Youngstown, OH: Built by Steel
Youngstown, Ohio is the county seat of Mahoning County. It was founded in 1797 by John Young, who purchased the 15,000 acres that would become Youngstown for around $16K. Its founding was noted officially in 1802, and extensive iron ore and coal deposits were soon discovered nearby. In 1804, Hopewell Furnace – the first blast furnace in Ohio history – opened near Youngstown and a small iron industry developed.
The installation of the Pennsylvania and Ohio canals in the 1830s and railroads in the 1850s further spurred both population and industry growth. The town was officially incorporated in 1848, and was chartered as a city in 1867. In the decade between 1860 and 1870, the population of Youngstown nearly doubled. This was due to the ease of travel to Youngstown on both the rails and canals, and also due to the thriving iron and coal industry.
In the 1880s, as natural iron and coal resources in the area became more scarce, the first steel mills were introduced, a sign of things to come. Steel production would come to dominate industrial activities in the area for most of the next century. The Great Depression was especially difficult for Youngstown due to its reliance on industry jobs. The unemployment rate during this time was 33% higher than the national average, which at the time was already very high.
The population jumped from 30,000 residents in 1890 to 170,000 in 1930. So many residents were arriving each day that there were not enough available homes for them. The thriving steel industry brought with it a large immigrant population as well as environmental changes.
By the early 1900s, steel mills lined the Mahoning River and the sky above Youngstown was a constant gray. Some residents didn’t mind the gloom, however, as it represented the town’s flourishing economy. As one steel worker put it, “Youngstown clean is Youngstown out of work.” The unfortunate result of such a monoculture was that any changes in the steel industry spelled big changes for Youngstown as well. Steel was built into every facet of the city’s success and failure.
Steel strikes throughout the 20th century, brought on by low wages and little job security, contributed to a steadily shrinking populace, as steel mills shuttered and jobs became scarce. Jobs were suddenly plentiful again during both WWII and the Korean War, with the Ohio steel industry seeing a major boom during the 1940s and 50s. During the Korean War, Youngstown’s steel mills were so important to the war effort that rumor of a strike led to President Truman’s seizing of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. This action led to a famous Supreme Court case regarding the power of the Executive branch. Following the war, Youngstown’s steel industry experienced a major decline. By the mid 1980s, the steel industry in Youngstown had all but ceased to exist. The population of Youngstown at the time was reduced to about half of its 1930 population.
Today, the effects on the environment of Youngstown’s steel industry are fading. The skies of Youngstown are grey no longer, and green pasture has replaced the miles of mills. Youngstown, like many Rust Belt cities, is turning the corner as we venture further into the new century. Revitalization projects and investment abound, and the sense of optimism for the future is growing.
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