Steel documentary project in search of local photos

STEUBENVILLE – Alan Hall never worked in a steel mill, much less visited one.

But he is well aware of the history and impact the steel industry has had on area communities.

“We actually started the steel documentary project a year ago when we applied for an emergency grant from the Pugliese Foundation. We knew there were plans to dismantle part of the Steubenville plant of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and we wanted to preserve as much of the history of the mill as possible through photographs,” related Hall, library director of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.

“We were able to hire Ben Halpern, a professional architectural industrial photographer who was given access to the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plants. He is a true professional who would literally carry his camera into the mill, set up his tripod and drape a black cloth from the camera over his head to make sure the photos he took would work as blown up photos for our exhibit,” explained Hall.

“We wanted to get photographs of some of the structures that were still standing. Some of them have been demolished while others will be renovated for future use. We wanted to preserve the history of the steel mill through the photos,” he continued.

“We are planning a series of exhibits thanks in part to a $ 15,000 grant from the Esther Simmons Trust Fund by the PNC Charitable Trust Grant Review Committee. Our exhibit will include selected photos of the mill. The first exhibit will be on display at Eastern Gateway Community College this fall and we then hope to take the exhibit to different locations in the county,” Hall said.

“The project will include an oral history, poster-sized photographs for public display and community programming for adults and children. We hope to have former Steelworkers talk about what they did in the steel mill that started n Steubenville as the Jefferson Iron Works in 1870 and through the years changed names to include the Mingo Iron Works, LaBelle Iron Works, Laughlin Steel Co., Carnegie Steel Corp. and the Wheeling Steel Corp.,” Hall noted.

“Our photographer was able to get a photo of a mill chimney before it was taken down that had LaBelle painted on the Ohio River side of the stack. It was faced and very old. But he took the photo when the sun was rising in the east and captured a piece of steel history,” remarked Hall.

“The library is also delighted to partner with the PNC Charitable Trust to bring the Steel Documentary Project to the area, and document the history of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. as it changes to new purposes and industries. The cooperation of Strauss Industries, current owner of the North Plant, has been essential in this effort.”

The will be archived into the West Virginia Regional History Collection at West Virginia University.

“We are also asking local residents who may have photographs of family members in the steel mill or photos of the mill to share them with us. We will digitally copy those personal photos for the library’s Digital Shoebox collection. Those photos, along with family stories, will provide us with a history of the local steel industry as well as its impact on our local communities,” Hall said.

“I have learned so much about the steel mill since we started this project, including the fact the blast furnace in Steubenville was one of the longest operating furnaces in the United States. It was started in 1900 and underwent several rebuilds, but it operated until 2005,” said Hall.

“We looked at an 1872 atlas here at the library and saw there was an ironmaking business in Steubenville at that time. The mill literally became a city within itself. It is sad to see the plant being demolished. But at the same time it is exciting to know the plant has a future again,” stated Hall.

Several events involving community programming in conjunction with Eastern Gateway Community College will feature speakers of interest related to the local steel industry, Hall said.