What Happened to Weirton? Part 4: Where is God Today?

Jul 15, 2019

The consequences of deindustrialization manifest in many different ways.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, two prominent scholars in working class studies, have written several books and articles about this topic, and at this point, they find you can easily make a list of what will happen when industry leaves. Let’s run down it.

In most cases, there’s a decline in population, a loss of jobs, a loss of homes, a loss of healthcare, a reduction in the tax base and therefore cuts in public services. There’s usually an increase in crime, depression, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. You’ll find more instances of family violence and divorce, and a loss of faith in public institutions.

And, as the landscape decays and buildings crumble, there’s even a loss of personal identity. It’s not a pretty picture. So how has it been painted in my hometown, Weirton?

I went to talk to one of my middle school teachers, Melanie Donofe.  She’s been in the Hancock County school system for 29 years. I wanted to know how she’s seen the area change from a teacher’s perspective. We sat down for tea at her dining room table, and she was quick to start relaying everything she’s noticed change over the years.

“You hate to say the culture of the students and the backgrounds of the students, but that's the biggest change I've seen because they were used to having everything handed to them by the mill. You know, their parents a job, their grandparents a job, and that's not there. Economically, that's been the biggest change,” she said.

Melanie and Gerry Donofe at their dining room table
Credit Ella Jennings

Donofe currently works at Weirton Elementary School. First opened in 2014, the school took the place of three primary schools in Hancock County. She said that this consolidation makes the economic changes much more glaring.

“Right now, Weirton Elementary School having that many students. We have over 60% are free and reduced lunch.”

What Happened to Weirton - A Five Part Series

In January 2018, the Hancock County school district began providing all students with free breakfast and lunch through funding from the federal government. Still, Donofe related that this doesn’t guarantee children will have food when class is dismissed. So, Weirton Elementary School has a backpack program that gives the very low socioeconomic students ramen noodles or macaroni cups to take home with them.

“It breaks your heart to see that, you know, and you know that they're going to get hot lunch and you know, they're going to get breakfast... but they leave at 3:30. When they going to eat again?” she questioned.

Donofe said that in addition to kids having less, she's also noticed that there are a lot less kids. 

“Look at Brooke High School and Weir High School. I mean, my graduating class was 347," she said. "I mean, you're lucky if you got 347 in three classes now. Last year they graduated less than 150."

While a decline in the student body can be disappointing, the rise of opioids and their impact on students who remain is much more disturbing. The city of Weirton and Hancock County as a whole haven’t been hit as hard by opioids as say, somewhere like Cabell County, but the area is far from unscathed.

“I've had a student this year that actually saved his mother's life," Donofe said. "She overdosed and he called 911 and they were able to give her Narcan and she was okay. So, I mean, as a 10-year-old, a 10-year-old shouldn't have to deal with that."

In 2002, only one Hancock County resident died from a drug overdose. The numbers have risen ever since. According to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, between 2013 and 2017, the amount of drug overdose deaths a year in Hancock County per 100,000 residents was nearly three times more than the national average. For Donofe, all of this points to the fact that kids in Weirton have a much different childhood experience than the generations before them.

“The kids are the ones that are suffering because their parents don't have, and it's because they don't have the mill to rely on anymore,” she said.

Like many who have lived in Weirton for a while, Donofe also remembers when the mill was a reliable safety net.

“They were always there for us, and I think the community really got used to that, that they would do anything. You know, go ask Weirton Steel. Ask them for a donation. And then they'd flip you some money. You can't do that anymore. Basically, the benefit of them being here was there were jobs for our parents. And not minimum wage jobs. Good paying jobs,” she said.

Hancock County’s unemployment rate has fluctuated a lot over the last two decades. After a low of 3.8 percent in 2001, it peaked at 13.7 percent in February 2010, following the Great Recession. It’s been creeping down ever since, coming to just under 6 percent this past January. Still, according to a 2017 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, about one in every four jobs in Hancock County offers low wages amounting to $1,250 a month or less.

While we were talking, Melanie’s mom, Gerry, walked into the room. She’s lived in Weirton her entire life and was a tin flopper at Weirton Steel in the 50s.

I asked her how she’s seen the area transform, and for her, the most noticeable difference is the loss of small businesses.

“To look and see how the businesses... they're gone. Weisberger’s, Ray Diniti’s, the Smart Shop. Five and Ten. Ravoto’s Jewelers. The Five and Dime. No more theaters," she said. "It's just so changed and you know, buildings gone and something else in ‘em now, it's, it's just crazy.”

“When the Mill Went Down, it's Like Everything Faded”

I knew the change she was talking about. It was one of the reason’s I disliked Weirton. The last time downtown Weirton got a facelift was when the J. J. Abrams movie Super 8 was filmed here in 2010. Production crews repainted buildings and covered up the blight, literally bringing Main Street back to life. Everyone came together to help the film crew; I was lucky enough to be an extra. It brought back a sense of community that hadn’t been felt in a long time.

I decided to go downtown to Weir Cove Taxi, more often known as the Weirton Bus Terminal. It used to be a stop for Greyhound buses, but they stopped picking up passengers there decades ago. There’s a luncheonette inside where you can grab a coffee or a burger and fries. I figured I might find some people there who could talk about the decline of the area, and I was right.

It’s a bit dingy on the inside. The ceilings are lined with yellowed fluorescent lights and mismatched panels, some dark green, some white, a few broken. The fridge behind the counter hummed like an unbalanced fan, and the old box TV sitting on top of it played endless commercials. You could occasionally hear some electric bells ringing from the video lottery machines in the back room.

