History of Youngstown, Ohio

In 1797 John Young purchased 15,560 acres in the Mahoning Valley for $16,085 from the Connecticut Land Company. He and a survey team laid out the Youngstown township along the Mahoning River, seven miles west of the Pennsylvania line. The plan of downtown Youngstown today remains essentially the same as the plan for the original town that was laid out by John Young. This was the beginning of settlement in the Mahoning Valley.

Mahoning is derived from the Indian word mohonik, meaning "at the lick" or "at the salt lick". Native Americans and colonial settlers came to the area for the salt. In the following century, European immigrants were drawn to the area by the promise of work in the steel mills that stretched for twenty-five miles from Lowellville to Warren. The history of Youngstown is tied to the history of these mills.

The introduction of iron making occurred early. In 1802, Daniel and James Heaton Youngstown's first industrialists, contracted for the rights to dig coal and make charcoal along the banks of the Yellow Creek in Poland Township. "Hopewell" became the first blast furnace in the area using the air flow from the Yellow Creek to create the blast.

The opening of the Pennsylvania-Ohio Canal provided inexpensive transportation between Lake Erie and the Ohio River bringing trade and growth to the new town. It provided cheap transportation for pig iron and iron ore, the primary freight on the canal. Passenger traffic on packets (passenger boats) was very popular. One way passage cost $3.50 from Cleveland to Youngstown, including meals.

Activity created by the canal increased the population threefold between 1840 and 1860 to 5,300. The demand for metal during the Civil War also contributed to the boom. (Railroads transported the passengers, then the freight.) In 1872 the last barge floated down the canal.

Strategically located between Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and New York and Chicago, Youngstown became a railroad center served by four different rail companies; the Baltimore and Ohio; the Erie Lackawana; the New York Central; and the Pennsylvania. More rail cars passed under the Center Street Bridge per day than any other location in the country.

The burgeoning metal industry brought prosperity. Wick Avenue became the address of the well-to-do. Mansions were built on the north side of the city for the industrialist and bankers. Tod, Wick, Butler, Powers, Stambaugh; these names are imprinted on the buildings and the streets of Youngstown.

The city's prosperity drew many including a large variety of European immigrants. First the Irish and Germans; later the Poles, Czechs, Armenians, Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Slovacs, and Hungarians. Lebanese came from the Middle East. With them they brought their religions and their churches. The wealth of ecclesiastical architecture reflects the ethnicity of those who came to work in the steel mills.

By 1880 the city had grown to a population of 15,435, nearly double the population of 1870. Federal Street was the main commercial thoroughfare and remained so for one hundred years. Incandescent lighting was introduced in 1888 when the G.M. McKelvey Company installed a private light plant. Later, the North Avenue power plant provided electricity for Youngstown, Sharon, Wheatland, Mill Creek Park and Falls Street Car Line. A new power plant was later built in Lowellville increasing the electrical output to 60,000 watts. The telephone was introduced in 1880 and by 1915 automatic dialing was introduced. Within two years there were 75 subscribers.

The first hospital was started with a contribution of two and one half acres of land on Oak Hill Avenue and $10,000 by John Stambaugh. The South Side Unit of the Youngstown Hospital Association is at that same location on Oak Hill. St. Elizabeths Hospital had its beginnings when two houses on Belmont Avenue were joined and the first patient was admitted on December 8, 1911.

The Market Street Viaduct was opened in 1899 transforming a country road into a thriving commercial street. Other bridges crossed the river on South Avenue and Mahoning Avenue. McGuffey Street bridge spanned Crab Creek. Eventually, bridges opened the entire city in every direction, overcoming the natural barrier of the winding Mahoning River.

The turn of the century brought the automobile to the country and to Youngstown. By 1904 Youngstown had 22 cars including Henry Wick's $20,000 Blue Goose, a six-passenger custom-built automobile. Charles T. Gathier, a local engineer, built the Fredonia, a fast automobile that traveled 36 miles in 35 minutes.

As prosperity spread, the workers in the mills demanded higher wages. In 1916 workers went out on strike seeking an increase in their nineteen and a half cent hourly wage. Marching workers confronted mill guards at the main gate of the Campbell Works. Shots were fired and three workers were killed while twenty-seven were injured in the incident. As the workers fled, anger grew and a riot took place. The crowd converged on the village of East Youngstown, now known as Campbell, and set fire to the business district causing an estimated $1,500,000 in damage.

