Excursion 16, Part 2 (Ashes to Ashes, Rust to Rust)

In which our intrepid hero returns to the Rust Belt along the Ohio River…

The city where I grew up, El Paso, Texas, had industry of a sort, but mostly of the resource-processing kind, such as the city’s numerous refineries (oil, copper, etc.).  I think the first time I ever encountered America’s stereotypical industrial economy was the first time I visited Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1989.  I was driving on one of the Interstates in the metro area and there was a certain point where, if I looked south, all I could see, it seemed, was a vista full of smokestacks belching fumes.  That was my welcome to industry.  Of course, by then Cleveland had already been a rust belt city for some time, so I could only image what it might have been like in, say, the 1950s.  Still, even in the 21st century, Cleveland still operates as an industrial city, both in the old sense (polymers, automobiles, etc.) as well as in the newer sense (information technology, biotechnology, etc.).

In contrast, the cities and towns along the Ohio River have been less able to weather the storm.

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

I had already seen the effects of depopulation and unemployment in some of these Ohio River towns, and now in this second leg of a mid-August excursion, I was back for more.

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I wasn’t quite to the Ohio River yet, though, when I saw an unusual site:  an old motel that now sported a sign proclaiming the Oxford Mining Company (with the slogan “Reliability Matters”).  This was a bit of a mystery.  The building still looked very much like a non-functioning old motel.  Meanwhile, the Oxford Mining Company isn’t even the Oxford Mining Company anymore—for about seven years it has been called Oxford Resource Partners.  But a look at their website does seem to suggest that they have several offices and facilities in this vicinity.  It is, in any case, an uncommon fate for one of these old motels.

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I reached the Ohio River soon enough after that, in the vicinity of Toronto, Ohio, a town of 5,091 (salute!), though like most towns along the river, its glory days are behind it (its population was 7,780 in 1960).  Toronto sports an actual working industrial plant, belonging to the Titanium Metals Corporation (known as TIMET), which the town depends on for much of its remaining economy.

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This is the rear-view of a row of houses on (I believe) Madison Avenue in Toronto.

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From the front, the houses give a totally different impression, with a long row of connected identical townhouses that look like they might have been company housing at some point.

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Toronto does have some restored buildings, such as this 1890 building that was refurbished (note the re-done brickwork on the upper left) and now houses some businesses, at least on the ground floor, and judging from the air conditioners, perhaps some offices or apartments on upper floors.

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Here’s a look at a typical Toronto intersection.  Note the hills in the background; a feature that every Ohio River town has.  Also look at the commercial mural on the B+W Tires place.  Is that the Fonz?

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Here’s another attempt at refurbishing an ancient building, apparently converting it to apartments.  I would not like to have to go up all those flights of stairs, but then stairs are the natural enemy of the fat man.

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A lot of Toronto still looks like this, though.  This corner office building once must have thrived.  Now, it houses a single, rather unappealing business, and the upper floors appear completely uninhabited.  This the desolate aspect of the Ohio River rust belt communities.

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Some of the residences are also relics of a time gone by.  Toronto must have been quite a prosperous town when this amazing house was built.

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I soon got on the highway to head north along the Ohio River (out of the frame, to the right).  The smokestacks one does see along the Ohio River tend to belong to coal-burning power plants.  I don’t know why, but I always get a little mesmerized at the sight of smoke billowing out of a smokestack.

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The next place up the river is the unincorporated hamlet of Empire, Ohio, with a population of around 299 (salute!).  Most people probably work at the power plant.  Here’s its rather decrepit town hall.

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Up the road from Empire, and just outside of East Liverpool, is the village of Wellsville, Ohio (population 3,541, salute!).  Wellsville is a tiny little strip along a bend in the Ohio River.  Even by the standards of Ohio River Rust Belt towns, Wellsville appears down on its luck.  It reached its peak population (8,849) almost a century ago and it has been declining every since.  Like many towns in eastern Ohio, it got its start with pottery and ceramics.  Later, steel and manufacturing came in—but that has long since left, along with most of the town’s prosperity.  Around 20% of the town’s homes are simply vacant—the town has issued only one permit to build a new home in the past four years.

A few years back, Wellsville learned that a Washington-based company planned to build a $6 billion coal to gas conversion plant in Wellsville, which would have employed 500 regular workers once built.  This would have been a tremendous shot in the arm for Wellsvillians, but would have come with a significant environmental cost.  In the end, the company could not get the needed financing, so the project never went through.

The photograph above symbolizes Wellsville’s fate.  It’s a shot of the Home Banking Company Building, constructed in 1905, when Wellsville was a much larger, up-and-coming town.  But the Home Banking Company blew away with the years and others took it over.  At one point it was used as a post office, then some local attorneys bought it to renovate and rent out office space.  Now the building, in decrepit shape, houses only a tiny flooring business (though there is a sign for a bar, The Twisted Stone, that bar is already out of business).

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This is Shoub Towers, an old-style public housing unit in Wellsville, populated mostly by elderly and/or disabled people.  One thing that has surprised me on my trips up and down this stretch of the Ohio River is how common such old “projects” are in this region.  They are easy to recognize from their distinctive architecture—units in every town have a sameness to them.  Just to provide some contrast, the city of Columbus has many public housing communities, but none of them are of this archaic style (those have all been demolished and replaced).  Not so in Appalachia.

