ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – The shuttering of the AK Steel mill in Ashland wasn’t surprising, it was personal.
For nearly 100 years, the steel mill in Ashland – called Armco for 70 years – put food on the table for thousands of families. It was part of Ashland’s identity and one of the reasons that this town on the Ohio River was a player not only in Kentucky but nationwide.
Armco, Ashland Oil and CSX provided high-paying jobs that translated, through tax dollars, into excellent schools and trickle-down businesses that provided work for thousands of others. Life was good in this northeastern Kentucky town because industry was flourishing. It seemed it would last forever. How wrong we were.
A downturn in the economy had taken Armco from its peak of 7,500 employees in 1954 to only 230 who remain working at AK Steel until the end of the year. Three years ago, the plant was idled and nearly 700 were laid off but, if they were being honest, it was more having their job taken away for good.
Still, with the fire still burning in the furnace, there was hope that somehow, someway, a few jobs would return. Only the most optimistic believed it. It was only an exercise in slow torture that ended on Monday with AK Steel’s announcement that the Ashland Works would be permanently shuttered at the end of 2019.
It was never because of the product that the steelworkers, some of the best in the world, produced at the plant. These were hard-working men and women who were skilled in what they did. Company officials told state Sen. Robin Webb as much as she was trying to do everything possible to keep the plant open. Ashland Mayor Steve Gilmore did the same, keeping a line of communication open to AK Steel officials and begging and pleading to let them know what the city needed to do to keep the flame burning.
Gilmore, like so many others in Ashland, has a personal history with the plant. His father worked 28 years at Armco. If you could go door to door in Ashland, a very high percentage would have some family tie with the steel mill on the Ohio River. Either a father, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, spouse or brother or sister made a living there at one time. And that is what made Monday’s announcement so painful for so many because Armco literally built Ashland.
Some of the remaining workers have said they learned about the closing through news reports on Facebook. How sad if that is indeed true.
AK Steel wasn’t interested in keeping the plant open but certainly sees value in the skill of the skilled steelworkers. They plan on offering job opportunities to them at other AK Steel plants, including the state-of-the-art steel mill in Dearborn, Michigan. Since 2007, AK Steel has poured $1.2 billion into making that plant one of the best in North America. Many of the valued steelworkers here three years ago are working there now.
Armco opened in 1920 with 3,600 employees with the first rolling mill of its kind. Growth was rapid with the plant employing 5,500 in the next 18 years. The plant had money poured into it during the 1950s, including a $40 million expansion and later a $145 million upgrade at the end of the decade. If a father worked at the mill, his son could be hired for summer work. High school graduates were faced with the option of working for Armco or going on to college. Many chose the steel industry because the pay was good.That was the heyday for the mill.
In the early days, sports was a big part of Armco’s thinking. The Armco Sports Field was home to the Ashland Armcos, a semi-professional football team, that played there in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also the home field for the Ashland High School Tomcats football team until they built their own field in 1937. Semi-professional baseball games were played there as well, including a West Virginia club that counted Stan Musial as a member. The New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers once staged an exhibition game in 1940 on the field and patrolling centerfield was none other than Joe DiMaggio. The Reds and Tigers were scheduled to playin the spring of 1942, but the game was rained out.
Armco was the center for entertainment and employment, but it wouldn’t last forever.
From the employment high of 7,500 in 1954, it decreased to 4,500 in 1972, 3,500 in 1982, 1,630 in 1986 and just 700 by 1992. The company was sold to Kawasaki Steel of Japan in 1994 and was renamed AK Steel. By becoming more efficient, the plant saw an increase in profits and the workforce grew to 900 by 2004. Gov. Ernie Fletcher was behind a $40 million tax break to fund a unit that modified the slab caster, critical to coke making and steel options.
However, 11 years later the plant was idled with nearly 700 being laid off and that brings us to today when the great steel plant on the Ohio River will soon be only a memory.
It’s been a great run with a sad, sad ending, one that leaves the Ashland area asking: What’s next?
MARK MAYNARD is managing editor of Kentucky Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org