Death, Technology, and the Rise of Steel: Why Workers Matter in American History

Workers in the Mahoning Valley’s iron mills came in a variety of ages, including small children, as seen in this early 1870s photo of Brown, Bonnell & Co.’s nail mill crew.

Workers in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley iron mills ranged from old guys to small children, as seen in this early 1870s photo of Brown, Bonnell & Co.’s nail mill crew.

Publisher’s Note: Today we’re doing something a bit different. This is a guest article by Clayton Ruminski, a specialist in the rise of iron and steel production in Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. I grew up in the “Valley,” so this post is totally local history for me, but for those of you unfamiliar with the tragic story of the rise and fall of Ohio’s once glorious steel industry, this post will provide some much-needed context about how workers built America.  

Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and in particular the city of Youngstown, is one of America’s poster children for de-industrialization, desolation, and the general lack of an economy. Heck, it even inspired a Bruce Springsteen song. But there was once prosperity in this buckle of the American Rust Belt. The valley was affectionately known as the “Steel Valley,” but there is a general ignorance as to how this region became one of the most dominant steel producers in the United States.

For one thing, the transition from iron to steel was tempered in the blood of immigrant laborers who suffered terrible fates in the name of capital and production values. So how did the ghastly deaths of “insignificant” and “expendable” Welsh, German, and Irish immigrants working in the Mahoning Valley’s small iron furnaces and mills steer the economic and industrial prominence of the once prosperous “Steel Valley?” In short: their deaths spurred industrialists to invest in technological advancements that increased safety in the mills, but also diminished the need for skilled labor in the process. Steel workers built America, but at a steep personal cost.

Throughout the 19th century, a more suitable name for Ohio’s Mahoning Valley would have been the “Iron Valley.” In contrast to nearby Pittsburgh, where the magnate Andrew Carnegie began steel production as early as 1875, large-batch steel production did not occur in the Mahoning Valley until 1895. There is a major difference between iron and steel. Iron straight from the blast furnace – a tall, fire-brick lined, steel-plated cylindrical structure that used temperatures of over 1,000 degrees F to smelt iron ore, coal, and limestone into molten iron – was brittle. This weak iron had to be refined into stronger wrought iron in a highly skilled process known as puddling, during which a puddler and his helper used a long iron prod to work 600 pounds of iron for over an hour in front of the intense heat of a puddling furnace.

: A puddler and his helper remove a 150-pound, near molten ball of wrought iron from a puddling furnace at Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Campbell Works in the 1920s.

A puddler and his helper remove a 150-pound, near molten ball of wrought iron from a puddling furnace at Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Campbell Works in the 1920s.

Steel had different qualities. You needed iron to create steel; a much stronger metal that could be produced in mass quantities and at a cheaper price than that of skilled labor-intensive wrought iron. Whereas about a ton of wrought iron could be made in a puddling furnace in a twenty-four hour period, ten to twenty tons of steel could be made in a Bessemer converter in a period of twenty minutes while using only semi-skilled and non-skilled labor. In 1892, Youngstown industrialist Henry Bonnell illustrated this disparity between processes when he stated that, “the Mahoning Valley contained 477 puddling furnaces employing 954 puddlers, 954 helpers, and 236 roll hands. Together, these furnaces and their workers produced 1,050 tons of wrought iron per day.”* The same year, Youngstown industrialists proposed a single steel plant that could produce 1,000 tons of steel billets per day with a workforce of only 200 men.

Thus, the stage was set in for the elimination of skilled labor and iron production in the Mahoning Valley. Large-scale manufacturing of steel loomed on the horizon with premonitions of cavernous mills, massive blast furnaces, the glorious pyrotechnics of the Bessemer steel converter, and even a safety movement.

Before the age of steel, however, much of the Valley’s labor force endured horrifying working conditions. Toiling in these hellish antebellum and post-Civil War iron furnaces was a foreboding and often dangerous job. James Davis, former puddler at the Sharon Iron Works and Secretary of Labor from 1921 to 1930, regarded these mills as a veritable hell: “Life in these mills is a terrible life; men are ground down to scrap and thrown out as wreckage, he wrote.” Former blast furnace operator Ralph Sweetser said it best in his 1938 book, Blast Furnace Practice: “many men were killed or maimed by blast furnace accidents, accidents that were terrific and horrible.”*

Yet despite these horrid conditions, the industrialists and those running the mills unsurprisingly cared less about immigrants’ welfare and more about money and production values. In the mid to late 19th century, there were no unions, and attempts at unionization by workers often resulted in immediate termination and replacement with another immigrant worker paid no more than $1.30 per day. Work was expendable and turnover was high. In the Mahoning Valley, dreadful accidents at the mills occurred at an alarming rate. Accidents from boiler, furnace, and molten iron explosions occurred almost regularly, and death by falling objects such as poisonous gas, faulty equipment, and extreme temperatures around the furnaces claimed the lives of many laborers.

