Hometown Pride Still Alive In A Declining Steel Town

Oct 17, 2016

On this episode of Grapple, you’ll hear reflections from a steel town in the Pittsburgh region. Back in the 1950s, the city of Clairton was booming with about 20,000 residents. But today there are far fewer people living there and fewer job opportunities than before. You’ll hear from someone who used to work at the mill and also from someone who had to leave Clairton to find work elsewhere. Lastly, you’ll hear about the first settler of Clairton and how the family he was part of was woven into Clairton’s history.

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Ronald Berry, right, walks away from the house as Briion Terry, center, walks toward it. Ronald moves away from the city while his cousin Briion has returned to live there.
Credit Jessica Kourkounis / for Keystone Crossroads

Clairton, a small, hilly steel town on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, is known for football.

“It’s like Friday Night Lights up here in Clairton. We’ve got a lot of championships,” said Ronald Berry, a former high school football star.

Over the years, the Clairton Bears have dominated high school football in Pennsylvania. To the point where the team went undefeated for four years from 2009 to 2013 with 66 wins and 0 losses.

Football has been a bright spot for this city that’s seen some big changes over the years.

At its peak back in the 1950s, Clairton was a booming steel town with around 20,000 people. And people like Berry, who grew up there, had relatives who used to work at the mill.

“There was a lot to do around here when I was a kid. We had game rooms, community centers, the YMCA … But as time went on and the mills went down. Kids around here don’t have too much to do — started getting into gangs violence drugs, all kinds of stuff.”

Today there are fewer than 7,000 people living in Clairton and Berry is among those who’ve left over the years.

“I guess steel ain’t the thing no more. Times are changing. Electronics. Computers. It’s just is what it is … I’ve been in Ohio about 14 years — there wasn’t no jobs around here. A lot of people moved out of Clairton. I had to get out of here find me a better way to live.”

But Berry loves his hometown and comes back frequently. The day we met him, he was back in town helping a cousin move into a new home. He said Clairton looks like a ghost town.

“It’s just sad. They need to bring some money back into Clairton. Open things back up. Get this community thriving and striving again.”

We found Berry isn’t alone in the love and pride he still has for Clairton. Despite the hardships the city has faced, there are others around town who feel the same way.

Longtime Clairton resident Donna Hudson stands in the doorway of what was her favorite childhood ice cream shop, Nettie's Place on Miller Avenue.
Credit Jessica Kourkounis / for Keystone Crossroads

Ghost Town

Donna Hudson followed in the footsteps of her father, and worked at the mill for more than 30 years. Hudson was part of the first wave of women in the 1970s to work there. Reflecting back to that time, she said some of the men were a little hostile toward the women who worked at the mill

“I never asked for help. I did my jobs and when I was a pump tender you had to learn different lines and which valves to open. I had a little notebook. I made sketches — what valve to open for this transfer, what to close for that transfer, until I became used to it … I enjoyed it, I really did.”

After retiring from the mill, Hudson became a security guard at the local public high school. She also spends her time mentoring young people around town. Compared to when she first started working, Hudson says it’s not so easy to get a job in Clairton anymore and she worries about what the next generation there will do for work. She showed us around town and pointed out where a lot of businesses used to be.

Find more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroad's Grapple Podcast.