Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — 1916 Steel Strike and East Youngstown Riots

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William Gropper, “Youngstown Strike” 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

This past week was significant in Youngstown working class history. On January 7, 1916, a steel strike against Youngstown Sheet and Tube descended into tragic violence. A crowd of strikers and their wives had gathered on Wilson Avenue by bridge at the north entrance to the plant to prevent “scabs” from entering. Stories vary as to how the tragedy unfolded. Either rocks were thrown or a shot was fired from the crowd toward the security forces protecting the entrance to the plant. Then guards fired into the crowds. When the shooting was done 3 were dead and at least 27 injured.

This was only the beginning. Workers broke into company headquarters, burning records, looking for “blacklists” of union organizers target for violence. The enraged workers then turned their anger on local businesses, looting and destroying nearly 100 business blocks and residences in East Youngstown (present day Campbell) with losses in excess of $1 million dollars. Two thousand National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

Hundreds of rioters were arrested and many drew prison sentences. Workers were blamed but records do not show where those arrested worked. There were rumors of foreign agents and union instigators, none proven. A fascinating detail was that the grand jury that returned indictments against the rioters also indicted heads of the major steel companies (the strike involved not just Youngstown Sheet and Tube, but U.S. Steel, Brier Hill, and Republic Steel).

What led to this outbreak? The strike, which began on December 27, 1915 was over wages. Despite a thriving economy with wartime manufacturing, wages had been cut 9 percent the previous year and unskilled labor earned just 19.5 cents per hour. Growth of the industry had led to crowded housing, and these costs and the cost of living left most families earning less than it cost to live. The workers had asked for a wage of 25 cents an hour, time and a half overtime, and double overtime for Sundays.

The irony? Hours before, company leaders had announced a wage increase to 22 cents an hour, which went into effect after the riots. But other changes followed. Youngstown Sheet and Tube helped rebuild East Youngstown and built better worker housing that included electricity and indoor plumbing when outdoor facilities were the norm. The village was eventually renamed Campbell after James A. Campbell, chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

Not all was sweetness and light. Wages rose and fell with the economy but did not progress over the next twenty years. Another violent confrontation occurred twenty-one years later in the “Little Steel Strike” of 1936-37. Artist William Gropper visited Youngstown during the strike and published sketches and an article in The Nation. He painted Youngstown Strike during this time, but what it depicted was the events of 1916. The painting is part of the collection at the Butler.

To write of these strikes is to write of events from another time before my own. Strikes during my growing up years did not have the violence of these early confrontations. Mostly, it was an unexpected vacation at first, and increasing belt tightening when unions and management couldn’t reach settlements. Guys made ends meet by painting houses and other handyman work. Until Black Monday.

We are unquestionably in a different time. Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The violence of 1916, inexcusable on all sides, reminds us of the consequences when there are tremendous disparities between wealth and poverty and hard working people cannot earn enough to live. It seems at least to some extent Youngstown Sheet and Tube learned that they had to make workers’ situations livable. Will today’s companies remember these lessons from the past? Or will they repeat them?

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — A Night on Ice

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Lake Glacier and Boat House in Winter, photo courtesy of Reva Evans Foy, used with permission.

The cold weather and forming ice on ponds near us have reminded me of the magical nights growing up in Youngstown where we laced on some skates, whether on a tennis court, a pond, Lake Glacier or Newport, or at the old James L. Wick rink. Here are some of those memories, particularly of a night on Lake Glacier…

Days below freezing, nights even colder

First ice forms on the lake, hardens, thickens

Waiting is hard, tennis courts confining

Lakes are safe; ice is thick

Clear, cold winter night,

Long johns, layers, and scarves.

Cold bites our cheeks

Wide expanse of lake

Path shoveled across

Standing in the middle arm in arm

Under the winter stars

Trees like silent sentinels all around us

And the wide expanse of lake

Now turned to smooth, sheer ice

We skim almost effortlessly

The only sound our skates

As we skate toward the fire on shore

The promise of hot chocolate

The warmth of the fire

The meeting of friends

On a clear, cold winter night.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Where We Spent New Year’s Eve

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Dancing at the Idora Ballroom, Source Unknown

This is a crowd-sourced post. You see, I just don’t have very colorful stories about where I spent New Year’s Eve. Most years, it was with my family and relatives at our home. Lots of food, “mature” beverages for the adults that we usually got at least a sip of (!), and Guy Lombardo on the TV. I remember a college party at a friend’s house where a number of us from our youth group spent the evening playing games, eating pizza, and just hanging out.

