For more than a mile, the rusted metal buildings sprawl along the banks of the Mahoning River like the bleaching bones of some recently extinct dinosaur. Twelve soaring stacks that once belched acrid smoke now provide rest stops for pigeons. Vast railroad yards lie barren except for rain-soaked piles of unused coal.

The heavy gates stand open, the shuttered guard house untended - evidence that the preducts once zealousty guarded inside the Campbell words of the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. are now gone. Or, as George E. Limberty would say, "stolen."

Limberty is one of 4,100 steelworkers who lost their jobs when the Lykes Corp. abruptly shut down the Campbell works in September 1977. He is also one of a band of workers, ministers, business executives, radical activists and visionaries who fought for nearly two years to reopen the mill.

That dream, a bold scheme for worker and community ownership, is now fading fast, scorned by big business and evaded by big government. For the first time in his life Limberty is bitter, almost drained of energy and hope. "We're dead and buried and they don't want to see us," he says.

At 49, Limberty is still hard muscled, anxious to return to steelmaking. Or any other productive work. His savings are down to pennies, his bills piling up. His son George, 26, also lost his job at the Campbell works and is trying to make ends meet for his wife and four children on welfare and foods stamps.

The elder Limberty once thrilled at the challenge of his $20,000-a-year job coordinating the intricate flow of production between the steel pits and rolling mills. Today he is struggling to make house payments and meet his wife's cancer treatment bills by doing yardwork.

Limberty feels like a pawn in conglomerate machinations that have little to do with making good steel. He has contempt for a president and government that will give $5 billion to Egypt and Israel in the name of Mideast peace "but won't guarantee a loan to save the jobs of Americans."

The effect of the Campbell works closing on the Limberty family is not an isolated drama, but a scene repeated hundreds of times in the industrial cities of the East and Midwest. The Youngstowns of America are being shaken repeatedly by the forces of a world economy in which the United States is no longer assured dominance.

Hardest hit are the older industrial plants of the North, particularly those like Youngstown Sheet & Tube that were complacent about modernization during the years of easy American supremacy.

In the past, U.S. plant closing generally were accepted as part of and impersonal economic process in which inefficient enterprises are terminated as capital seeks its highest use. Economists offer comfort with the notion that America is in transition to a service economy in which new kinds of jobs will fill industrial vacuums. And American mobility, it is said, smooths the path for the Youngstown steelworker to new opportunities in Houston or Phoenix.

The workers of Youngstown heard those reassurances and weren't satisfied. They fought back with their own alternatives - and they lost. But the personal tragedies may have this redeeming value: Youngstown's despair and militant reaction pose some crucial political questions for the future. Washington so far has regarded these lightly or not at all. But as more industrial cities, more old factories confront a similar fate, the Youngstown questions will be raised again, perhaps more widely.

Do local communities and loyal workers have a right to know what's happening to them? Several states already have enacted legislation to regulate the closing of major plants; more state laws will surely follow. A coalition of labor leaders wants national legeslation to require one-year advance notice of corporate plans to discontinue factories, to compel companies to provide public justification for their investment decisions, to pay indemnities to workers and communities for economic dislocations.

Is there a large-scale future for worker-community ownership as an alternative to conglomerate priorities? Washington has invested in small experiments in employe ownership that are quite successful, but it balked at the Youngstown proposal for $430 million. Too big and too risky for the government. The idea, however, will be heard from again.

Does it make sense to subsidize, through federal tax laws, the construction of factories in new location instead of providing incentives to rebuild and modernize old ones? This is the so-called "greenfield" versus "brownfeild" argument, and it has immediate relevance for industries like steel that are building plants in new locations even as they close down the old ones in places like Youngstown.

The view from the White House and from business economists is that the Campbell works shutdown has been overrated as a calamity. That view is supported by the statistics of macroeconomics: The Youngstown unemployment benefits averaging $800 a month for the first year.

But statistics do not adequately describe the effect of plant shutdowns on their communities. What in fact is occurring in Youngstown is a sharp and painful shredding of ist social and economic fabric.

