What Happened to Weirton? Part 1: Living in the Aftermath

Jul 14, 2019

In Appalachia, we know too well the symptoms of industry in decline. However, some aspects are much more visual than others.

On March 9, I stood anxiously with a crowd of Weirton natives and former steelworkers on a hillside in Weirton, West Virginia, overlooking Weirton Steel’s Basic Oxygen Plant, or BOP. Thousands of people contributed to the steelmaking process in the huge structure since its construction in 1967. Now, they were offering their final goodbyes.

An implosion crew far down below sounded the one-minute warning with an airhorn. All the small talk came to a halt, and for a few moments, the gentle birdsong coming from the trees disguised the fact that everyone was bracing for a huge explosion.

Lights flashed across the rusted structure, followed by a blanketing of noise that enveloped the hillside. The BOP fell forward, unleashing a huge cloud of dust that sped towards the neighborhood below. A giant pile of sheet metal and structural beams was all that remained of what was once called ‘the Mill of the Future’.

A view of Weirton Steel's Basic Oxygen Plant undergoing deconstruction from Route 2 in Weirton.
Credit Ella Jennings

My dad, Burt Jennings, was there with me. He had worked in the BOP for a year in 1990, and then all over the mill as a firefighter from 1994 to 2004. He was interviewed by a reporter for WTOV9, and his voice cracked as he spoke.

“It's really — it's sad. It is sad,” he said. “So many good guys worked down there. So many families grew out of that mill. It's sad — really good men and women worked in there. It's sad for me.”

As the crowd slowly walked away, a man asked me what I was recording the implosion for. After I explained, he commented, “you noticed no one was clapping.”

What Happened to Weirton - A Five Part Series

I was somewhat of an emotional wreck the rest of the day. I even cried a few times. But a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It wasn’t until after I started this project that I found myself caring about the town. Growing up, I hated Weirton. It was a place where people always reminisced about the past, because there wasn’t much to look forward to in the present.

A cloud of dust rises from what was once Weirton Steel’s Basic Oxygen Plant.
Credit Ella Jennings

After my parents divorced, I moved to Weirton with my mom and lived there from 2005 until I graduated from Weir High School in 2014. It wasn’t an exciting place to be a kid. There are a lot of cafes around town, but not the kind for coffee; they’re gambling joints with video lottery machines. The West Virginia Limited Video Lottery Act in 2001 allowed up to 9,000 video lottery retailers in the state, and paired with the decline of the steel industry in Weirton, these cafes provided many businesses with easy revenue. Even the old Dairy Queen was converted into a video lottery hot spot, which spurred two middle school girls to start a petition to bring back places for kids to go in the city. The most popular place for high schoolers to hang out was the Sheetz parking lot.

When the time came to go to college, I couldn’t have been more happy. I arrived at West Virginia University ready to forget everything before my freshman year of college. And for a long time, I did do just that. I enrolled in journalism classes and found myself happily removed from anything to do with the Ohio Valley.

But, as I matured, I realized there was a story behind why my childhood home faces so many struggles. The term “deindustrialization” became an obsession of mine as I studied the structural issues that led to Weirton’s blighted state.

We are not alone in our struggles; hundreds of small towns and cities across the U.S. and the world have faced the consequences that come along with the steady decline of manufacturing employment. Businesses close, populations decline, the middle class shrinks, and people are left wondering what happened to their once prosperous community. How do people cope when the economy advances and they’re left behind in the rubble? I set out to find an answer to that question.

In this five-part, personal narrative podcast, you’ll follow along with me as I discover more about my city’s steeltown past and the social and economic repercussions that played out in the area as the United States’ steel industry fell. This was a journey of self-discovery for me as I made a connection with my hometown that I never thought would be possible, and I hope you will make a connection with Weirton as well.

Music featured in this episode:

"Thoughtful" by Lee Rosevere