Excursion 59, Part 2 (The Steel Mill)

I never worked at a factory.  I did, for a few months, between my graduation from college and when I went off across the country to graduate school, work at an oil refinery, which at least is another industrial setting.  That was the summer of 1988, which not coincidentally was the last time I was shaven; the refinery prohibited beards for safety reasons.   I did a variety of things there; some clerical work, some gopher work, some light manual labor, so I was not bored. I find it difficult to imagine myself in something like an assembly-line job, doing the same thing all day long; I think my personality is not suited for that and it would be very hard on me.  Other types of factory work are much more varied.

[Remember that you can click on each image below to see a larger, better image.  Also, the EXIF data for each image contains GPS coordinates that you can use to locate the exact place where the photograph was taken. Copyright information:  All of the text and images on this blog are the intellectual property of Mark Pitcavage.  Attributed, non-commercial (ONLY) usage is permitted under the Creative Commons License.]

Large factories, however, can be extraordinarily important to the lifeblood of a community, especially a small town.  There are many smaller communities across Ohio that have depended on one or two companies or factories for a huge chunk of their jobs—and if a factory goes away, the town must still remain, eviscerated.

This is the 2nd half of an excursion into northeastern Ohio that I took in August 2016. When I left off my narrative, I was skirting south of Akron, headed east.  I continued my eastward journey into the Ohio countryside on U.S. 224.

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This is an area north of Appalachia but not quite the flat plains of far northeastern Ohio, so you tend to have farmland and low rolling hills.  Perched on the top of one of those low hills I saw two common symbols of the Ohio countryside: heavy farm machinery and oil wells.

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I started heading northeast on this road and that one and eventually wound up on another old U.S. highway, U.S. 422, oddly the palindrome of the previous highway I was on.  Route 422, which is a spur of US 22 that  spans 271 miles in Ohio and Pennsylvania, began in 1926, originally mostly be designating pre-existing roads. As with most old U.S. highways, one can find the occasional vintage motor hotel along their length.  From the 1920s through the 1940s, before the interstate highway system began in the 1950s, these were America’s principal transportation routes, and the first major routes designed specifically for the wonderful automobiles becoming increasingly common.  As a result, motor hotels (later shortened to “motels”) sprang up to accommodate the new driving public.

Here, just outside of Warren, Ohio (about which more below), we see one of these old structures, the Riverview Motel.  I couldn’t find out when it was built, but it seems to have been around since the 1950s, at least, and always under the name Riverview Motel.  I was able to find some material culture relics of the motel’s past, including a matchbook and postcard.

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Times have changed since Mr. and Mrs. George S. Beal owned the Riverview Motel. Just in trying to find out the date the motel was built, I came across numerous references to crime or criminals (including murder) associated with the place in the past couple of years, so one must assess its current status as “somewhat skeevy,” at best.

Warren, Ohio, itself is a small city about 15 miles or so northwest of Youngstown, with a population of 41, 558 (salute!). It is part of the Western Reserve, one of the oldest settled areas of Ohio, settled in large part by Revolutionary War veterans from Connecticut (which laid claim to the area).  Warren became a significant industrial center, with convenient access to resources like coal and iron, and enjoyed steady growth throughout the 1800s and during the 1900s up until the 1970s.  It reached a population peak of 63,494 in 1970. But then Warren fell victim to Rust Belt syndrome, as so many other towns and cities in the region did, and the industrial base that supported the city began to splinter.  Since the 1970 census, Warren has experienced nothing but population loss.

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I chanced upon one of the area’s industrial legacies just north of Warren, a shut-down steel mill. This was the former Copperweld Steel Company plant. Trying to piece together the plant’s history, especially for me as a non-local, was very difficult (as you’ll see, it gets complicated), so I hope it is not too inaccurate.

The Copperweld Steel Company (CSC) began life in 1915 after a group of western Pennsylvania engineers developed a new way to bond copper and steel together, which offered some of the strengths of both and prevented corrosion. They formed a company, the Copper-Clad Steel Company, which was changed to the Copperweld Steel Company in 1924.  They expanded to other types of steel manufacturing as the years went by.  Their first factory was in Pennsylvania but their second factory opened in 1939 in Warren. Located on a plot of 423 acres, the factory had five main buildings, one of them a fifth of a mile long. It cost $2,000,000 to build and originally employed around 700 men.  During World War II, the plant also did some work with uranium for the Oak Ridge Laboratory.

The company was successful until the 1970s, when cracks began to show. A French company acquired Copperweld in 1975 in a hostile takeover. A few years later, Copperweld shut down its original Pennsylvania factory, resulting in the loss of over 500 jobs, and moved its headquarters to Warren. The company suffered more losses, and more layoffs, in the 1980s.  Copperweld spun off its steelmaking into a new entity, CSC Industries. CSC industries never turned a profit and went bankrupt in 1993.  Its assets were taken over by a holding company, Hamlin Holdings, in 1995.

