Steel photo exhibit to open Oct. 1 at EGCC

STEUBENVILLE – Librarian Alan Hall has a new appreciation for the local steel industry after he saw the black-and-white photos of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. plant.

“We knew with the demise of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Coorp. and subsequent purchase by RG Steel and then the plant closing the local mill may soon be gone. Then Strauss Industries bought the north plant and announced plans to demolish some of the old buildings. So when we were approached by Ben Halpern, who wanted to take photographs before the structures were gone. we started seeking grants for the project,” explained Hall, director of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.

A reception for the Steel Industry in Jefferson County photo exhibit will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 in Founders Hall at Eastern Gateway Community College. The event is open to the public.

“Steel Industry in Jefferson County is a project intended to preserve the history of the steel industry of the Ohio Valley. It includes a collection of 50 professional pictures and presentations scheduled relating to the steel industry. “The photographs will be on display at EGCC in the Founders Hall Sept. 30 through Oct. 26 then will travel throughout the county during the next several months,” said Hall.

“I think the public will be very impressed with how well the pictures were aesthetically printed, framed and captioned. Ben truly captured, through a camera lens, the past 150 years of the industry that shaped our community,” Hall stated.

The 50 photographs are grouped by subject into six categories, including the Steubenville Mill Site Views, Coke Plant and Wheeling Steel Railroad Bridge, Steubenville Ore Yard and Blast Furnace, Cast House Interior and Blast Furnace Detail, Steubenville Mill and Auxiliary Buildings and the Mingo Junction Mill and Business District.

Programs will begin at 7 p.m. on Oct. 2 in Room 2102 at EGCC with photographer Benjamin Halpern. He will discuss the photographs and his involvement with the project. The public also will have a chance to meet and talk to Halpern at the kickoff event on Oct. 1 at EGCC.

David Javersak, professor emeritus from West Liberty University, will present, “Voices of Lasting Metal: Steelworkers in the Ohio Valley.”Javersak will be in Room 2102 at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9 at EGCC.

Then at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 in Room 2100 at EGCC, Thomas Leary of Youngstown State University will present “American Steel: Legacy and Heritage.”

Additional programs will be scheduled and posted on the library’s website,

“The steel industry project is a collaborative effort that the library is very proud to be a part of. I think it will spark much interest and discussion for years to come,” noted Hall.

Hall has 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 the area communities.

“I’ll admit when the idea was first brought to us I wasn’t very excited about the project. But after seeing the black and white photos of the different areas of the mill, I am excited by what Ben has been able to accomplish. Ben would putter around for 30 to 45 minutes just to set up one particular shot. He would set a special scene for each photograph. And he created the black-and-white photos on his digital camera on purpose. He wanted to tell a story through his photographs. And he spent hours labeling each photo,” explained Hall.

“We 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 through photographs,” related Hall.

“We were able to hire 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. 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 in 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 faded 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 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 photo will be archived into the West Virginia Regional History Collection at the West Virginia University.

“We have also received photographs from local residents who had photographs of family members in the steel mill or photos of the mill. 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,” said Hall.

“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.

“I am so glad Ben captured the two North Plant blast furnaces before they were demolished. All of our research indicates those were the two oldest continuous operating blast furnaces in the United States and perhaps the world. They were fired up in 1900 and continued making iron until 2005,” said Hall.

“We are definitely envisioning the need for an oral history of the steelworkers. Twenty years from now we may not have those oral stories available. So we are now seeking additional grants to record the stories, edit them and keep them as part of our local steel industry history,” cited Hall.