I was born and raised in a Rust Belt town in Southwestern Pennsylvania. My Dad and his father worked in a foundry. Just about all my other relatives worked in either steel mills or coal mines. One of the vivid memories of my childhood is something called soot. Back in the day, to make steel, the energy source of choice was something called coke. In my particular sub-region of the Rust Belt, the mines produced bituminous coal which along with being processed into coke for the mills, was used in its natural state for home heating. One by-product of burning all this coal for both manufacturing and home use was soot. The smokestacks at the mills belched out soot-filled smoke on a 24×7 basis. Likewise, in the winter months, homes added their share of soot to the atmosphere. It was commonplace to wash a car one day and come out the next morning finding the car covered with specks of soot. One other common event was cleaning the soot off of the walls in homes each spring.
Now that I’m done with soot, lets talk about the river. Like all the other steel towns in the area, my hometown was in a river valley. the foundries, steel mills and other industrial plants were located along the river, which provided cheap transportation of coal, iron ore, scrap metal, and other basic materials needed to produce steel. Back when I was a very little kid, the boats pushing the barges of raw material up and down the river were actual steamboats with paddle wheels in the back. And they used coal to fire their boilers.
The rivers had one other very important function. They were a convenient dumping place for all the toxic waste produced by the mills and the mines. You could find just about anything in the river…garbage, raw sewage, human waste, industrial waste runoff and more. One thing that you couldn’t find were fish.
Today all the mills are gone and the mines are closed. The river once again has fish in it and one can actually boat and swim in it without having to share the fun with raw sewage and industrial waste. But the town is a ghost of its former self. The businesses and stores are gone, the town infrastructure is falling apart, the housing is falling into disrepair. The current mayor wants to sell town hall because the town cannot afford to maintain it.