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This old building gives me an opportunity to exercise my new-found love for fire escapes.

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This VFW hall has a rather desolate appearance to it.

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Here is a black and white shot of a typical downtown Wellsville street.

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The old and the new.  The old is this original bottleneck kiln, a symbol of the importance of ceramics to Wellsville’s earlier history.  It is all that remains of the Acme Craft Pottery company (a building once surrounded the kiln), which dates back to the 1920s, thought the kiln itself is probably older than that.  The kiln is just off the highway that traces the Ohio River, which is why the building is no longer in existence.  And the new?  That sign on the right, offering to buy “mineral rights,” which is part of the fracking boom in Ohio.

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Not far away, underneath the highway, are the Wellsville Flood Wall Murals, painted by Gina Hampson in 2005, which show scenes from Wellsville’s happier past.

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Here’s the kiln, as well as “Indian Head Rock,” which apparently entirely escaped my notice.

It is clear that the citizens of Wellsville love their town and its history.  I only wish that history had been kinder to it and them.

11 thoughts on “Excursion 16, Part 2 (Ashes to Ashes, Rust to Rust)

  1. You didn’t miss the “Indian Head Rock”. It was destroyed many years ago to create the current Ohio Route 7. Attempts were made to try and save the landmark, but it did not survive.

  2. I grew up in Wellsville from 1966 to 1981. What started out in the 60’s as a beautiful little Norman Rockwell town began its downward spiral in the mid-late 70s when the freeway came in. Not long after that, steel mills like Crucible Steel shut down and the lifeblood of the town and livelihood of its people dried up. So sad to see what it has become in the past 3 decades.

  3. I grew up in Wellsville – graduated 1948 from Wellsville High School. Still in touch with many from that time. The one thing I will always remember about my life there was the spirit of the town. It didn’t matter – old or young – rich or poor – black or white. We cared about each other. From what I hear from old friends there, it’s pretty much the same today. It may not be as big in population now but the spirit of friendliness still covers it.

  4. I grew up in Wellsville in the 70’s and early 80’s. My family moved to Missouri when my father lost his job at Crucible Steel. I loved growing up on Hillcrest rd. with lots of other kids. We had forests to explore and places to ride our bikes. The Home Banking building in the picture above was home to where I took gymnastics at the Olympic Village and it housed our favorite Mini-mart/deli. My parents ran the Little Shopper convenient store right off Main St for many years. My sister and I ran all over town with our friends and loved to eat at Johnny’s lunch. I also loved going to the war memorial on Riverside to just sit and reflect and watch the activity on the river.

    • You paint a beautiful picture of Wellsville… I passed through it a thousand times before the highway was completed… down the main street, many times down through the neighborhood that has the park & fountains along the way… and along the street facing out to the river. Many times went to the 5 & 10 store, the IGA, etc. I lived in Midland, but my folks were from Toronto, so that always made the trip interesting… of course, there was a dairy queen on either end of town, and at one time a Tastee Freez too… the Indian face rock was very cool. I would love to live there…something about the place that makes me feel at home.

  5. I don’t think a place like that can exist any longer. We were safe even in the parts of town that were considered “bad”. Someone was always around that knew your parents and they would make certain you were safe. Of course it could also mean that your parents had a full report on your activities before you got home. These days people ban the ice cream truck from their neighborhoods because of the possible danger to their children. My parents felt safe giving me a nickel or a dime to get something cold from “Popsicle Pete” and never thought twice about it. I don’t think the difference is because of the location, but because of the time. I could not have given my son the same childhood by moving back to Ohio. I would need Mr. Peabody’s Way-back Machine.

  6. Half of my family comes from Wellsville, Walton’s and Freeman’s and I was born in Dover Ohio. You mentioned growing up in El Paso, Texas and interestingly, I too lived in El Paso Texas finishing my growing up, and graduated from Austin High in 1968. Compared to where I live now in West Virginia, the Pictures you posted of Wellsville are much better in appearance.

  7. Thank you for doing this website! I can tell it has been a herculean effort on your part to make this many excursions around the state! It’s something I’d love to do but am not as disciplined as you are to make myself get up on a Saturday and get going. I am a native Ohioan (originally from Mt. Vernon but mostly raised in Zanesville and then Dresden) I lived near Boise Idaho for six years and then moved back and saw my home state with new and more appreciative eyes. I relate to the sense of place and belonging you get driving through certain small towns. I noticed you make several trips to Muskingum County and that region. Might I recommend if you’re in Dresden again visiting the world’s largest basket and more importantly a historic mansion located in Trinway (which is another tiny place conjoined to Dresden if you just keep heading down main street in Dresden you run into Trinway. There is a large mansion from the early 1800’s called Prospect Place. It has had some limited restoration and has the ghost stories and all that but is worth a driveby. It’s sort of like Mudhouse Mansion except larger and in better condition. I have read many of your posts but haven’t come across it (maybe you have been there and I didn’t notice so my apologies if you already have heard of it!). Thanks again for all your work on this website it is a gem and truly unique!

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