The industrial heartland declined for decades, as once mighty steel mills, coke plans and machine shops, scattered alongside railroads, rivers and highways, declined in both employment and status. A globalized economy and increased automation led many jobs overseas; what remained was a shell, unable to be self-sustaining without government intervention.
The affected regions suffered from endless population loss, blight and infrastructure deterioration. Western Pennsylvania was one such area hit hard by this slow and evident change. While Pittsburgh has rebounded considerably in the past decade, booming with new businesses and industries, attracting young professionals and retirees alike to its affordable neighborhoods, mixed-use developments, expansive parks and bike paths where industries once loomed, other towns have not fared so well.
One of those communities that has fallen by the wayside is Clairton, based around Clairton Works, once the largest coke manufacturing facility in the nation. The production of coke was vital for the pig-iron blast furnaces that produced steel, but the decline of steel manufacturing in the United States mirrored Clairton’s fortunes.
Tucked in a steep ravine, Lincoln Way boasts 20 residences that were abandoned over the past several decades due to a homeowner passing away or foreclosure.
Mementos, furniture and other effects were left behind in many of the houses.
McKeesport, located at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, is another distressed city. The town, settled in 1795 and named in honor of John McKee, its founder, was based around heavy industry. For some time, McKeesport was the fastest growing town in the United States.
The population of McKeesport peaked at 55,000 in the 1940’s before declining as its industrial fortunes waned. It’s major employer, National Tube Company, manufactured iron pipes and employed over 10,000 before downsizing and eventually closing in the 1980’s. Another major source of employment, G.C. Murphy, a major retailer, was merged into another chain in 1985 and the headquarters vacated. Additionally, a major fire on May 21, 1976 in the heart of downtown claimed 15 buildings and several residences, destroying the Famous Department Store and many businesses. Most were not rebuilt
Towns were not the only entities to decline. With the loss of population came the loss of churches. St. Michael Church, located in Munhall, was founded as a Slovak parish in 1897. It served the Slovak community who tendered to Homestead Works of the Carnegie Steel Company.
As early as 1967, the congregation began to contract, partially as a result of the downsizing of the Homestead Works that began to bleed Munhall of its residents. By the 1990’s, Munhall could not support the independent parishes and the decision was made to merge St. Michael with five other parishes to form St. Maximilian Kolbe parish in 1992. St. Michael Church continued to operate, along with three other church buildings, but mounting expenses and a dwindling congregation forced the parish to close three buildings. The final mass at St. Michael Church was held on October 25, 2009 and it was officially closed on November 1.
The church was being gutted in preparation for renovations.
As depressing as the church renovations were, at least the church shell was being salvaged and repurposed instead of needlessly demolished. It was a far better outcome than some of the finds on the following day in Youngstown and Cleveland.