Rust Belt in the Panhandle | Post 16 | West Virginia

Wikipedia tells me the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia is a “culturally and geographically distinct region of the state.” Perhaps that’s true, but one of its main cities, Weirton, appears to be — culturally and geographically — a most Rust Beltian archetype.

There’s the dying steel mill. There’s the eponymous turn-of-the-20th-century industrialist who built the town — and fought the unions. The local high school student who’s done good, accepted to Harvard this year. There’s a Revolutionary War origination story in the 1774 fort near the confluence of Harmons Creek and the Ohio River. Weirton is so industrial heartland that it even served as the fictional down-home Midwestern town of Lillian in Super 8, a Steven Spielberg production about good ol’ American teenagers who discover an alien held captive by the U.S. government at a nearby Air Force base in the 1970s — and free it.

This segment of my virtual cross-country trip started just east of Pittsburgh, which, by the way, has several great stone government buildings downtown…

… and some Weirton leaders are trying to pitch the town as a Pittsburgh bedroom community. The Pa.-W. Va. border indeed popped up in far western suburbia…

… and I almost immediately rolled into Weirton, where a black and gold banner hanging from a porch reminded me that I was still in “Steeler Country”.

Up in its northern reaches, West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle is no wider than Weirton itself. The appendage is bounded by the Pennsylvania state line to the east, the Ohio River to the north and west, and the Mason-Dixon line to the south. If West Virginia’s creation is not contentious enough — it was the only state carved from a Confederate state, Virginia, during the Civil War — the Northern Panhandle owes its existence to a conflict or two as well. In short, in the late 18th century, Virginia and Pennsylvania both claimed jurisdiction over the area, both eyeing the prime Fort Pitt real estate where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio (and where the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Three Rivers Stadium once stood). The states were issuing conflicting land grants to settlers, and in 1774 a Virginia militia group even attacked a county seat and detained justices who were rejecting Virginia jurisdiction. Boundary surveying and dispute resolution processes continued into the 1780s — during the Revolution, note — and re-drawing of county lines continued for years.

Weirton has an amalgamation story too. The present-day city is a merger of Holliday’s Cove, Marland Heights, Weirton Heights, and Weirton, the latter two company towns/settlements named after (by?) Ernest T. Weir. In 1905, Weir, a Pittsburgh native, and his business partner used a $25,000 loan to start the Phillips Sheet and Tin Plate Company, which would eventually become the Weirton Steel Company — second only to Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel in tin plate manufacturing — and then National Steel, a fully vertically integrated corporation of mines, coking plants, furnaces, and ships.

Victim, like most mills, of steel’s decline, the company went through a last-ditch employee-owned phase, bankruptcy, new ownership, and today is part of the Luxembourg-based Indian-European behemoth ArcelorMittal. It still produces tin plate, and ArcelorMittal-Weirton employs 875 people. Weirton Steel once employed 12,000.

A Street View stroll across town reveals both Spielberg America and Rust Belt America. At one end there’s a town water tower, pleasant, modest homes, and a nice high school.

At the industrial end of Weirton, down by the Ohio River, a few homes and empty lots back up against massive steel industry apparatus.

And Main Street runs with the river, railroad tracks, and lengths and lengths of remnants of what was once one of America’s major steel producers.

Physical plant and chain fences blocked my access to and view of the Ohio, but at the far end of Weirton I was finally able to climb a hill and catch a glimpse of the river and a rusted bridge. Time to cross.

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