Review: Iron Valley

iron Valley

Iron Valley, Clayton J. Ruminski. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press), 2017.

Summary: A history of iron-making in the Mahoning Valley during the nineteenth century from the earliest blast furnace to the advances in furnaces and other technology, leading to the transition to steel-making.

Those of us who grew up in the Mahoning Valley during the middle of the twentieth century often referred to it as the Steel Valley, a name that still lingers. Clayton J. Ruminski’s book new history of iron-making in the Mahoning Valley during the nineteenth century reminds us that in the words of the title, it was the Iron Valley before it ever became the Steel Valley.

The work begins in 1802 and the Heaton family’s early efforts, beginning with the Hopewell furnace in Struthers, to do small scale charcoal fueled, iron-making. The problem was how rapidly, even when mixing in coal from nearby deposits, the fuel source of hardwood trees was depleted. Transportation, as well as fuel, limited growth in this period. The second phase, beginning in 1840 and running up to 1856 was marked by the discover of significant “block coal” deposits at Brier Hill (it was often called Brier Hill coal) and elsewhere in the area. The heating characteristics meant that it could be used directly as a fuel, dispensing with the need for charcoal. New furnaces were opened at Brier Hill by the Tod family, and elsewhere along the Valley. Alongside these, the first rolling mills and puddling mills grew up to process the pig iron into finished products (instead of the pig iron being sent to mills outside the Valley). The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal helped develop commerce during this period with the transport of both raw materials and finished products.

Between 1856 and 1865, the growth of railroads and the Civil War brought about a further expansion of iron manufacturing. During this figure, well known figures like David Tod, Jonathan Warner, John Stambaugh, Henry Wick, William Butler, and James Ward emerged as key leaders. Furnaces grew larger and production expanded making Youngstown into a pig iron center. This was followed by a period of expansion and depression from 1865 to 1879. Westward railroad growth led to expanded facilities to meet demand, followed by bankruptcy of many smaller merchant iron firms during the Panic of 1873. Subsequently control of the iron industry was consolidated under a few major Youngstown area families.

The decision of Valley owners to focus on iron production while other nearby cities started making steel led to both a leading role in supplying high quality pig iron for finished iron and steel makers, and continuing pressure as steel replaced iron during the period between 1879 and 1894. Mills went obsolete, more Bessemer converters were erected and the first steel mill was opened. The last period covered by the book describes the transition, finally to steel, the end of the merchant iron plants and the consolidation of manufacturing under the familiar names of Republic Steel, United States Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and a handful of others.

This book traces the opening of various furnaces, the rise of different companies, the advance of technology, the changing picture of the use and transport of both raw and finished products and the key individuals involved in the iron industry throughout this history. It describes the different areas within the Valley from Warren through Girard, Mineral Ridge, Brier Hill, Youngstown, Struthers, Lowellville, along Crab Creek and Mosquito Creek and up in Hubbard. Lesser attention is given to developments in the neighboring Shenango Valley, which had its own history.

It is a text that combines readability and academic rigor and precision. We have both thumbnail biographies of key figures and lots of technical explanation, history of various companies, and production statistics. Woven throughout are photographs of different furnaces and mills, individuals and groups of workers, many from local archives. Maps in the text and after matter trace the locations and developments of iron furnaces and mills. The text also provides a table of iron and steel sites, their years of production, and the changing ownership during their life. This is valuable as a reference as one reads about different sites and companies operating, keeping track of which can be difficult.

Much has been written about the steel industry in Youngstown. This work helps us understand how the preceding iron industry shaped the contours of the subsequent industry in the Mahoning Valley as well creating the rail, manufacturing, and workforce infrastructure that made that industry possible. It is an indispensable work for anyone who wants to understand the local history of the Mahoning Valley, and as a vignette of the nineteenth century iron industry in a growing country.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Hopewell Furnace

Hopewell Furnace

Hopewell Furnace, Source: Remarkable Ohio

It all began here, as far as iron and steel making in the Mahoning Valley goes. In 1802, the same year that Youngstown was incorporated, James and Daniel Heaton (they later changed their name to Eaton) built an iron furnace along Yellow Creek, below Lake Hamilton, in present day Struthers. It was known as the Hopewell Furnace. It was the first such furnace in Ohio, which became a state the next year, and the first west of the Alleghenies, according to Dr. John R. White (who I had as a professor in several classes at YSU), who excavated the site over three seasons beginning in 1975.

Nearby deposits of kidney iron and coal, forests and that could be converted to charcoal, along with a water source, provided the necessary ingredients for the first iron blast furnace. White asserts that it is the first furnace to use a combination of bituminous coal and charcoal in the New World.  It was first “blown” in 1803 and the smelting operation produced approximately two tons of iron per day during the 275 days a year or so it could operate outside the winter season. The iron was cast onsite into Dutch ovens, kettles, skillets, trivets, andirons, stove parts and hearth grates. These were sold not only to local residents in the growing community but also in nearby Pittsburgh. The furnace became the leading employer in its immediate vicinity and was instrumental in the founding of Struthers.

“Hopewell” expressed the Eaton brothers optimism for this new enterprise. Unfortunately, both competition and depletion of a key resource led to the end of iron-making at this site by 1808. In 1806, John Struthers (after whom Struthers is named) and Robert Montgomery opened another furnace a little ways downstream. This furnace used a more efficient “blast” using water wheels and fans. In 1807 Eaton sold the Hopewell furnace and related interests for $5600 to Montgomery, Clendenin, & Co., who operated it until the following year. By this time the hardwood forests that provided the key ingredient for charcoal had been used up. The Montgomery furnace downstream operated until 1812.

The Eaton family went on to build the Maria Furnace in Niles in 1813 and the Mill Creek Furnace, in present day Mill Creek Park, some time around 1830 and it operated up until around 1850. Around this time, a new, high quality form of coal, known as block coal was found in the Brier Hill area and resulted in a new boom of iron making in the Mahoning Valley, paving the way for the later emergence of steel, stronger and more flexible in the late 1800’s.

It all began in 1802 at Hopewell Furnace. Access to critical resources, growing markets, and a workforce all played a part. Although Hopewell Furnace only operated for about six years, it was a rehearsal for an industry that would shape the life of the Mahoning Valley for the next 175 years.