Plenty of cringe-worthy accidents occurred at iron companies in the 19th century Mahoning Valley. One of the primary culprits was boiler explosions. In September 1872, the newly installed boilers at Brown, Bonnell & Co’s rolling mill in Youngstown – one of the largest iron mills in the country at the time – exploded. When the engineer stopped his engine, “the explosion took place with a terrible concussion, tearing the boiler house literally to pieces, and throwing immense pieces of boilers with terrible force in every direction.” The boiler tender was immediately killed, while a one ton piece of boiler flew a quarter-mile, crashing into an unsuspecting family’s home and crushing a mother and her new-born baby.

The company immediately rebuilt the boilers and resumed production in a week. Six years later, an eight year old boy named James Cobb was “cooked alive” when he fell into a hot vat of water at Brown, Bonnell & Co.’s Falcon blast furnace boilers. In the 1850s, a red-hot piece of iron burned through a twelve-year old boy’s thigh, catching his clothes on fire and severely burning his entire body. In 1880, laborers David Evans and Frank Patton were killed by a boiler explosion at the Tod furnace in Youngstown, leaving five others severely injured.*

1-3: The deadly result of the 1872 Brown, Bonnell & Co. boiler explosion that killed an innocent mother and her child.

The deadly result of the 1872 Brown, Bonnell & Co. boiler explosion that killed an innocent mother and her child.

Other macabre accidents occurred all too regularly. In 1889, Charles Myers, a roller at the Youngstown Rolling Mill, was crippled for life when rain came into contact with exposed molten iron, causing a large explosion. In 1887, Griffith Phillips, an engineer at the Hubbard, Ohio Rolling Mill, was oiling an ore-crushing machine when his clothes became entangled in the cog wheels, dragging him in. “He was mangled out of all semblance of humanity, the flesh adhering to the cogs,” a newspaper reported. Such horrific accidents were, for the most part, of little concern to the managers and industrialists who ran the mills.*

Many mill owners only shut down the facilities for a brief period to remove mangled and burned carcasses, and they often restarted operations within days or even hours. Take, for example, an instance at Andrews & Hitchcock Iron Co.’s furnaces in Hubbard, Ohio in 1899. A blast that resulted in a great expulsion of gas and flame from the top of the furnace caused Patrick Moore – a top filler who dumped iron ore, coal, and limestone into the top of the furnace via wheelbarrow – to be blown from the top, falling seventy-five feet onto a large iron pipe. In response to the accident, company president Frank Hitchcock stated, “it will be necessary to close down the furnace for a period of about 30 days, which will entail considerable additional loss, as we were very busy.” He later went on to mention that the company’s chief regret was the loss of life.

For most companies, of course, the chief regret was not so much loss of life, but the resultant down time that transpired from such accidents. At the turn of the 20th century, this became an increasing concern, as accident rates continued to climb due to faulty equipment, horrid working conditions, and old methods of labor that could have been replaced by safer, more mechanized procedures. There were stark contrasts in the chemical composition of iron and steel, which entailed different approaches to the process of manufacturing the two metals. Iron was primarily manufactured by hand, hence the term wrought; meaning worked into shape by artistry or effort. Steel, on the other hand, was, by necessity, much more mechanized due to the large-scale rate of its production.

1-4: The old method of casting iron at the Mabel blast furnace in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, c. 1915. Workers faced intense heat, poisonous gasses, and sometimes explosions of molten iron.

The old method of casting iron at the Mabel blast furnace in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, c. 1915. Workers faced intense heat, poisonous gasses, and sometimes explosions of molten iron.

As steel came to dominate the Mahoning Valley at the turn of the 20th century, newly formed companies such as Republic Iron and Steel and the United States Steel Corporation demoted their iron production in favor of more modernized mills and large-batch steel manufacturing via the Bessemer converter. As a result, industrial technology progressed. Modern blast furnaces became safer through the brilliance of engineers such as James Gayley, Marvin Neeland, and others. Modern methods for rolling steel eliminated the old way of manually rolling the red-hot metal while also mechanizing the process, and Bessemer converters eliminated the old method of small-scale, labor intensive puddling.

Deaths in the mill meant money lost, and by the first two decades of the 20th century, big steel corporations began implementing safety measures to reduce downtime and raise the morale of their workers through welfare capitalism. But these measures occurred slowly, and accidents still continued at an alarming rate between 1900 and 1920, resulting in twenty-four states adopting workman’s compensation by 1915. In Youngstown, Carnegie Steel Co. modernized the old Union Mills, which began operations following the Civil War, by installing fans, sanitary systems, steam cranes for handling heavy steel, and even a police force.

Due to steel’s late appearance in the Mahoning Valley, however, many older iron mills still remained. Liquidation of these dangerous and outdated plants occurred slowly, as companies gradually built their modern steel mills to replace them. In 1905, a 20-ton ladle of molten iron from the Struthers, Ohio furnace gave way and fell into a pool of water, causing an explosion so immense it could be heard ten miles away. One Slovenian worker was never found; another laborer had his skull crushed by an unfastened pipe; and yet another was covered with molten iron from his feet to waist, though he miraculously survived. Accidents like these occurred more frequently in the smaller, independent iron companies that remained as outgrowths of the 19th century mills. Yet as Big Steel consolidated and further reduced competition from independent companies, 19th century carry-overs such as the Struthers furnace were largely diminished in importance.