An empty row of seats lines the counter of the Weir Cove Taxi cab stand
Credit Ella Jennings

The first person I spoke with was Chip Ray. He’s a life-long Ohio Valley resident and has been working at Weir Cove Taxi for five years as the director of safety. He helps hire new drivers and manage operations. It was easy for him to point out the changes in the area. He started by motioning outside to Main Street.

“Every building had something in it. A restaurant, a store. All the houses up on Weir Avenue in those little houses built on the hillside were all built for people working in that mill," he recalled. "Now, a lot of them are abandoned now. It's a direct manifestation of that mill, this area right now and the state that it’s in. Without having that there, walk down the street, there's a lot of empty buildings, lot empty houses."

I asked him if he had been affected by the opioid epidemic, and I got the answer I was expecting.

“It's a serious epidemic around here. I know a lot of people that were impacted by it, people that I know. People that I graduated with, people that I went to college with. I can name 10 people that have died from opioids or heroin that I graduated with or a who’s close to my age. It’s a shame. It's terrible. It's really impacting the area,” he said.

We kept on talking and soon the subject switched to how the taxi company was still in business. Chip explained that the natural gas industry has helped with their diversification.

“We have cabs, but our trucks are water trucks. They're not here at the cab stand, they’re at our garage in Steubenville. But that's the future of the area around here because the steel mills... I don't see the steel mills coming back," Rax explained. "And, so, you got to do something. That seems to be the big industry around here. I know we alone employ about 40 truck drivers that work for the oil and gas."

A woman named Ashley Shaffer listened to our conversation from behind the counter. Her family moved here from Charlotte, North Carolina in 1997, when she was still in high school. I turned to her next. She started talking about how it was a lot easier to find employment when she was younger.

“So, when I was 23, I was working at William's Country Club up on Marland Heights. I mean, work was good then, and now it's just like you can't, I mean you can barely find a job," she said. "I personally, myself, I don't like it. Going from Charlotte, where there's absolutely everything and anything you could do. You know what I mean? Hot air balloon rides, everything, to coming up here to half my friends that I graduated with are passed away or hooked on some sort of drug. It's just not, not what it used to be."

Shaffer and her parents originally moved away from Charlotte to escape the city’s crime problem. Now, she’s considering moving back because there’s more opportunity there for her son.

“I have a 13-year-old son and honest to God, like, I think about moving back down to Charlotte because I don't want him around this area. Like he's at the age right now he can go either way. You know what I mean? Yes, kids experiment stuff and they do things growing up. That's just the way that it is. But I want him to have a good life and I want him to be able to go to school and college and have a family. You know what I mean? And be comfortable. Not struggle,” she said.

As we were talking, another woman walked in. Shaffer asked her if she wanted a coffee, and the woman sat next to me at the counter. Shaffer began to explain why I was there when the woman cut her off.

“Why don’t you let her talk? Shut up,” said Dianna Calandros.

Calandros is a very straight-forward woman. She worked in the cab stand for 17 years, but recently had to stop after she was diagnosed with cancer. 

Calandros told me the town still holds a special place in her heart, even though she doesn’t hope for much.

“I love Weirton. I mean I really do. I love Weirton. It's just that when it, when the mill went down, it's like everything faded. It's like, you know, it'll never ever be with like it was and that's, that's, that's sorrowful. If you’re from around here, it really hurts your heart,” she lamented.

I asked her if she had any hopes for Weirton.

“No, not at all. I'm 66 years old, what the hell can I hope for,” she quipped.  

The two men sitting near the door who periodically added onto the conversation were, at this point, waiting for me to walk over to them. Jimmy Colalella helps with clerical work for his brother who owns Weir Cove Taxi. He thinks the area’s decline can be attributed to a lack of diversity in the local economy.

“It relied heavily on that industry, the steel mill. It's like with anything in life, you can't, you gotta have, you know, balance, diversity, and, you know, people didn't have the vision. So, that's why you see, you know, maybe not everybody prospering here like people used to prosper,” Colalella explained.

Henry Valentine is a non-emergency medical transport driver for Weir Cove Taxi. He helps recovering drug users get to suboxone appointments. I asked him what he hopes for Weirton.

Henry Valentine looks over his paycheck at Weir Cove Taxi
Credit Ella Jennings

“Just to get more jobs, to get more work, more opportunities so people can do things besides be on drugs and opioids,” Valentine said.

Someone else I spoke with was a woman named Joan Sims. She kept to herself at a table in the back corner of the luncheonette. Joan used to work across the river at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Mill in Steubenville, but she’s lived in Weirton her entire life. She pointed out that not everything about the decline is bad. 

“The best thing that ever happened on Weir Avenue was all the bars went out. That was the best thing that ever happened. Every place you went it was a bar. Here and next door. That was more bars in this town probably than two towns. Three towns. Yeah. But when the bars went out, you could tell there wasn’t no money,” Sims said.

While she was happy the bar scene faded, she was upset about the lack of people attending church in the city.

“Churches don't have nobody. Her church went down to 10 people. And there used to be, we lived on County Road, used to be lines of cars up and down County Road going to church,” she said.

Sims left me with a question that I wasn’t able to answer: “Where is God today? What have they done with him? We don't hear about him. Churches are closing. He’s gone.”

Even though everything has changed so much, and the good times can only be felt through memories, there’s still an attachment that’s hard to let go of. Today, the Weirton Bus Terminal lives on as a reminder of what it used to be: a bustling diner filled with regulars and mill workers grabbing a bite before their shift began. And this is what seems to keep people around, even when there isn’t hope for the future. It’s what’s familiar that matters, like the same comfort you get when coming home. I don’t think you can blame anyone for longing for that.

Although not everyone in Weirton will share the same views as the people I spoke with, I think it’s apparent where their opinions come from. In the next episode, we’ll explore what’s in store for the future of Weirton.

Music featured in this episode:

"Clean Soul" by Kevin MacLeod