The 22-mile ribbon of mlls which winds through the Mahoning Valley, bisecting Youngstown, has since the turn of the century been an American Ruhr. Its heart is in a collection of tightly knit communities and neighborhoods which border the mills in such town as Campbell , Struthers, Warren, Poland, Lowellville and Girard City. Many of the families live in ethnic enclaves with several generations of relatives within walking distance. The steelworkers who live here are prosperous, the cream of the working class, with well-tended homes, two cars in the garage and a boat for fishing the lakes of northern Ohio. There is immense neighborhood pride; the Limbertys may be out of work but their house is freshly painted, their grass closely clipped, and their carefully cultivated pink azaleas radiant. In many of these families, several generations of rising affluence have been built on jobs at Youngstown Sheet & Tube. Now, that life is being disrupted or threatened in a myriad of ways.

John McMichol, a 41-year-old former Campbell steelworker, doesn't show up in the unemployment statistics at all. He is working part-time on the midnight shift, stocking shelves at a Kroger grocery for $3.40 an hour and spending his days trying to guarantee his food supply with a 60-by-80-foot garden. Once, he and the young schoolteacher who is his second wife had combined incomes of nearly $30,000 a year. They vacationed in Canada, Boston and the Great Smokies, were buying a boat and truck, and planning to buy a home in a spacious semirural setting. "No more of that foolishness," scoffs McNichol. When the plant closed, he suffered a temporary loss of most of his hair from a nervous disorder. He and his wife have gone through $10,000 in savings. He has not paid child support payments to his former wife in 1 11/2 years.

Walter (Beck) Zaluski doesn't show up in the unemployment statistics either. After 33 years in the mill, he was forced - along with 1,200 other Campbell workers - to take early retiremenmt. But at age 51, Zuluski wasn't ready to quit work or take a cut in income from $23,000 a year to a $700 monthly pension. "What can you do at 51?" he asks. "What do I have to look forward to? We can't afford to go to a movie or take a trip. No one will hire me. I go to the spa in the morning and work out. And then I spend the rest of the day wondering what to do."

Down the road in Lowellville, Leon (Skip) Slaven, 42, and his wife, Donna, are hanging on with supplementary unemployment benefits and her earnings from a part-time secretarial job, but are going heavily in debt to relatives to keep their home. Donna's brother lost his job in the shutdown of a grocery store. Her 26-year-old nephew, another laid-off Campbell worker, canceled a long-planned marriage. The Slavens' best friend divorced his wife and has gone to Texas to look for work. "You feel the whole area is doomed somehow," says Donna Slaven. "If this can happen to us, there is not a secure union job in the country."

Merchants directly dependent on the laid-off workers are also begining to hurt now that the cushion of unemployment benefits has started running out. After 15 years building his pizza shop business near the plant gate in Struthers, Guy Carlucci says he may have to close. Charles McConnell, operator of a motorcycle repair shop, is short of customers "because those guys can no longer afford to mess around with $5,000 bikes." And Fred A. Furr, owner of the Walton Inn across from the steelworkers union hall in Struthers, says he can't get his hard-drinking, unemployed customers to clear out at the 2 a.m. closing time.

Out of boredom and despair, young George Limberty says he "hasn't missed a night" at the Struthers bars. At 26 he feels trapped. He is studying refrigeration and air conditioning on a retraining grant but has already been told there are no anticipated job openings in the area. He's ready to strike out for the Southwest, but his wife Karen won't move. Three generations of her family live within four blocks of each other in their neighborhood. His parents don't want him to move either. "If George goes south," says his father, "there goes our youth and our future."

John McNichol is reluctant to have his wife give up her good teaching job so he can work in Chicago steel mills, and the Leon Slavens are loath to pull their teenage children out of the high school where they are happy, or give up the kind of middle-class home they would have great difficulty buying, starting over again. Each steelworker has tales of friends and relatives who went to Houston (where the locals scornfully call them "snowbirds") but returned, dismayed by high costs and low wages and homesick for the old neighborhoods.

If there is a common theme running through the conversations of these displaced steelworkers, it is a sense that they have lost control over their lives - that their fates are subject to the whims of distant corporate or government manipulators. Even the union is mistrusted, seen by McNichol as "just another big conglomerate."

In the workers' view, the decision to close the mill was made by officials of a dNew Orleans-based conglomerate, meeting in a Pittsburgh motel room, at the behest of New York bankers, who were refusing more credit to Youngstown Sheet & Tube at the same time they were increasing fivefold their loans to Japanese steelmakers. There was no advance warning and massive layoffs began four days later.

