Trent Reznor never mentioned the Johnstown Flood in his interviews on MTV, though he would’ve learned about it the same way any other Rust Belt boy does…He never mentioned that he was a rich boy surrounded by a world his ancestors got tricked into helping destroy.
By Casey Taylor
They closed the Reznor plant in 2019, but it was called Nortek by then. It closed a little more than a hundred years after George Reznor wandered back to his favorite place–the porch of the Reznor mansion in Mercer, PA–and allowed his brilliant mind to finally stop creating lightning. That day was spent like many others, according to the Mercer Dispatch in September of 1911, conversing with “comrades” in the town square of the thriving southwestern Pennsylvania economy that formed around one of his many innovations: a gas stove that would help his neighbors cook and stay warm during the cold Appalachian nights, where pockets of snow were dumped by God when the air from His rivers and lakes collided. The whirring of the machines fell silent, but the high pitched squeals and grinding metal would embed itself in the DNA of the Reznor name, such that George’s great great grandson would change the world of music forever. But these things take time, and Trent Reznor was barely on the mind of the Creator when George was cooking up new ideas to improve his neighbors’ lives.
George died about fifty years before the Reznor Manufacturing company was sold in 1963. It was about twenty years after the Johnstown Flood, when the shoddily constructed playground for wealthy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie that was the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s lake collapsed and drowned the working class living in the valley below. The Flood killed more than 2,000 people in 1889, just one year after Reznor founded his manufacturing company, and the survivors were unable to recover monetary damages from the wealthy who were responsible for the catastrophe. Instead, the Flood became the first major disaster relief effort, focused on blaming and preparing the citizenry for the danger of the elements instead of remedying the fact that a small handful of people had the money and power to drown thousands through institutions established for the wealthy’s pursuit of leisure. The government changed the laws after that so you could sue people who killed your family and buried all of your possessions underwater, assuming you had the money and education to hire a lawyer that wouldn’t take advantage of you.
The Rust Belt has never been big on subtlety, and it hasn’t cared much about time since the 1980s. When the City of God collapses, time flattens as the aspirations of an entire population deflate, and the only way to mark the time is to pass the monuments to the Extraordinary Men like George Reznor in the dilapidated factories up for auction or the antiques floating around southwestern PA. In the lobby of the Reznor plant, now “Nortek,” there was a display of the ancient pre-1950s gas stoves, a reminder that our best ideas could always just get bought out from under us instead of providing long term comfort.
And Reznor was the Extraordinary Man. An engineer who took up studying medicine as a hobby because of a lively mind, Reznor joined the Mercer Rifles as an infantry volunteer in the Civil War, later dubbed the 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment, killing Confederates all over Pennsylvania and Maryland. Once his service finished, Reznor went ahead and invented entirely new methods of processing gas and eventually the aforementioned stove that would create an entire economy. In his spare time, he founded a school in Mercer to take care of the orphans created when hundreds of men in the 10th Reserve died during the War.
By any and all measures, Reznor was deserving of his status in the community, but this success blinded future generations to its shaky foundation. Reznor may have been the inventor and the manufacturer, but he wasn’t the money man. The money men in Western Pennsylvania are the recognizable names that are now plastered on banks and universities across the region, Ulster Scots like the Mellon Family that were Irish and Scottish in name only, allied with the greater wealth of the United Kingdom and loyal to Britain. Ulster-Scotts were largely Presbyterians–a faith heavy on neighborly duties but light on patience for deviations from the norm–so that Andrew Carnegie’s pamphlet The Gospel of Wealth sought to justify excess and wealth building as a means of shielding that same capital reserve from those whom the industrialist felt were incapable of managing such wealth. But who then are the good guys again? The guys killing laborers in the street to make steel as cheaply as possible? It’s hard to keep track in an algorithmic and scientific society, where collateral atrocity is an ingredient in a man’s legacy rather than a dealbreaker.
