“Little Steel Wars: The Union Strikes Back” by Vincent Prochoroff, Gus Hatch, George Schmidt (Video)

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“Little Steel Wars: The Union Strikes Back”

Vincent Prochoroff, Gus Hatch, George Schmidt

Shaker Heights High School (Terry Pollack and Timothy Mitchell advisors)

Winner of the 2014 Teaching Cleveland Documentary Award

Documentary produced for the 2014 National History Day Competition



The Story of Steel and Iron in Cleveland by Dr. John Grabowski

The Story of Steel and Iron in Cleveland

(from SAA meeting site: https://saa2015cle.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/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.

Iron and Steel Industry

Iron and Steel Industry From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY. Location has been Cleveland’s potent metallurgical advantage since the mid-19th century, when its situation on Lake Erie at the convergence of numerous railroad lines made it an ideal meeting place for iron ore and coal. In 1858 an article in the CLEVELAND LEADER claimed that Cleveland enjoyed advantages even greater than Pittsburgh for the manufacture of iron: “With [the cost of] transportation added, iron can be made $7 a ton cheaper in Cleveland than made at Pittsburgh and brought here. . . . Would it not be wise to start blast furnaces in Cleveland?”

In 1860 just 374 men were working in 3 bar and sheet iron establishments in Cuyahoga County. Twenty years later, the primary iron and steel industry in Cleveland employed almost 3,000 (about 200 of these “children and youths”) in 10 establishments. By 1900 that number had more than doubled; Cuyahoga County, which produced 968,801 tons of iron and steel in 1900, ranked fifth nationally (behind Allegheny County, PA, Cook County, IL, Mahoning County, OH, and Jefferson County, AL) in iron and steel production. The industry’s foothold in Cleveland was assured with the discovery in 1844 of iron ore in the Lake Superior region of Michigan. Because the Lake Superior ore districts were geographically isolated, without coal or major markets nearby, iron ore could not be smelted to pig or bar iron and sold at a profit. The only profitable way to exploit the ore was to transport it in bulk to distant blast furnaces on the lower Great Lakes–to places like Cleveland, Chicago, and Ashtabula, OH. The opening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal in 1855 marked the beginning of ore shipment in quantity, and the movement of this raw material is the same today as it was then: ore mined in the Lake Superior region is carried by rail to the shipping ports, then by ship to lower lake ports, where it is rehandled into railroad cars for the trip to the blast furnace.

Clevelander SAMUEL LIVINGSTON MATHER† (1817-90) is usually credited with opening the rich iron ore resources of the Lake Superior region, which brought Cleveland to its position of supremacy in the iron industry. Mather was the driving force behind the Cleveland Iron Mining Co., one of the most important early mining companies on the Marquette Range and one of two “parents” (the other was the Iron Cliffs Co.) of the CLEVELAND-CLIFFS INC. Cleveland-Cliffs was the leading iron mining company on the Marquette Range when it was incorporated in 1891, a position it still held a century later. Mather, together with other Cleveland industrialists at the helm of such companies as M. A. HANNA CO. and PICKANDS MATHER & CO., dominated the ore trade on the Great Lakes, controlling 80% of the ore vessels plying the lakes and massive tracts of ore-rich land.

The manufacture of iron products preceded the basic industry, with railroads providing the impetus for Cleveland’s early forges and foundries. The CUYAHOGA STEAM FURNACE CO., incorporated in 1834 by JOSIAH BARBER†, RICHARD LORD†, and others, was among the earliest of such enterprises; by 1853 its Ohio City works was turning out two locomotives each month. In 1852 WILLIAM A. OTIS† and John N. Ford established the Lake Erie Iron Works in Ohio City to forge axles for railroad cars and locomotives, and heavy shafts for steamboats. In 1853-54 the Forest City Iron Works erected a rolling mill on the lakeshore at Wason (East 38th) St., producing the first “saleable manufactured iron” (boiler plate) in May 1855. That year, the Railroad Iron Mill Co., established by Albert J. Smith in partnership with others, erected a plant in the same location to reroll worn rails.

