Leetonia seeks to expand historical site
By D.A. WILKINSON
In 1900, Rosario Altomare came to Leetonia to work at the Cherry Valley Iron Works.
Coal was burned in beehive-shaped ovens to produce coke, a component needed to make American steel when used as a fuel in a blast furnace.
Four generations later, Rosario’s great-grandson, Bill Merdich, is helping to preserve and restore the ovens.
And he’s not alone.
Gary E. Phillips, the Leetonia village administrator, has sought funds from the Clean Ohio Fund to buy property near the coke ovens. In 1993, the Cherry Valley Coke Ovens site was recognized in the National Register of Historic Places. An Ohio Historical Marker was added in 1999.
Phillips said Friday that the village has passed the first round in the effort to buy more land near the ovens to protect the site and to draw more of the estimated 600 joggers, bicycle riders and walkers who already use the nearby portion of the Great Ohio Lake-to-River Greenway every week.
“It’s just a really good project that will benefit everybody,” he said.
The Leetonia Coke Ovens Expansion project is designed by the village to protect the park that is a large part of the village’s history.
Phillips said he has a verbal purchase agreement with the owner of property near the coke ovens to sell it to the village, which would prevent other development that could hurt the ovens.
Under the plan, the village will buy 24 acres. One part of the land is east of the ovens, and the second is north of the that parcel.
Other land to the east of the proposed purchase site is 500 acres owned by the Leetonia Sportsmen’s Association, which is not likely to ever be developed. To the west of the land lies the village.
Between the land that is up for sale and the sportsmen’s club is the former train line to Lisbon that now is the paved greenway trail.
Under Phillips’ plan, the village would put a parking lot on the northern parcel. A walkway would lead to the ovens.
The total cost is estimated at $175,000.
Merdich said he often organizes groups to pick up branches and other debris at the site.
“We’re trying to preserve the site and protect it from the elements,” he said.
The coke ovens are on both sides of what looks like a shallow man-made channel that is 9 feet deep and about 20 feet wide and full of water. When the ovens were working, the area was bone dry. Merdich said Ohio mining officials are working with the project to determine how to detour water to protect the site.
Merdich said local organizations are starting to form groups to help with projects at the site.
Heather MacNaughton runs British Pastries in the village and serves on the park board along with Merdich. She said bus tours come from Cleveland to her shop and tea room, and the people are fascinated by the coke ovens.
She said she and others had been praying about the future of the village. There has been talk for years about protecting the ovens.
Now, she said, “It’s just taken on a life of its own.”