The men who commission the histories are always the good guys. That’s not a novel observation, but it’s worth wondering just how much those histories embed themselves into our collective unconscious–not in any supernatural sense, but in the billions of nanoseconds spent observing the material remnants of colossal failure while being fed the same lies your ancestors believed. People like Carnegie, the American Scotsman to beat all American Scotsman, now no longer the indentured servants to the crown of Britain. Rather, they were had become the independently wealthy industrialists who colonized the Appalachians and built their own society in the vision of the Presbyter. Andrew Carnegie was no Ulster Scot – one of the rare Rags to Riches stories that isn’t bullshit – but he has a retroactive reputation as the most PR savvy of all the industrialists. His story was repeated in pamphlets and newspapers to help reinforce this idea of the American Dream, all of which helped to run cover for the Mellon families of the world. The independently wealthy who hid behind Carnegie’s story of achievement to create an aura of “we’re all in this together” solidarity.
It’s a contributing factor for why the Rust Belt’s relationship to race is so complicated–why it’s at once tangibly racist while holding some of the most sacred abolitionist history in America’s records. Up and down Appalachia people were fed the same liberation theology that inspired John Brown to raid Harper’s Ferry, but they were also getting cut in on a zero sum economy. The theology worked on those who operated the Underground Railroad routes through West Viriginia and up into Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, but most of the white people did what European whites have always done do in those situations – they cut Black people out.
That spirit of rebellion has existed long before the Industrial era, though. The Appalachians, in many ways, haven’t been the same since the Whiskey Rebellion. The frequency of liberation can never be fully muted, emanating from deep within the bosom of the mountains, likely formed sometime back when it was still part of the Caledonians in the center of Pangaea. But the descendants of the wealth generated by Ulsters (whether Presbyterian or Episcopalian) blew up the Hill District, not Shadyside, and it’s wise to internalize the reasons rather than brush it off as yet another historical example of callous racism. Like the Ulsters before them, the Scotch Irish didn’t organize along class lines and many were still loyal to the world’s most overzealous imperial project in Britain. That was where the money and comfort came from.
George Reznor, like Carnegie before him, was the salt of the Earth stand-in to cover for the wealthy leeches who built a Ponzi scheme to draft off of his invention. His descendants cashed in when they sold the company in 1963 to ITT Inc., a manufacturing corporation out of upstate New York that was founded as International Telephone & Telegram. Among other various white-collar horrors that defined early corporate life, ITT had a remarkably close relationship with the Third Reich, though it’s hard to say how much of Nazi money was used in any acquisition, given that Hitler had long fallen by the time Mercer, Pennsylvania was sold from underneath its own citizens. Offshoring to Belgium started a year later in 1964.
George’s great grandson, a musician of some renown f, Michael Trent Reznor, was born in 1965 and after his parents divorced ended up living with his grandparents in the same town that was still bleeding to death from a wound that his father and aunts and uncles opened. From that experience, Reznor would go on to be the primogeniture of the appropriately named genre of industrial music, most famously explored in his seminal band Nine Inch Nails.
Trent Reznor’s upbringing was pleasant, and most of the existential and nihilistic dread he discussed while doing press for his second album, The Downward Spiral, was based on seeing images of thriving success in mass media while surrounded by a stagnant rural community. The Reznors had no reason to view themselves as part of the problem, at least not one that was readily apparent. They were makers, descended from a truly Great Man whose mind likely improved countless lives in his generation and the many that came after. They didn’t ask for the economy to collapse. They didn’t ask for the corporation that took money from the Third Reich to offshore production to Belgium and guarantee that within a few short decades the families that had previously been indebted to the Reznor mind–knowingly or unknowingly–would end up drowning in the filth left by the wake of its commodity price.