It struck me that others of you might have memories of other places, and so I put out a comment in some different Youngstown Facebook groups, and sure enough, you reminded me of all the great places people celebrated New Years Eve. Surprisingly, there were a number of you like me who celebrated with family at home–lots of good food, cards, drinks, laughter, and ringing in the new year.

Probably the classiest were the dances at Stambaugh Auditorium’s ballroom and, in its day, the Idora Park Ballroom. Someone said that during the ’70’s the best New Year’s Eve was out at Yankee Lake. For others, it was a dinner and dance at one of the local ethnic social halls like the old Italian American on South Meridian Road or the Saxon Club. Some of these are still going strong. “Pudge” posted: “Aut Mori Grotto on Belle Vista ave, 30 bucks a couple, food, music, dancing, 50/50, grotto milk, byob, open to the public.” (I’d confirm before you go.)

A number of parishes had, and still have, New Year’s Eve dinners and dances. St. Stanislaus has an early mass followed by sauerkraut dinner, dance, champagne toast (and home by ten, according to the person posting this. Others mentioned St. Mary’s on South Belle Vista, and St Brendans. I’ll bet there were a number of other parishes that did the same thing.

Some people went out to restaurants, or cafes, or bars on New Year’s Eve. On the classier end, there were places like the Living Room, the Colonial House, and the Brown Derby in its heyday. Ambrosio’s on the North side in the ’70s would have fancy parties that included a breakfast. Others mentioned the Sunnyside Cafe, the Youngstown Club, Rip’s Cafe in Struthers, and the Motor Bar. I suspect there were places all over town like this.

Holiday Bowl and the Wedgewood Lanes combined music, dancing, and bowling that could be fun for the whole family. One person wrote about being at the Holiday Bowl when she was 21, dancing and listening to the Ramsey Lewis Trio. It was fun to learn that both of these places are still in business, but I could not find out what their New Year’s Eve plans were for this year.

It has been a growing trend for hotels to offer New Year’s Eve packages with dinner, dancing, drinks, and a hotel room so you wouldn’t have to go out on the road after all that partying. The Holiday Inn on South Avenue in Boardman is one of the places that would offer such packages.

In recent years, many more cities including Youngstown have been offering First Night programs, usually downtown with a schedule of activities at various venues for the whole family. Here’s a schedule of events for this year.

I’d love to hear how you remember celebrating New Year’s Eve in Youngstown. And however you celebrate, stay safe and be safe for others so that we can keep the conversation going in 2018!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Your Favorites of 2017

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“The Morning Drive,” Christopher Leeper, 2017. Image used by permission of the artist.

I first started writing “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts back in the spring of 2014, which means I’ve written over 175 of these. I’ve learned a great deal about our town, its history, its people, its places, and its favorite foods. I’ve rediscovered so many memories about my own growing up years and interacted with so many of you about your memories. You have filled in so many gaps in my own knowledge. Together, we’ve told the story of Youngstown, and why, even with all its challenges, Youngstown is a special place.

I wish we could celebrate Christmas together. In Youngstown style, there would be so much good food and drink, lots of stories, jokes, and laughter. It really would be a celebration. I can’t do that but what I can do, maybe as a small gift of the best of our hometown, is to share the posts that were your favorites of 2017. For some, it will be revisiting old friends, and for others a first time discovery.  So, here are the top ten posts, (by number of views) with links to the original post, from 2017:

10. Iconic Places. This was kind of a “top 10” in itself of the places that represent Youngstown, that capture it at its best. Lots of pictures in this post to show all your friends how special Youngstown is.

9. Coal Mining. This post explored the coal mining history of Youngstown, a legacy still impacting the city in the form of mine subsidence. Many of you shared stories of mines near where you grew up!

8. Civil War Soldiers Monument.  I’d seen the “Man on the Monument” countless times but never knew the history or what was written on the base of the monument.

7. Black Monday. Say “Black Monday” to a Youngstowner and they will know what you mean. This year marked forty years since that sad day.

6. The “Foster” in Fosterville. This was a fascinating post to write, learning about the history of Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster, from whom Fosterville gets its name, and the farm and mines on his land, part of the coal mining boom (which led to the post on coal mining).

