City of Prayer: Clairton’s residents persevere amid pollution and violence

A tugboat passes U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works early in the morning of Sept. 9, 2021. Originally constructed in 1901, the Clairton Coke Works is the largest coke-producing facility in the United States.

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Welcome to Clairton, the City of Prayer.

Steel once promised vitality, growth and a sense of national import to this community along the Monongahela River, 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. And for as long as industry could provide, Clairton thrived. It was at the heart of our region’s defining steel industry and is home to America’s largest coke-producing facility — the Clairton Coke Works.

The shift change whistle used to send thousands of workers flooding into the streets. Musical icons once performed at clubs along State Street. The city had movie theaters and grocery stores. Now, there are none.

Today, Clairton’s main thoroughfares lay idle and crumbling. Closed storefronts and broken streetlights frame the tall white plumes rising from the coke works. It’s quiet, mostly, save for the drone of trucks and trains and the intermittent whine of an industrial siren in the distance. 

The Clairton marching band marches along Miller Avenue toward the football stadium and the first home game of the season on Sept. 3, 2021.
The Clairton marching band marches along Miller Avenue toward the football stadium and the first home game of the season on Sept. 3, 2021.

A microcosm of the broader Rust Belt, Clairton represents a portrait of the varied impacts of steel’s decline.

Since its heyday in the mid-1950s, Clairton’s population has slumped from over 19,000 to just over 6,000. Today, the coke works employs about 1,400 workers, many of whom don’t live in Clairton.

To outsiders, Clairton is characterized by news clips headlining environmental concerns about pollution, reports on late-night shootings and features on the football season for the 1A powerhouse Clairton Bears. 

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