By Rhonda Filipan, Ph.D.

My favorite Rust Belt location? The bridge leading into the former U.S. Steel McDonald Works, a finishing mill where three generations of my family members worked shifts: my paternal great grandfather in the 1910s … each of my grandfathers in the 1940s … and my dad in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Back then, this mill was one of many dotting a 20-mile stretch along the banks of the Mahoning River in Youngstown, Ohio before they went cold, shutting down one after the other by the early 1980s.

This bridge, “The only way in and out of the mill,” as my dad would tell me, led to a road which sloped down toward the river and to mills lined up in a row. Today, that same bridge takes workers to what is now McDonald Steel Corporation, a mill which has produced hot rolled shapes for the past 30 years.

Rhonda Filipan, Ph.D.

Rhonda Filipan, Ph.D.

It has always been a mysterious place for me, this bridge, beyond which I’d see smoke rise in skinny gray plumes. It evokes memories of my dad and my grandpa talking about rim steel rolled on #14 mill or about the “hoop shop” which produced steel hoops for wooden barrels. I think, too, of my classmates at St. Rose Elementary School: when one of us said, “my dad works at the mill,” we knew it meant he crossed that blue-gray bridge near the union hall on his way to and from work. We were steel town kids.

But blue collars and rust belts are not part of the dress code in the ivory tower I longed to climb. And for years, I separated myself from my working class roots. Now, images of this slightly rusted bridge, leading into and out of McDonald Steel Corporation, are also leading me back to myself.

Rhonda Filipan, Ph.D. has worked at Kent State University since 2000. She writes essays and fiction forged from memories of her steel town upbringing.

Readers’ Corner is part of an ongoing series – other installments can be found here: