Excursion 15, Part 2 (The Ghosts of Steel)

In which our intrepid hero puts another notch on his Rust Belt…

When I was a young child, my parents took me to visit a ghost town, the old mining town of Mogollon (of Spanish origin, now pronounced muggy-own) in far west New Mexico in the Gila Mountains.  In the 1890s, Mogollon was a happening place, with thousands of residents who were involved, directly or indirectly, in the mining of gold and silver (the same mining that would give nearby Silver City its name).  However, by the 1920s, many of the mines had shut down and an exodus followed.  By 1930, its population was only around 200.   When the last nearby mine shut down in the 1950s, the remnants of its population blew away like dust.  When I visited the town, probably circa 1973 or so, it seemed to have been abandoned for a century.

That’s one type of ghost town.  But there’s another.

[Remember that you can click on each picture below to see a larger, better version]

Mogollon represents the “classic” Western ghost town, if you will.  But there’s another type, what you might call the “walking dead” ghost town.  These are towns whose economic soul have died but that somehow still have people living in them, clinging to them.  These are towns from which the young tend to move away, leaving a smaller and smaller, older and older human population.  Maybe once there was anthracite coal mining, maybe once there was an auto plant.  Along the walking dead ghost towns of the Ohio River Valley, steel was once the life blood of many of them.  No one driving north along the Ohio River, as I did this past August 6, 2013, can avoid noticing this.

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When you do see working plants along the Ohio River here, they are often electrical power plants, as is the case here, with the Cardinal Power Plant, near the hamlet of Brilliant, Ohio.  Although it looks like a nuclear power plant, because of the cooling tower, it is actually a coal-fired power plant, as are most power plants along the Ohio River.  With dirty coal being in such dirty repute, combined with the natural gas boom in the region in recent years, the long-term future of these plants is probably a bit up in the air.

I like this photograph because it intersperses the vertical leafless tree limbs with the vertical plant stacks, like a pair of skeletal hands reaching towards the sky.

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In Appalachian Ohio, a lot of the houses have a jerry-built, ramshackle quality to them, as is the case here.

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Even many of the more “stately” houses have a very dilapidated look to them.  These pictures are all from Brilliant, Ohio, the hamlet lying in the shadows of the Cardinal Power Plant.  Although it has a population of nearly 1,500 (salute!), Brilliant is unincorporated, for some reason.

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One of the local eateries in Brilliant is (or was???) this Pizza Palace.  While looking this place up on the Internet, I came across an oh-so-different Pizza Palace.

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Brilliant also has an American Legion hall, as do so many other towns and villages.  One of the oldest and largest of the veterans’ organizations, it is also explicitly political, in a right-wing vein, including on issues that have nothing to do with veterans’ affairs.  At times in its past, it has had a very right-wing ideology, especially during the Cold War.  Decades after the end of the Cold War, the American Legion still has a “Counter-Subversive Activities Committee.”

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If American Legion halls are a dime a dozen, permanent haunted houses are not, yet Brilliant boasts one:  the Wells Township Haunted House.  It is rather odd, but somehow very pleasing, that such a small place as Brilliant could somehow maintain a permanent haunted house, but it does (though it is not open all year round).  You’ll notice its building is positively ancient; the house’s Web site claims that it dates back to 1836 (and was ostensibly a temporary storage site for the bodies of killed Union soldiers being shipped back to the North, although this seems rather unlikely).  Someone who worked for the Haunted House was doing some work outside and I chatted with him a bit.  He told me that the big bloody ducts sticking out of the building were actually tubes from a McDonald’s playground!

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I thought this old carcass of an 18-wheeler was worth a photograph.  I tried it different ways, but it seemed best with a very high-contrast black and white.

It is easy to capture the carcass of a truck.  How do you capture the carcass of a town?  As I headed north from Brilliant along Ohio S.R. 7, I found myself entering another town.  A sign informed travellers that the town was “Mingo Junction.  Steel town, still proud.”  But Mingo Junction was a ghost town.

