Old Steel

In the old days, steel was made out of raw materials, not reformed from scrap, as most of it is today. With batteries of coke ovens and blast furnaces, ore yards and casting halls, these Old Steel places were the largest and most dramatic industrial sites on the planet. Their impact on the landscape, economy, and people of the nation, was the definition of monumental. Even as they disappear, their effects remain forever, a big part of the American story. Someday we will look back on them with amazement, as we do with dinosaurs that once roamed the land.

2012-2013 CLUI Research Project



Though steel plants, old and new, can be found across the land, these nine regions comprise just about all of Old Steel:

Pittsburgh was the epicenter of Old Steel. This is where Andrew Carnegie’s empire was based, and where, around 1900, nearly half of the nation’s steel was produced. Pittsburgh was at the crossroads of the natural resources needed for steel (iron, coal, and limestone) all extracted in abundance from the area, and there were rivers and railroads to move things around. Today, Pittsburgh is still the headquarters of the U.S Steel Corporation (the last large old American steel company) and the region still produces nearly 5 million tons of steel a year, more than half of it by U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Plant, in Braddock—a functioning relic of Old Steel.

Historically, Ohio is the second most productive steel state, after Pennsylvania. Today, it is the second most productive steel state, after Indiana. Old Steel is clustered in the northeast, along the Cuyahoga River, at Cleveland, and in the Mahoning Valley around Youngstown, which produced more steel than any other part of Ohio. Eventually the Mahoning Valley became comparatively logistically isolated, losing out to the rail and river access at nearby Pittsburgh and the iron and limestone ports along the shores of the Great Lakes (a proposed canal leading to Youngstown was never built). Youngstown was among the first of the Old Steel regions to fall.

UPPER OHIO RIVER (click for slideshow)
On the Ohio River, Old Steel was concentrated on its northern end, between Pittsburgh and Wheeling, West Virginia, a stretch of less than 100 river miles, with the densest stretch in the eight miles from Weirton, West Virginia, to Mingo Junction, Ohio. Along here are some of the most dramatic remains of the industry, for years teetering on the edge of production, in dramatic industrial townscapes packed into tight valleys, steel towns depicted in the classic American film The Deer Hunter. This region is on the verge of transformation—three of the main steel plants are now closed, and in new hands, with plans to demolish them.

BIRMINGHAM: SOUTHERN STEEL (click for slideshow)
The iron and steel industry started in Birmingham during the Civil War, after the region’s local resources of iron, coal, and limestone were discovered and exploited to produce weapons for the Confederate army. Later, spurred on by demand for steel for World War I and II, 26,400 people worked in steel-related industries in the four counties around Birmingham by 1970. By the mid-1980s, with the collapse of American steel, employment in the industry fell to just over 10,000. Today Birmingham is still a major iron and steel products center, though mostly making pipes, valves and fittings.

THE WEST (click for slideshow)
Old Steel, which generally precedes World War II, hardly exists in the west.  One exception is the relatively small Seattle Steel Company, which was established in West Seattle in 1905, a site which now has a Nucor Steel mini-mill on it, with the rest of the site redeveloped into housing and port facilities. Another exception, and the only large-scale Old Steel site in the West, is the Rocky Mountain Steel works in Pueblo, Colorado, which is still producing and occupying its original footprint. A few large integrated steelworks were made during World War II to provide steel for the shipyards that were built hurriedly at every major city on the west coast. Most of these plants were built inland, to be out of range of enemy ships and submarines.

DETROIT: AUTOMOTIVE STEEL (click for slideshow)
Cars are a major consumer of steel, and Michigan is the largest producer of the 15 million automobiles made in USA every year. Henry Ford, one of the main proponents of the concept of Integrated Production methods, placed steel plants into his automobile plant at River Rouge in 1917. Two other Old Steel plants around Detroit are nearby, along the Detroit River. One is defunct, the other still producing. These two operating steel plants together produce almost seven million tons of new steel a year, making the south side of Detroit the second largest localized steel production area in the nation.

THE LAKE SHORE: STILL THERE IN A BIG WAY (click for slideshow)
This region, along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago, is the largest heavy industry area in the USA, and one of the most productive steel regions in the world. Three large plants dominate the area. The two on either end are currently owned by ArcelorMittal, the largest steel company in the world, with 260,000 employees worldwide. Based in Luxemboug, ArcelorMittal is the product of the consolidation of many American and international steel companies, including the U.S.’s Inland Steel and ISG, former owners of these Lake Shore plants. The company produces 100 million tons of steel per year from its operations around the world, 35% of it in the USA, and 15% of it here, on the Lake Shore. In the middle, between the ArcelorMittal plants at Indiana Harbor and Burns Harbor, is the U.S. Steel plant at Gary. Built more than 100 years ago by U.S. Steel, this is the largest plant for the nation’s largest remaining domestic steel company. These three plants together produce more than 22 million tons of steel a year, 30% of the total produced nationwide.

BUFFALO: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (click for slideshow)
Though other Old Steel plants around the Great Lakes still operate, steel production in Buffalo, New York has run its course from existence to memory. The Pan-American Exposition was held in the city in 1901, while the Lackawanna Steel Company was in the middle of constructing the first plant in Buffalo, an auspicious beginning for the 20th Century. This plant would become one of the largest steel plants in the world—it employed 6,000 people when it opened the following year. It closed in the 1980s, and by the end of the century, most of it was demolished and managed as a hazardous waste site. A small museum with large ambitions preserves the legacy of Buffalo’s steel heritage.

The arc of Bethlehem Steel is the arc of Old Steel in America. It was perennially the second largest steel company, after U.S. Steel, and around 1917, it was the third largest corporate entity in the USA, after U.S. Steel and Standard Oil. The company started iron making in the 1850s, in the little eastern Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, where its principal plant grew to immense size. The company expanded with acquisitions, and eventually had nearly 300,000 employees at its mills and shipyards across the country. In 1973, at its post-war peak, it produced 23.7 million tons of raw steel and employed 150,000. In 1975 Japan surpassed the USA in steel production, and the decline of American steel was underway. By 1982, Bethlehem had 67,000 employees. When it filed for bankruptcy in 2001, its remaining 13,000 employees were laid off, and the home plant in Bethlehem closed.