Esco Corporation foundry worker Mark Gomez uses a long-handled rake to remove a layer of unwanted slag from a cauldron of molten steel. Fresh from the blast furnace, this metal will be cast into spare parts for mining industry equipment.

Image: Daniel Root

Tour Portland’s metalworking companies and you’ll find factory yards literally shuddering with roaring engines. Elephantine cranes throw around junked cars as casually as a child tosses a toy, and massive dump trucks loaded with tons of jagged, rusted steel scrap rumble past on tires taller than a man. Welders wearing masks and fireproof coats burn imperfections off of freshly cast backhoe teeth. Day shift, swing shift, graveyard…the production never stops.

Portland’s Harbor Industrial District—6,000 acres that hug both banks of the Willamette River for miles north of the Fremont Bridge—covers roughly 24 times more ground than downtown. One out of every nine jobs in the Portland/Vancouver area is either located here or supported by work that is done here. Yet few urbanites ever catch more than a fleeting glimpse of this world. For most people, it passes in a blur of tanks and pipes and smokestacks while they’re driving Highway 30 en route to Sauvie Island.

Although Portland has largely recast itself as a haven for the creative class, it wasn’t so long ago that thousands of young job-seekers moved here to labor on the waterfront. Out of the heyday of World War II shipbuilding sprang a variety of small and medium-sized industrial businesses that weathered hard times, then drifted off the city’s radar.

The cultural invisibility of the industry poses a critical problem for the 240-odd factories still operating in the district. Talk to the human resources managers for these companies, and they’ll tell you that as the blue collar workforce ages, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find young apprentices who have the skills—and the will—required to do these jobs.

Still, more than a few blue collar veterans would no sooner cross a union picket line than exchange the hard life of the factory floor for a cushy office cubicle. We dispatched photographer Daniel Root to metalworking companies Schnitzer Steel Industries, Northwest Pipe, Gunderson and Esco Corporation to document the faces—both weathered and fresh—of the people who pour, polish and pound the steel that continues to define the muscle of Portland’s industrial waterfront.