This story came to me from Lee Ballinger, a former steelworker in Ohio’s Warren-Youngstown area. In the early twentieth century, the Youngstown area boasted the largest concentration of steel-making facilities per capita, and per square mile, in the world. In time, the city’s fate turned. Between 1977 and 1982 alone, five major steel mills closed—thereafter, 50,000 jobs vanished. Lee’s was one of them.
I know what it’s like to depend upon coal to feed a family. Many years ago I worked at a steel mill in Ohio. My job was at the coke plant where West Virginia coal was turned into coking coal for the blast furnace. The top of the coke ovens was an area the size of a football field where monstrous machines funneled coal into the ovens. It was my job to put the heavy oven lids back on nice and tight. It was literally as hot as hell up there. It felt like walking barefoot on hot coals. The air we breathed was truly foul but to us it was the sweet smell of something like success. We called it the smell of money because it paid the bills. Continue reading →
“I’m at work most of the day, and I’m so tired at night that I just go to bed as soon as I’ve eaten supper. I have ideas of what a home ought to be, all right, but the way things are now I just eat and sleep here.” – Jim Barr, steelworker, 1910
A couple of days ago I went to Youngstown, Ohio, for a meeting with John Russo, co-founder and co-director (along with Sherry Lee Linkon) of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. I discovered Russo and Linkon through their co-authored book Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown. (I have yet to review the book here, though I intend to. Suffice it to say it is one of the most successful academic works in the country.) After the meeting I spent a couple of hours wandering and wondering about the city. Below is a photo gallery with a few shots using my very amateurish iPhone. I’ve included some interesting bits of history along in the photo captions.