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February 25, 2013

More than a century ago, steel was the rage

NEW CASTLE — You can call it the second coming.

More than 100 years before anyone ever heard of Marcellus Shale, there was another industrial boom in Lawrence County.

Steel mills ranked among the largest economic enterprises in the region.

During the second half of the 19th century, western Pennsylvania became one of the world’s leading centers of steel production. For much of the 20th century, thousands of area residents worked to turn iron ore into steel and shape steel into a variety of products.

In the summer of 1891, a group of New Castle businessmen banded together with the intention of building a steel plant in the thriving manufacturing city.

According to the Lawrence County Memoirs website, the plant was constructed on the former site of the Crawford Iron and Steel Co. along the eastern banks of the Shenango River, just south of where the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek meet. The new plant, which opened in late 1892, was known as the Shenango Valley Steel Co.

By the late 1890s, New Castle was a major player in the manufacture of iron, steel, and tin plate and sometimes referred to as “Little Pittsburgh.”

Shenango Valley Steel and a host of other plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio were swallowed up by the National Steel Co. in 1898.

In 1903, the National Steel Co. was merged with the Carnegie Steel Co., which had been under the control of the powerful U.S. Steel Corp. (headquartered in Pittsburgh) since it was formed in early 1901. The plant along the Shenango River became known as the New Castle Works of the Carnegie Steel Co.

Carnegie Steel, which brought together a handful of steel plants, had been formed by the wealthy Scottish-born industrialist and humanitarian Andrew Carnegie in 1892. Carnegie had come to the Pittsburgh area as a poor youngster in 1848, rose up through the ranks of the railroad, oil, and iron industries, and made his fortune in the steel business during the 1880s and 1890s. Carnegie’s empire was bought out in 1901 for an astounding $480 million (over $13 billion in 2011 dollars), making him the wealthiest man in the world for a time. The deal led to the formation of U.S. Steel and made that outfit the first billion-dollar corporation and the largest steel producer in the world.

In 1913, Carnegie Steel built a large playground on its property along South Jefferson Street. The massive playground, which was only open during the summer months, featured an indoor auditorium for showing movies, an athletic field, and numerous pieces of recreational equipment such as swings, bars, and slides. Often as many as 2,500 kids visited the site on any given day. A dedicated playground staff hired by the company organized various activities for the kids and also sports leagues for adults.

The Carnegie Steel  site along the Shenango River was in use by other interests over the years and today is home to several steel manufacturing facilities associated with the Ellwood Group Inc. (EGI) of Ellwood City.

Steel mills ranked among the largest economic enterprises in the region since before the Civil War.  Only after the U.S. steel industry suffered a sudden decline in the 1970s did area mills begin to shut down and lay off workers.

“Nothing is going to last forever, said Colleen Chamberlain of Nordson Xaloy, a plastics delivery component maker based in New Castle. “Economies are dynamic.”

“When steel mills were opening, people weren’t prepared for it,” Chamberlain said. “And they weren’t prepared when they closed either.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)

 

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