a newspaper man adjusts his pen

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)


Brant said...

When I got out of the Army in 1980, my only plan was to try to get a job in one of the mills. However, the national and local economies were in the crapper right about that time, and the Veterans Administration guy at the unemployment office suggested that I take advantage of my very generous Vietnam-era G.I. Bill benefits. So my life plan took a U-turn. I was off to college and, in short order, a newspaperman. Of course, with the emergence of the Internet, hard-copy newspapers will someday go the way of the steel industry. The newspapers that can adapt and embrace the new opportunities provided by the Web will survive. Those that don't, won't.

Anonymous said...

Nothing much seems to have changed in the two pictures of Webster. One less (I take that back, one-half less) house up there on the hill in the more recent picture. The older picture looks to have been taken about 1969 or 1970. The Chevy station wagon is a 1968 or 1969 model. The Ford is 1966. Behind, it at the bottom of the ramp could be my father in his 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. But when I said seems, I meant that the major change at this location had occurred even before the older picture was taken. Buck's Garage, on the right between the northbound and southbound lanes of Route 906, seems to have been replaced by a smaller building and the gas pumps are gone. Buck's was a two-story garage, if I recall it correctly, with a ramp up to the second floor service area or roof. My brothers and I once pushed our family car backwards down Webster Hollow to Buck's after it conked out one day on the way up to Route 51.

The newer picture, with the backhoe digging away on the now-empty site of Buck's, shows that there are still signs of life, maybe even progress, in Webster. If you build it, they might come. John

Ladee said...

I grew up only a few miles from Webster, in Sweeney Plan/Rostraver. My father was from Donora and we would go through Webster when we traveled back and forth. I never knew much more of the village than to follow the road.

I had remained isolated from the harshness found in the story. In my small world, Webster was very far away. Joni K. (lived near me and went to school with you after she moved) moved to Webster and I felt that she moved a great distance away...so small was my young world. I never associated "poor" with any area, but then again I don't think that I had a grasp on the concept.

Thank you for sharing.

Bill Crotty said...

Scott; I just found this site. Thanks for the great history of the good days now gone. The Mid Mon Valley people was a part of this Country's Great History which unfortunately will never be taught in our 'New Age School Classes'. I now live in Apollo Beach, Fl. but will always remember the "Smokey Skies=Fat Wallets' mantra. Your truth in reporting as It was, is hard to find in todays 'PC' society.
Elizabeth Forward Class 1965