Steel photo exhibit opens

STEUBENVILLE – Greg Day examined each black and white photo intently, looking for memories of his seven years at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. North plant.

“These are the ore bridges and you can see where the railroad ran across the Ohio River from the Follansbee coke plant to bring the coke to the blast furnaces in the north plant,” said Day, a supervisor with the electrical line gang.

He was one of several steel mill retirees to visit the 50-photograph exhibit Tuesday evening in the Eastern Gateway Community College Founder’s Hall that will remain on display through Oct. 26.

“People have no idea how dangerous it was working in the blast furnace. It was a dangerous place. These photos bring back a lot of memories for me,” said Day.

Architectural photographer Ben Halpern started taking photographs of Steubenville, Mingo Junction, Weirton and Follansbee in April 2012.

“Those four towns played such an important role in the regional steel industry. My background is in engineering and I have always been interested in industrial history. I am interested in seeing how a place evolves over time. I like to go to a location to see a factory and to see how a community has grown around a factory,” explained Halpern.

“These four communities are a microcosm of the steel industry in America. They were full of immigrants with a tremendous history that built and maintained the steel industry in this area. And this valley area is so rich with the history of the white settlers for the past several hundred years and the Native Americans for thousands of years. This was a very important area in the history of the United States. This area was vital in our country’s history,” explained Halpern.

Librarian Alan Hall said the steel photo exhibit will travel throughout the county after Oct. 26.

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.

The New York and Illinois based photographer became interested in a photography project after reading “Making Steel” by Mark Reuter.

“It was a fascinating story about the Sparrow’s Point steel mill. I also read a 2004 article in the New York Times about the steel industry in this area, and during a trip from Illinois to New York in the summer of 2005, I took a detour to this area and started looking at the steel mills. The result is my contribution to what I hope is a much larger project that will keep growing,” stated Halpern.

“I got permission a year ago from Strauss Industries to take photographs of the Steubenville North plant before a lot of it was demolished. Strauss was very cooperative and gave me access to the different parts of the shuttered steel mill,” noted Halpern.

Additional presentations are scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday when West Liberty University professor emeritus David Javersak will discuss “Voices of Lasting Metal: Steelworkers in the Ohio Valley”; Raymond Boothe will present “Innovations of the Wheeling Steel Corp.” at 7 p.m. on Oct. 17; and Thomas Leary of Youngstown State University will present “American Steel: Legacy and Heritage” at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22.

According to Sandy Day of the Schiappa branch of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, the next step in the project will include an oral history that will involve interviewing retired steelworkers and a print history she is working on.

Eastern Gateway Community College Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs James Baber said he found the exhibit “incredible.”

“There was an ironmaking industry here in 1856. This industry had such a positive impact on the valley and all of the people who were impacted by the steel industry. It is amazing this was all created so long ago without the technology we have today. But some of the technology developed decades ago is still used today. People really need to visit the exhibit to learn how important this industry was for our area and for our country. I am very pleased this exhibit is being shown on our campus,” stated Baber.

Retired steelworker William Johnson of Steubenville inspected each photograph before he found what he was looking for – a reproduced 1955 aerial photo of the Wheeling Steel plant.

“Right there, facing the Ohio River is where the Open Hearth furnaces were located. That’s where I started working when I was 25 years old. It was a tough job because you were next to furnaces that were producing iron that registered at 2,800 to 3,000 degrees. This was before the Basic Oxygen Furnace was built. It was common to see guys laying on the ground because they were so overwhelmed by the heat,” said Johnson.

“Young people wouldn’t work like that today. It was tough. But it was a job,” said Johnson.

“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,” Hall explained.

“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 photo will be archived into the West Virginia Regional History Collection at the West Virginia University, Hall said.

“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.

(Gossett can be contacted at