The Flood comes for all, but a flood is quick and loud. A drought is so much more effective at killing people without anybody noticing, because a drought is a compounded tragedy that develops slowly. A drought manipulates peoples’ most base instincts, like the fear of hunger or death. Nobody can stop a drought. If a drought is nothing more than the loss of an essential source of abundance, a drought can be a closed factory, which leads to slowed commerce, which leads to foreclosed houses, which leads to a host of complications of human behavior. We’re animals, after all, and animals may be able to learn helplessness, but they never forget to try and survive.
The stories of the Depression aren’t history for the people of Appalachia, but a recognizable frame of reference for the people whose aunts and uncles still stand in bread lines; the people who have a relative that starved to death in the bosom of abundance. Mercer and New Castle Pennsylvania are as much a Ground Zero as anywhere else on this side of the Appalachians, the sheen of prosperity from the East Coast slowly fading as one gets closer to Ohio Valley. These things take time, and collapse is felt before it can fully manifest. George’s great-grandson was pretty honest about that in interviews in the 1990s, a fallen prince of the Rust Belt colonizer class; the new Ulster Scots, ripped from the Highlands playbook, now left to watch as the utopia they were promised turned to ash.
Trent Reznor’s work as Nine Inch Nails stands out amongst other industrial metal acts–a genre that fused the UK’s Industrial scene with the hissing screeches of machines reminiscent of an assembly line sped up to the point of combustion. Nine Inch Nails work was remarkably personal compared to the other innovative industrial music echoing from the hollowed-out livelihoods of the Rust Belt. The rest of the genre was far more subversive; Reznor found a way to break through on the radio, but bands like Ministry had already been creating audio and visual art meant to shock the proletariat who engaged with it. Industrial music for an industrial civilization; a tongue-in-cheek dare to its listeners to face their complicity in fascism. Reznor’s work does that as well, but requires a level of self-awareness to spot it: the narrator is you, and the resonance comes from the fact that every urge he sings about, no matter how perverse, is recognizable.
Starvation in the Appalachians in the 20th century or drowning in the 19th century always comes back to the same excuse: an unavoidable calamity, or natural outcome of how things break sometimes. Never an assessment of the system that created it. Never an honest appraisal of the ways that our colonial instincts continue to manifest regardless of domestic versus international designation. If somebody in Mercer starves to death because of imperialist capital or a Cuban kid gets flayed by a paramilitary we fund, that’s collateral damage. This should sound familiar to anyone with a keen eye towards the way private equity has squeezed everyone in the United States and made it even harder to acquire ownership stake in a piece of the world you’re meant to improve.
Trent Reznor never mentioned the Johnstown Flood in his interviews on MTV, though he would’ve learned about it the same way any other Rust Belt boy does. He never mentioned the Ulster Scots and Anglo aristocrats that loaded his family with money and made them believe they were the kingmakers–until reminding them who God really was when He seized all their prosperity from across an ocean. He never mentioned the Nazis that helped the ITT corporation build on its immense capital reserves. He never mentioned that he was a rich boy surrounded by a world his ancestors got tricked into helping destroy, maybe because he was raised far away from it after his parents divorced and he moved back to Mercer from Ohio.
Yet, a hundred years after the Johnstown Flood drowned the lower classes, Trent Reznor released “Head Like a Hole,” the song that would catapult Industrial music into the forefront of post-New Wave experimentation. The lyrics of Pretty Hate Machine are personal enough that they can apply to just about anyone going through a crisis, but in the context of the Tower of Babel having already collapsed around Trent’s own last name, there’s little else it could be about to a Southwestern Pennsylvania boy. The song that created pop nihilism could’ve only come from the Rust Belt, where the Ulster Scot Method drained even the rich kids of their will to live. And there are still some who would deny He has a sense of humor.
Casey Taylor is an Appalachian phenotype who writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lives and works with his family. He has written for Defector Media, The New Republic, WIRED, and New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, among other, and also writes a folklore newsletter called Weed Church on substack. Casey is currently working on a book about cannabis, The Cold War, and His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie.