- Iron Valley: The Transformation of the Iron Industry in Ohio's Mahoning Valley, 1802–1913 by Clayton J. Ruminski
Ohio's Mahoning Valley, and with it the city of Youngstown, emerged as the poster child of late twentieth-century deindustrialization in the United States. The closure of all five of the valley's integrated steel mills, in rapid succession, dealt a devastating socioeconomic blow and generated global headlines. The fact that valley residents fiercely resisted the loss of jobs firmly established the valley in the minds of Americans, transforming it into a veritable economic ground zero. In the years that followed, the ruination of the Mahoning Valley has been represented in film, photography, poetry, art, fiction, museum exhibitions, scholarship, and song—Bruce Springsteen's song "Youngstown" being the most obvious. Time and again, the story of James and Daniel Heaton and the founding of the first iron furnace in the area was invoked, a mythic moment in the origin story of the "Steel Valley." Yet this early history has received little sustained attention until now.
Clayton J. Ruminski's new book takes us beyond the mythic moment to examine the rise and fall of the iron industry in the Mahoning Valley. Before the "Steel Valley," the Mahoning was the "Iron Valley." This is a deeply researched book that provides considerable insight into an area that I thought I knew relatively well as someone who studies late twentieth-century deindustrialization. We get a good sense of the history of iron making, both in terms of the technological process and the industrial geography of the valley. The book is organized chronologically, allowing us to easily follow the industry's rise and fall. Each furnace forged its own village. Place names in the area are very much tied to early iron production. The Mahoning Valley's location—midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the availability of good-quality coal deposits nearby—proved crucial.
The focus here is on industrial and business history: industrial pioneers, industrial processes, market conditions, transportation infrastructure, ownership structures, and politics. Prominent families such as the Tods and Wicks loom large in the resulting narrative. Throughout the book, Ruminski is careful to place local developments into a wider economic context. By contrast, there is relatively little here on labour or social conditions, except for a paragraph here or there. At times, I thought that the author lets employers off the moral hook when accidents are explained away as "inherent dangers" (85). I was also somewhat disappointed by the treatment of indigenous peoples early [End Page 75] in the book—several early traders were "killed by Native people" (12). More critical reflection on settler colonialism is needed here, as the industrial frontier was part of this story of indigenous peoples' dispossession.
We also learn that Mahoning Valley iron makers were slow to adopt new steelmaking technologies, most eventually choosing to sell out to outside interests and retire in comfort. Indeed, "Mahoning Valley furnace companies lagged nearly a decade behind other major pig iron producing centers in terms of technological advancements. Valley companies did not build new, larger furnaces like those in Cleveland and Pittsburgh during the 1870s" (200). Why the late adoption? Ruminski emphasizes lower capitalization, the rising cost of production (the area was landlocked and local raw materials were exhausted), and an unpredictable market. The valley's largest iron mills were also individually owned at a time of growing ownership consolidation. As a result, with the exception of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, steel production in the valley was eventually led by outside capital. Is this sufficient explanation? I would have liked to see far more direct engagement with John N. Ingham's classic book, The Iron Barons: A Social Analysis of an American Urban Elite, 1874–1965, which provided a competing explanation to what is on offer here.
The book is richly illustrated with photographs and maps. One, however, stood out. On page 34, there is...