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History in the Hills: Valley pulling together

We are experiencing unprecedented events here in the Ohio Valley with the global coronavirus pandemic. Looking back through history it is hard to find a comparison to look to except perhaps the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

As an historian, I am constantly reminded of the phrase “Learn by history or you’re destined to repeat it.” We are now living the history that we hope will never be repeated, and I hope we will learn from it, no matter the outcome. Stopping the spread of this virus will take all of us pulling together to do our part, and that is something that often is found in the history of our valley. Coming together to achieve a common goal is something that we are very used to doing.

One of the most important and defining events in our recent past was World War II.

Today, we are asked to limit our contact with others, but Americans in the early 1940s were asked to come together to help win the war.

As I have discussed in other articles, Weirton Steel, at both of its sites in Steubenville and Weirton, went to work with 100 percent of its activities toward war production.

But outside of the mill, people came together in their personal lives to support the war effort, too. Half Moon, the land adjacent to Freedom Way in downtown Weirton, became a community victory garden sponsored by the Weirton Independent Union. In these garden plots, folks could come and plant vegetables and other crops to take pressure off farmers supporting the soldiers.

When the program opened in 1942, an astounding 624 Victory Gardens were planted in the Weir-Cove District. In the Weirton Steel Employee Bulletin, there were helpful hints, suggestions and general information about growing your own food. Other supplies were hard to get here at home also.

Some of the most important goods were rationed during the war such as sugar, milk, meat and gasoline among others. These were commodities that were doled out sparingly. Our grandparents were asked to go without many things during the war.

Another way our community came together during the war was through participation in blackouts. The blackouts were initiated to literally “black out” our communities so they could not be detected easily from enemy aircraft from the sky. Lights were to be extinguished in homes, businesses, on city streets, etc. The Weirton and Steubenville area was a very real target due to the heavy wartime production of the steel industry.

Also, a concern was the possible use of the Ohio River as an identifiable guide for enemy planes from the air. On July 17, 1942, the upper Ohio River communities participated in a Tri-State blackout as requested by the Steubenville Ohio Civilian Defense Council.

This blackout affected 750,000 residents and lasted for 31 minutes. It was deemed a success, and even more impressive was the fact that the great open hearth furnaces of the mill were blacked out, too, using what historian Susan Lindsey described in her 1949 thesis “Hancock County in World War II” as a “secret method” without stopping any vital war production.

Due to the optimistic outlook of world events, and because the blackout tests were so successful, in January 1944, it was decided by Civil Defense leaders that further drills were not needed. A relic from the days when folks of Steubenville and Weirton were concerned about the enemy coming from the air still exists at Historic Fort Steuben Park. Shortly after the First Federal Land office was saved, moved to Sunset Boulevard and turned into a historic site in 1941, it also was transformed into a center for civil defense. A cupola was constructed on the roof, and folks were stationed there to watch for enemy planes during the tumultuous time of the war years.

Working together is a way of life in our valley. We came together to combat the enemy in World War II here on the home front. People rationed, saved, canned food at home, planted gardens and participated in blackouts. We did without to help our service men and women win the war, and our valley persevered. As the current situation advances, let us remember that by pulling together, we can, and always have, accomplished great things.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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