WEIRTON, W.Va. — Decades ago, Weirton, West Virginia was a bustling community; trolley cars lined Main Street, storefronts welcomed families and steelworkers went to their local pubs for a beer after work. Now, Main Street remains, but the hustle and bustle has diminished.
Similar to communities all across the Rust Belt, people flocked to Weirton for the decent pay the steel industry offered. In 1900, 6,693 people lived in Hancock, County, where the city of Weirton is located. By the 1960s, the county had grown to 28,201 residents — a time when steel production was at a peak in the region.
The industry that employed thousands has now been reduced to several hundred workers. As the steel industry continues to operate in tight quarters, a new industry is looking to employ the community on the same grounds as the steel mills, but with new technology designed for the future of energy.
In May 2023, Form Energy, an American technology company, announced the construction of its Form Factory 1 on top of one of Weirton’s former steel mills. The factory will produce iron-air batteries used for long-term energy storage all across America. Some believe Form Energy’s factory is only the start of another manufacturing revolution.
“I can see in the future where a lot more of that land will be utilized, more companies coming in and a regrowth of work,” said Enzo Fracasso, a Weirton City Councilman and former steelworker. “I’ve seen Weirton in its heyday and I’ve seen Weirton when it was on its knees. And right now we’re starting to get off our knees.”
The story of Weirton begins with two brothers, Edward T. and David M. Weir, who moved to Weirton — then known as Holliday’s Cove — in 1909 to build a steel factory. Before the mill, Holliday’s Cove was used primarily for farmland.
The Weirs had a vision: the potential for land and waterways like the Ohio River to be used for steel production and easy transport. That year, they bought 105 acres of land that would become Weirton Steel Corporation.
Bob Kelley grew up in Weirton, West Virginia during the steel boom. He currently volunteers at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center, working to educate others about Weirton’s vast history and tight-knit community — particularly about the steel industry.
Kelley’s great-grandfather and great-uncle were some of the first African Americans to work in steel mills in 1916. He and his family were part of many who flocked to Weirton for steel jobs during that time. Immigrants from over 40 countries came to Weirton, and within a few years, Weirton became a cultural hub.
The majority of these workers lived in North Weirton, where Kelley grew up. “We literally had every (ethnicity) in this town, and when they worked in the mill, they got along,” Kelley said.
At its peak, in 1942, Weirton Steel employed 13,000 and would continue to employ 12,000 people for the next few decades. By 1950, Weirton Steel produced half of the world’s raw steel, but this wouldn’t last for long as many countries worked on strengthening their manufacturing sectors after WWII.
In 1968, Kelley moved back to Weirton after attending college and serving in the military. He hoped to obtain a steel job through his family connections but had no luck.
“If you had family in the mill, usually you were able to get a job. But I just couldn’t get one,” Kelley said.
As other countries amped up production, Weirton Steel began to produce less and less steel for the world.
The gradual decline of Weirton Steel
In the late 70s, Weirton Steel’s parent company, National Steel, began taking profits from Weirton and investing elsewhere.
On March 2, 1982, National Steel announced it would be parting ways with the Weirton Steel branch. To avoid paying for shutdown costs and pension liabilities, National Steel sold the company to Weirton Steel employees via an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP.
ESOPs provide owners with the opportunity to sell their company to employees while employees get significant tax incentives and stock investments.
To make this possible, Weirton Steel employees agreed to take an over 30% wage and benefits cut as well as spend $1 billion on capital investments to upgrade the facilities over 10 years.
The first five years proved profitable due to generous donations from local businesses and special tax incentives.
Despite their sacrifice, employees watched the company dwindle. Mark Glyptis, president of United Steel Workers Office Local 2911, blames the fall of Weirton Steel on a lack of opportunity for American steel to compete with foreign steel.
“Fifty steel companies didn’t go bankrupt all of a sudden because they were mismanaged,” Glyptis said. “They went bankrupt because the government failed and betrayed America allowing illegally dumped steel to take over our markets.”
Glyptis says it’s a combination of newer technologies being developed overseas, foreign federal governments providing tax subsidies, lack of environmental regulations and the use of child labor in mills that all make it possible for foreign markets to sell steel for low prices in America, and impossible for U.S. steel companies to compete.
A few efforts have been made to support the domestic steel industry like setting tariffs on steel imports, but none of these efforts have lasted long enough to bring Rust Belt communities back to their peak.
Communities across the Rust Belt — which consists of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and parts of New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky — experienced a similar story to Weirton’s.
The region was once known as the Manufacturing Belt. The term Rust Belt was adopted in the 80s as a derogatory way to describe the region’s economic downturn.
Rust Belt communities saw coal, steel and manufacturing booms starting in the early 20th century. Employment and profits soared until the late ‘50s, when numerous factors, including foreign competition, commenced what would be a decades-long decline.
