Its earthen floor embedded with chunks of urban space-junk – baseball-sized slag lumps, castaway bolts and tubes, the industrial detritus that mill hands once hewed – one could be forgiven for dismissing the site of the Carrie Furnace as one of merely archaeological interest, even just 20 years after its closing. If, that is, one were to approach it with the wrong mindset – and from afar.
Look closer, and you might see former welder Chuck Edwards’ chest swell gazing up at the towering blast-furnace chimney, looking for all the world like this born-and-bred Mon Valley-ite might shed his first-ever tear. Or you might hear Jim Kapusta describe his time in an alien-like protective suit, steering molten iron in the casting room – his sweat steaming, blistering its own skin – as the best years of his life. And on this summer’s Rivers of Steel Hard Hat Tours of the Carrie Furnace, operated on a set schedule of Saturdays through September, that’s just what you’re likely to find.
For August Carlino, president of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – the organization which presides over the Carrie Furnace site amongst its industrial-history operations around the seven counties of Southwestern PA – the old ironworks isn’t just interesting, it’s vital to national history. Its innovations in blast-furnace technology can be said, with little hyperbole, to be one of the industrial revelations that built America as we know it. The National Park Service agrees: After analysis by NPS historians, the Service last year designated the Carrie site – including the site of the famed Battle of Homestead, across the river at the old Pumphouse in what is now the Homestead Waterfront – as a National Historic Landmark, a designation given to less than 2500 sites nationwide. And if Rivers of Steel gets its way, it won’t be long before the site joins the elite few locations designated by their historic importance as National Parks, operated by the Service itself.
“Landmarks can be turned into National Parks by an act of Congress,” says Carlino, “and that’s what this [National Historic Landmark] status has done – it shows we’ve passed the tests of significance and importance, which helps clear any legislative hurdles.”
Another point of signficance for the site is the economic impact which the National Park Service survey, based on a 1991 projection, estimates to be $25 million annually, including the creation of 400 jobs.
Hurdles are something that Rivers of Steel knows well. Since the day the U.S. Steel Homestead Works closed, and the abandonment of the Carrie Furnace, until the day that Allegheny County purchased the site in 2005, the site was threatened with demolition.
“These [closings] had always been cyclical in the past,” says Carlino, “but what was apparent when the site closed in 1986 was that, unlike previous times, this was permanent. Not only was it a permanent loss of jobs, and the question of what would happen to the region, but it was apparent to certain people with the vision – Pittsburgh History & Landmarks, the Allegheny Conference, some community groups – that a very significant part of the region’s history was going to be lost if there wasn’t an effort to save a piece of a mill.”
The late Senator John Heinz was one of those visionaries: Soon after the closing, Heinz slipped an amendment into a bill to authorize the National Park Service to begin researching the Works’ place in history. But even as the Service’s survey began describing a site of rich regional and national historical importance, the land’s new owners – the Park Corporation – remained reluctant to participate.
“Up until the day that Dan Onorato and Allegheny County made the gutsy move to buy [the site], there was a demolition permit issued [for the Furnace],” says Carlino.
In the case of Carrie Furnace and the steel-industry legacy, preservation wasn’t merely a matter of land or modernization. Ron Baraff is Rivers of Steel’s director of Museum Collections and Archives, handling not just the physical artifacts of industry, but more importantly, cataloging the oral histories of its participants. “It was only a select few who wanted to preserve everything,” says Baraff. “It was too fresh a wound, too bitter. Everything they knew had been lost – to them, it was a legacy of failure. But time heals an awful lot, and now, over the past decade more than ever, people step back and get a picture of how important this was. They’re realizing, ‘maybe the ending wasn’t how we wanted it, but the stories are amazing.’”
It’s those stories that form the heart and soul of Rivers of Steel’s Hard Hat Tours of the Carrie Furnace, conducted by Rivers’ own historians and joined by volunteer former mill employees like Kapusta and Edwards. “It’s jaw-dropping, the first time you see it,” says Carlino. “But after that first time, you meet these guys, and you start to learn what it meant socially, and [in terms of local] pride.”
For now, the Hard Hat Tours act as a drop in the ocean of experiential possibilities: Five dates throughout the summer, a handful of tours per day, all of an unreconstructed, graffiti-covered, overgrown site held together by rust and stubbornness – a far cry from the 375,000 visitors the NPS estimates that a National Park will draw annually. But for those who can visit – especially those of us who didn’t live through Pittsburgh’s steel days – it’s a step towards understanding this region in a way not otherwise possible.
Starting with the Pumphouse, where the Pinkertons landed to break the famed Homestead Strike – one of the seminal moments in American labor history – the tours travel into the Carrie site, staring ever upwards at the sculptural chaos of the stories-high furnace. At its base, where tours enter the mill site itself, stands the famed “Deer” – a bust-like statue of a stag’s head sculpted a few years ago out of materials found at the Carrie site by Pittsburgh-based Industrial Arts Co-Op. Rivers of Steel understands the Deer as a proud incarnation of Pittsburgh’s relationship with – and cultural ownership of – the Carrie site, built illicitly at a time when no one visited the site, and plans to keep it through the renovation process.
But inside the mill site itself, the enormity seems less important than Jim Kapusta describing his first days on the job, ribbed for the rookie-signifying stripe on his helmet, or the rules on buddying up in the gas-heavy furnace – each worker literally responsible for his partner’s life. Chuck Edwards points to the building that held his locker, and the girders he’d scale to fix sections of the furnace. “It just seemed like, everybody there was a pro at what they did,” says Edwards. “And when it closed, you’d maybe shake hands with those guys, and make plans to meet up, but you never did. You just never saw them again.”
When August Carlino’s son visited the Frick Historical Center on a recent school trip, he came home and discussed the day’s field trip at the dinner table. “I asked him ‘how did this rich and powerful city father make his money,’” says Carlino. “He answered, ‘Soda pop.’ People of our generation assume everyone knows what ‘coke’ means, but as communities change, the physical loss leads to social loss – if it’s lost from the landscape, [it will be] lost from memory.”
Hard Hat Tours: June 9, July 14, August 11 and September 15. Tours depart from the Pump House at the Waterfront at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. Reservations: 412-464-4020 x32 or online.
Justin Hopper last wrote about his love of Pittsburgh for our first anniversary issue. Read the article, which was the most read for that month, here.
Furnace works in winter
Deer by Industrial Arts Co-Op
All photographs copyright © Justin Hopper
except Carrie in Winter © Jonathan Greene
and Tour, Carrie Furnace, Jim Kapusta, courtesy of Rivers of Steel