Mingo Junction (population 3,454, salute!) has been a steel town for well over a hundred years.  A large steel mill has always been central to Mingo Junction, providing the bulk of jobs and the bulk of the town’s wealth.  It was such an emblematic steel town that it was here that the steel scenes from the movie The Deer Hunter—ostensibly set in Pennsylvania—were actually shot.

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Here is Mingo Junction’s steel mill—idle.  Like similar mills in Martins Ferry and Yorkville, it has gone through numerous changes of ownership in recent years:  RG Steel, Esmark, Severstal, RG Steel (again), and Frontier Industrial Corporation.  But the mill has mostly been idle since 2005, causing the losses of nearly a thousand jobs and virtually all of the town’s income.   The Great Recession made everything worse.

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This was the mighty blast furnace for the plant, which installed a more modern $115 million electric arc furnace before it went bust.

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The “main streets” to many small towns and villages are straight, which greatly limit the angles from which one can really photograph them to get a sense of the town.  But Commercial Avenue in Mingo Junction is curved, because the nearby Ohio River is curved, so it is possible to get a different and better angle on the main drag.

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I am reminded of the rigging and ropes on a high-masted sailing ship.

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This old and grand establishment, Conch’s Avalon Bar, also boasts a great old fire escape.

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A little analog film effects makes it seem even older.  The bar has been burglarized six times in the past year.  Things aren’t so great in Mingo Junction…

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…as this photograph of the town’s main drag clearly shows.  An entire block’s worth of commercial buildings—once full and bustling—is nothing but an empty shell now.  Once upon a time, you’ll notice, parking meters were needed.

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Here’s another shot of this said sight at the center of Mingo Junction.

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The steel plant seems to have at least a skeleton crew, though it may be doing nothing more than maintenance.  From newspaper reports, it seems like it is still in good enough shape/modernity to be economically feasible—if someone would just come in and start it up.  In recent years, residents have hoped that some firm from India would step in, but that hasn’t materialized.

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The blast furnace at the steel mill makes this little trash burning site look practically microscopic.  As with practically everything else with a stack, though, this place isn’t in operation.

8 thoughts on “Excursion 15, Part 2 (The Ghosts of Steel)

  1. I escaped from Mingo Jct many years ago. I can tell you stories about why this town failed, from mismanaged funds to rampant theft of time and material from the mill. And no, the mill cannot be restarted. The crew you see there is actually tearing it down and selling it off as scrap metal.

    • I am very sorry to hear that about the mill. I don’t know what MJ’s future looks like. May I ask how you came across this posting? I have been getting a large number of visits from Facebook in the past day or so, which made me think there was some discussion going on somewhere on Facebook.

      • A FB friend reposted your blog. Your pictures are very good. It really shows the decay. I was back a year ago for a reunion and was appalled at the condition of the city and even more so by the responses to the questions I asked. Many think nothing is wrong! Did you know there are no street lights? The city has no money to pay the electric bill. No traffic lights except the one where Clifton meets Commercial which the state forced them to keep on.

  2. Why didn’t you show the nice homes in Brilliant? You showed only the bad. Just another hack job We’re used to out of towers coming in and running out town down. You never showed the good, never stopped to talk to the people. There are historic homes that have been restored. You showed buildings in the flood plain where options are limited, but you didn’t say that.

    • I don’t think that is a fair comment. First, I was only passing through, not driving up and down every street. Second, I went back and read what I wrote and I did not say a single bad thing about Brilliant. I did show some dilapidated buildings–because I love taking photographs of dilapidated or ruined buildings. I have mentioned this interest of mine a number of times on my blog and I do this every single place I go to. I do note that I also took a photograph of what I thought was a very interesting “haunted house” in Brilliant as well.

  3. I left Mingo many years ago. The previous comments are correct. The workers stole paint, tools and material from the mill for their own personal use. Many of the young guys went to work into the mill under the influence of drugs. Guys found places to sleep during their work shifts. The politicians have been, are and will always be corrupt. Many of them move on to higher political office simply because they are democrats. The people blindly vote for democrats regardless of how they have run the city and county. Politicians hire their family members, disregard civil service rules on the hiring process and then promote their relatives. Mingo is a town in decline that will never recover. The people that live there just do not realize it yet.

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