By the 1970s, steel production in the U.S. turned even more drastic, resulting in many steel mills permanently shutting down across Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio.
In turn, these communities saw an increase in unemployment and a decrease in economic growth, particularly in rural areas.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports on rural manufacturing, “Manufacturing provides more jobs and higher earnings in rural areas than many other sectors, including agriculture and mining. Manufacturing is also relatively more important to the rural economy than to the urban economy.”
The reports continue to say in 2015, rural America saw earnings of $185.1 million from 2.5 million manufacturing jobs, compared to 1.4 million farm jobs earning $45.5 million and 0.5 million mining jobs earning $37.3 million.
A new industry
In February, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed House Bill 2882 which appropriated $105 million to the West Virginia Economic Development Project Fund to build a new battery factory in Weirton owned by Form Energy.
To select a location, Form Energy held a year-long, nationwide selection process, starting with 500 locations across 16 states and narrowing it down to three. In the end, Weirton was selected because of its pro-business landscape, commitment to workforce development and geographical location, Bray said.
“Weirton is a historic steel community and has the local infrastructure — including direct river railway and hardened highway access — as well as local know-how around how to make great things out of iron,” said Bray.
The facility is anticipated to employ a minimum of 750 employees by 2028 and will be built on one of the former steel mills on Main Street. Construction began in May. The plant is expected to come online in late 2024.
A recent study by the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research found the company will produce “750 jobs directly, with another 3,356 workers in supplier industries, resulting in a total employment impact of 4,106 jobs,” by 2029.
According to Sarah Bray, vice president of communications at Form Energy, Form Energy has already hired 20 West Virginians and will continue to hire more this year as they work to get the plant online.
Form Energy started training employees in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania for jobs like manufacturing associates; equipment maintenance technicians; production managers; engineers; shipping, warehouse and logistics professionals and more. The average salary for employees will be $63,000 per year.
Once online, the facility will produce iron-air batteries, which are considered the better alternative to lithium batteries when it comes to storing energy for power grids.
Iron-air batteries are the size of a washer-dryer set and hold 50 iron-air cells. Using a process called “reverse rusting,” the battery is able to recycle iron.
When the iron in the battery is exposed to oxygen and air, a process called oxidation (also known as rusting) is triggered, releasing electrons that provide electricity when demand is higher than supply.
When there is excess power on the grid, the process is reversed (reverse rusting), causing the iron to turn back into its metallic state.
Compared to lithium batteries, iron-air batteries are cheaper, last longer and work more efficiently.
Bray said the batteries will help support energy needs long term as the impacts of climate change — like severe weather events that affect the grid — become more prevalent.
Particularly, these batteries can be used to assist and prolong power from clean energy systems when a lack of sunlight or good weather conditions are scarce.
The new and old coexisting
Today, the steel industry in Weirton resembles a shadow of its former self. Weirton Steel is currently owned by Cleveland Cliffs and employs a total of 553 employees after layoffing 300 employees in June.
Elsewhere, the industry continues a downward slide. On Dec. 18, U.S. Steel, headquartered in Pittsburgh, agreed to be bought by Nippon Steel, Japan’s biggest steel manufacturer, for $14.1 billion.
Happy to see what could be a new manufacturing boom, Glyptis still believes it’s important for the U.S. to invest in domestic steel, as it plays a key role in times of war.
He worries the recent sale of U.S. Steel to a Japanese company could pose a national security threat.
“It’s a good thing, (Form Energy will) provide 750 jobs. It’s a big investment here,” Glyptis said. But the security of our people should be paramount. And hopefully, (the government) wakes up before it’s too late for our country.”
Weirton Councilman Fracasso says Form Energy’s presence can aid the steel industry, particularly in terms of its iron-air batteries restoring electricity to mills during power outages.
Fracasso, like many in the region, has a family legacy with the steel mills. His father and grandfather both worked in the mills. He also worked in the mills for 45 years before taking a position on the city council.
“When I got hired in, there was (about) 11,000 people working,” Fracasso said. “To see the demise of where it’s just flat land now, it was kinda sad. My whole adult life was spent in that mill.”
He doubts he’ll see another steel mill built in Weirton in his lifetime, but Fracasso can see the city and region being reborn, starting with Form Energy.
“We have 1,300 acres of flat ground that is usable. With this company coming in, it might be a catalyst for other companies to come,” Fracasso said.
It’s already happening. On Nov. 27, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that Boston Metals would receive a $50 million grant to build a chromium plant in Weirton. Weirton was one of seven locations selected nationwide for the Advanced Energy Manufacturing and Recycling Program.
The factory will produce ultra-pure chromium and high-temperature alloys for clean energy technologies and is anticipated to employ 200 individuals.
As the fate of the steel industry hangs in the balance, new industries are looking to build on top of former steel mills — and more could be on the way for other Rust Belt communities ready for change.
(Liz Partsch can be reached at email@example.com or 800-837-3419.)