Jeannette, PA: The rise and fall of the glass capital of the world

NOTE: A version of this story appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 27, 2018.


The former site of Jeannette Glass in November 2017, when the factories were being torn down after decades of standing deserted

JEANNETTE, Pennsylvania —

At one time, as much as 70 percent of the world’s glass was manufactured in a small city 30 miles outside Pittsburgh.

“There were two glass factories being built at the same time, side by side, in 1888. And as quickly as they built the factories, the city of Jeannette grew around it,” said John Howard, the founder of the Jeannette Historical Society.

Windows, tableware, bottles — glass products poured out of the seven glass factories operating in and around the city, and shipped all over the world. The early 1900s saw the city double in population, then triple.

Those who have remained in the city are facing a dwindling population, an opioid epidemic that has killed hundreds in the towns that (along with Jeannette) make up Westmoreland County, and empty storefronts along the once-bustling main street of Clay Avenue.

The opioid crisis

Data from the county coroner’s office shows that in 2017, Jeannette outstripped all of its neighbors in overdose deaths, despite its small population.

“Hempfield Township has 40 to 50 thousand people,” said Ken Bacha, the Westmoreland County coroner. “How can a city of nine thousand people have numbers that beat a township with 40 thousand people in it? If you go by per capita, Jeannette is off the charts.”

In 2002, Bacha took over the role of coroner from his father Leo, who served in the position for twenty-four years. In his entire career as a coroner, Leo saw five total heroin overdoses. In Bacha’s first year alone, he saw twelve.

“We’re probably going to end up in 2017 with 194 overdoses,” Bacha said. “Every year we’ve gone up and up. But the end of 2017, it started slacking off. We had a slow spell, and so far in 2018, we’re still a little behind our normal pace. Whether that’s an indication that things have turned around, or whether it’s too soon to tell, we don’t know.”

Sacred Heart Cemetery in Jeannette

Bacha helped found the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force, which brings together different segments of the community (including health care, law enforcement, and social workers) to battle on the front lines of the epidemic.

“One thing that also came out of this task force was getting Narcan into people’s hands,” said Bacha.

Narcan, known generically as naloxone, is an injectable medication that can reverse opioid overdose.

“We’re talking laypeople, police departments are carrying it,” he said. “I’m a volunteer firefighter in Greensburg, and we carry it. The people here in my office carry it, we have it hanging outside of our evidence room. I can’t imagine what our numbers would be if we didn’t have Narcan. I have my portable radio, I hear EMS dispatches, and the calls for overdoses are constant, all day every day.”

Of Jeannette’s shrinking population, residents who were 30-to-40 year olds accounted for the most overdose deaths. In the case of Jeannette, this might be due to a striking lack of young people: the 2010 census shows that infants through 30-year-olds only made up 35 percent of the population, and the most populated age bracket was 50 to 54 year olds at 8.6 percent.

The 2010 census saw the lowest population in the city since 1910, counting 9,654 residents. Howard anticipates that the 2020 census will find even fewer people have remained in the city.

Don and Janet Shirer, a couple who have lived in Jeannette all their lives, discuss the devastation the city has experienced

What lies ahead

In the city, one lone glass factory remains: Jeannette Specialty Glass, or JGS Oceana, which has been in glass production since 1904 and sits across the street from the Elliott Group’s main Jeannette hub. Christina Jansure, vice president of sales and marketing, credits the company’s longevity to its ability to roll with the punches of the 1980s.

“Whenever glass lighting had moved to China and overseas, we diversified and brought out the decorative glass sink line,” Jansure said. “We’ve just looked at different industries to see where borosilicate glass is needed, and we’ve kind of targeted those areas.”

“The competition from foreign countries was a big factor, and it really was what drove the factories out of business,” said Howard. “All of them all but one. That’s pretty much what hurt America, not just glass. And it’s still hurting us, obviously.”

But the business and political leaders of Jeannette seem determined to not let the city die along with its glass industry. Local manufacturers like the Elliott Group, which makes turbo-machinery and employs almost ten percent of Jeannette, are sticking around and even expanding. The land where Jeannette Glass once stood was recently purchased by the county, and thirty-five years after the factory closed its doors, the property is slated for industrial development.

Preserved glassware at the Jeannette Historical Society

Jeannette’s recently elected mayor Curtis Antoniak has said he feels “very confident” that a sale of the property from the county to the Elliott Group will be finalized, and Christianne Bash, a communications manager for the company, said that construction would begin as soon as ownership is transferred.

“The Jeannette Glass site is one of the remaining prioritized brownfield sites, and it’s been identified for redevelopment for the last 20 years,” said Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation.

The county purchased the site in a 2016 tax sale from former property owner, Abe Zion, who battled the city of Jeannette for decades in court over legal issues regarding the land. Zion purchased the Jeannette Glass site in 1983 after the factories there closed, and promised to develop it, but these promises never materialized.

“The Jeannette Glass site is one of the remaining prioritized brownfield sites, and it’s been identified for redevelopment for the last 20 years,” said Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation.

The Jeannette Glass site in February 2018

A brownfield site is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

Former glassworker and union vice president Joe Carle talks about the tumultuous events that led to Jeannette Glass closing and standing empty for decades

“The property owner did some remediation on the site around 2013 or 2014,” Rigone said. “Quite frankly, they did the bare minimum.”

Rigone says that when the county entered the site, it was contaminated with asbestos and required a considerable clean-up effort.

“Our vision for the site is to get it back into a [property] that is being marketed for light industrial type use,” he said.

The Jeannette Glass site in March 2018

In the wake of the sale, Jeannette’s recently elected mayor Curtis Antoniak remains cautiously hopeful about the future of Jeannette.

“Unfortunately, with Jeannette Glass … I always say things serve their purpose, and it’s sad to see them leave,” said Mr. Antoniak. “But in the city, we have the Elliott Company doing well, and OMNOVA Solutions, they’re doing well. And there’s going to be a lot of development going on in that area where Jeannette Glass was.

“We won’t be like we were before, but we’re going to come back.”

Even those in the medical marijuana industry have seen the city’s potential. Cannabis producer Hippocratic Growth LLC, a company that runs a dispensary out of Maryland, is hoping to turn a vacant warehouse property in the city into another dispensary.

“Jeannette is a town that industry abandoned when the glass trade left,” said Ashley Colen, Hippocratic Growth’s CEO. “We want to make a lasting positive impact on a community that will truly benefit from our dedication to not only cannabis, but the health, safety and welfare of Pennsylvania’s population.”

No one believes Jeannette will return to its glory days. But there is hope.

“We died out as a glass town, many moons ago,” said Diana Reitz, who heads Jeannette’s community development department. “We don’t want to lose that heritage, we don’t want to lose what the history of all that is. We keep that in the back of our minds, that we manufactured glassware all over the place, we were number one, and that’s why everyone came here initially.

“But where do we want to go? Where is the country going?”

Clay Avenue, the main street of the city

Reitz pointed to the nearby city of Pittsburgh, once known for its steel mills, which has been revitalized in recent years, due in part to a blossoming tech sector.

“I hope ten years down the road I’m still living here and I can say, ‘Wow. Look how far Jeannette’s come,’” Ms. Reitz said. “That’s what I want to see.”

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