The following article was originally published in The Metro Eye in November 1993, with updates in October 1996.
By Mark C. Peyko and John Rose
J. Richard Rowlands was 4 years old when the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry collapsed, so it seems quite unusual that the Hubbard youth would have become so taken with the history of the local industry.
But since founding the Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Association in 1992, Rowlands has been a lobbyist, activist, and pilot for an organization with a noble, yet ultimately unattainable, goal: the preservation of the Jeannette Blast Furnace.
The Jeannette site is one of the last remaining vestiges of a once omnipresent industrial complex that stretched along the Mahoning River from Warren to Lowellville. With this in mind, the recent announcement that the Ohio Department of Development will raze the historic blast furnace and related buildings has sent a crushing blow to the 23-year old whose mission for Jeannette had at times become messianic.
In a 1993 Metro Eye article, Rowlands said he sought to transform the rapidly deteriorating Jeannette Blast Furnace at Brier Hill into a museum, where people could learn about the Mahoning Valley’s historic role in America’s steel industry – by experiencing it.
“People my age and younger, I don’t think they would know much about it [the mills],” Rowlands noted during a recent telephone conversation. “Most of it [research material] is hidden; that’s one reason why it was really important to help educate.”
With the assistance of his 60-member Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Association, Rowlands had hoped to acquire, secure and stabilize the Jeanette site. Rowlands, who had been handling ongoing negotiations with the state of Ohio, said the association “couldn’t do what they [the state] needed for us to do, so we decided to direct those resources to things that we could manage.”
Youngstown resident Bryn Zellers, another member of the association, said conditions from the state that the group carry a large insurance policy, undertake a below-ground cleanup, and stabilize the Jeannette structure were not feasible for the association.
“If we continued with the blast furnace,” Rowlands added, “we could lose everything else.”
Instead, Rowlands is currently negotiating to videotape, photograph, and document the doomed Jeannette complex, which was immortalized by musician Bruce Springsteen last year. A second project in the works is to negotiate the acquisition of the old Tod Furnace Blowing Engine House – where artifacts related to the steel and railroad industries could be housed.
At the proposed Tod Site, the organization would house, among other things, a 250-ton, pre-20th century steam engine once owned by the William Tod Co. In addition, the association would house archival material and assemble steel industry artifacts like pouring ladles, etc.
Although the impending loss of Jeanette is a serious disappointment to the organization – and Rowlands, in particular, JBFPA sees the proposed acquisition of the Tod site as a potential consolation prize and good move. First, it’s the only building on the site with an intact roof. Second, and perhaps most important, it’s located at a remote end of the property being redeveloped, so it probably wouldn’t interfere with the state’s future plans.
Although this scenario is far from the fate Rowlands envisioned a few short years ago, it’s probably the best the group can do, considering the circumstances.
The Jeannette Blast Furnace dates back to 1917 – the year the United States entered World War I. in anticipation of a heightened need for steel, the Brier Hill Steel Co. began building the furnace plant during the same year.
Blast furnaces play an essential role in the steelmaking process. They are basically extremely hot structures that remove the carbon content from iron. Only after this removal can the iron be used as material for steel production.
The Jeannette Blast Furnace, named after the Brier Hill Co. president’s daughter, began production in September 1918 – only two months before World War I ended. After its only upgrade in 1924, the furnace ran with occasional interruptions until1977, having produced a total of 2.6 million tons of iron suitable for steel production.
“A lot of people called it the best-running blast furnace,” Rowlands remarked in 1993.
After suffering from years of deterioration and looting, the last remaining furnace plant in the area was discovered by Rowlands, who had been exploring the Brier Hill area when he was a teenager. Since that discovery about 15 years ago, much of his time had been spent trying to save the furnace.
“That first year I really crammed to learn the steelmaking process,” he said in 1993. “I must have checked out every book from the library.”
The result of all this early work had been the formation of JBFPA and a planned four-phase proposal for the furnace plant’s restoration. In that plan, the ambitious furnace plant museum would have been indoor exhibitions, historical accounts of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and rolling stock donated by the Mahoning Valley Railroad Heritage Association and others. The rolling stock would have included a hot metal car, slag car, scale car, steam locomotive, and possibly other equipment associated with the steel and railroad industries.
Another person who believed in JBFPA and its core mission was H. William Lawson, director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. Lawson acted as a trustee and secretary for the organization, a role he still performs today.
In 1993 Lawson noted that museums displaying exhibitions about the steel industry, such as the Youngstown Museum of Industry and Labor, will never completely replace the real thing.
“There’s something that’s romantic and mythical to what those people (steelworkers) were doing,” he said “and you can’t give an accurate presence of that under a roof.”
Donna DeBlasio, then director of the Youngstown Museum of Industry and Labor, agreed. In 1993 she said that the preservation of the blast furnace could have complemented the industrial museum’s exhibitions. “It’s the only blast furnace in the area,” she said, “and we obviously can’t put it in the museum.”
On the impending loss of the Jeannette site, Lawson added: “In terms of our short-term drive to recoup the jobs lost 20 years ago in the steel industry, we are obliterating examples of the past such as Jeannette. It will be hard for future generations to understand the scale of the industry and how important it was to this community. I don’t think we can fully appreciate how it [the steel industry] affected both the economic and physical landscape of the Mahoning Valley without having structures like Jeannette to see.”
“That plant gave the whole aura of the industrial town. By losing the mills, we’ve lost an aesthetic component of the area – not to mention jobs.”
On the impending loss of the historic blast furnace, Rowlands concluded: “I feel terrible. I’ve been depressed all week… I don’t even know if I’ll be in town when they take it down.”
© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.