By Vince Guerrieri
Mike Kirwan’s rise was an archetypal American success story. After three years of formal schooling, he dropped out to work as a breaker boy in the anthracite coal mines of his native northeast Pennsylvania. Later, he fought in the U.S. Army during World War I, then put down roots in Youngstown, Ohio. He served as a councilman for two terms before he found himself in the right place at the right time, running as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936, the year Franklin Roosevelt posted what remains one of the biggest victories in presidential politics.
Kirwan also won his race that year, and remained in the House until his death in 1970. Over the years, he accumulated influence—a combination of seniority and making the right friends. He also served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during an era when the Democrats controlled Congress. As a result, he was considered to be the second-most powerful Democrat in the body, following only Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Another House Speaker, John McCormack, said Kirwan was a Horatio Alger story come to life.
Kirwan practiced what were later termed “pork barrel” politics, and was productive from a political standpoint. Some people called him “Iron Mike.” He helped secure funding for acres of parks, reservoirs (there’s one still named for him near the Portage-Mahoning county line), and the National Aquarium, which was derisively called “Mike’s Fish Bowl” by people who didn’t see the need for the expenditure.
But there was one project he couldn’t get done – and they still talk about it in the Mahoning Valley. For decades, Kirwan was the loudest – and sometimes it seemed like the only – advocate for a proposed canal from the Ohio River through Beaver County, Pennsylvania and the Mahoning Valley, ending in Lake Erie. Throughout his entire Congressional career, Kirwan championed the project, saying it was not just of vital importance to the valley, but the nation as a whole.
Kirwan had enough juice that his colleagues were willing to at least consider it – In 1966, TIME Magazine said, “most House members would sooner abandon Panama than damn Kirwan’s canal” – but the idea never came to fruition. Kirwan’s death pretty much put an end to the plan, and any slim hope for the canal beyond that died with the steel industry in Youngstown a decade later.
It’s hard to overstate how important canals were to the U.S. development of Ohio—and the country writ large. Until the advent of mechanized land transportation – first railroads, then cars and trucks – water was the most effective way to transport goods and passengers, and it’s no coincidence that, even today, most major cities are on a waterway.
And when there are waterways in reasonable proximity, there’s a desire to link them through man-made canals. The idea of doing so between the Ohio River and Lake Erie was suggested as far back as 1787, by Thomas Jefferson. In the 1820s, gradually, a canal was built from the Ohio River, in Portsmouth, through central Ohio to Columbus, and, ultimately, through Northeast Ohio to the Cuyahoga River, near its mouth at Lake Erie. Remnants of the canal’s towpath can be seen today, in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
A similar canal was built in Pennsylvania, from Beaver to Erie, and the two canals were connected by a privately-built “cross-cut” canal from Akron to New Castle, traveling through Youngstown parallel to the Mahoning River. (Among the boys who worked as towers for the boats on the canal was a young James Garfield, who would go on to represent the same Congressional district as Kirwan, before being elected president in 1880.)
One of the items shipped on the cross-cut canal was coal—specifically from Brier Hill, an area of Youngstown that took its name from the former mansion of Gov. David Tod and his family. The coal was prized for not needing treatment into coke before being burned in steamships, or the blast furnaces that had begun to dot the area.
Real growth came after the Civil War, by which time the existing canals had largely served their usefulness, supplanted by railroads. In 1900, Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube was incorporated, adding to a growing local industry that already included a Carnegie (later U.S.) Steel mill and the Brier Hill Steel Co., which became part of Sheet and Tube in the 1920s.
Because of Youngstown’s location, it had to be served by railroads: four “trunk lines,” or long-distance railroads, and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie—the “Little Giant”—probably most recognizable by its logos, which can still be seen on Station Square in Pittsburgh. All five criss-crossed the area on the city’s east side, which local lore says saw more freight traffic, on a daily basis, than anywhere else in the country.
Mill owners, incensed at rising freight rates, started to consider the idea of a canal through Youngstown again in the early twentieth century. Army engineers estimated the cost of the canal would be $120 million in 1921. The plan got bogged down in red tape, and then the Depression hit, throwing everything into disarray.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president for the first time. It was the era of the New Deal, and public works projects were in full flower. Construction projects included bridges, reservoirs, dams and high school football stadiums. A massive public works project like a canal didn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, canal construction was authorized in 1935 – but nothing was actually built. The following year, the project got a new and vocal champion.