The First World War dramatically increased the demand for steel production, thereby increasing the need for housing for the additional employees. It was estimated that an additional 2,000 housing units were needed in the city to accommodate the population increase.

Labor unrest continued. In 1919-20 strikes in the steel industry of the valley idled 39,500 men. The demands of the workers were an eight-hour day, a six-day week and the elimination of the twenty four-hour shift. Other demands included double time pay for overtime and an end to company unions. Again the labor unrest led to rioting.

Steel was "the industry" and Youngstown boasted as being the third largest steel-producer in the country behind Pittsburgh and Chicago. Though the mills were producing at record output, problems began to surface. Inexpensive transportation was by water and Youngstown had become landlocked since the closing of the Ohio-Pennsylvania canal.

The Lake to River Canal was proposed as early as 1787. It became a passion in the 1920's. Surveys were done and many routes discussed but the cost was too enormous to undertake. Congressman Mike Kirwan spent his entire career in the Congress trying to build the canal that would go from Lake Erie to the Ohio River and on to Pittsburgh. It became known as the "Big Ditch." A model of the proposed canal is displayed in the lobby of the Maag Library on the YSU campus.

Another problem was a lack of cooling water. The Mahoning River did not have the volume of water necessary for the needs of the growing industry. The city of Youngstown built the dam that created Lake Milton at a cost of $1,000,000 in 1921. The lake provided enough water to supply The Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Republic Steel Corporation. In later years even this supply would not be enough.

By 1921 Youngstown was the second City of Steel behind Pittsburgh. Youngstown's payroll exceeded $100,000,000; its bank deposits exceeded $75,000,000; and the steel mills alone represented capital investments of $360,000,000.

Growth of the city was unstoppable. Predicting a population of 500,000 by 1971, the city reached 132,358 in the 1920 Census. It ranked fiftieth in the nation and was among the fastest growing cities in the country. There were fifty-nine miles of trolley car tracks inside the city and the inter-urban lines extended to the principal cities of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The fire department was the second in the nation to be completely motorized. The Chamber of Commerce boasted that "Youngstown offers unlimited opportunity to all"(Aley, 233).

Far from the population of 500,000 predicated by 1971, the city reached its maximum population in 1930 at 170,002. Future population growth took place in the county outside the city. The suburbs made an attractive alternative to the smoke filled city. The Great Depression hit the city hard and Youngstown suffered extraordinarily because of its single industry economy. The unemployment rate in Youngstown was three times the national average. Thousands were unemployed. Many businesses displayed signs reading "No Help Wanted." Suicide was not uncommon and many were homeless. Eating watermelon was considered a luxury.

Innovation in the steel industry continued. Cold rolled steel was developed in an automobile repair shop on Logan Avenue. The Steckel mill was a revolutionary process. It allowed rolls of steel to be reduced to a thickness of one one thousandth of an inch while the metal retained most of its physical properties without annealing. This high quality steel was used in transformers, motors and other electrical equipment.

In 1930 Republic Steel was formed out of the Corrigan, McKinney, and Truscon Steel Corporations, becoming the third largest in the industry with a capacity of 6,000,000 tons. The industry was hoping for a 20 percent increase in the coming year. Twenty-three open hearths were in production.

The Steel Workers Organizing Committee was formed in 1936 and by 1937 most of the largest steel producers were under contract agreement. The exceptions were known as the "Little Steel Companies" The group consisted of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Republic Steel, Bethlehem and Inland Steel.

With the help and encouragement of such labor notables as Phillip Murray and David J. MacDonald, the workers of the "Little Steel" companies called a strike on March 26, 1937. Gus Hall of the Communist Party USA was the head of the local organizing committee. He was eventually arrested and later acquitted of charges that he interfered with rail shipments into the mill.

The "Little Steel" strike, while not a complete success, did lead to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, better known as the CIO. In 1941 the CIO was powerful enough to force the heads of the "Little Steel" companies to sign on with the unions, something that the presidents of those companies said would never happen.

During the Second World War, the Mahoning valley was an important area for its production of steel in the war effort. The Youngstown Sheet and Tube developed a special steel used in the production of machine gun belts. These belts held fifty caliber shells which were fired at an impressive rate of eight hundred rounds per minute. Other specialty products included portable landing strips made of dense steel grating that aided in the rapid construction of airfields on the islands of the South Pacific and in Europe after the Normandy invasion.