The workers believe the demise of their mill really began eight years earlier when Lykes Corporation, a shipbuilder with conglomerate ambitions, swallowed up the six times larger Youngstown Sheet & Tube in a merger, and then used its considerable assets to finance other conglomerate acquisitions rather than putting necessary capital into modernizing the steel plant. The final decision to shut down the steelmaking facility was made to justify still another corporate merger, this time combining the shaky fortunes of two overextended conglomerates, Lydes and Texas-based LTV, which owns Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. Two attorneys general, John Mitchell in 1969 and Griffin Bell in 1978, permitted these mergers, overruling their antitrust staffs, which predicted ruin for the steel company. Bell ignored a request from Youngstown union and city officials that approval at least be conditioned on continuance of the new conglomerate's other Youngstown plants.

There is another side to this story, of course. In the view of LTV executives, the merged steel companies will be stronger and more competitive, helping maintain other jobs. They say Youngstown Sheet & Tube was a victim not of conglomerate machinations but of modernized foreign competitors who dumped steel in U.S. markets, of excessive labor contracts, of an outmoded plant beyond redemption, of government restraints on price increases and costly antipollution requirements. But the common denominator is that outsiders decided the fate of people in the Mahoning Valley. They had little say in the matter.

Youngstown launched and inspired and unnovative movenent of local people to regain control of their own destinies. That effort has failed. The mill remains closed, probably forever. But the fresh ideas, grassroots solutions for problems ranging from urban decay and unemployment to industrial renewal and greater economic justice, may represent a political legacy to the country.

When the Campbell shutdown was announced, two old friends, Bishop James W. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown and Bishop John H. Burt of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, decided to do something about it. Under their leadership, several hundred ministers formed the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley and won support from their national denominations.

Economist Gar Alperovitz of the Washington-based Center for Economic Alternatives was hired to explore the feasibility of a worker-community takeover of the plant. Assisted by government grants, a plan was developed to form Community Steel Inc., a new company in which control would be shared by workers, the community and private shareholders. The coalition's studies showed that with great effort the plant could be modernized, could find markets and could eventually operate at a modest profit, providing jobs for 3,600 steelworkers. But the costs would be enormous: $430 million of investment over eight years, most of it in government-guaranteed loans from the Economic Development Administration.

As joint counsels for the coalition, Staughton Lynd, a controversial antiwar activist out of the '60s, worked side by side with Raymond Sawyer III, a corporate merger specialist from one of Cleveland's largest law firms. Lynd moved to Youngstown several years ago to concentrate on the problems of workers. Sawyer enjoys the good life in Shaker Heights. They are united in the belief that the salvation of northern industrial cities depends in part on a "brownfield" approach to modernizing industry.

The "brownfield" versus "greenfield" argument is not academic because U.S. Steel will undoubtedly close its two Youngstown plants, employing 4,600 workers, as well as others if it builds a proposed $3.5 billion "greenfield" super factory at Conneaut on the shores of Lake Erie, about 70 miles from Youngstown. Lynd and Sawyer stress that the government is not neutral in such decisions. When U.S. Steel builds its new plant, it will get multiple tax advantages: It gets to write off the shutdown of its Youngstown plant, deduct the cost of relocation, take investment tax credits on new equipment, take accelerated depreciation on new plant and equipment. Furthermore, building Conneaut will require millions in public funds for roads and public services.

If the coalition's economic rationale for reopening the Campbell Works is feasible, it is because of unique concession made by rank and file workers and endorsed by top union officials.

Respected steel economists estimated that labor costs would be reduced 21 percent, from $55 to $43 a ton, by the willingness of workers to forfeit their present seniority in figuring pension and vacation benefits, accept stock in the new company instead of incentive payments and sharply reduce plant manning levels which had been bargained into local contracts over many years. If other experiences with worker ownership are valid, additional productivity gains would come from the incentives of worker ownership.

The idea of workers taking company stock to help create new industrial capacity seemed to the coalition leaders an ingenious way to confront a variety of problems plaguing American industry and its workers - the hard limits to what workers cand get in a wage package if their companies are going to compete and make a profit, -the unproductivity built into many labor-management contracts, the difficulty of American industry in attracting new capital.

But the idea of worker-community ownership also challenges virtually every vested interest, and opposition to the Youngstown plan came from many quarters - national union leaders who fear a blurring of lines in collective bargaining, corporate excutives who fear controls on corporate behaviour, liberals who worry about decreased emphasis on welfare state programs, conservatives disturbed by the notion of more equitable distribution of capital.

