01: Chasing smokestacks

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The shuttered furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, in Bethlehem, PA. Now the site is a Sands Casino.

The wonderful part of my job and professional life is that I am free to chase smokestacks. It is not that these monoliths to American history, ingenuity and industry are running but so often I am.

About five years ago my life changed and I took two weeks at the end of March and drove both sides of the Ohio River from Steubenville, Ohio to Ripley, Ohio and back through Maysville, KY to Huntington, WV back to Weirton, WV. I passed hundreds of smokestacks standing sentry over foundries, steel mills, lumber yards, coke plants, power plants and brick ovens. From ten miles away it was simple to tell whether the stacks were vigilant sentries looking over a blue-collar working town or simply a monument marking the grave of a shuttered plant and dying community. The reality is, smokestacks are the sign of a vibrant, living breathing community.

Historically, a smokestack bellowing water and ash was a beacon of hope for the working poor. It led the willing to a community where they could carve a place for themselves with other working, blue-collar middle-class individuals and occasionally create a new business for themselves. The smokestack was a symbol of pride, encouraging the wealthy to plow their profits back into the community in the form of theaters, libraries, hospitals, schools and parks.

A smokestack was a symbol of a prosperous society. It was a symbol of a community

As such, I will write about my love of the people, the communities, industries and the smokestacks. I will write about both the past and about the future. Most importantly, I will write about how some of the shattered towns have put the pieces back together again by profiling the business and people working to bring life back to the stacks…or at least bring life back in the shadow of the stacks.

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