Homestead Bost Building exhibit celebrates Western Pennsylvania steel icon

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 11:16 a.m.

The iconic Jones and Laughlin Steel mill that was the face of Pittsburgh for generations of Western Pennsylvanians — and much of the world — is being celebrated in an exhibit presented by Rivers of Steel.

“J&L: A Pittsburgh Icon” will run through the end of the year at Homestead's historic Bost Building.

“J&L Pittsburgh was that image that everybody had of this region,” said Ron Baraff, who is director of museum collections and archives at Rivers of Steel. “When people from outside this region thought of steel, the mill they were thinking of was J&L. It was the one that was right downtown. It's that iconic image of an industrialized city.”

The exhibit features J&L maps, photos, art, signs, tools and articles of gear such as hard hats, uniforms, a heat suit and goggles.

Baraff said many of the items are on loan from third-generation steelworker Ken Kobus' private collection.

“It's my family history,” Kobus said. “My grandfather worked there and my father worked there. I have cousins and uncles that worked there.”

He said he has vivid memories of the J&L mill from his childhood in the South Side.

“I could see the mill, and the mill was everything,” Kobus said. “I always wanted to go inside to see what it was like. I could hear it and I could see it. I could smell it.

“They had open houses, and every time I reached the age you could go in, they'd raise the age. When I was 16, I knew I could go in. Then they stopped having the tours.”

His father arranged a tour for him, and Kobus started work there two years later, in 1966, when he turned 18.

“I worked there until every last bit of the plant closed in 1998,” he said.

Kobus said he was sent to work in Chicago, then returned in 2002 as an employee at U.S. Steel's Clairton Works. He retired last year.

Kobus said his J&L collection is comprised largely of discarded items that he was able to salvage, and some pieces that he purchased.

Baraff said the Rivers of Steel exhibit contains unique items such as a letter to mill president William Larimer Jones written by Thomas Boyle in 1910.

“It's talking about when (Boyle) was a lad on the South Side, about being one of the young guys hired to help build that mill,” Baraff said. “It's an incredible piece. He wrote in it 1910, but he's talking about 1850 to 1853. It adds that voice, that human element to this.

“So it isn't just facts and figures all the way through. It's about the people.”

The exhibit features a logbook of accidents at the mill, including details about the explosion of Eliza Furnace No. 1 on Nov. 9, 1918, which killed 25 people and injured dozens more.

A payroll ledger from 1916 lists employees working as many as 24 hours a day at a rate of 22 cents per hour.

The Pittsburgh plant eventually spanned the South Side, Hazelwood, Soho, Greenfield and Oakland neighborhoods. J&L had a second location, in Aliquippa, built in 1904.

Ling-Temco-Vought Inc. purchased J&L in the 1960s and remained the owner until the plants closed in the 1980s and '90s.

Stacy Lee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or

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