HENRY CHISHOLM† (1822-81), an immigrant Scottish construction contractor, was Cleveland’s pioneer ironmaster. Chisholm, with , built a rolling mill in 1857 at NEWBURGH, 6 miles southeast of PUBLIC SQUARE, to reroll worn rails. Two years later, taking advantage of new transportation routes, including the Sault Ste. Marie Canal and the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad, the firm invested in a blast furnace, feeding it with Lake Superior iron ore and coal from the Mahoning Valley (later Connellsville coke). Following an infusion of capital from Andros B. Stone, the enterprise expanded rapidly, reorganizing as the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. in 1864. In 1868 the company installed a pair of Bessemer converters, the first such installation west of the Alleghenies and only the third successful one in the nation. Cleveland Rolling Mill became a major integrated producer of pig iron, Bessemer steel, and steel products, employing a work force of more than 8,000 at the height of its independent existence in the late 1890s.

Another important 19th-century Cleveland steelmaker was CHARLES AUGUSTUS OTIS† (1827-1905), whose father had established the Lake Erie Iron Works. Otis, who studied steelmaking in Europe, organized the Otis Iron & Steel Co. in 1873 and hired Samuel T. Wellman to oversee construction and serve as chief engineer and superintendent of its Lakeside Works on the lakefront at Lawrence (East 33rd) St. Wellman installed the first commercially successful basic open-hearth furnace in the U.S. (which soon eclipsed the Bessemer process) in 1886 and introduced mechanized charging, contributing to Otis’s rise as one of the nation’s most dynamic small producers.

By 1884, according to the annual report of the Cleveland Board of Trade, there were 147 establishments in Cleveland devoted to the manufacture of iron and steel and their products. Representing a combined capital investment of $21.5 million and an average work force of 14,000, these businesses produced products having a total value of $25.2 million. In addition to 11 manufacturers of iron and steel products (the primary industry) employing 5,665 workers, these figures included 30 establishments producing hardware and tools (employing 2,292), 4 producing sewing machines (1,110), 48 producing boilers and machinery (1,333), 13 foundries (1,217), and 9 producing nuts, bolts, and other fasteners (960).

By 1880 the annual output of the Superior mines had risen to almost 2 million gross tons. Cleveland’s strategic position as both a final destination and a transshipment point for iron ore underscored a vexing problem–how to unload it efficiently–that was solved by two Cleveland inventors. Until 1867 ore was unloaded entirely by hand labor. Between 1867 and 1880, portable steam engines were used to hoist tubs of ore out of the hold, but laborers still had the back-breaking job of filling the tubs by hand and wheeling the ore to the dock. In 1880 ALEXANDER E. BROWN† (1852-1911) developed a mechanical hoist consisting of 2 towers supporting a cableway; a steam-powered rope trolley suspended from the cableway traveled out over the vessel’s hold and carried hand-filled tubs of ore back to the dock. In 1899 GEORGE H. HULETT† (1846-1923) eclipsed Brown’s invention with his own. The Hulett unloader (see HULETT ORE UNLOADERS), consisting of a large-capacity grab bucket suspended from a stiff vertical leg mounted on a walking beam, did away with hand shoveling entirely. It drastically reduced labor costs and unloading times, and led to larger boats especially designed to accommodate the Huletts. By 1913 Hulett unloaders dotted Cleveland’s river and lakefront and could be found at almost every port on the lower Great Lakes.

Signaling the growing dominance of large firms, in 1899 the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. was absorbed into the American Steel and Wire Co. of New Jersey, which was itself absorbed into J. P. Morgan’s giant U.S. STEEL CORP. combine when it was organized 2 years later. U.S. Steel substantially augmented its Cleveland facilities in 1907-08 with the construction of wire and strip mills on the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL south of Harvard Ave. Galvanizing and barbed fence departments were added later, and by 1932 the Cuyahoga Works was one of the largest wire mills in the country and boasted the world’s largest cold-rolling plant.

Two new plants established in the early 20th century would provide the foundation for the modern steel industry. In 1909 ore merchant Dalliba, Corrigan & Co. began construction of 2 blast furnaces on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River that became the nucleus of one of the nation’s important independent producers, the CORRIGAN-MCKINNEY STEEL CO. Between 1913 and 1916, Corrigan, McKinney built 2 additional furnaces and a steel works for the production of blooms, sheet bars, and billets. The problem of industrywide integration led the company to add merchant mills for the production of finished steel products in 1927. In 1935, under the aggressive leadership of chairman TOM M. GIRDLER† (1877-1965), the REPUBLIC STEEL CORP. acquired Corrigan, McKinney and moved its headquarters from Youngstown to Cleveland. Republic continuously enlarged the plant, making it the largest of the company’s 6 basic steelmaking plants and one of the 10 largest in the country.

