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On June 11, 1884, the West Virginia steel industry was born when the state’s first Bessemer converter began operation at the Riverside Iron Works in Wheeling. Before that, Wheeling had been the center of West Virginia iron production, making so many nails from wrought iron that it became known as the ‘‘Nail City.’’ By 1890, the state’s iron production dropped to 39,223 tons; an insignificant amount compared to the 220,615 tons of steel produced that year.

Demand for canned food exploded during the 1890s, and the cans were made from tin plate, a thin-rolled steel coated with tin. The McKinley Tariff of 1890 included duties on tin plate that helped American manufacturers compete with British imports. Seeing an opportunity, local nail plants including Wheeling Corrugating and La Belle added tin plate mills between 1893 and 1895.

Unlike most of the industry, tin plate production required highly skilled steelworkers. Rolling thin gauges of steel required a keen eye and many years of experience, and the operation was still done by hand as workers passed square sheets back and forth through the rollers. Because of their scarcity, they were able to remain unionized under the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers long after the union’s infamous defeat in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A series of mergers between 1898 and 1900 brought several West Virginia properties including the tin mills of the La Belle Company under the ownership of the U.S. Steel Corporation. U.S. Steel methodically drove the union out of its plants, and Wheeling remained one of the last bastions of the steel union until a failed strike in 1909. Despite all the changes between 1880 and 1909, the number of West Virginia steelworkers hovered between 3,500 and 4,500 during those years.

In 1909, Ernest Weir expanded the Phillips Sheet and Tin Plate Company from Clarksburg to a 105-acre property near Holliday’s Cove, now Weirton. Originally a small tin plate plant, the company would change its name to Weirton Steel and become a fully integrated steel operation, making finished products from raw materials. Company officials added a blast furnace in 1919, a melting shop and a blooming mill the following year, and another sheet plant in 1923.

With the growth of Weirton Steel and increased production during World War I, employment in the state’s steelworks and rolling mills jumped from 5,348 in 1914 to 11,630 in 1919. In 1920, the incorporation of Wheeling Steel brought together the Whitaker-Glessner, Wheeling Iron & Steel, and La Belle companies, including facilities in both West Virginia and Ohio. In 1929, Weir formed the National Steel Corporation with Weirton Steel as its flagship. Meanwhile, U.S. Steel shut down six of its nine sheet plants in the Wheeling district.

In 1926, Weirton Steel was among the first companies to contract for the construction of a continuous sheet mill that would produce strips of steel a mile long. This made the hand-rolled square sheets obsolete. Wheeling Steel was not far behind, completing work on its strip mill in 1928. The era of hand-rolling sheet steel in the Wheeling district came to an end in 1943, and some 1,500 skilled rollers and their crew members had to look for jobs in other departments.

The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the rise of industrial unions in West Virginia. The old Amalgamated Association found new life, and steelworkers organized locals at both Wheeling Steel and Weirton Steel to compete with the companies’ employee representation plans, known as company unions.

In the fall of 1933, Mel Moore and Billy Long led a strike at Weirton Steel that ended when Weir agreed to hold union elections. Then Weir canceled the elections, and his decision was upheld in federal court. In 1937, the National Labor Relations Board charged the company with unfair labor practices, but nonetheless employees voted overwhelmingly for the company union, the Employee Security League.

Thereafter Weirton Steel worked hard to create loyalty among its employees, and keeping employment levels high throughout the Great Depression went a long way toward that end. When the NLRB again found Weirton Steel guilty of unfairly promoting its company union in 1941, the Weirton Independent Union was created, but it, too, was declared a violation of federal labor law in 1950. That year a supervised election was held, and the Independent Steelworkers Union defeated the United Steelworkers of America by a margin of three-to-one. Weirton Steel employees never again went on strike. In the meantime, the United Steelworkers organized several locals at Wheeling Steel and signed a contract there in the spring of 1937.

During World War II, both companies converted their production lines to help with the war effort. Weirton Steel produced a large percentage of the nation’s howitzer shells, helped the atom bomb project with high-precision metal-finishing, and rolled bronze and magnesium for weapons. Wheeling Steel did its part by expanding operations, producing bombs and steel drums, and breaking production records.

From the start of the war into the early 1960s was the boom time for the steel industry. Employment in West Virginia’s steelworks grew from just under 13,000 in 1929 to over 15,000 by 1947. During that time West Virginia steelworkers saw their annual wages jump from an average of $1,900 to over $3,000. By 1950, primary iron and steelworkers in West Virginia numbered 22,596, with 19,181 of them in the Northern Panhandle, 1,911 in the Kanawha Valley, and 542 in the Parkersburg area. In the decade to follow, steelworkers won benefits such as pensions, health insurance, and vacation time.

The 1960s witnessed the first signs of decline. Feeling the effects of foreign competition, Wheeling Steel struggled to remain profitable. In 1968, it merged with another flagging company, Pittsburgh Steel, and became Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

Both Wheeling-Pittsburgh and Weirton Steel embarked on modernization programs. Both installed basic oxygen furnaces in the 1960s, but they lagged behind European and Japanese steel producers in adopting the new technology. Weirton Steel installed continuous casters in the 1960s to further streamline production. In 1981, Wheeling-Pittsburgh began construction of its continuous casters, and the following year the employees sacrificed vacation time, holidays, and a scheduled wage increase to help finance the modernization program.

During the 1980s, the West Virginia steel industry teetered on the brink of extinction. In 1983, after National Steel announced that the Weirton plant might be shut down, workers approved a novel employee stock ownership plan to save the mill. In 1985, saddled with nearly $400 million in debt, much of it from modernization costs, Wheeling-Pittsburgh filed for bankruptcy. It emerged from bankruptcy a profitable company in the early 1990s, but global circumstances again put the local companies in peril.

In 1998, following currency devaluations in South Korea and Russia, cheap foreign steel flooded the U.S. market, and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Weirton Steel, and the steel unions lobbied to curb the imports. With mixed results from Washington, the companies found themselves in dire straits. Wheeling-Pittsburgh again filed for bankruptcy in 2000, followed by Weirton Steel in 2003. Employment dropped to levels not known since before World War I, with Weirton Steel and Wheeling-Pitt operating with greatly reduced work forces. In 2004, Weirton Steel was bought by the International Steel Group and later sold to Mittal Steel of the Netherlands. During these difficult times, steelworkers, both active and retired, faced uncertainty regarding pensions and health insurance.

This Article was written by Lou Martin

Last Revised on November 05, 2010

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Sources

Javersak, David T. History of Weirton.. Virginia Beach: Donning Co., 1999.

Lieber, James B. Friendly Takeover: How an Employee Buyout Saved a Steel Town. New York: Viking, 1995.

May, Earl C. Principio to Wheeling: A Pageant of Iron and Steel. New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

Martin, Louis C. "Causes and Consequences of the 1909-1910 Steel Strike in the Wheeling District." M.A. thesis, West Virginia University, 1999.

Cite This Article

Martin, Lou "Steel Industry." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 November 2010. Web. 22 August 2017.

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