Ghosts of the Monongahela River Valley

Several years back, while researching the Monongahela River Valley, I discovered the photographs of Joe Katrencik—who spent time in the early 1970s as a teacher at Clairton Catholic. What struck me about his photographs is how a series of images from the past can really put the present in greater perspective. For example, in his caption to an image of Clairton from 2009, which offers a stark snapshot of the area’s decline, Katrencik recounted his experience:

Clairton’s Catholic parishes have been consolidated, with St. Clare of Assisi now occupying the former St. Joseph properties. I spent the first two and a half years of my teaching career at this school—starting at $350 a month and leaving at $400. But considering the alternative—it exempted me from Viet Nam—where had I gone I would have been, with college ROTC training, a second lieutenant with a life expectancy of 20 seconds, or so I had been told.

Katrencik’s caption not only offers insight into his personal struggle to avoid certain death in Vietnam, it also hints at the changing social and economic climate in Clairton from then to now.

In the Mon Valley, economic hardship has been commonplace since the collapse of Big Steel in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Clairton that reality is apparent, but it’s not unique. In the countless mill towns that dot the valley—places with names like Monessen, Donora, Rankin, Duquesne, and Elizabeth, to name only a few—the stakes are equally high. Today Clairton is still home to US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility and a highly successful high school football team, but the town has also been plagued by drugs and violence in recent years.

Of course, none of these developments are revelatory. Such social and economic ills are endemic in postindustrial towns throughout the Rust Belt. And while neighborhoods within Pittsburgh’s city limits are currently experiencing a renaissance—Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, East Liberty, etc.—the city’s outlying mill towns continue to exist in an economic void. In Pittsburgh’s forgotten mill towns, poverty, addiction, and blight are as prevalent as artisanal cuisine or clothing boutiques on Butler Street.

In most cases, these mill towns have outlived their original intent as neighborhoods where gainfully employed steelworkers can raise their families. But having lived in Western Pennsylvania my entire life, it’s easy to forget this reality and see the skeletal remains of these towns as commonplace—the ubiquitous backdrop of postindustrial America. But life in a place like Clairton is anything but common.

(Photograph: Joe KatrencikCaption: Girls at Clairton Catholic in Clairton, Pennsylvania, c. 1971.)