Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Thomas G. McDonald

Thomas G. McDonald, Photo from Youngstown Vindicator, July 13, 1930 (via Google News Archive)

He oversaw the development of Carnegie Steel’s (later U.S. Steel) Ohio Works and the construction of the McDonald Works which were named after him, as was the village that grew up around these mills, McDonald, Ohio. He was Thomas G. McDonald, who was described in an editorial in the Youngstown Vindicator of July 14, 1930 (two days after his death) as “one of the old type of steel men who began at the bottom and by mastering every detail of the industry gradually worked their way up to the top.” From all I can find out about him, this is a fitting summary of his career.

McDonald was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania November 11, 1848. He learned to work hard on his father’s farm. Then, after public schools, he enrolled at the Iron City Commercial College, graduating to the carpenter’s trade in 1868. His first job was as a carpenter working on the construction of Carnegie Steel’s Edgar Thompson. He never left the company. He worked his way up in the company, learning all the details of manufacturing steel. In 1880, he became night superintendent at the converting department of their plant in Braddock. Then, in July 1880, he was assigned night superintendent at the Allegheny Bessemer Works in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. It was probably during this time that he became a close confidant of Andrew Carnegie, with whom he was a lifelong friend.

The company brought him to Youngstown in 1893 as general superintendent of the Ohio Works. Based on his advice, the plant decided to increase their equipment beyond the two 8 ton converters they had originally intended. He oversaw the instruction and the first heat in 1895. By 1897, monthly output exceeded 30,000 tons every month. Eventually, it would exceed 50,000 tons.

In 1906 Carnegie Steel promoted McDonald to general superintendent of the Youngstown District which included the Ohio Works, Upper and Lower Union Mills, Greenville Mills, and the Niles Furnace. Then in 1909, Carnegie Steel acquired land across the river from Girard for a new mill. In 1916 the new mill, whose construction was overseen by McDonald produced its first steel. Recognizing his leadership, Carnegie named the mills the McDonald Works. As it turns out, McDonald not only built the mill, he built the town of McDonald, building housing for the workers. The Village of McDonald was incorporated December 12, 1918. When it became apparent that workers with families would not come without schools, the company built schools, opening McDonald High School in 1929. It is still in use, having been renovated by Ricciuti, Balog and Partners in 1990.

He retired in 1921 but continued working as a consulting manager. He was involved in a number of civic causes in the Youngstown area including service as a vice president of the Youngstown Chamber of Commerce and director of the Youngstown and Northern Railway Company. He served several terms on the Board of Education and as a director at First National and Dollar Banks.

He celebrated his 50th anniversary with Elizabeth on November 27, 1928. On July 1, 1930, in his 82nd year he was hospitalized at North Side Hospital in critical condition with a kidney infection. He died on July 12, 1930. He is buried in Belmont Park Cemetery.

From all I can read, everything McDonald built, he built well with a vision for the future. In fact, a portion of the McDonald Works is still making steel as McDonald Steel. The complex of plants he oversaw outlasted him by nearly fifty years until U.S. Steel ended operations in 1979. One wonders “what if” the area’s steel industry had enjoyed leadership like his throughout its history. What he did do is contribute to the capacity that helped make the Steel Valley the third largest steel maker in the country. That is no small thing.

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