Thursday, February 21, 2008
Another mill folds
Welcome to nowhere, chapter 13
By Scott Beveridge
Dad saw wicked times in 1972.
Jim Beveridge was fast approaching 50 and sweating the withdrawal from nicotine while kicking his long habit of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Worse yet, he had sworn off the Iron City beer after his physician warned him about his shrinking liver. This was a man who couldn’t stray five miles from our home in Webster, Pa., to pay a bill or pick up groceries without twice stopping at a bar. He spent more than a few long nights pacing the floors.
And then came the announcement from the steel mill in nearby Monessen, where he had worked since before World War II: The plant was shutting down for good on Feb. 17 of that year.
Our lives spiraled out of control, almost in an instant.
The Page Division of American Chain and Cable Co. furloughed its 250 workers because the 72-year-old factory was no longer profitable. Sure, there had been times when work was slow, and others when the union halted production during stalled negotiations. But this mill had woven wire to hold up the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge that opened in 1937 in San Francisco. There would always be a demand for Page’s products, the workers assumed, even though their numbers had dwindled from a record high of 1,100 in 1940.
J. Wallace Page of Adrian, Mich., constructed his blooming, rod and wire mills in Monessen in 1899. He was considered to be the “father of the wire-fence industry” in the United States, having developed the technique of hand weaving wire at his home. In no time, his Monessen operation was producing 3,000 tons of steel a month. Twenty years later, Page’s operation would be absorbed into the holdings of American Chain and Cable of New York.
But by January 1972 the demand had weakened for wire and fence to the point that members of United Steelworkers Local 1391 in Monessen took concessions to keep their factory churning. The agreement paved way for the company to reduce the workforce from 300 to 150. With his seniority, my father initially doubted he would lose his job as a pipefitter and union position of grievance man. Then the national union called a company-wide strike on Jan. 31, and within two weeks, the Monessen mill was history.
The five-minute announcement from the company was a shock and surprise to the workers. “It’s a black day for us at Page,” local union President Elliot Bianchi told the local newspaper. “I’m sick to the stomach,” he stated in an article in The Valley-Independent.
Knowing his medical benefits would soon dry up, dad encouraged mom to check herself into Charleroi-Monessen Hospital to have a tumor removed in what proved to be a false cancer scare. She was on the second floor while dad’s mother was on the fourth, entering the throes of dementia.
While our hardships seemed unique to our family of five, they would prove to be just the beginning of what was about to happen to thousands of dependents of Pittsburgh-area steelworkers in a collapsing industry. Being the first to receive pink slips, the Page employees weren’t offered extended unemployment paychecks and free retraining as were the masses who would join the ranks of the unemployed in America’s rust belt by the mid 1980s.
With two sons about to enter college, dad took a low-paying job as a Pinkerton guard until something better came along. In the fall of 1974, I was off to Edinboro College near Erie, Pa., to study art on a free ride with government grants because my parents’ earnings fell below poverty guidelines. In my mind, I was forever turning my back on the Godforsaken Mon Valley.
Ironically, one the first things I did after finishing my degree was to apply for a job at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in Monessen.
(Captions: An early postcard view of the Page wire mill in Monessen, top, and a photo taken by John Hurrianko in the 1960s of Webster from the ramp to the Donora-Webster Bridge. The images are courtesy of the Greater Monessen Historical Society)