by Leanne Turner
Located in northern Weathersfield Township, home of the Mahoning Valley's first settlement (see: Salt Springs Tract), Niles was platted by James Heaton. Originally called "Heaton's Furnace", then Nilestown, Niles is named for a Baltimore newspaper, The Niles Register. (A 'protectionist paper', The Niles Register was considered one of the best voices or press organs in America at the time.)
The Mahoning River is central to Niles' downtown business and manufacturing district. Industry was quick to develop, here, starting with a gristmill, then the sawmill, a forge and, in 1812, the first iron blast furnace. (Heaton named his blast furnace "Maria" for his daughter. The tradition of naming blast furnaces for daughters was carried out throughout the valley. Heaton's competitor built an improved steel furnace, named "Elizabeth", that put "Maria" out of business.) The forge was important to early settlers. It made 'pig iron' into bars for farmers who remolded them in their own furnaces. Pioneers had to be self-sufficient - there was no hardware store. In 1809, Ohio's first iron bar was made at the blooming forge, "Maria Furnace."
By 1873, Niles boasted two blast furnaces, four rolling mills, nail works, foundry, boiler works and a brickyard; by 1891, Bostwick Steel Co. had been founded. The resources of Weathersfield Township offered Niles an advantage.
Weathersfield Township is blessed with great deposits of minerals, clay and sand. From the early days, salt was the draw to this area. Clay attracted attention of potters and soon there was a flourishing pottery business that made glazed earthenware called 'Salt Springs Pottery.' Coal was discovered and the valley's first coal mine was opened in Mineral Ridge at Coal Run, part of a farm owned by Michael Ohl (whose settlement named Ohltown is now under Meander Reservoir.) 'Fire clay' used for bricks was discovered at a Salt Springs Road farm. Along with the salt springs, other 'medicinal waters' were discovered: magnesia, sulphur and lithia. Dr. Paine of Salt Springs Road sold his 'water' and operated a health resort that later became a sanatorium. Gold was discovered in 1908 - and was later revealed to be iron-pyrite (fool's gold), much to the consternation of speculators. With the exception of fool's gold, the natural resources of this township were a great benefit to the settlers who had come to the Western Reserve to make it their home.
By 1900, steel production replaced iron. Niles continued to enjoy prosperity and growth. By 1930, half of the population was foreign-born or first generation.
Education was a priority for early settlers and immigrants - even though it was not compulsory. In 1834, the first public school building, a white frame structure, was built. This school was attended by a future president: William McKinley. (His memorial is on the site of the schoolhouse. McKinley's father bought one of Heaton's first lots, #20, the site of the McKinley Federal Building.) Several private schools were opened also, including one that prepared men who wanted to go to Allegheny College. Interestingly, Niles' teachers lived in the homes of their students and were given part of the annual salary in iron bar. (This practice was abolished in the late 1800's.)
The growth of industry continued at a dizzying pace. In 1938, James Ward became enamored of the world-famous "Russia Iron" and sent an expert to Russia to learn about it. His goal was to produce it in Niles where he constructed the "Russia Mill". However, experiments with local ore failed. The site of the Russia Mill was nicknamed "Russia Field" or "Little Russia."
Other natural substances found in Weathersfield Township, white sand and silica, were perfect for yet another product: glass. In 1910, the Fostoria Glass Co. was built in Niles; GE acquired it in 1911. This plant was one of the three or four U.S. concerns that could manufacture incandescent lamps. Originally, these bulbs were hand blown.
The 'fire clay' found in Weathersfield Township was used by Niles Fire Brick, which was established in 1872 by John Thomas, a brick maker from Wales. The fire-resistant bricks were used to line various furnaces and blooming mills. In 1930, Niles Fire Brick's #1 Plant closed because it was unable to keep up with increased demands; #2 Plant was closed in 1969.
A list of plants located in Niles during the industrial boom period would include (and not be limited to): Stanley Works, Ohio Galvanizing Co., Stevens Metal, Republic Steel, Niles Forge Works, Niles Iron Works, Niles Car & Mfg Co., Grasselle Chemical Co., Empire & Thomas Plants of Brier Steel, DeForest Sheet & Tin Plate Co., Mahoning Valley Steel.... An interesting job notice from 1920 reads: "Girls wanted to learn 'decaleomania' work, Tritt China Co., Niles; Wage: $1.75 per day."
In September of 1969, Niles became home to Eastwood Mall -- considered by some to be the most beautiful mall of its time. This marked a shift toward retail business. Then, in the 1980's Niles began the transition from large, heavy industrial mills toward "light manufacturing." (Light manufacturing or light industry is "clean" and much smaller than the old smokestack industries of the "steel age.") For example, in 1991, Dynasol Plastics built a plant that employs 300 people. Some industry has stayed in Niles, including GE. Others, who have stayed or moved here, include: Sharon Tube, Warren Screw, Niles Expanded Metal, and some "specialty steel" shops. To round out this list of changes, in 1999 Niles added a ball field and became the home of the "Scrappers" baseball team.
Entering Niles from the two main roads (Rts. 46 and 169), one sees tree-lined streets with single-family homes. Near to the downtown and major industrial areas, the houses are reminiscent of those in other Mahoning Valley mill towns, the "mill" houses that were built in the era of industrial growth to give the workers an affordable home. On Robbins Avenue, the houses are more elegant and the wide street goes uphill to McKinley Heights and Route 422, Howland and Vienna Townships.
The downtown business district is dominated by a large structure: the McKinley Presidential Memorial. Soon, Niles will offer another McKinley attraction: the "birth house," a replica of the home in which William McKinley was born. On the corners adjacent to the memorial are taller buildings that house banks. Along the streets and on the corners are benches and grassy areas.
Across the river, the historic area continues with the Thomas House. Adjacent to it is a park; in fact, there are parks throughout Niles' neighborhoods. As yet, none of the parks connects to the Mahoning River or Mosquito Creek - which also runs through Niles and joins the Mahoning River just off Robbins Avenue. But, there is a riparian zone along the creek and the river. Even in this heavily industrialized town, there are homeowners whose property is on the river.
Meander Creek also runs through Weathersfield Township near Niles. In fact, Niles is building a middle school near the confluence of the Mahoning River and Meander Creek.
There are Brownfields here and Niles is in the process of assessing potential acquisitions. The goal is to convert the Brownfields into small industrial parks. Currently, there are potential customers waiting to come to Niles - and take advantage of its superior utility rates! (Niles electrical rates are 34% lower than other areas in the Mahoning Valley.) Niles uses the CIC and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber for assistance in generating business and economic development.
There are plans to increase tourism. To help Valley residents and visitors become familiar with the history of this community, Niles plans to add "Trolleyville" tours. Also, there are plans to complete the bike path to Canfield (to the south) and to tie the bike path to the Western Reserve Greenway (to the north.) One day, the path will feature a staging area, with bike racks, parking and other amenities. Because the river runs through the town, the idea of a clean Mahoning River is exciting because of the possibility for recreational activity like fishing and boating.
About Niles, Mayor Infante says, "We'll try 'anything' progressive that will put us on the map. Yet, we want to have that pleasant 'old town' feeling about the place, with everything here - the history, the industry, the river."