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 — The View From Home


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

A relative recently posted the above image on Facebook and tagged me, asking if I recognized the location. When I saw this, I gasped, because I realized that this was the view of Youngstown I had grown up with. The painting portrays the view down Mahoning Avenue toward downtown, with the east and northeast sides of the city in the distance, from a point just west of the intersection of North and South Portland Avenues. I lived two houses in, on North Portland. The view is from almost exactly the place where I waited for the 9 Mahoning bus to go downtown to work, or to walk up to Youngstown State.

The image is reproduced from a 26 x 39 watercolor painting (available for sale!) by Christopher Leeper, a fine Youngstown area artist living in Canfield. It is one of several recent works portraying West Side scenes. Leeper is a 1988 BFA graduate from Youngstown State, an adjunct faculty at Youngstown State, and past president of the Ohio Watercolor Society. We have seen him on public television in Columbus, where his works have been shown. You may view his work, learn more about him, or even contact him via his website:

Some details caught my eye. One is the car toward the left turning into a side street. That would be my street. On the left side of Mahoning, behind the car is the building that used to be Dave’s Appliance store. Obviously, you are seeing the city on one of those cold, probably single digit days (vapor coming from the chimneys) that often follow snowfalls. I will have you notice that the streets are clear. Those of us who don’t live in snow belt areas like Youngstown just can’t understand why it takes days to plow the streets.

Our street was also off a hill. It was a good thing they were so good about clearing the snow. I remember blizzards where we would listen to the tractor trailer rigs hauling steel from the mills struggling up the hill.  You will notice that the businesses (or at least the buildings where there used to be businesses) are all right next to the sidewalks. Some had parking lots on the side but many were meant to be walked to, or you would just park on the street.

The Youngstown area is often referred to as the Mahoning Valley. The painting gives one a sense of this with rising hills above the flood plains on each side of the Mahoning River. We were west and south of the river, which runs from northwest to southeast through the city. The faint hills in the distance were north and east of the river. This was more or less the view out my back window as a young boy, where I could look across and up and down the valley from our house.

The Beatles song, “In My Life” begins with these lines:

“There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain.”

This painting so caught my attention because the views, the vistas we grew up with are always there with us, always a part of us. True, some has changed, some not for the better, some gone, and some remaining. But the Valley is still there, the major downtown buildings, and even the utility poles lining the streets. The memories of cold, crisp sunny winter days come rushing back, with the vapor of a thousand chimneys rising across the Valley. May I never forget the view from home!

Post update: My wife and I both paint and after writing this post, we had a chance to take a workshop with Christopher Leeper. He is a great teacher and very approachable. Last summer, we had a chance to see his painting in a show at the Columbus Museum of Art–even more striking than the digital image!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Youngstown Books

20160422_160834In case you haven’t figured it out, on Mondays through Fridays, this is a book blog. I thought that today I would bring books and Youngstown together. It is obvious that we like to read about Youngstown and remember the city where we grew up. Along the way, and particularly since I began this series of posts, I’ve acquired a number of Youngstown books (I haven’t read them all yet!). They appear in the picture above, spread out on my kitchen table. Below, I say a bit about them. For books in print, I’ve included links (usually to Amazon) in case you want to add them to your Youngstown shelf!

Aley, Howard C. A Heritage to ShareYoungstown: Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975. Published for our national bicentennial in 1976, this gives a year by year history of Youngstown and surrounding areas up until that time with feature articles and “it happened in…” for each year. This was a gift from my son who found it in a used bookstore in Columbus.

Allen, Bobbi Ennett, ed. Recipes of Youngstown. Lenexa, KS: Cookbook Publishers, 2014. This grew out of a Facebook group of people sharing Youngstown recipes and was published to benefit Lanterman’s Mill.

Allen, Bobbi Ennett, ed. Recipes of Youngstown 2Lenexa, KS: Cookbook Publishers, 2015. One cookbook was not enough for Bobbi’s group. The proceeds from this book are being used for the Tyler History Center’s “Recipes of Youngstown Kitchen” which will be dedicated on May 7. I posted about this here.

Bruno, Robert, Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Robert Bruno is a professor in Chicago who grew up in Struthers who described as well as anyone I know what it means to be working class. I reviewed the book here.

Hatcher, Harlan, The Western Reserve. Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill Co., 1949. Harlan Hatcher is a former Vice-President of Ohio State. He wrote a number of history books about Ohio including this one, which describes the New England roots and development of northeast Ohio. My copy is even signed by him and has a picture of Lanterman Falls on the frontispiece.

Marino, Jacqueline, and Miller, Will, Car Bombs to Cookie Tables. Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2015.  An anthology of articles under the headings “Loss”, “Family”, “Work”, and “Rise.” Most are short and give an unvarnished look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Youngstown.

Peyko, Mark C. ed., Remembering YoungstownCharleston: The History Press, 2009. Another collection of historical articles, more of a celebration of Youngstown’s history that includes beginnings, the rise of the steel industry, sports and popular culture, the arts, colorful figures, and icons of the Mahoning Valley like Idora Park.

Posey, Sean T. Lost Youngstown. Charleston: The History Press, 2016. Just arrived this week with stories of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Republic Rubber, The Elms Ballroom, The Uptown, The Paramount, The Newport, and communities like Brier Hill and Smoky Hollow.

Potter, Carol and Shale, Rick, Historic Mill Creek Park. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2005. Found a signed copy in a local bookstore of this collection of photos of our beloved park from its founding by Volney Rogers.

Skardon, Alvin W. Steel Valley University: The Origin of Youngstown StateYoungstown: Youngstown State University, 1983. Written by a professor of history at Youngstown State and providing the history of the university up until 1983.

Summers, Susan J. and Ekoniak, Loretta A. Slovaks of the Greater Mahoning ValleyCharleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011. A pictorial history of the Slovak migration to the Mahoning Valley–pictures of families, workplaces, churches and more.

Welsh, Thomas & Geltz, Michael, Strouss’. Charleston: The History Press, 2012. A history of one of the two great department stores in downtown Youngstown. I hope someone writes this history of McKelvey’s some day.

Welsh, Thomas & Morgan, Gordon F., Classic Restaurants of Youngstown. Charleston: American Palate, 2014. One of my favorites covering all the great restaurants all over Youngstown with lots of pictures.

I know there are a number of other books about Youngstown and its people and history. I’d love to hear about your favorites and hope this might help you find some enjoyable reading as well. For some, these are just a walk down memory lane, or the rediscovery of a recipe that mom made. But for others, and particularly those living in Youngstown, to know what the city could be may serve as an inspiration for what the city can be.

What are your favorite Youngstown books?

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