The post war period brought prosperity and growth to the valley. Automobile production increased and consequently the demand for steel as well. However, Youngstown would continue to be effected by the business cycles as its mills became less productive.

In 1932 Michael Ficocelli and his brother Carmine, sons of recent immigrants, began the Little Symphony Orchestra. This "Little" orchestra soon became the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and brought many nationally known classical musicians and vocalists to perform with the orchestra. Today the orchestra performs at Powers Auditorium, formerly known as the Warner Theater.

The Youngstown Diocese was established in 1943. Bishop McFadden headed the diocese that included the counties of Mahoning, Stark, Columbiana, Portage, Ashtabula, and Trumbull counties.


The recent history of Youngstown deserves closer scrutiny. The closing of the steel mills has had a profound impact on the city. The number of people living in the city has dwindled to about half its peak in 1930 to less than one hundred thousand today. Neighborhoods that once were alive with people are now nearly empty.

An economic report compiled by the Pace Associates of Chicago, dated June 1951, gave several reasons why the "high cost of producing steel in the Youngstown area makes the district a marginal producer". Youngstown is landlocked. Iron ore being shipped from Michigan had to be off-loaded at Ashtubula and sent by rail, while the facilities at Gary, Indiana and Buffalo, New York received their shipments by barge. Another problem was the lack of cooling water. Re-circulation of the cooling water raised its temperature to one hundred thirty degrees, making it more difficult to cool the steel. It cost an additional three to five dollars per ton to produce in Youngstown. At ten million tons per year, this cost was a significant thirty to fifty million dollars annually. In the 1950's, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company invested $100 million in the expansion of their mills in the Indiana Harbor while other producers increased capacity in areas other than Youngstown. Capacity in Pittsburgh increased from 22,385,461 to 26,145,000 tons between 1951 and 1953 while capacity in Youngstown went from 10,065,800 to 10,205,800 tons in the same period.

In January of 1975 the Northern Ohio Urban System (NOUS), an urban planning firm from Cleveland, produced a document entitled A Look At Youngstown's Future. In the summary of that report the authors noted that in 1969 "nearly 37,000 persons of a manufacturing labor force of 81,000 in the Mahoning and Trumbull Counties worked in blast furnaces, rolling mills, and closely aligned metal industries." The fate of Youngstown in the year 2000 was dependent to a large degree on what was done to revitalize the steel industry in the valley.

The report quoted another study of industry analysis in Ohio, noting that at least 44 percent of plants and equipment in Ohio were obsolete. It further noted that "the landlocked firms in Youngstown were being allowed to deteriorate. The decision to close them down permanently or completely modernize them must be made by 1975." Youngstown and Warren had the highest rate of obsolescence. Eighty percent of their plants and equipment were over 10 years old. Predicting the future, the report sounded a sharp warning that "if existing commitments to modernize the facilities are not carried out and if additional commitments are not forthcoming, Youngstown will find it difficult to maintain its position as a major industrial center."

This analysis led NOUS to the conclusion that even if the investments that were necessary to maintain the level of employment in the steel industry were met, Youngstown would not create any additional employment in the future. Furthermore, the outlook for expansion of the steel industry was not expected to keep up with the rest of the economy's growth. Thirdly, firms involved with supplying the steel industry were not going to expand even if the necessary investments were made in the steel industry. The study said that if everything went right for Youngstown the most that was to be expected was a no growth economy.

Without investments forthcoming, vultures were soon circling the city. In 1969, Lykes, a ship building and real estate firm out of New Orleans, leveraged a buy out of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. Not only did Lykes not make the necessary investments, they took the profits from the company and invested them in their non-steel subsidiaries. In 1977, Lykes lost control. Losses piled up; the nation was in a recession; the alternative was to shut down the Campbell Works. Approximately 4,100 workers were told they were out of work overnight.

