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.
Ronald Berry, right, walks away from the house as Briion Terry, center, walks towards it. Ronald moved away from the city while his cousin Briion has returned to live there. (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. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
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.
A tombstone for the founder of Clairton, Benjamin Kuykendall, at Peter’s Creek Cemetery. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
In Clairton, you can walk up to Peter’s Creek Cemetery where you can look down at the Monongahela River and the sprawling steel mill that’s still in operation but scaled way back. And you can hear and see the trains coming in and leaving the plant.
When we wandered through the cemetery, we saw old gravestones from the 1700s and 1800s. And we came across the tombstone of Benjamin Kuykendall:
“Born 1722, died 1789. First settler in Clairton. Pioneered Ravensburg Plantation in 1754 & Kuykendall grist mill. Made peace with the Indians. Was a judge … Erected by Kuykendall-Forsyth-Reed Farms”
It’s claimed that Benjamin Kuykendall is Clairton’s first settler, and we wanted to know more. So we drove out to Jefferson Hill, which is nearby, and visited the Kuykendall-Forsyth-Reed farm.
Donna Thomas purchased the farm from the estate of Homer Reed after he passed away, and she was the first owner of the property that was not part of the Kuykendall-Forsyth-Reed family. It’s a 6.5-acre farm with the old farmhouse built in 1768. You can see the Clairton Works mill from the property.
“It’s been a joy living here because of age and antiques. Tucked away and hidden from rest of the world. Before they had garbage pickup, they would dump everything out back. I just go out back and start digging and finding stuff. Arrowheads. Buttons. Bottles. Spurs. Sleigh bells. Military buttons.”
Joyce Schmidt, a librarian at the Jefferson Hills public library, told us more about Kuykendall and who his family was.
“Most of them came from having farms in Wales, in England. And they had money to bring here. There was still some slaves up in this area, too. This was Virginia.”
Until it was resolved in 1780, there was a land dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania. Virginia had claimed today what is the corner of Southwestern Pennsylvania where Clairton sits.
We looked through various documents about the historical significance of the Kuykendall-Forsyth-Reed farm and house that sits on the property. Here’s an excerpt from a Pennsylvania state document published in the 1980s about the property:
“This house is significant as a symbol of an early Western Pennsylvania farm family that came here as die-hard Virginians, held slaves prior to the Civil War, sympathized with the Confederacy, and continued their gentleman farming tradition into the 20th century, in addition to playing a prominent part in the Western Pennsylvania Steel Industry.”
Kuykendall basically laid the groundwork for what became an entrenched family dynasty that continuously had a stronghold on the local economy — first through farming, then steel. And while the mill continues to provide jobs in the area, resident Briion Terry thinks it’s just not enough.
“When you watch people leave from the mill, you see everyone going left and right. You don’t see nobody going up. That means the money is going left and right. Not up to Clairton. And that’s the problem. You got people to work in Clairton. But nobody works down there. Back in the day the money used to filter up to the town. And that’s the difference.”
Terry says Clairton needs other jobs, and opening a grocery store could be a good place to start.
“Clairton is not a bad town. We just need something in Clairton to bring us back.”
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Al Banks and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Irina Zhorov and Jessica Kourkounis
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin