The rumors that trouble was brewing began drifting up from the row of ancient steel mills that line the Ohio River here as much as two years ago.

"First," said William Crabbe, Steubenville's normally buoyant mayor, "we heard they were cracking down on the work rules because of the bad profit situation. Then there were some management layoffs that nobody bothered to announce. And now with Youngstown, the dam on the rumor mill has broken."

The metaphors may be a bit tangled, but nobody along the Ohio, Monongahela or Mahoning rivers, the twisting grimy waterways that define the heart of the northeastern steel-making region, has any doubt these days about what the major was trying to say.

From East Chicago, Ind., to Buffalo, N.Y., the news last week that the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. had begun dismissing 5,000 employees sent shudders of alarm through the old steel towns.

Assurances from industry officials that timely federal tax and tariff relief and an easing of environmental restrictions could stave off more closings have not stopped the uneasiness from spreading here and elsewhere that the worst is yet to come.

That concern was not eased when officials representing 30 steelmaking communities, including Steubenville, met two weeks ago in Washington and heard warnings that several steel companies were in serious financial trouble.

"The top name on the list was the Alan Wood Steel Co.," Crabbe recalled. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, the nation's ninth-largest steel manufacturer and the owner of four plants employing 5,200 workers here, was No. 2, said Crabbe.

Alan Wood, which employed about 3,000 steelworkers in its Conshohocken, Pa., plant just outside Philadelphia, went out of business several days after the meeting.

"I guess that makes us No. 1 on the hit parade now," Crabbe said.

Wheeling-Pittsburg's shaky financial position was underscored in July when the Pittsburgh-based firm announced it had lost $16 million in the first six months of this year and was not paying any stockholder dividends this year.

The company, which employs 16,000 at nine plants in Ohio Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said at the time that it would be taking unspecified cost-cutting measures to try and shave several million dollars from its operating costs.

Since then, steelmaking towns where Wheeling-Pittsburg maintains its plants have been holding their breath. "You wake up and you're tight as a spring until you see what the headline is in the paper each morning," said Thomas P. Dalfonso, mayor of Monessen, Pa., a city of 15,000 south of Pittsburgh where Wheeling-Pittsburg has a plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the steelmaker was violating federal clean water regulations at its Monessen plant and earlier this year began fining the firm $25,000 each day. EPA granted Wheeling-Pittsburgh a 90-day moratorium on the fines several weeks ago after the total reached $42 million, according to a company spokesman.

"We have a Sunday Club with 85 guys who go to Steeler games during the season," said Dalfonso, explaining the effect of the uncertainly on his community.

The club's one annual out-of-town road trip - to New York this year to watch the Steelers play the Jets in November - is generally sold out by this time, Dalfonso said.

"But this year," said the mayor, "we can't find 45 people who are willing to put up the $100 for the trip. Nobody wants to pay the money to watch a football game on Sunday when they don't know if they'll come back here and not have a job on Monday."

Wheeling-Pittsburgh declines to reveal whether its cost-cutting program will mean layoffs. According to Steubenville Mayor Crabbe, the company has already trimmed more than 100 management employees. A spokesman for the firm said it is assessing its employment situation on a week-by-week basis.

Ironically it is the presence here in Steubenville of Wheeling-Pittsburgh and the big Weirton Steel Co. plant that employs 12,500 persons just across the Ohio River in West Virginia that has given this area unusually stable employment in the past.

While much of the rest of the country has labored under double-digit unemployment during the recession of the last few years the jobless rate among Steubenville's 32,000 residents has never climbed over 4 per cent, according to Crabbe.

The city, which once boasted the biggest red light district between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, ripped out four square blocks recently for a massive downtown renewal project. Crabbe, leading a visitor through the area, proudly pointed out empty lots destined to become high-rise buildings.

The steel and chemical plants that line the river between here and Pittsburgh, 40 miles to the cast, make the Ohio River a busier waterway than the Panama Canal, Crabbe enthusiastically declared.

Behind the bare downtown lots here, Wheeling-Pittsburgh's plant looms, an aging collection of red-stained towers and furnances that emit a steady plume of smoke and fumes. In the same enthusiastic terms, Crabbe noted that Steubenville ranks near the top of the EPA's list of cities with the dirtiest air.

The concentration of steelmaking here, said the mayor, is greater than at Youngstown where the layoffs occurred. According to state figures, 81 percent of the work force in the area is involved in the manufacturing of steel or related primary metals.

"If those mills stop smoking and shut down," the mayor said, "then we're dead here."

In interviews last week several steel industry experts predicted that no matter what kind of federal relief the companies get there will be more shutdowns of older production facilities in the northeast.

"Population may be the straw that broke the camel's back," said Richard S. Thorn, a University of Pittsburgh economist and steel industry consultant. The real problem, Thorn said, is that the general lag in the national economy has lowered the steel industry's interest in spending money on older plants to meet environmental requirements. Instead, he said, major steel companies are shifting their interest to other nonsteel fields.

"There are likely to be more shutdowns," said Thorn. "As long as the demand is not there the best strategy is to get rid of uneconomic facilities."