“Perhaps few members ever had less prospects of getting to Capitol Hill,” Kirwan mused in his unpublished autobiography, now part of the collection of his papers at Youngstown State University.
Kirwan, the oldest of ten children of immigrant parents, spent his childhood in the mines before riding the rails looking for work. He worked in wheat fields in Oklahoma, cleaned up rubble from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and slept under the boardwalk in Atlantic City. (On the eve of John Kennedy’s nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Kirwan showed him a bench outside the hotel and said he’d slept on it as a young man looking for work.)
After losing his job in the U.S. Steel mill, Kirwan ran for Youngstown Council, representing the 4th ward, encompassing the city’s west side. The mill and factory workers saw him as one of them, and he won. While Franklin Roosevelt was preparing for a presidential bid, Kirwan was engineering his own public works projects and direct relief in the city. In 1936, his bid for Congress seemed, at the outset, to be quixotic. The district had been solidly Republican for the previous half-century, including eighteen years when it was represented by Garfield. But Kirwan won a nine-way primary and unseated a twenty-two-year incumbent.
Kirwan tried right away to get the canal constructed, but again, war intervened, and resources needed to be committed elsewhere.
The war was a boon for railroads. The following decade, the Federal Highway Act created the interstate highway system. A 1959 steel strike opened the door to foreign importing of steel, which could be made cheaply and more efficiently overseas. (Countries like Japan and Germany, rebuilding after World War II, could embrace state-of-the-art technology, while mills in Youngstown were using open hearths that dated to the turn of the century.) Kirwan’s efforts for the canal gained a renewed sense of energy.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he had had friends in the White House, first John F. Kennedy, whose candidacy he’d championed early on, when people didn’t think a Catholic could get elected president, and then Lyndon Johnson, who used to have an office near Kirwan’s when both were freshmen in the House.
The Army Corps of Engineers recommended running the canal from the Beaver River up to Fairport Harbor, which by then would cost almost $1 billion. But no amount of political capital was enough to get the project done. The railroads continued to block it, U.S. Steel (headquartered then, as now, in Pittsburgh) said the company wouldn’t use it, and Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer stonewalled. Kirwan made it a point to single out Shafer for excoriation, saying, “Governor Shafer was able to knife the project by flatly refusing to cooperate with the federal government in permitting construction of the shorter canal stretch in Western Pennsylvania.”
In 1969, the year before Kirwan’s death, Sheet & Tube was bought by the Lykes Corporation, a Louisiana shipping company looking to diversify. In 1977, Lykes announced the closure of Sheet & Tube’s Campbell Works at the end of the week. The mills had barely outlived many of the railroads that blocked the canal. The Pennsylvania and New York Central merged to form the Penn Central in 1968, and eight years later it went bankrupt. Ultimately, that railroad became part of Conrail, along with the Erie, which also served Youngstown.
The mills – in the Mahoning Valley and beyond – were done in by problems bigger than shipping rates.
“The canal might have kept shipping costs down, but the mills weren’t modernizing,” says Bill Lawson, director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
Lawson also said that the industry had changed nationally, too, noting that the most common raw material in steel mills now is scrap metal, and barges wouldn’t be needed to haul in the iron, taconite and other material needed to make steel.
Would a canal have helped in Youngstown’s economic recovery after the mills closed? Probably – but only in the sense that in the years immediately after the mills closed, anything would have helped. Youngstown might have been among the cities hit hardest by deindustrialization, but it happened elsewhere, too. In his 1991 memoirs, veteran Youngstown political journalist Clingan Jackson (who, ironically, was one of Kirwan’s opponents for Congress in the 1936 Democratic primary) said, “The age of steel had pretty much passed from this section of the land.”
The idea for a canal took hold again, briefly, with the election of Jim Traficant to the U.S. House. Initially, it was widely viewed as a sop to try to bring Kirwan fans into the fold, but Traficant did get financing for a feasibility study in 1993. By then, the cost was estimated between $6 billion and $8 billion, and studies showed that it would cost more than it could reasonably be expected to bring in.
Of course, at that point, there wasn’t much that needed hauled into Youngstown. ■
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and he’s left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.
Cover image of the Beaver River in the 1960s. The canal would have used the Beaver River during construction. Photo courtesy of the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation.
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