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.

25 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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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  5. I started working in the 43” rolling mill at the USS Youngstown Works in 1970 as a college student. Casting dates on the roll stands were from the late 1890’s. All major rolling stands were powered by steam engines. The ingot blooming mill was magnificent to watch. So many stories to tell.

    By 1972 I was loaned out of my department to the plants construction engineering department and worked on projects in all areas of the Ohio Works. Upon graduation from YSU I went from the union to supervision and transferred to the McDonald mills until the Youngstown Works shut down in 1980.

    I frequently see news articles about Youngstown Sheet and Tube and museum pieces from their old plants but not so much about USS Youngstown Works. More fond memories are from the old 10 years at USS mills than my later 33 years spent at RMI Titanium in Niles.

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  6. Bob, I love your short history lessons about the Mahoning Valley.
    I worked at the Ohio Works from 1974 until the end. The last heat of steel was actually produced in the first week of March in 1980. The announcement that the plant would close came on the day before Thanksgiving in 1979. I was already laid off, but ran into a guy from the employment office in the Sparkle Market in Cornersburg, and he told me about the closing. The YS&T Brier Hill Open Hearths closed at the end of December in 1979, so the Ohio Works only lasted 2 months and 1 week longer.
    Also, please note that USS added 15 Open Hearth Furnaces, not Blast Furnaces, between 1907 and 1914. I believe that they started with 7, then built 8 more. The Open Hearths were numbered 41 thru 55. This probably was more convenient for USS in their accounting and product tracking.
    The 4 Blast Furnaces were in the iconic photograph of their demolition. There were actually heater ovens still standing for a fifth Blast Furnace while I worked there, i was told that the furnace was removed after WWII.
    The Bessemer Furnaces ran until 1958. The Bessemer Employees were still griping about the departmental seniority system that caused them to start all over in other departments. They only kept their vacation and retirement rights. USS changed to plant wide seniority in 1977 when it signed the Consent Decree, which tried to make amends with passed over promotions for minorities.
    David Houck was also the last Superintendent of the McDonald Works for USS. The McDonald mill got its DC electric from the generating plant at the Ohio Works. Fortunately, the USS Realty Division put in a new generator for McDonald Steel.

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  7. My grandfather, uncle, and father spent their entire working careers at the Ohio Works between the rolling mill and open hearth. I also worked in the open hearth the summers of 66 and 67 while attending YSU. Working there made me appreciate the value of a collage education.


  8. Started at the Open Hearth right after New Years Day, 1970! First pay check was for $3.01/hr. First week was all safety and being shown where to not go! Fascinated to see all the fire, noise and dirt!
    Carl Jacobsen joined us in the mill later!
    Finally transferred to National Tube in McKeesport,Pa!
    USSteel bought Marathon Oil and all the pipe customers left!
    Watched the steel companies close mill after mill from Chicago through Ohio and Pennsylvania!

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  9. Just to set some facts straight, Cal Keppler was Superintendent of McDonald when they shut all the mills down, I being on the 18-43 inch strip mill was busy trying to get all the orders rolled but I do know that Dave Houck made a deal at the time to buy 14 mill and I think a couple other of the bar mills later. I left McDonald in April moving to Birmingham, Alabama. It was not the USS i worked for in Youngstown and McDonald. Summer of 1982 they shut Fairfield Works down and put us on half salary. I was fortunate to pick up a temporary position in Oklahoma where I worked till they started the Hot end back up. As I said before on a Saturday in February of 1986 I received a letter from Pittsburgh saying if you have the numbers you can retire and they would pay and extra 400 a month till age 62. I signed up that Monday! I loved working in McDonald but had no clue that there was life outside of USX (now).


    • I remember working as mill Wright on the 43inch Rolling Mill working 12 hr. shifts in modernizing the Rolling mill that US Steel made an investment of 23 million dollars to put in to modernizing the Rolling Mill back around 1979. We were working our butts off. So one night while working the night shift. I got a call from my wife that she heard that US Steel was shutting down both the Ohio Works and the Mc Donald Works. So I told her that it was a mistake and told her why would they be spending millions of Dollars in modernizing the Rolling Mill to turn around and shut it down. Didn’t make sense. But days later our Managers told us that US Steel was really shutting down and laying off everyone and that we Mill Wrights were not being laid off untill we disassembled all the equipment that we put in to modernize the plant then we were to ship the equipment too another facilities. Then after that we would be laid off and we would have to find new a new job. That’s when we all realized that US Steel had betrayed us and left many families in diar straights and led to mass exiting of people out of Youngstown searching for jobs in other cities leaving Youngstown into a ghost town. Never to recover again. It turned out that they were against union jobs that paid good wages. It was a shame. Many families had to relocate leaving their friends and other relatives behind.

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  10. Yes it was a bit of a betrayal, they could have done things differently but in big business it is a numbers game I have learned over the years. USS (USX) provided a very good living for me and my family and I was a dedicated employee, seeing other USS operations and then working at Fairfield I soon realized the best years were in Youngstown and McDonald where the workers and management were first class, and am proud I was one of them!

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  11. Some more history. US Steel built a brand new state of the art plant in Baytown Texas and ending up closing it and moving the entire plant overseas after a few years of operation. I almost accepted a transfer there after the McDonald plant closed. Turned it down and spent 30 years at RMI instead.


  12. My grandfather worked at he USS Ohio works for 50 years. The president of US Steel presented him with a gold watch at his retirement ceremony. When I was little I remember bottles of salt tablets all over the house the company used to give to the men to retain water when it got too hot.

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