Companies such as Republic Iron and Steel and U. S. Steel looked to maximize profits and force their competitors by the wayside, and this necessitated a happy workforce that could go to work each day without the fear of, you know, dying. Imagine the mental toll of seeing a co-worker “literally roasted alive,” in a pool of molten iron, as the Youngstown Vindicator described in 1899. Such experiences weighed on the minds of laborers who worked at avoiding such horrific accidents during eight to twelve-hour daily shifts. Although most companies still failed to recognize unions in the early 20th century, Big Steel acknowledged that accidents and deaths in the workplace slowed profit gain and production values. This recognition partially informed their decision to modernize the steel facilities; a process that also reduced the amount of skilled labor in the mill.

Rollers at Sheet & Tube’s Campbell Works demonstrate the arduous job of continuously passing the puddle ball through rolls, shaping it into long, flat bars.

Rollers at Sheet & Tube’s Campbell, Ohio Works demonstrate the arduous job of continuously passing the puddle ball through rolls, shaping it into long, flat bars.

As unions gained strength in the early 20th century and demanded better working conditions and a proper living wage, so too did Big Steel respond with welfare capitalism and improved working environments. But these gestures were done primarily out of their own selfish interests. In retrospect, some have viewed the unions’ demands in the late 1930s and 1940s as leading to the eventual downfall of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. A common criticism is that unions stifled the steel companies’ ability to spend money in order to modernize and survive competition from a globalized economy, but these accusations are short-sighted.

Ironically, Big Steel spent the money to modernize their mills in the early 20th century in the face of competition and the demands from workers and government for better working conditions. In the 1970s, however, a time when union power was already significantly reduced and still waning, Big Steel failed to modernize in the face of even stiffer international and domestic competition, leaving the Mahoning Valley a mere shadow of its former self; a symbol of de-industrialization and the Rust Belt.

Despite the gruesome deaths of Welsh and German laborers in the 19th century, it was concern for maximizing profits, not concern for workers’ lives, that spurred the transition to steel production via modernized blast furnaces and steel plants. Industrialists were motivated by profits, and if a content workforce and modernization could lead to higher profit margins, then so be it.

It was America’s immigrant laborers, however, who paid the steepest price in the name of industrial progress: their maimed, torn, and roasted bodies turned steel plants into largely forgotten memorials to a labor force that often sacrificed their lives on steel’s molten altar. Their work transformed Ohio’s Mahoning Valley into a giant of steel production, and their efforts toiling in the old iron forces and puddling mills are a testament to the human price of industry. In modern America’s decidedly anti-worker cultural environment, the efforts of Ohio’s industrial laborers remind us that workers are America, and their efforts shouldn’t be forgotten.

* Clayton Ruminski has a master’s degree in Applied History and Historic Preservation from Youngstown State University. The majority of his research focuses on the effects of big steel corporations on independent iron mills through consolidation and technological advancements. He works as a library and archival specialist in Warren, Ohio.

* See James Davis, The Iron Puddler: My Life in the Rolling Mills and What Came of It (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1922), 87.

* See Ralph Sweetser, Blast Furnace Practice (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1938), 278.

* See The Vindicator, May 30, 1892; October 25, 1905; The Evening Times, June 1, 1899; The Ohio Democrat, May 14, 1887; Somerset Herald, June 7, 1889; Perrysburg Journal, May 7, 1880; Weekly Register, November 22, 1882;Western Reserve Chronicle, September 4, 1872.

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  1. Thanks a lot for a great post, Clayton. My grandmother’s family was from Ohio, near Wheeling. I’ve never met any of them and, honestly, know little about where they came from. Nice to get a bit of an idea.

    • I told Clay that you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading! Ohio is a great state in a lot of ways: it’s a total mix of industry, big cities, farmland, mountains, rivers, and Amish settlements. Talk about your history!

  2. Thank you for this post. The Patrick Moore mentioned as a top filler who was killed in an explosion at Andrews & Hitchcock was my father’s uncle. I had known of his death but not the details

      • Were did you find the photo.I have a1880 with relatives.Are there more.Flipping rocks.Surprised at what you find.Thanks

        • Thanks for reading! The photographs came from private collections and from some archives. My brother (who wrote the article) is a researcher and he found the pictures. If you’d like more information, I would contact him. His name is Clayton Ruminski and he is on LinkedIn.

  3. Enjoyed the information.Did the company photo have names?Have a 1880 photo that I received from relative.This a long shot.Does the photo reside in historical archive in Ohio.The family were steel worker-puddlers.Thanks

  4. Thanks for reply.It will take a few days to get back to him.Meaning I’ll have up grade my skills on navigation.Ohio has been a treasure of family history.West Park st was called W.coyne st in 1870.Brown &Bonnell was work place.JC

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