Dusting our past
Old-timers still recall when cement dust was common in the “cement belt.” I wrote about this issue 18 years ago.
In 1999, two Northampton residents “remembered” dust in the Northampton, Coplay, Cementon and Egypt areas with letters to the editor.
They recalled when dust from the plants had to be swept from the sidewalks on a daily basis — sometimes, twice a day. The old Atlas plant’s 74 kilns had a squeaking sound, putting the residents of 10th, 11th and 12th streets in Northampton to sleep at night.
Their fathers, sons and neighbors worked at the plant. There was pride in being a cement worker. The wives of the men used brooms, brushes, soap and vinegar to control dust.
When the Depression hit, the dust ceased, along with thousands of jobs. Men would report to work day after day and hear the unpopular refrain, “No work today.” A few hours a week was all the men and women could expect. In the Atlas Cement Company Memorial Museum, a 4-cent paycheck is on display from November 1934.
July 24, 1936, was a day of happiness for the area. A news article in the local paper The Cement News featured this headline: “The Universal Atlas Resumption Is Hailed.” The paper claimed that smoke emanating from the Universal Atlas stacks was a welcome sight, though it means more work. The plants had been idle for three months. Resumption at the plants saw people with heads up and chins out. They were going back to work again. Scores of repairmen were called out to get the equipment ready for the returning employees.
Cement News editor Ed Royer ended the July 24 article by saying, “Yep, the Atlas whistle is still a source of inspiration, doubly so now. It is fine to look around to see Coplay, Whitehall, Lawrence and Giant plants emitting smoke from their stacks. You’re all wet if you call it dust!”
The plants would operate for five months, only to close again and again. Men and women would patiently wait until a steady job and prosperity would return to the nation. Since those days, which seem a long time ago, technology and legislation have brought dust under control and improved our way of life as the industry continues in our “cement belt,” providing our cement workers with excellent pay and benefits to support their families.