The Rust Belt

The Industrial Heartland of the United States

Welder working in steel manufacturing facility
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

The term “Rust Belt” refers to what once served as the hub of American Industry. Located in the Great Lakes region, the Rust Belt covers much of the American Midwest (map). Also known as the “Industrial Heartland of North America”, the Great Lakes and nearby Appalachia were utilized for transportation and natural resources. This combination enabled the thriving coal and steel industries. Today, the landscape is characterized by the presence of old factory towns and post-industrial skylines.

At the root of this 19th-century industrial explosion is an abundance of natural resources. The mid-Atlantic region is endowed with coal and iron ore reserves. Coal and iron ore are used to produce steel, and corresponding industries were able to grow through the availability of these commodities.

Midwestern America has the water and transportation resources necessary for production and shipment. Factories and plants for coal, steel, automobiles, automotive parts, and weapons dominated the industrial landscape of the Rust Belt.

Between 1890 and 1930, migrants from Europe and the American South came to the region in search of work. During the World War II era, the economy was fueled by a robust manufacturing sector and a high demand for steel.

By the 1960s and 1970s, increased globalization and competition from overseas factories caused the dissolution of this industrial center. The designation “Rust Belt” originated at this time because of the deterioration of the industrial region.

States primarily associated with the Rust Belt include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Bordering lands include parts of Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ontario, Canada. Some major industrial cities of the Rust Belt include Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago’s proximity to the American West, the Mississippi River, and Lake Michigan enabled a steady flow of people, manufactured goods, and natural resources through the city. By the 20th century, it became the transportation center of Illinois. Chicago’s earliest industrial specialties were lumber, cattle, and wheat.

Built in 1848, The Illinois and Michigan Canal was the primary connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, and an asset to Chicagoan commerce. With its extensive rail network, Chicago became one of the largest railroad centers in North America and is the manufacturing center for freight and passenger railroad cars.

The city is the hub of Amtrak and is directly connected by rail to Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, and the Gulf Coast. The state of Illinois remains a great producer of meat and grain, as well as iron and steel.

Baltimore, Maryland

On the eastern shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, roughly 35 miles south of the Mason Dixon Line lies Baltimore. The rivers and inlets of Chesapeake Bay endow Maryland one of the longest waterfronts of all the states.

As a result, Maryland is a leader in the production of metals and transportation equipment, primarily ships. Between the early 1900s and the 1970s, much of Baltimore’s young populace sought factory jobs at the local General Motors and Bethlehem Steel plants.

Today, Baltimore is one of the nation’s largest ports and receives the second greatest amount of foreign tonnage. Despite Baltimore’s location east of Appalachia and the Industrial Heartland, its proximity to water and the resources of Pennsylvania and Virginia created an atmosphere in which large industries could thrive.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh experienced its industrial awakening during the Civil War. Factories began producing weapons, and the demand for steel grew. In 1875, Andrew Carnegie built the first Pittsburgh steel mills. Steel production created demand for coal, an industry that succeeded similarly.

The city was also a major player in the World War II effort when it produced nearly one hundred million tons of steel. Located on the western edge of Appalachia, coal resources were readily available to Pittsburgh, making steel an ideal economic venture. When the demand for this resource collapsed during the 1970s and 1980s, Pittsburgh’s population fell dramatically.

Buffalo, New York

Located on the eastern shores of Lake Erie, the City of Buffalo expanded greatly during the 1800s. The construction of the Erie Canal facilitated travel from the east, and heavy traffic sparked the development of the Buffalo Harbor on Lake Erie. Trade and transportation through Lake Erie and Lake Ontario poised Buffalo as the “Gateway to the West”.

Wheat and grain produced in the Midwest were processed at what became the largest grain port in the world. Thousands in Buffalo were employed by the grain and steel industries; notably Bethlehem Steel, the city’s major 20th-century steel producer. As a significant port for trade, Buffalo was also one of the country’s largest railroad centers.

Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland was a key American industrial center during the late 19th century. Built near large coal and iron ore deposits, the city was home to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in the 1860s. Meanwhile, steel became an industrial staple that contributed to Cleveland’s flourishing economy.

Rockefeller’s oil refining was reliant on the steel production taking place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cleveland became a transportation hub, serving as the half-point between the natural resources from the west, and the mills and factories of the east.

Following the 1860s, railroads were the primary method of transport through the city. The Cuyahoga River, the Ohio and Erie Canal, and nearby Lake Erie also provided Cleveland accessible water resources and transportation throughout the Midwest.

Detroit, Michigan

As the epicenter of Michigan’s motor vehicle and parts production industry, Detroit once housed many wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs. The post World War II automobile demands led to the city’s rapid expansion, and the metro area became home to General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

The increase in demand for automobile production labor led to a population boom. When parts production moved to the Sun Belt and overseas, residents went with. Smaller cities in Michigan such as Flint and Lansing experienced a similar fate.

Located along the Detroit River between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, Detroit’s successes were aided by resource accessibility and the draw of promising employment opportunities.


Albeit “rusty” reminders of what they once were, Rust Belt cities remain today as centers of American commerce. Their rich economic and industrial histories equipped them with the memory of a great deal of diversity and talent, and they are of American social and cultural significance.

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Mahaney, Erin. "The Rust Belt." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Mahaney, Erin. (2021, February 16). The Rust Belt. Retrieved from Mahaney, Erin. "The Rust Belt." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).