The Story of Steel and Iron in Cleveland

Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.

If you are familiar with professional football (and one assumes many SAA members are) you know (should know!) that one of the most famous rivalries in the sport is that between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s a bit like Ohio State and the other university up north (family connections prevent me from using its name!).  But the comparison ends there, because unlike college football with its origins in the Ivy League, that of pro football is connected to the steel mills and factories of the industrial Midwest.  The Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry has at its roots, a blue collar aura and a link to a longer economic rivalry between two great American steel cities. And, that brings us to the story of steel and iron in Cleveland.

Even in this second decade of the twenty-first century, Clevelanders cannot divorce themselves from steel despite the city’s move into a post-industrial economy. Look closely at the city while you are here.  The iron ore carrier, William G. Mather is anchored in the lake just beyond the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Take a tour of the Flats, and you’ll see ore freighters winding their way up the Cuyahoga to the ArcelorMittal mill.  Now largely automated, it is one of the most efficient steel mills in the nation. If you take the time to go to the observation deck of the Terminal Tower, you’ll see its buildings and smokestacks to the south.

Untitled (Industrial Scene, Otis Steel Co., Cleveland), 1928, by Margaret Bourke White (courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art, 1972.246)
Untitled (Industrial Scene, Otis Steel Co., Cleveland), 1928, by Margaret Bourke White (courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art, 1972.246)

This modernized plant is the descendant of an industry that formed the economic backbone of the city from the period just after the Civil War to the 1960s.  While early Cleveland blacksmiths worked iron, it was not until 1857 that the industry really got rolling, so to speak. Two Welsh brothers, David and John Jones, started the Cleveland Rolling Mills southeast of the city in the area now known as Slavic Village. By the 1880s, the making of iron and steel (the rolling mills had the first Bessemer converter west of the Appalachians) had displaced oil and refining as the chief industrial activity in Cleveland.  As the mills grew, the process also became de-skilled and thus opened up jobs to thousands of immigrant and migrant workers.  It’s not serendipity that placed some of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods near the mills; it was the need of workers to walk to their jobs.  And chain migration brought sons, families, and relatives from what are now Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and other central and eastern European nations to mill neighborhoods like Tremont, Warszawa (now part of Slavic Village), and Praha. By the early twentieth century, the Europeans were joined at the mills by African Americans who saw Cleveland and jobs at the mills as a passage out of Jim Crow and into some degree of prosperity.  That expectation was, unfortunately, not truly fulfilled, despite the fact that some migrants already had their roots in the industry in Alabama.

The making of steel then provided the basis for factories that turned it into a number of products — nuts, bolts, automobiles, sewing machines, roller skates, and even jail cells!  The transport of iron ore itself provided the city with a host of sub-industries.  Shipbuilding was one, with American Ship Building as a prime example. (It’s hard for some Clevelanders to admit this given that George Steinbrenner’s fortune came from the company and helped him bankroll the hated New York Yankees.)  Originally ships were unloaded by hand.  Up a plank with a wheelbarrow, down into the hold, shovel it full, take it out, dump it, and do it again.  That ended with the invention of the Brown Hoist system (invented and built in Cleveland) and then the Hulett, invented by a Clevelander. Both systems eventually found use all around the Great Lakes and their manufacture brought wealth and fame to the city, along with labor strife.  A strike at the Brown Hoist factory was, along with strikes at the Rolling Mills, a signifier that laboring conditions and pay in the city during its Gilded Age heyday (and afterwards) were matters of serious concern and contention.  All this reminds me of a Depression-era “poem” my father taught me:

“Yesterday I met a man I never met before. He asked me if I wanted a job shoveling iron ore. I asked him what the wages were, ‘A dollar and a half a ton.’  I told him he could shoot himself, I’d rather be a bum.”

Tremont Neighborhood includes the house from the movie “A Christmas Story” (photo courtesy of Tremont West Development Corporation website)
Tremont Neighborhood includes the house from the movie “A Christmas Story” (photo courtesy of Tremont West Development Corporation website)

I suspect that this little snippet is a reminder that I, like many Clevelanders, have some steel in my family history.  And, indeed, as noted earlier, it’s hard to let that history be forgotten.  While the mills may not be what they used to be (thank goodness perhaps, because the pollution they created was extensive), it is still possible to see the history of steel in the city.  The Brown Hoist Factory still stands on Hamilton Avenue; the site of the Cleveland Rolling Mills (which later became part of United States Steels American Steel and Wire Plant) still bears traces of the factory; and some of the factories that built automobiles such as the Winton still stand.  And, if you want to see the real thing at work, get someone to drive you down Independence Road in the Flats — you’ll be going through a major section of the ArcelorMittal mill.  Or you can visit the neighborhoods built alongside the mills. Try Tremont – look at the architecture, count the churches, enjoy a meal at some of the best restaurants in Cleveland (and remember when you pay your bill, you’ve probably spent the equivalent of several weeks wages for someone who lived in that “hood” one hundred years ago).  Of course, if you come back to the city after the convention you can buy a seat at a Browns-Steelers game.  Try to remember that the roots of this contest are blue collar when you look at the tab!

But, if you are less adventurous, simply consult the online edition of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Start with the article on iron and steel, and use the internal links to really get the full story of all the connections the industry has to the history of Cleveland.

 

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