Otis, meanwhile, greatly expanded its capacity with the construction in 1912 of a new Riverside Works on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. (The plant was immortalized in 1929 when Otis hired a young photographer, MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE†, to document the drama of steelmaking for a company promotional book.) With the acquisition of the adjacent Cleveland Furnace Co. shortly after World War I, Otis became a completely integrated steel company, and on the eve of the Great Depression the company boasted a capacity of one million tons. In 1942 the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. of Pittsburgh (see JONES AND LAUGHLIN STEEL CORP. (CLEVELAND WORKS)), eager to enter the Midwest market, acquired Otis. J&L invested heavily during the next 2 decades, adding a new blast furnace (“Susan,” largest in the Cleveland district), 4 new steel furnaces, and other facilities.

The American steel industry historically has had a volatile relationship with labor, adopting from the beginning a staunch antiunion stance. In the 1880s the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. endured a series of violent strikes in response to wage cuts and recruited Polish and Czech immigrants to replace striking workers (see CLEVELAND ROLLING MILL STRIKES). In 1937 Republic’s irascible Tom Girdler proclaimed that he would shut down the company’s mills and “raise apples and potatoes” before he would recognize a union. The bloody LITTLE STEEL STRIKE that year left 12 dead at Republic plants in Chicago and Youngstown. Not until 1942, at the order of the War Labor Board, was the CIO successful in organizing Republic workers.

Thanks to pent-up consumer demand, the industry enjoyed a long period of postwar prosperity. But by the early 1970s Cleveland’s steelmakers, like those nationwide, grappled with the problems of inflation, record imports of foreign steel, increasingly stringent environmental regulations, lagging productivity, and rising labor costs. In 1979 U.S. Steel abandoned its historic Central Furnaces plant, established by the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. in 1881 for the production of pig iron. Five years later, the steel giant closed 6 plants, including its Cuyahoga Works in Cuyahoga Heights, after the United Steelworkers of America rejected concessions demanded by the company. The city’s two remaining integrated producers, Republic and Jones & Laughlin (the latter a subsidiary of LTV following a 1968 takeover), faced difficult conditions in the early 1980s as economic recession and the decline of the domestic automobile industry caused steel demand to plummet. In June 1984 Jones & Laughlin merged with Republic to form the LTV STEEL, with headquarters in Cleveland. Two years later, LTV had run up losses totaling nearly $1 billion, forcing it to file for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.

With increased demand for its products, especially flat-rolled steel supplied to the automotive, appliance, and electrical equipment industries, LTV rebounded. Since 1984 the company has made more than $1.1 billion in new capital investments at its Cleveland Works. The centerpiece of its modernization efforts is a direct hot-charge complex, completed in 1993, which enables LTV to convert molten steel to a coil of hot-rolled steel in a continuous process. In 1994, with 2 integrated steel mills (at Cleveland and Indiana Harbor, IN), Cleveland’s only remaining integrated producer ranked as the nation’s 3rd-largest steelmaker and 2nd-largest producer of flat-rolled steel. Working at 99% capacity, the Cleveland Works in 1994 produced 4.8 million tons of raw steel. With 7,100 full-time employees, LTV was Cuyahoga County’s 2nd-largest nongovernmental employer.

Exemplifying the massive changes that have swept the industry in recent years, M. A. Hanna, an old-line mineral resources company whose history is rooted in iron mining, has transformed itself into a company focused on rubber and plastics. In 1986, meanwhile, a new steel fabricating company bought the former Cuyahoga Works of U.S. Steel, along with rights to the historic “American Steel & Wire” name, and resumed production as a non-union shop. A unit of Birmingham Steel Corporation of Birmingham, Alabama, since 1992, American Steel & Wire makes rod and wire for sale to the fastener industry.

The iron and steel industry continues to be an economic mainstay of Greater Cleveland. In 1992, the primary metal industries in Cuyahoga County employed 14,690 while almost twice that number (27,978) were employed in the manufacture of fabricated metal products.

Carol Poh Miller


Paskoff, Paul F., ed., Iron and Steel in the Nineteenth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

Pendry, William R. “A History of the Cleveland District of the American Steel and Wire Co.” Cleveland: American Steel & Wire Co., 1937. Mimeographed.

Seely, Bruce E., ed., Iron and Steel in the Twentieth Century, Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Wellman, S. T. “The Early History of Open-Hearth Steel Manufacture in the U.S.” Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 23 (1902): 78-98.

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