What happened after this is not 100% clear to me. The plant continued to operate in some form or fashion as CSC LTD, still employing nearly 1,400 workers at that time, but shut down in April 2001.

It seems that the Warren steel mill may have been broken up. Its continuous caster and melt shop was purchased in October 2001 by a group of Ukrainian investors (and financed by a Ukrainian conglomerate called Privatbank), who created a holding company called Warren Steel Holdings LLC . The caster and melt shop were no longer operating at the time of purchase. Other parts of the property seem to have been sold at auction, but some of it seems also to have been purchased by Warren Steel. Of course, after so many decades of industrial use, much of the site was environmentally contaminated and could not easily be converted to other uses. A 2015 lawsuit revealed a little bit about the new owners. Warren Steel Holdings LLC is owned by Halliwel Assets, Inc.,  a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands (though its director is a Greek Cypriot). Halliwel seems to be owned largely by three entities  Two were the Ukrainians Igor Kolomoisky and Genady Bogolubov. The third owner was the Bracha Foundation, based in Liechtenstein, which itself is owned by Vadim Schulman of Monaco.  The president of Warren Steel Holdings was Mordechai Korf of Miami, Florida. The lawsuit was by Schulman against the Ukrainians and Warren Steel.  If all of this seems sketcy to you, well, it does to me, too. Long gone were the days when some Pennsylvania engineers owned a simple steel company.

In 2006-07, Warren Steel began to hire a new (though smaller) workforce and to get the plant ready for operation again. It began making steel once more in 2009.  It seems to have employed around 200 people, though this seems to have decreased in subsequent years to around 130.  In 2013, the plant cut hours for its workers because of “reduced business.”  In March 2014 the plant shut down again once more.  Warren Steel Holdings claimed that this was because electricity costs were too high and demanded a rate reduction before resuming production.  According to the 2015 lawsuit, Warren Steel had assets amounting to $34.3 million but liabilities of over $143 million. The plant got its electric rates reduced and started up again, but that does not appear to have lasted long.

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I know some of you are saying, “Mark, do you think you could make this even more complicated?” You bet I can.  It seems that another company shared this property since the 1980s:  the Ohio Star Forge Company.  You know how I mentioned that Copperweld spun off its steel holdings?  The rest of the company later became partly owned by, then a subsidiary of, a Japanese company, Daido. In 1988, the two entities created the Ohio Star Forge as a joint venture. The entrance to the plant used to boast a large sign that had both the Copperweld Steel Company and the Ohio Star Forge Company names.  Ohio Star Forge, like Copperweld, became wholly owned by Daido a few years later. It mostly produces products for the automotive industry.

Originally very small, Ohio Star Forge never grew very much. It originally had only 10 acres of the old Copperweld property and a couple of dozen employees.  Today it still seems to have less than 100 employees.  However, unlike its neighbor, Ohio Star Forge seems to have been stable and profitable for its nearly 30 year history, even if on a reduced scale, with modern technology and techniques. A few years ago it even announced an expansion (and bought five more acres of land from Warren Steel Holdings).  However, it is not clear to me where on the property Ohio Star Forge is operating, precisely.  Satellite photos still seem to show the whole area abandoned.  The operating area must be somewhere on the south side, I think.

The continued success of Ohio Star Forge is a good thing, but it also illustrates the Rust Belt conundrum.  Ever-increasing automation means that, even when industrial concerns are successful, they never supply as many jobs as the ones they succeeded or replaced. It is difficult to imagine the future of this former Copperweld property ever employing 1,500 people again.

Those interested in photos of the place other than mine can look at these.

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For me, the human, seeing sights like this make me melancholy at best, because this place once supported families with solid jobs and I can’t imagine that coming back, no matter what lying promises might be made by people such as Donald Trump.  For me, the historian and amateur photographer, however, it is a chance to document a part of Ohio’s past before it slips away.

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The somber, cloudy sky (which replaced a sunny sky from that morning) provides an appropriate cast to the scene of the abandoned steel mill.  It looks as if it had been abandoned a lot longer than it has, though in all likelihood some parts of it were idle for much longer than others.

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For me, one of the things that appeals in photographs like this is the knowledge that what I am looking at does something, but I have no idea what. It is almost like looking at a device left by aliens and trying to understand its purpose.

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One might wonder why anybody would want to trespass on this site, but of course for metal scavengers it is a potential bonanza. That is why the few employees on this property are watchmen to keep an eye on it and make sure no one comes in with a truck and cutting equipment.

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The equipment is so dense in this section of the plant that it is hard to imagine humans in it. They would be like rats in the tight tunnels of a warren.

