Historical ovens could draw tourists

One historian said the site is ‘one of a kind.’



LEETONIA — Officials want to develop a historical site to draw tourists.

Gary E. Phillips, the village’s administrator, said Tuesday he has ideas but no specific plan at this point.

The focus is on the Cherry Valley Coke Ovens that turned coal into coke that powered steel manufacturing plants.

Some of the ovens are in good condition, but many others are falling down and are covered with trees and shrubs.

Village officials invited state and local officials to tour the site with the hope of getting support.

Ted Drouhard, the commander at the nearby American Legion Post 131, said it was kicking off the project with a $1,000 check.

He took the tour, and said, “I learned a few things, and I’ve been here for 50 years.”

Sam DiRocco II, a Columbiana County resident now working on his doctorate in history at the University of Toledo, said, “It’s one of a kind in the United States.”

The village had received funds in the 1980s to protect the beehive-shaped ovens. The site received an Ohio Historical Marker in 1999. The current site now includes about 15 acres.

It was one of the largest operations in the nation in the early 1860s.

How it worked

During tours, a train passed nearby, invisible through the trees.

DiRocco said the train was still using the same line used to ship the coke to the Youngstown Sheet & Tube steel mills.

Local coal was cooked in the oven to remove impurities. The half-circle opening was bricked up and then covered with a special paste.

“They could cook 51⁄2 tons of coal in 48 hours, and 71⁄2 tons of coal in 72 hours,” DiRocco said.

When the coke was done, it was put into train cars that ran below ground level between the rows of ovens. Today, the rail lines look like flooded canals.

The Great Depression in the 1930s eventually killed the works.

Bill Merdich of the Leetonia Shade Tree Committee wants to expand an arboretum around the site to help protect it. That would also help connect the ovens with the nearby Little Beaver Creek Greenway Trail, a 12-mile paved stretch used for hiking and biking.

The Columbiana County commissioners, who were at the tour, want to increase tourism but they have no formal plans.

But the ovens live on in song. Officials from the Leetonia-Washington Chamber of Commerce said a local songwriter has written and recorded a song about his grandfather, who worked at the coke ovens.


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