By Sean Barron
Gavin Esposito may not have been around when the Mahoning Valley’s major steel mills were operating, but don’t assume the 14-year-old is bereft of knowledge pertaining to and appreciation for what was one of this area’s biggest and most-thriving industries.
“Youngstown began with iron in the 1870s, then steel in Youngstown grew,” the Hubbard Middle School eighth-grader, history lover and train enthusiast explained. “The railroads were one of America’s steel-producing centers.”
Gavin and his father, Ben Esposito, got to savor a taste of that history, because they were among those who attended the Mahoning Valley Railroad Heritage Association’s annual open house Saturday at the Jim Marter Railroad Yard, 1340 Poland Ave., on the South Side.
The 31-year-old nonprofit MVRHA is dedicated to gathering, restoring, preserving and displaying railroad-related equipment of historic value that served or continues to serve the Valley, with an emphasis on that which was used in the steel industry, according to its website.
The four-hour outdoor gathering, with the former Republic Steel Co. buildings along the Mahoning River serving as a backdrop, allowed attendees of all ages to get a better look at and understanding of the importance of a variety of train cars. Many had been used to transport steel products to and from the blast furnaces.
“The mills played a big part in Youngstown, Ohio, and American industries,” Gavin observed, adding that the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. and others began to close in the late 1970s.
Ben, a firefighter with the Youngstown Fire Department, recalled that both of his grandfathers had worked in the area’s steel mills. Also, a family member was employed with Wheatland Tube Co. in Sharon, Pa., he said.
The Marter Yard has an open-hearth steel-ore ladle car, three cabooses, a boxcar, four locomotives and an ingot car, noted Joe Vasko, the MVRHA’s president.
Ingots are solid pieces of material, often metals, formed into particular shapes to make them easier to store or transport for later processing.
The equipment in the yard is highly significant also because the Valley was once the nation’s third-largest steel producer, Vasko said. He estimated that every job in the mills resulted in eight to 10 ancillary positions such as maintenance workers and cooks.
“I hope people learn what their grandfathers did with steel to help build the U.S.,” Vasko continued. “The mills were built from the ground up, so their support had to come from the ground up.”
Several people got a close-up look inside some of the cars, courtesy of Rick Rowlands, an MVRHA volunteer who conducted impromptu tours.
Some were intrigued by what’s inside a yellow Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Series 506 caboose, which has a bay window, along with several old seats, a set of lockers, an ice box, a cot and a restroom.
The yard also has what Rowlands said was the first diesel locomotive the Sheet & Tube Co. owned. It was built in the early 1940s in Plymouth, Ohio, and has a door the Youngstown Steel Door Co. had made, he noted.
During the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early ’30s, some steel companies placed a greater emphasis on trying to find local outlets to buy their products while selling other products to various subsidiaries. Youngstown Steel Door, for example, bought steel from YS&T, Rowlands explained.
Gavin lamented too many teens around his age neither know nor care about the area’s rich history regarding its steel and other industries. While at the open house, Gavin took plenty of pictures of the train cars, then planned to place them on Instagram in hopes that doing so will generate added interest, he said.
More people need to realize that even though many of the area’s steel mills have been shuttered for nearly four decades, it’s important to celebrate that vital piece of the Valley’s past while looking ahead, Ben Esposito said.
“They say that time heals all wounds. Maybe this is something we can celebrate and move on,” he said.