‘It’s a sad story’: An East Liverpool historian comments on the town’s downfall and its hopeful hazardous waste resurgence

Downtown East Liverpool, Ohio. Courtesy of East Liverpool Tourism Bureau.

“It’s a sad story, what happens to a place when you have a one-industry town, and hard times come.”

Tim Brooks is a historian based in East Liverpool, Ohio, and I interviewed him over the phone about the industrial past of his town and what it means when considering the hazardous waste incinerator just outside of town. The “one industry” Brooks refers to above is pottery. In the 1800s, an Englishman named Bennett arrived in East Liverpool, what primary sources of the time referred to as a “struggling town” on the West Virginia border, and started the town’s historic pottery industry. But when that stopped, the town was left with little work for its residents looking for a way out.

“Without the industry, there would’ve been no city,” Brooks said. “They called it a ‘struggling village,’ and it really was. I just can’t imagine there would’ve ever been much here had it not been for Mr. Bennett. There’s one thing I always show people down at the Thompson House. It’s an enlarged bird’s eye view map. This particular one is from 1886, and it shows just the downtown area of East Liverpool, nothing of the east end. But if you look around this picture, it’s basically what a bird might have seen had it flown over at that time. We know that this thing is incredibly accurate because we have photographs of a lot of the buildings that are on the map. They’re identical to what the photos show. Everywhere you looked in the downtown area, you were never more than two blocks away from a pottery.”

Eventually, the pottery industry started drying up. Townsfolk either lost their jobs to more talented, younger workers, or to machines. About 25 years ago, it was announced that Heritage Thermal Services was going to be putting a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool. While some were happy at the new job opportunities, some saw a potential pollutant.

“It depends on who you talked to,” Brooks said. “There was always a group of people very strongly opposed to it. And yet, I know there were a lot of businesspeople — I was a little young at the time to have a voice — but there were a lot of businesspeople in the chamber of commerce who I remember talking about it, like, ‘Well, the potteries aren’t coming back. We need something.’ It really is a problem here. Almost no one’s children stay here. There’s really not much reason to. My daughter left and lives up in Stow now. Economically, there’s not much to anchor people to the area. With the automation that the potteries have had, for the most part, it’s not a real highly skilled profession, which it probably was more so back in the 1800s. Now, everything’s done by machines. It’s just teaching the people the minimal skills to do it.”

“The city was desperate for a business that would pay respectable wages. I know a lot of people who have been and still are employed there, and they do rather well, better than the people who work in the remaining potteries.”

On that front, Brooks said the town hasn’t made much progress.

“The people who were against it 25 years ago are still against it today,” Brooks said. “Not a lot of people are like, ‘Gee, I’m sure glad this incinerator is here!’ But not many are joining the other side either.”

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