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In 1845, deposits of block coal – which could be used in iron furnaces without being converted to coke – were discovered near Youngstown. These coal deposits, along with the area’s seams of high-quality iron ore, were a major catalyst for the growth of the iron industry in northeastern Ohio.
The earliest iron furnaces used charcoal as fuel, but the industry eventually switched to coke, a purified form of bituminous coal, such as that found in most of Ohio. The burning coke, when exposed to blasts of air (hence the name “blast furnace”), creates the high temperatures needed to melt iron ore for processing into ingots, or “pigs.”
The nation’s westward expansion increased demand for iron, guaranteeing that the Mahoning Valley’s iron furnaces would stay busy. By the 1850s, the valley was one of the nation’s leading centers of iron production.
Within a decade, however, processes to produce large quantities of steel became widely available. An alloy of iron, steel is stronger and more flexible, making it better suited than iron for rails, beams, and other products. The Industrial Revolution and the building of a vast national rail system after the Civil War made steel more valuable than iron had been.
The Mahoning Valley gradually made the switch to steel production. The Ohio Steel Company, organized in 1892, was the Valley’s first steel company. By the turn of the century, most of the area’s iron makers had consolidated into huge steel mills that did everything in one place, from processing ore to finishing steel products.
The Mahoning Valley became a magnet for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, as well as African-Americans from the South. Iron smelting had been a job primarily for skilled craftsmen, but steelmaking required many more unskilled laborers than craftsmen – providing jobs for the thousands of newcomers who were searching for employment.
Working conditions for these men were appalling. Steelworkers often toiled twelve hours a day for six or even seven days a week. Every two weeks, crews on the night and day shifts switched hours, causing the “long turn” – a full twenty-four hours of tiring, non-stop work. Machinery, poisonous gases, and open vats of molten steel presented many ways for workers to be hurt or even killed. Many mills ran their own hospitals to treat the injured and maimed.
The poor conditions made the industry ripe for unionization. To discourage workers from organizing, companies set up “welfare” programs for their employees. They provided housing, ran their own stores, and organized athletic teams for workers.
Despite these measures, workers formed the United Steelworkers of America in 1936, eventually winning dramatic increases in pay and benefits.
By the 1920s, the Mahoning Valley was second only to Pittsburg in American steel production. Spurred by World War II and postwar growth, steelmaking in the nation increased, peaking in 1973.
Within ten years, though, the steel industry was a shadow of its former self. Much changed as the post-war boom wound down. Depletion of high-grade ores made raw materials more expensive. Overexpansion left industry vulnerable as plastics and other steel substitutes increased demand for the metal. Long-standing disputes between management and labor added to the industry’s difficulties.
In Youngstown, lack of adequate water transportation created further problems for the steel industry. The area’s worst fears came true on September 19, 1977, which came to be known as “Black Monday”.
On that day, the Lykes Corporation, the parent company of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, announced that it was closing the Campbell Works. Brier Hill Works closed in December 1978, and three more mills closed in 1980 and 1981.
Youngstown area steelworkers and community leaders engaged in a bitter struggle to keep the mills operating, but attempts to reopen some of the mills as worker-owned facilities failed. In four years, nearly 25,000 steelworkers had lost their jobs, and for many Americans, Youngstown became a symbol of national industrial decline.