Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Bill Archer

April 22, 2013

Eastern Ohio steel mills told the history of a changing industry

The year I spent driving tractor-trailer for Ralph Finley, a Canonsburg, Pa., based broker for Ohio Fast Freight, was where I gained the majority of my confidence as a driver. Ralph had 18 or 20 tractors, more than 30 flat-bed trailers and never more than eight to 10 drivers. Most of the trucks that Ralph had were Whites, of a design that truckers called Japanese Freightliners. He did have a couple half-cab trucks, and two Whites with Cummins V8 903 diesel motors that he bought a few months before I bought my own Freightliner.

To me, Canonsburg was an historically interesting site in its own right, and the birthplace of both “The Singing Barber,” Perry Como and the “Polish Prince” Bobby Vinton. Still, the cool thing about Ohio Fast Freight was that it had two headquarters in eastern Ohio — Warren and Canton. I had to go through Canton occasionally to complete some paperwork, but I took my driving exam in Canton — the home of the National Football League Hall of Fame.

I was in and out of Canton quite a bit in those years, and I passed the NFL Hall of Fame on my travels. I was surprised when my mom, sister, brother and my nephew, Brett, took a trip to Canton just to visit the Hall of Fame. I loved football then and I still do now, but in those years, the only thing I did in Canton was work related. Traveling there for a sight-seeing excursion didn’t appeal to me. I could see the building from I-77 north as I passed through. At the time, that was enough.

It didn’t surprise me that the NFL would locate its Hall of Fame there. That entire region with Canton, Elyria, Warren, Cleveland, Youngstown and Massillon ... especially Massillon ... is football crazy. During my junior year at McGuffey High School, our football Highlanders scrimmaged against a small, traveling squad of players from Washington High School at Massillon. They absolutely killed us in the practice scrimmage, but I intercepted a screen pass and fell on a fumbled pitch-out during the game. Those two plays still constitute the entire highlight reel of my high school football career. I had some great blocks, but usually only the blocker and the blockee even notice a good block,

As a steel hauler, it was a real honor for me to visit the Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Republic Steel and other old steel mills including Canton Drop Forge. That wasn’t where I wanted to go most weeks. My traditional weeks with Ohio Fast Freight usually consisted of two loads from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and two back-haul loads, usually to anyplace east of Pittsburgh, so I could take advantage of a bump in the freight rate. Freight going into Canton or Youngstown paid at a lower rate, and the whole thing about trucking was making money.

During the 1970s, I could still see the evolution of the steel business in the United States. A few of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mills in Wheeling had sections dating from the early 19th century, but the mills in eastern Ohio surrounding Warren and Canton appeared to date from the period of 1880-1890s. Steel mills like the Irwin Works of US Steel were almost Jetson-like by comparison to the older mills.

There was a great difference between steel workers and iron workers. Steel workers worked in mills while ironworkers worked in high steel — building bridges and skyscrapers. When I drove truck, both professions were dangerous, but the ironworkers I knew were particularly sensitive about the name — ironworkers. There were a lot of Native American ironworkers back then and that may be true now. They were good guys as long as you didn’t call them steel workers.

The steel workers I knew were less sensitive about their name, but very alert to the inherent dangers of the profession of working around machinery, huge caldrons of molten metal and slabs of steel that were as heavy as a house. I considered every steel mill I visited during that time to be a fascinating place with awesome scenes around every corner. The images of steel mills that I’ve seen in movies and on T.V. don’t compare to what I saw in real life.

The bigness of that world stood in stark contrast to the relative normalcy of the world outside where people buy products without giving much thought to the trucker that brought them there. There was a certain intimacy between truckers, especially when we used to run two-lane roads a lot. We could see each other eye-to-eye. However, people in cars or small trucks couldn’t see inside the cabs of big trucks. Young passengers in cars seemed to make eye contact when they gave us the universal signal for us to blow our air horns. But most adult drivers and passengers never made eye contact. That was O.K. though. When I drove truck, I always knew who I was.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

 

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