One of the facts I discovered when I wrote last week about the steel strike of 1916 and the East Youngstown riots was that East Youngstown was renamed Campbell in honor of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s chairman, James A. Campbell. That made me curious about this man who played such a crucial role in Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s early corporate history and left his mark on the Mahoning Valley.
James Anson Campbell was born on September 11, 1854 in Ohltown, a village once located between Austintown and Meander Reservoir. [There is still an Ohltown Road running northwest from Route 46 just north of the center of Austintown out toward the reservoir.] He was expected to die from tuberculosis as a child, but recovered and excelled in baseball and boxing. He went on to study business at Hiram College, sold hardware and furniture and then first became associated with George Dennick Wick at Trumbull Iron Company. The two of them formed Mahoning Valley Iron Company in 1895 with Wick as president and Campbell as superintendent. When Republic Steel took over the firm in 1900, Wick and Campbell resigned, gathered a group of local investors and formed Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1901 with Wick as the first president. Campbell served first as secretary, then vice president and finally president of the company, beginning in 1904, when Wick’s health failed. Wick later was one of those who died on the Titanic.
As noted above, Campbell was leading Youngstown Sheet and Tube at the time of the 1916 strike and riots that resulted in the destruction of much of East Youngstown. Campbell led the rebuilding efforts, including building worker housing that included indoor plumbing and electricity. In 1922, the village renamed itself Campbell in recognition of his efforts. In 1923, Youngstown Sheet and Tube acquired the Brier Hill Steel Company and the Steel and Tube Company of America near Chicago, making it the fifth largest steel company in the country, just 22 years after its founding.
Campbell set his sights on a merger with Bethlehem Steel in 1931, which would have created the second largest steel company in the country. It was not to be, as other steel makers, particularly Republic Steel, fought the merger. This was not the only adversity Campbell faced during this time. His only son, Louis J. Campbell, who worked as treasurer of the company, was suffering a progressive disease resulting from his service in World War I. Eventually, a leg was amputated and he died just two years after Campbell. Campbell, passed away suddenly from a stroke on September 20, 1933. Funeral services were held at his mansion, Elmcourt, in Liberty Township, and he is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery.
According to a 2004 Vindicator article, the wealth Campbell acquired was rapidly dissipated, and nothing of it remains today. Campbell earned upwards of $250,000 a year, but was better at acquiring wealth than building and preserving it. Campbell spent significant amounts in legal bills in the fight for Bethlehem Steel, and lost money on his investment in the Youngstown City Club. Unlike multi-generational families who lived off of the earnings from principle that was preserved and built from generation to generation, the Campbell fortune of $407,272 at his death was rapidly burned through. Some was due to the death of Campbell, his wife and son within two years of each other. Heirs lived lavishly, but none was able to remain married. The Depression resulted in a sell off of assets, often at a fraction of their former value. Susan Lopez, a great granddaughter of Campbell observed that this axiom about wealthy families was true of hers: “It takes three generations to burn through a family fortune: One generation to make it, one to enjoy it and one to spend the last of it.”
In some ways, Campbell’s personal fortune paralleled that of the company he built. Both lasted about two generations. It’s an interesting question to ask whether there is any connection, and not one I’ve had the chance to research in detail. Just as the family failed to preserve and grow the principal of its wealth, did the company fail to preserve and grow its “principal” in the business decisions that were made? How, if at all, did Campbell contribute to that? Interesting questions for a researcher.
Nevertheless, Campbell did something quite striking in leading a startup to become the fifth largest steel maker during his lifetime, and nearly making it the second. He left his name to a village and built some of the best worker housing in the country. It was his mills that lit much of the Mahoning Valley at night. Perhaps he is a reminder that even the greatest among us cannot do it all.