Top executives of U.S. Steel and Republic Steel called the proposed venture "communistic" and lobbied the Carter administration against supporting the coalition plan. In Youngstown, the attitude of the business community was described by a local business leader as amusement, followed by fear the proposal would get funded, then relief that it had failed. But even the businessmen realized that the coalition addressed a powerlessness which also afflicts them. As one businessman put it; "we are a branch town that has lost control of its destiny." William Sullivan, who spearheads one of the city's fragmented industrial devesopment efforts, said "I don't like the coalition's New Left ideas, but they stepped into a vacuum with some thinking."

Art Young, president of the Mahoning National Bank, waves all the conservative shibboleths about the freedom of capital, but even he is deeply troubled by the arbitrary power of the conglomerates. When the ownership of Sheet & Tube was transfered to New Orleans, he said, "what we lost was community participation and pride."

The idea of worker-community ownerships is not that unique and the companies involved with it operate little differently under their new ownership than under traditional corporate management. Workers still work and managers still manage. Smaller profit margins are often deemed acceptable but profits still must be made. Employe stock ownership, as a means of creating new capital and wealth, is an idea enthusiastically advanced by Sen. Russill Long, certainly no one's idea of a socialist. "Community ownership is capitalism at its best," says the Rev, Ed Stanton, staff director of the Youngstown coalition.

The coalition's plan collapsed a few weeks ago when the Commerce Department, in a decision endorsed by President Carter, turned down the $245 million loan guarantee needed to make Mommunity Steel Inc. a reality. Whith House aides said they doubted the coalition's estimates of its ability to raise needed equity, find sufficient markets, achieve modernization at reaonable costs, or achieve labor productivity gains. In addition, the White House decided that it was poor public policy to commit to one project almost one-half of the $600 million in EDA loans targeted for revitalization of the steel industry. Bishops Malone and Burt condemmed the government's decision as "appalling insensitivity to . . . human suffering." Youngstown Mayor Philip Richley says the government wouldn't risk a meaningful response. The workers vow revenge on Jimmy Carter at the polls.

Whatever the merits and weaknesses of the Youngstown coalition plan, there was essentially a failure of nerve to undertake a truly large-scale demonstration of this concept for urban industrial renewal. There are other worker-community owned plants supported by government loans, but this was a proposal to play in the world economic league. Success would have greatly embarrassed the big U.S. steel companies. The high visibility of the project would have exposed the Carter administration to conservative criticism for making the loan, and scorn if Community Steel failed. Nervous liberals worried that the idea was too important to risk on the folks in Youngstown.

So now the timid government and business leaders are coming forward with their own more modest, less risky plans. The government is offering $1 million to finance small industrial ventures and more money for still another study. Jones & Laughlin Steel has just announced it will try to develop an industrial park within the Campbell Works, and a company official confides they are rushing this plan forward "before more crazy groups" come out with new plans to reopen the mill.

Many business leaders believe the answer for Youngstown and other industrial cities is diversification, not dependence upon big steel. But, for premier industrial workers, diversification is a code word for something ugly, according to Staughton Lynd. "What it really means is $4-an-hour jobs, not $8."

The coalition leaders are now seeking to build a grass roots political movement within northern steel towns. There is a lot of talk among local union leaders about chaining themselves to machines to prevent their removal from the closed plants. About a march on Washington, a national steel sitdown strike, a return to more militant tactics of the 1930s.

But America's industrial workers today, by and large, are rather conservative, stable members of the middle class. Worker unity, at a time of relative prosperity, seems like an elusive dream. At a meeting to discuss the Youngstown crisis, a worker and union leader from Warren, 10 miles from Youngstown, proclaimed that, far from being worried about plant shutdowns, he was concerned about an overload of work.

George Limberty says the coalition effort was "a last hurrah to save me and my son" but in the next breath this 49-year-old man is scheming to get into a retraining program for yet another new career in American industry. His wife, despite the weakening effects of her illness and treatments, worked as a volunteer in the coalition office from the day it opened until it closed.

"I worry over George with those four young kids," she said. "We should be able to help the kids. There are better times coming, I hope." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post; Picture 2, George E. Limberty and his son, George H. Limberty; Picture 3, John Davis, an unemployed steelworker; Picture 4, Nick Noviello, whose A & A department store has been affected by the shutdowns; Picture 5, Campbell Works' idle open hearth shop. Photos by Fred Sweets - The Washington Post