Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Ohio Works of U.S. Steel

Ohio Steel Works and furnaces, view of west side, 1905” (Cropped) R. W. Johnston Studios. Public Domain

Today it is only remembered by Ohio Works Drive and the home of a few industrial companies. At one time, it was the glow in the night skies that we saw from the West Side of Youngstown and the place where the dads of many of my friends work. After the West River Crossing freeway was built you could look out your window in your car to see the mills stretching to the northwest.

At one time, the Ohio Works consisted of two Bessemer converters and fifteen blast furnaces built between 1893 and the turn of the century. Originally part of the National Steel Company, it was part of a series mergers with Carnegie Steel which later became U.S. Steel Corporation. When U.S. Steel took over it increased the Ohio Works output by 50,000 tons and modernized the Union Mills part of the operation.

Ironically, U.S. Steel was anti-union. Eventually one of the strongest steel worker unions, Local 1330 organized at the Ohio Works. According to Sherry Lee Linkton and John Russo, in Steeltown U.S.A., the organizing efforts went more smoothly at the Ohio and McDonald Works than at Republic and Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s plants, which were involved in the “Little Steel” strike of 1937.

World War 2 was a time of full production and some upgrades were made to the mills during the 1940’s and 1950’s, but little after that time. Warning signals came in the 1970’s with the rise of foreign competition. The Ohio Works was idled for a period in 1971 and the relighting of the furnaces was a big deal in 1972. At that time roughly 2800 went back to work. Then came Black Monday on September 19, 1977. The closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s operations was a warning sign. In January of 1978, word came of plans to close the Ohio Works and McDonald Works.

This was felt to be a betrayal of the efforts of local workers, who despite the lack of upgrades, met production goals and made contract concessions. Then an effort was mounted led by attorney Staughton Lynd and a coalition of community leaders, clergy and workers to buy the mills from U.S. Steel. U.S. Steel refused to sell, and the mills were idled in 1979.

Hope remained while the facilities stood. That ended on April 28, 1982, when dynamite charges were detonated under the four remaining blast furnaces, and they came tumbling down. Steel executives had special seating and a concession area. Workers had to stand behind a wall. It was the last time they did a public demolition. Paul Grilli describes his memories as a three year-old in 1978:

Back to April 28th, 1982. My mom brought me to our picture window, and opened the front door so we could hear the explosion. I remember looking over the roof of the Sebena’s and watching “the smokestacks” as I called them start to lean. You felt the house shake, and then you heard the explosion. It blew my young mind that the sound came later. I didn’t know much about physics at just shy of 3 years old.

Between the Ohio Works and McDonald, 5,000 workers were out of work. Today McDonald Steel Corporation utilizes part of the McDonald site. In 1982 entrepreneur David Houck was able to launch a specialty steel company with investments from 23 investors. One of the most significant shareholders was David Tod, descendent of the Tod family that played a critical role in the early coal, iron, and steel industry in Youngstown. The most recent figures I could find indicated 105 people work for the company in a lean, highly modernized operation. That’s a fraction of the 2200 who once worked on the site.

The Ohio Works were once one of the workshops of America, providing the materials that built our country for nearly a century. Those mills, and the Brier Hill Works across the river were one of the reasons we feared nuclear attacks. Many thought they were a target. I lived little more than a mile away on the lower West Side. Had the worst happened, we would have been wiped out. Little did we dream at the time of the devastation that U.S. Steel and the other corporations would bring to the Valley less than twenty years later. Now what we have are the stories of pride of those who worked there. If that was you or someone you know, I hope you will add to this brief history those personal histories which should be remembered. It should always be remembered that it was people that made our area the Steel Valley.

8 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Ohio Works of U.S. Steel

  1. My grandfather worked there and my father-in-law was the last USS employee on site at the Ohio Works. His job was to make sure that the demolition crew either had power or didn’t get electrocuted, depending upon what they were doing.

  2. Thank you for this information. My dad was a supervisor at USSteel Ohio Works. I remember a strike & he had to stay there. We would go by & wave to him on Sundays. I was little—maybe 4, so maybe this was in 1953 or so. He would not let us go to see the implosion of the stackhouses. It was very tough for him to even realize that was happening.

  3. Graduating in 1965 was a tough time to get a job. The new Chevy Lordstown plant would not hire draft bait, but US Steel would. I was hired into the Boiler Shop at the Ohio Works in early 1966, but left for basic training in July of 1966. Four years later, after a tour of duty in Vietnam, I returned to my roots and my apprenticeship in the Boiler Shop. US Steel worked with me, and after 10 years with the GI Bill, I received my degree from YSU. Even with a degree, myself and others with degrees stayed at US Steel because the money was too good. And working with your hands was what young men who grew up in Youngstown did. Working in the Boiler Shop was a rewarding experience. We were technically the iron workers of the mill. We performed repair work and fabrication all over the plant. We had crews stationed in the open hearth, blast furnace and the cinter plant. We worked in the rolling mills when they were down. Our work in the open hearth had to do with anything that required iron work, usually involved with repairing or rebuilding the open hearth furnace roofs. Our work on the blast furnaces, sometimes at the top of the furnace 300 feet in the air, involved replacing any worn out steel plates. There was a lot of repair work at the cinter plant given the abrasiveness of the cinter. Except for scheduled repairs, you never knew from day to day where you might find yourself or who you might be working for. On one job, we worked for Bernie Kosar’s dad who was an engineer in the mill. We had heard the rumors for years that the mill might shut down, so when it happened it wasn’t a total surprise. Depending on your skill and your seniority, the layoffs came; some sooner than others. I got my notice early in 1980. And by August, I was teaching school and coaching in Strongsville for about half of my US Steel salary. Others weren’t as fortunate and struggled to find employment. I have no regrets and have Uncle Sam and US Steel and my family and God to thank for where I am today.

  4. I worked briefly at Ohio Works, in Production Planning and was sent to McDonald works where I ended up as Gen Turn Foreman on the 43″ strip mill and was there in March of 1980 when we rolled the last slab. McDonald Works was a great place to work, it was a good job and a challenge that I looked forward to every day. I was transferred to Fairfield Works in Alabama where I stayed for 6 years until I retired. It was not anything like working in McDonald so I left,

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