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The huge pipework/ductwork is also interesting. Was this for the exhaust from a mighty furnace? Was it for something else?

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It seems a bit incongruous to switch to a photo of a human after so many photos of machinery and equipment, but when arrived at the property, I met one of the watchmen. I explained that I was taking photographs for my blog and asked him if I could drive a little bit past the “guardpost” to get a better view of the factory.  He agreed, accompanying me to make sure I was not up to no good, and I got a chance to talk with him.  He was someone who once worked at places like this, but now just looked after their remains. His distinctive, weathered face was, I thought, very appealing, so I asked him if he would be willing to let me take his photograph.

What you see here, then, is the first true portrait I have ever tried to take.  Almost all of my photographs are landscape or architecture oriented and I rarely have the opportunity to photograph people at all, much less take a formal portrait.  So I am totally inexperienced with taking portraits.  However, I think I got lucky here and managed to get a decent one.

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Well, that’s enough industry for me. Northeast of Warren is Mosquito Lake (not the most inviting name for a place) and in the farmlands east of Mosquito Lake I took this photograph of the skeleton of a barn. I speculate that the barn was cannibalized to resell its lumber.

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By now, well into the early evening, clouds had definitely chased the sun away.

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Unfortunately, my GPS failed me in one way or another shortly after the last photo, so for the rest of this entry, I do not have GPS coordinates to guide my travelogue. However, the Horodyski Brothers Used Cars sign in the background allows me to place this old feed store as being in Burghill, Ohio, a tiny unincorporated community a bit east of my previous photograph.

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You can get a lot of nice textures between rust and weathering.

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I surely wish that I had GPS coordinates for this lonely smokestack in the middle of nowhere, because I would like to see what it looks like from satellite. Obviously, whatever structure was originally here—forge, incinerator, workshop, factory—is long gone.  Only the smokestack remains. One relic  like this that I encountered on the other side of the state used to belong to a greenhouse. Apparently it was used to incinerate plants once produce was picked. The greenhouse was long gone but the stack remained. I wish I knew what used to be here.

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Somewhere in northeastern Ohio, I found this interesting abandoned farmhouse. What I love about it is the odd room that serves as a third floor.  It seems too small for anything functional, so was its purpose purely decorative?  It is a good lookout post, in any case.

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Here’s a nice shot of the flat, northeast Ohio countryside, in a splash of sunshine but with rain being dumped in the distance.

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I loved this barn when I came across it. For a photo composition, it has so many interesting little elements all close together, unified by the main structure of the barn.

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In my opinion the scene also works well in black and white.  You lose the interesting colors, but the photo elements have so many interesting textures and variations that it is rich in its own right.

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Here’s another country home with an odd little watchtower on top.  Granted, such structures give you a great view, considering the flatness of the countryside, but I don’t see these in equally flat western Ohio.  Perhaps northeastern Ohio was inhabited by a great many outlaw bands who need to know if the sheriff was approaching.  Heh heh.

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Here is an interesting little overgrown cabin.  Notice even here there is a tiny little superstructure to the building. I guess it just must have been the fashion in the region.

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This photo gives me an opportunity to regain my bearings.  Apparently I had been heading straight north through the countryside when I was taking the previous several photographs, because this photograph was taken at a gas station and convenience store only a couple of hundred yards south of Lake Erie.  While getting gas  here, I spotted a family in a classic car come into the gas station.  It was a very nicely kept up vehicle, so I prevailed upon the man driving the vehicle to let me take a photograph.  He very grumpily agreed, as if I were holding him back from an audience with the Queen.

I am very ignorant of cars but I knew it was a Ford and by its look I pegged it as a late 1940s vehicle. So I did a Google search on 1949 Ford coupe and immediately images of this vehicle showed up.  It appears to be a 1949 Ford Custom Club Coupe.

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My previous photo represented the furthest extent of my excursion and I now began heading west along Lake Erie back towards Cleveland and, eventually, Columbus.  In Geneva-on-the-Lake (population 1,288, salute!), I came across a very colorful candy store, the Pucker Up Candy Shoppe.

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Not far from Geneva-on-the-Lake is Geneva-not-on-the-Lake, though everybody simply seems to call it Geneva, the imprecise bastards.  It has a population of 6,215 (salute!).  It also boasts this interesting store, the Broadway Antiques store. The building contains the remnants, almost palimpsests, of companies of yore, including what appears to be a job printer, E. O. Allen (or perhaps E. U. Allen). Sadly, the lower, larger advertisement is not clear enough for me to read, but part of it may have read “ice cream.”  I am not sure.

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I will end this excursion—a wonderful day—with a bit of a mystery.  Here is a Patton tank, probably an M60, which was situated on the property of a VFW or American Legion Hall.  But which one, I do not know, in the absence of the GPS, although it seems likely to have been in some town near Lake Erie. Alas!

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