5. Inspiring Teachers. I wrote about the inspiring school teachers that shaped my life and featured Mr. Erickson, my high school math teacher. Many of you remembered him as well, and shared memories of other inspiring teachers.

4. Jay’s Famous Hot Dogs. Seems like all of us remember Frank Petrakos with a line of buns up his sweaty arm slapping wieners in and ladling chili sauce over them. And many of us make it a point to stop by Jays whenever we are in town!

3. Italian Food. One thing all Youngstown people who have moved away have in common is that they are looking for good Italian food. I remember a number of the good places around town to get good Italian and most of you added your moms or grandmothers to the list!

2. Sides of Town. Every side of Youngstown, north, south, east, or west had its own personality. And all of us thought ours was the best side of town. And we were right!

1. The View From Home. This post began when my sister-in-law, an artist, posted on Facebook a picture of a painting by Youngstown area artist, Christopher Leeper, titled “The Morning Drive.” I gasped when I saw it because it was the view from the corner of Portland and Mahoning Avenues, right about from where I used to catch the WRTA bus. It was the view of the Mahoning Valley I grew up seeing every day. The after story of this post was that we met Christopher Leeper at an artists workshop later that spring, and over the summer saw the actual painting at the Columbus Museum of Art, where it was in a show of Ohio artists.

Thank you, all of you who read and comment. Many of you know far more than me about the history of our area, and you also have been inspiring teachers. I have friends who are not from Youngstown, who have discovered what a hidden gem our city is. I hope that knowing the story of our town can be not only a way to re-live our memories but might in a small way contribute to the renewal of Youngstown in its third century as a city.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Choir Concerts

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RIA Novosti archive, image #24089 / Tichonov / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember choir concerts at Christmas time? In my case my first memories are of concerts in elementary school. We’d have a Christmas assembly in the auditorium of Washington Elementary and each grade would perform various holiday songs. Those for the younger grades were fairly simple — Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and the like. The older grades would sing more difficult songs and those of us who were younger would just sit in amazement. We’d also do parents assemblies, and no matter how well or poorly you sang, mom and dad would look at you like you were Pavarotti and applaud long and loud.

Then there were junior high concerts. The music was harder, we would sing in parts, and there was one big problem if you were a middle school boy — you never knew what your voice would do, particular with the higher notes. So typically all you heard was the girls who didn’t have such problems, with a low rumble of boys singing the notes they could safely sing.

I suspect it is memories of those experiences that convince many adult men that they cannot sing. I was one of them for a while. I didn’t sing in the high school choirs at Chaney, when music was an elective. But that was where it seemed music really got to be fun. There were acapella groups, and some amazing choral songs where you heard all the parts, and it somehow worked. The guys voices were maturing and you could hear them.

Secretly, I always loved to sing, and when I more deeply embraced my faith, my love of music expanded. The main outlet for singing I had then (during college at Youngstown State) was church choirs and the big deal for church choirs was the infamous CHRISTMAS CANTATA! Christmas cantatas usually retold the Christmas story in song, and often were 20 minutes or more in length. You spent most of the fall rehearsing it. Everybody liked the Christmas cantata. The choir finally got to perform this music we’d worked on, the congregation loved the music, and probably the fact that there was either no sermon or a very short one. Maybe secretly, the minister liked it too, because he got the Sunday off.

Later in life, work and parenting kept me busy and I was on the other side of choir concerts, the proud parent side. We went to concerts my son sang in all the way from pre-school up through Men’s Glee Club concerts at Ohio State. We still have recordings of some of those concerts (useful for embarrassing your adult child!).

During my son’s high school holiday concerts, Mr. Griffin offered parents the chance to come and rehearse of few numbers and sing in a parent’s choir, and once or twice I did this, which awakened my appetite for more. It turns out it also awakened an opportunity for Mr. Griffin. Some adults asked if he would consider forming an adult choir, to provide more opportunities for those who loved singing to do this. Out of this Capriccio Columbus was born, with Mr. Griffin directing. I joined during their third season, ten years ago. This past Sunday, we performed our Christmas concert.

We closed our concert with a new arrangement of a song I first sang at Washington Elementary over fifty years ago, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.

Songwriters: Jill Jackson/Sy Miller; Lyrics © Mccg LLC

I remembered singing this song with youthful idealism fifty years ago, in the Camelot years of the Kennedy presidency. Maybe you remember it as well. Having seen both the best and the worst that humans can do to each other, I sang it very differently. It was more of a prayer that the “peace on earth” that the angels proclaimed that first Christmas would take root in our troubled world.

