Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Campbell

Ohio Militia at a steelworkers’ strike at East Youngstown in 1916.

In 1902 the Youngstown Iron, Steel, and Tube Company established mills on the north banks of the Mahoning in what was then East Youngstown. Immigrant workers flocked into the settlement on the hills above the plant. By 1915, workers were living in crowded conditions and because of World War I were working 12 hour shifts 6 days a week for 19.5 cents an hour, barely a living wage. In January of 1916, 16,000 Mahoning Valley steel workers went on strike. On January 7, company guards shot into a crowd of people, killing three. Strikers responded by breaking into an administration building and burned 100 blocks of businesses and residences, much of the town. The Ohio National Guard was called in (pictured above) to restore the peace.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube settled the strike by increasing wages to 22 cents an hour. They also engaged in a form of “welfare capitalism” that consisted of helping rebuild much of the town, including worker housing. They bought the Blackburn plat for $250,000 and built a “workingman’s colony” of rowhouses constructed of pre-fabricated concrete. The developments in East Youngstown were built particularly for immigrant and Black populations, segregated from each other. The units had electrical service and indoor plumbing and backyard gardens. There was also a  “community house,” gymnasium, and school with a public square, designed to create a community feel.

All these efforts were led by Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s president, James Anson Campbell. In 1926, as the city rebuilt and became more established, it renamed itself Campbell, recognizing James Anson Campbell’s singular role in establishing the city. These were boom years and the city reached its peak population of 14,673 in 1930. It went through some decline over the next twenty years, and then grew during the Baby Boom years to 13,406. As is well known in Youngstown history, the major blow came on Black Monday as Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed down the Campbell Works, with massive layoffs. That led to steeper population declines to an estimated population of 7,785 in 2019 (All population info from Wikipedia).

The city remains home to the descendants of immigrants with strong Greek, Italian, Slovak, and Black populations. It is also known as the “City of Churches” due to the number of churches in the community. My one friend from Campbell, Dan Yargo, is pastor of one of them, Christ Community Church.

Campbell is working to both preserve and rebuild. In 1982, the workers housing was declared a National Historic Site. Sadly, the units declined and some were razed. Of the original 248 units, 194 remain owned by 55 owners. For a time, Iron Soup Historic Preservation formed to preserve the remaining units and acquired 20 of them. The Facebook page for the organization states: “Iron Soup as an organization no longer exists, the homes are currently under the control of the founder of the original company and is working on mass acquisition of the complex and the formation of a new company that will aim at housing US Veterans.” Although this Vindicator article doesn’t mention it, it appears that Tim Sokoloff is the one leading this effort. He lives in one of the units, renovates and rents out other units to generate income, and says he “will continue his renovations until the city tells him to stop or until he ‘kicks the bucket.’ ”

CASTLO CIC is an effort to attract industries onto the land formerly occupied by Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Seventeen business currently operate on the site with room for more. For recreation, Roosevelt Park offers picnic pavilions, hiking trails and baseball, softball, soccer, and tennis facilities on 64 acres.

Campbell could be called the city Youngstown Sheet and Tube (and James Anson Campbell) built. Now it is not big industry or business, but many individuals and community groups, some the descendants of the immigrants who first moved there, who will build the Campbell of a new century.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — James A. Campbell


James Anson Campbell. Public Domain

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.