The closing sent shock waves through the community. For whatever reason, Lykes gave no warning to the community. On Monday September 19,1977, the announcement was made and by the end of the week the gates were closed. There were no programs in place to ease the burden of unemployment. Health and human service agencies were not permitted access to the company records or even the names of the laid off workers. Furthermore, any communication by company officials with outside agencies would be punished by "blacklisting". The officials that were making the decisions were not in the community and there was no communication of their intentions Terry Buss explains:

The effect of this policy by the Lykes Corporation is that a company, which had dominated the area economy for 77 years, closed its largest facility in a matter of weeks. It left behind unemployed workers, empty buildings, and rust coated, antiquated, useless facilities (Buss, 22).

After the closing, Lykes remained in financial trouble and sought to merge with LTV which owned Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. On June 21, 1978, Attorney General Griffin Bell approved the merger over the objections of his staff. As soon as the merger was approved LTV closed down the Briar Hill works putting an additional 1,400 out of work.

The closings continued. Youngstown was devastated by a wave of plant closing that wiped out three-quarters of its steel jobs and slashed manufacturing employment from 93,000 to below 50,000 (Buss, 3). Unemployment reached a staggering 30 percent. The carcass of the steel industry had been picked clean.

In the mean time, the downtown was in the midst of an urban renewal project known as "the Central Business District Urban Renewal Area No. 1, Project Ohio R-81". It had the best of intentions. Its aim was to "eliminate structurally substandard commercial and industrial uses . . . Construct and reconstruct streets . . . to enhance the area as the focal point of the Youngstown Central Business District . . . Provide an adequate supply of off street parking facilities . . . and provide Architectural and financial advice to property owners and tenants"(Project R-81).

Most of the Central Business District on the East End was demolished in the Urban renewal project. The renewal did result in a new office structure and a new parking facility. Federal Plaza was created as a pedestrian walk way. To accomplish this, the major east-west traffic axis was eliminated and the north-south axis allowed the only flow of traffic through the central square. Given what was happening to the industrial base of the community a quarter of a mile away, investment potential dried up and the central business district was left with an abundance of vacant land. Much of the development that has occurred is more suburban in character due to the changes in zoning laws that respond to the need for on-site vehicular parking.

The problems of the downtown grew in the 1950's when the movement of people from the inner-cities to the suburbs began. Movement in Youngstown was even more dramatic than many other cities of its size. In 1960, for example, retail sales in the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area increased 16.6 percent while the sales in the Central Business District fell by 27.1 percent. Cities of similar size were off by 14.9 percent.

The largest mall developer in the country, Edward J. DeBartolo, is headquartered in Boardman. The Boardman plaza, one of the DeBartolo Corporation's early developments, was built in the 1950Ős. The company took advantage of the demographic shifts that were occurring. The problems associated with living in a city that was environmentally polluted from the emissions of the mills precipitated a shift to the suburbs even before it occurred in other cities. This shift was eased by the automobile that became the dominant and the preferred mode of transportation.

Youngstown's population peaked in the 1930 census with 170,002 residents, while the county population stood at 236,142. From that point on a trend of steady decline in the city population continued while the county population grew. By 1980 the city population was 115,436, while the county stood at 304,545. The 1990 census reported 95,732 city residents and 264,806 within the county. Between 1970 and 1990 the population of Youngstown and the county lost 40,000 residents.

The decision of the steel companies not to modernize their operations here was, in the final analysis, the reason for the collapse of the steel industry. Reliance on outdated technology, e.g. open hearth furnaces, meant that it was only a matter of time before the operations would become obsolete. The transportation of raw materials remained a problem. However, if the mills had installed the Basic Oxygen Process (BOP), a process that reduced the time to "cook" the molten metal from nine hours to less than one hour, they could have remained competitive.

Even more advanced than the BOP is that of the Electric Furnace. This technology does not rely on the costly transportation of raw materials. The basic steel making ingredient is scrap steel, which is in abundant supply in the region. Decisions made in the board rooms miles away from the affected people determined what happened in towns like Youngstown.

North Star Steel, which operates in the old Briar Hill plant, uses the Electric Furnace. The steel pipe that is produced here is made from scrap metal that was once a part of the steel buildings, where thousands were employed. North Star employs 250 people.

Today the city is digging its way out of the ashes. As many as 10,000 new jobs have been created since 1983. New industrial parks in the Salts Spring area and on the LTV property east of the downtown are home to new smokeless industries and distribution centers. Youngstown must build its future not on what has passed but on what is ahead. The aim of this study is to discover the assets of the city and to build a future out of these assets.