Peace to you this Christmas! And I hope you get to hear, or sing in, a choir singing some great music this Christmas.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The President from the Mahoning Valley

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President William McKinley — Photo Public Domain

Ohio is the birthplace of seven U.S presidents. One of these was born in and grew up in the Mahoning Valley. He was the 25th president of the United States. Probably the most significant event during his presidency was the Spanish-American war, at the end of which the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, which later gained their independence. The other major event of his presidency was its end, six months into his second term. He was in Buffalo to attend the Pan-American Exposition, when an anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz came up to him in a receiving line and fired two shots into his abdomen. He died eight days later from his wounds on September 14, 1901, putting his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. The presidency would never be the same.

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio. If you’ve ever driven through Niles, you likely have seen and gone past the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The birthplace home and research center is located nearby on 40 South Main Street. His father, William McKinley, Sr. settled in Lisbon as a boy where he met and married Nancy Allison. Both families made their living in iron-making and McKinley Senior had foundaries in Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and later Canton.

When McKinley was nine, his family moved to Poland, Ohio, where McKinley was enrolled in Poland Academy (later Seminary). Poland Seminary was a private institution, and as such, its finances later failed with the property being sold to the Poland City with the stipulation that the high school retain the name Poland Seminary, which it does to this day. One other famous connection to Poland Seminary was Ida Tarbell, who taught there before going on to a career in journalism where she gained notoriety as one of the “muckrakers,” particularly for her investigative reporting on John D. Rockefeller of nearby Cleveland, and his Standard Oil monopoly.

McKinley went on the Allegheny College, but had to return home to Poland after a year, in 1860, where he worked as a postal clerk and school teacher. He served under, among other officers, fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a mentor and friend and preceded him as Ohio’s governor and later U.S. President. McKinley began the war as a private but rose to the rank of major. He was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. During Antietam, when he was serving as Quartermaster, his regiment was pinned down in the thick of fighting for hours without food, and McKinley made it through enemy lines and fire to bring them rations.

After the war, he returned for a time for Poland, decided on a career in law and read law with a local attorney before moving to Albany law school to complete his legal training. After this, he moved to Canton where he established his legal practice and began his rise in politics, first as country party chair, then serving several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and then from 1892-1896 as Ohio’s governor.

McKinley was friends with at least two prominent Youngstown figures who I’ve written about in previous posts. Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster (of Fosterville fame) was a boyhood and lifelong friend of McKinley. Joseph Butler was a political supporter and adviser of McKinley and wrote a biography of McKinley. Butler worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Birthplace Memorial.

McKinley was not a dynamic leader like either of the Roosevelts. He was well enough regarded at the time to win a second term in an era with a string of one term presidents. Anyone who has taken a Hawaiian vacation can thank him, because he acquired Hawaii for the U.S. along with other territorial acquisitions. Hawaii would become a key base for projecting U.S. power in the Pacific. On balance, along with the many other people the Mahoning Valley has produced, we can be proud that we raised a civil war hero, lawyer, representative, governor and president who served honorably in all these roles.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Cards

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My wife’s card collage, Own work, (c) 2017.

I don’t know about you but one of the wonders of the Christmas season growing up was seeing all the different Christmas cards my parents would receive. Some were simple, wishing us a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.” Others were more elaborate, and either reproduced works of art like nativity scenes, or they were works of art in and of themselves. Perhaps they were pictures of the Holy Family, or a fairy tale snow-covered village, or even a window with a wreath, candle, and warm glow suggesting hospitality within. The expensive cards had lots of shiny silver or gold ink.

My father would save the best of the cards he received each year and hang them from ribbons over doorways, or stand them up on our living room mantle by the Christmas tree. I think it just seemed a shame to him to either store them away not to be seen, or even worse, to throw them out. They made a great, and inexpensive decoration that added to the “Christmas-y” feel around the home.

My dad received some of the most beautiful cards when he was working as a cosmetics buyer for McKelvey’s. The different cosmetic manufacturers or their representatives would send elegantly designed cards, sometimes accompanied by cosmetic gifts. Until he passed away, the Chanel rep my dad dealt with would send a bottle of perfume for my mom every year–and she didn’t mind a bit!

