The industrial heart of the Rust Belt is western Pennsylvania as once-mighty steel mills, coke plans, and machine shops, scattered alongside railroads, rivers, and highways, have downsized and closed. 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 struck by this slow and evident change. While Pittsburgh has rebounded considerably, booming with new businesses and industries, attracting young professionals and retirees alike to its affordable neighborhoods, other towns have not fared so well.
One of those communities that have fallen by the wayside is Clairton. It was 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 away in a remote ravine far from any populated house in Clairton was Lincoln Way. It’s unclear on what happened on this one particular street, but the 20 residences lining the sidewalks were abandoned over a period of several decades because of the homeowner passing away or foreclosure. It was as if everyone had left in such a rush. Food was left inside refrigerators, long since spoiled. Dirty dishes remained on the kitchen tables. Clothes and shoes lay hanging or tucked away in closets. Televisions remained plugged in and ready for another day of consumption.
Down the highway from Lincoln Way is the former “boom town” of McKeesport. Located at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers and at the apex of two major railroads, the community was based around the steel industry. The population of McKeesport peaked at 55,000 in the 1940s but began to decline as its industrial and business fortunes waned. National Tube, which manufactured iron pipes and employed over 10,000, began to contract and eventually closed in the 1980s. G.C. Murphy, a national 5-and-10 retailer, went into bankruptcy. It did not help that a significant fire in May 1976 gutted the heart of downtown. Most of the affected properties were never rebuilt.
Towns were not the only entities to decline, as 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 started to bleed Munhall of its residents. By the 1990s, 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.