-gallon drums which were stacked five and six high in the warehouse waiting for metal prices to hit the desired level.

The summer of 1977 found me working hard to strip rubber insulation from 3-inch copper cable trucked in from what had been the Boston Naval Shipyard. The six-foot long lengths were recovered trans-Atlantic cable which had been deemed obsolete and replaced.

I would feed the cable lengths into a dual bladed power stripper which made two cuts into the rubber insulation from one end to the other. That was the easy part. Once that was done I would straddle the cable and peel the insulation from the copper cable.  This was not an easy task.  The next step was to fold the copper cable as best I could and drop it into a large baling machine built into the concrete floor. When that summer ended I believe I had added about a 1/2 inch of girth on my forearms.

There were a few days when a 42-foot trailer would come in full of old car batteries. My job then would be to unload those batteries onto the ground in the yard. Many would be broken and cracked, leaking acid everywhere. The cotton gloves and coveralls I wore were not up to the task. There would be more than few runs to the hose to rinse myself off with cold water.

My time there ended during the summer of 1978 when I had some issues with the boss concerning his desire to have me paint his house, guesthouse and garage on Marblehead neck. I had no car so he deduced that I would be delighted to borrow an old bicycle to pedal out there and back every day. His deduction was in error. 

The city's plans to use this site as a temporary parking lot during the construction of the MBTA garage is a good move. The 120 spaces will be needed.

Of more importance is the remediation of the site by the US Environmental Protection Agency once the remaining building is demolished. There are plans to remove at least 3,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil. This would bring the site up to standard for commercial use. Those plans are contingent on available funding.

Some would like to see it become green space. There are rumors that F. W. Webb Plumbing has an interest in the property. maybe the purchase of this site would be motivation for them to clean up their own building.

Time will tell, but as it stands now it's good to see that finally something is being done in what is an ugly dirty area alongside one of our main entrance corridors.

Good bye Universal Steel and good riddance to the brownfield it had become.

William Legault November 28, 2012 at 04:56 PM
The rumor is they would build a new showroom with parking. Their building was once only four stories. Some years back a fifth level was added. If you look at the exterior brick work you can see the difference in the brick color between the fourth and fifth floors..
redrhino November 28, 2012 at 07:44 PM
BIll, I thought the diffrence in brick/mortor color was that they just repointed the top floor this year - i recall seeing the staging setup not to long ago! What goes on up there?
William Legault November 28, 2012 at 08:13 PM
There may have been some repointing done recently, but as this article and photos attest, a floor was addedsome time ago. http://salem.patch.com/articles/then-now-did-you-guess-the-building
Carolyn Costain November 28, 2012 at 10:21 PM
It seems a bit sad to see it go "you have so much history there," only now to become just a fading memory when you drive by and the building is gone..
William Legault November 28, 2012 at 10:59 PM
My memories of the place are good ones. The people that worked there treated me well. There were the yard guys like Charlie, the old man whose name escapes me operating the crane, the truck drivers and the other yard kid, Eddie who was a bit older than me. Overall it was a positive experience.

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