The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He was a civil servant who set up the Public Record Office in Great Britain — what we now call the Post Office. This was intended to provide postal service for the general populace and one of Cole’s challenges was to figure out ways to encourage people to use this service. One of his answers was the Christmas card. John Callcott Horsley designed the first card which consisted of three panels. The outer two show people assisting the poor, while the middle panel shows a family gathering of people celebrating. It did raise a ruckus, however. If you look closely, you can see one of the adults assisting a child in drinking a glass of wine! Scandalous you say? How many of you had your first taste of alcohol at a family celebration as a child? The card sold for a shilling (about 8 cents today) and could be sent with a penny stamp.

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First Christmas Card, designed by John Callcott Horsley, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

By 1874, the British lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began selling Christmas cards in America. They sold over 5 million a year in the 1880’s. In 1913 Joyce and Rollie Hall created Hallmark cards to sell their cards. In recent years the numbers of Christmas cards has declined, with the average number received by a household dropping from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. With the rise of digital cards, this number may drop further.

We continue to put cards around our house each year. The picture at the top of this post is a collage of cards assembled by my wife and attached to foam board that we hang up over one of our doors each year. I’d love to hear what your favorite kinds of Christmas cards are and how you display them around your house!

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Kennedy’s Death

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President John F. Kennedy, Photo from White House Press Office, Public Domain

I was in Ms. Adamiak’s fourth grade class at Washington Elementary on November 22, 1963 when we heard the news over the PA system that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We were being sent home early that day, perhaps in the hopes that our parents would know what to say. But it seemed no one really had words that day, only tears.

I remember worrying about what would happen to the United States without a president. I remembered watching President Kennedy on our black and white television as he sought to reassure the nation during the Cuban missile crisis. I remembered him at the Berlin wall, confronting Communist repression. I remembered that inaugural speech and those ringing words, “Ask not what your country can do for you….” I remembered seeing him, so seemingly young and vital during a campaign trip through the Youngstown area a few years earlier. My mother assured me that Lyndon Johnson was now president and fulfilling the responsibilities of the office.

This hit Youngstown, as well as the rest of the nation, quite hard. Recently, I saw this media clip of WKBN interviews with people on the streets of Youngstown on that day. I remembered the day as cloudy and dismal, and so it appears in the video. It matched the mood as our hearts were filled with grief and disbelief.

This was perhaps the first national tragedy that had us glued to our television sets. We watched as Walter Cronkite wept. We saw footage of the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, and of Jackie Kennedy nearby, still spattered with her husband’s blood. We watched the horse-drawn caisson bring Kennedy’s body to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, the riderless horse with boots reversed, John-John saluting as his father’s body passed, a moment where the tears flowed again. And more horror as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was himself murdered by Jack Ruby while cameras were rolling. Then, following a funeral mass, with the widow, Jackie Kennedy in black with her children, we watched the procession to Arlington Cemetery, and Kennedy’s burial.

We returned to school the next day. Life seemed to resume its rhythms. But I think for many of us who were alive at that time, something died in our hearts with President Kennedy–whether it was dreams of Camelot, of a better society with guarantees of civil rights, care for those in poverty, and technological progress captured by reaching the moon by the end of the decade.

In many Youngstown homes, and in my own room, you could find framed pictures of President Kennedy, sometimes cut out from a magazine or The Vindicator. I can’t remember doing that for any other president before or since.

The world changed that day. It seems that we took a much more violent turn that has continued down to this day, as it seems we rarely get much of a respite from another report of gun violence.

This is not a happy memory for any of us alive in Youngstown at the time. But it is part of our stories. We all remember where we were when we heard the news. This, too, was part of growing up in working class Youngstown.

“Johnny, we hardly knew ye.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The “Foster” in Fosterville

Foster Farm and Coal Operation

Foster farm and Foster Coal, scanned from Titus, Simmons, and Titus Atlas of Mahoning County, Ohio

When I was in elementary school, I used to spend several weeks in the summer with my grandparents who lived on Cohasset Drive off of Glenwood. One of the fun things we used to do was go over to Fosterville, particularly to go to matinees at the Foster theater. In later years, Mr. Paul’s Bakery was the place to go for baked goods and cakes for nearly every occasion, including weddings.

When I wrote last week about coal mining in Youngstown, I discovered who the Foster was in “Fosterville.” His name was Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster and his family moved to the Youngstown area in 1825, when he was ten months old. He grew up working in his father Jonas sawmill and on his farm. He was also a boyhood friend of William McKinley, a friendship that lasted the rest of McKinley’s life.

