Heading South on Interstate 15 towards Orem, UT, it’s hard to miss the massive, industrial-themed Harley-Davidson dealership, situated just across the street from where the colossal Geneva Steel Plant once stood. Much of the exterior material used to build the dealership was salvaged from the rubble of Geneva—one of Utah’s largest employers for decades—in an effort to preserve its memory. Since demolition in 2002, Geneva’s smokestacks no longer dominate the horizon, but its impact on Utah Valley’s fate remains profound.
In 1940, Orem had 2,914 inhabitants, most of whom lived on farms. Geneva Steel would drastically change Orem’s demographics within only a few years. As the United States’ involvement in World War II escalated, the US Federal government began sponsoring new steel mills to accelerate production. Orem was considered the perfect location, because not only was it far enough inland to be safe from foreign invasion, but it was also situated near deposits of coal and other natural resources essential for steel-making.
Columbia Steel constructed the plant and began operation in 1944, bringing thousands to the valley. By the end of the war, Orem’s population had more than doubled; the 1945 US Census reported a population of 8,351. The Great Depression had hit hard in Utah, and the prospect of over 4,000 new jobs at Geneva was a powerful beckoning call. One former Geneva worker, Ken Jolley, who was a young man at the time, recalls expanding his paper route to hundreds of people camped out in trailer homes, as there wasn’t enough permanent housing available to accommodate the dramatic influx of families to the valley.
Geneva’s operation continued long after the war, though it wouldn’t last forever. In 1946, U.S. Steel bought Geneva, and after 40 years, sold it to Utah investors. Many factors worked against Geneva—newer and more cost-effective technology was being used elsewhere, foreign competition was replacing American-made steel consumption, and heightened environmental awareness was lowering public approval of the plant. Eventually, Geneva was sold for the last time. Between 2002-2004, some of the equipment was shipped overseas to other steel mills, and the rest of the factory was demolished.
Today, all that physically remains of what was once an operation stretching over 1,750 acres is a motorcycle dealership using Geneva’s remains as its exterior. However, the impacts of Geneva’s steel production, both negative and positive, are still visible. Decades of air pollution and discharge of heavy metals into Utah Lake have been cause for scrutiny, and whether Geneva was detrimental to Utahns’ health has been a pivotal public debate. However, the thousands of people who migrated to Utah Valley and stayed there have made it what it is today. Orem’s rapid shift from agricultural to residential, as well as much of its economic success, is attributable to the plant—born out of wartime necessity and years of labor by thousands of hard-working individuals.