During the Civil War he organized the First Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Calvary and was elected Colonel. He was involved in a number of engagements including the taking of Island No. 10 at Vicksburg. He also recruited effectively for what were then called the “colored” regiments.

Returning from the war, he devoted his energies to developing the three hundred acres he had acquired located where present day Indianola Avenue and Canfield Road meet Glenwood Avenue. He raised shorthorn cattle, there are records that he was a horse breeder, and he farmed. But perhaps what he was most known for was the Foster Coal Company and the high quality coal in the two mines on his property. The coal even won a gold medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

His first wife bore a name also familiar in the nearby area. He and Florence Lanterman were married in March of 1869 and had two children before she passed in 1873. He married again in 1878 to Susannah B. Alexander.

As a business and civic leader he was a friend of politicians and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1878 and 1880, and for state senator in 1891. He also served as a Justice of the Peace for nine years and for six years as a township trustee.

Foster witnessed the beginning of the transition of the area from farming and mining to a residential area. The last mine closed in 1915. In the early 1890’s, when Volney Rogers was engaged in the creation of Mill Creek Park, he donated a twenty acre tract of land to the park. In 1895 the Youngstown Park and Fall Street Railway company was formed providing trolley service from downtown to a terminus in the Fosterville area in what would become Idora Park, which was situated at the end of the trolley line.

I have not been able to find any evidence of Foster’s involvement in either the Railway or Idora Park. I wonder if he was more focused on the enterprises on his own property including his spacious home. He possessed one of the largest personal libraries in the area with over 2,500 volumes. He passed away on September 7, 1911.

And now you know how Fosterville got its name.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Coal Mining

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Early coal mine (from West Virginia), Public Domain via Wikipedia

My mom always used to talk about how Youngstown was “riddled” with coal mines underneath the city and that people did not know where all of them were. I never saw a mine entrance, and this actually wasn’t part of life growing up. “Riddled” may have been exaggerated, at least in parts of the city, but the mines are a continuing reality the city and surrounding area must deal with.

In the summer of 1977, after the heavy snows of the previous winter, a series of mine collapses occurred. One home owner discovered that the floor of her two car garage at 535 Hylda Avenue in Fosterville was gone. Another mine shaft collapsed in a backyard, creating a huge hole. A third collapsed under the weight of an in-ground swimming pool. All these were over 100 years old, and virtually nothing was known about them or the location of other mines.

The presence of high quality coal as well as iron ore is one of the reasons for why Youngstown became an early site of iron and later steel manufacturing. Significant seams of high quality coal were mined in the area of Mineral Ridge, the Brier Hill area, above Lake Glacier, in the Kirkmere area, and significantly in the Fosterville area, as well as other areas in and around Youngstown. In fact, Fosterville gets its name from Colonel Foster and the Foster Coal Company which sank a number of mines on the South Side. The coal was known as “block” coal which could be used as is in iron smelting operations. It is also known as Sharon coal. There is an estimate that nearly a million tons of coal were mined on the South Side, a quarter of that from the Foster mines. Before Volney Rogers helped form Mill Creek Park, there was the Mill Creek Iron Furnace, near Pioneer Pavilion. The furnace dates back to the 1820’s and was excavated by anthropology professor Dr John White in 2003.

After the 1977 mine collapses, another Youngstown State professor, Ann Harris, in the geology department, undertook the mapping of mines around Youngstown, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. In Mahoning County alone, she found over 270 mine sites, which she has catalogued. Information for some sites includes a Google map pinpointing the site. One of the Foster shafts, was filled in part by two old Fords! Many were filled in with various forms of refuse. This information is available at the Abandoned Coal Mines website. A 2011 Vindicator article indicated that Harris, now an emeritus professor, was working with a university archivist to preserve two rooms of records including mine inspection reports and county histories.

All of this is a priceless contribution not only to the Valley’s past but also its future. It both tells the nearly lost story of Youngstown’s coal industry, and helps locate abandoned mines, which could save homeowners and builders much grief. It is important as well to contemporary efforts in recovery oil and natural gas from shale deposits in the same areas many of these mines were located. Long before Youngstown was the Steel Valley, it was the Coal Valley and it was coal which contributed to the early growth of the Valley, and still impacts its geology.