RANKIN, Penn. — I always had a profound respect for steelworkers and their coal miner colleagues. But a tour of the once-massive Carrie Furnaces on the fringes of Pittsburgh really brought home the dangers and harsh working conditions these men endured in order to take home a paycheck.
Part of the Homestead Steel Works, the Carrie Furnaces were built in 1892 as a major element in Andrew Carnegie’s manufacturing empire. The site is located north and east of Charleston on the north shore of the Monongahela River in Rankin and Swissvale, about a four-hour drive up Interstate 79. It was once a vast industrial complex of moving trains, piles of raw materials, a nest of machinery, supporting buildings and seven huge blast furnaces.
Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Carnegie’s iron and steel works once had 220,000 workers on its payroll. The Carrie furnaces’ job was to supply the molten iron — heated to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit — that was transported across the river in specially designed torpedo cars to the steel mills.
In its heyday of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, each of the furnaces produced 1,250 tons of iron a day. As a primary ingredient in the steel-making process, the iron ore helped earn Pittsburgh the title Steel City, a nickname known round the world.
At its height, Pittsburgh produced 50 percent of the nation’s steel, and the list of landmark structures built with Pittsburgh steel includes the Brooklyn and Bay Bridges, the Empire State Building, the Panama Canal Locks, the St. Louis Arch and the battleship Missouri.
The Carrie Furnaces continued to operate up through 1978 when, with the collapse of the domestic steel industry, they were shut down and abandoned. Today, some of the original infrastructure is gone, but what remains is not only impressive, it gives visitors a sketch of how intricate the operation really was.
Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation, a nonprofit, administers the site and began offering guided tours of the 135-acre site in 2012. Currently, tours meet outside the former blowing engine house, which once pumped air into the furnaces, and are available Tuesday through Sunday, May through October.
The tours last about two hours. They are not handicap-accessible and involve walking over some rough terrain and climbing some steep stairs. However, a person in average shape should have no problem tagging along — and taking photos is actually encouraged.
While some changes to the complex had been made over the years, most of what remains dates back to the 1930s. Awesome in their physical presence are the two remaining furnaces, rising to 100 feet above the landscape and regarded as two of only a few pre-World War II 20th century blast furnaces to survive to this day. In 2006, they were named a National Historic Landmark.
To cool the operation’s system, the iron works used 5 million gallons of Mon River water daily. Between the Carrie Furnaces and the Homestead Steel Works across the river, the water recycled into the river was enough to keep the river temperature at 90 degrees, even on the coldest winter day.
To transport the molten iron across the river in torpedo cars (visitors can actually step inside one on display), the Hot Metal Bridge, one of only seven in the world, was constructed six times stronger than a standard vehicular bridge. We were told that if only a small amount of molten iron fell into the river during transport, the explosion would be powerful enough to destroy the bridge.
Seemingly out of place on one of the furnace foundations is a 40-foot-tall metal and wire deer made in 1997-98 by a group of students from Carnegie Melon University with materials found on the site. Other artistic expressions come from a group of renegade graffiti artists who eventually worked out an arrangement with Rivers of Steel to confine their work to a wall along the ore yard. The graffiti murals, composed by artists from around the world, is now considered part of the Rivers of Steel art program.
One specialized tour, The Iron Garden Walk, takes visitors over a 35-acre plot that once suffered the effects of pollution and degradation due to the site’s intense industrial activity but has now recovered botanically with new growth, some introduced via ore shipments from the Iron Range of Minnesota.
On Sept. 29, Rivers of Steel is staging its Festival of Combustion — a day-long series of black-smithing and glass-blowing demonstrations, firing of raku ceramics along with stations for welding, metal fabrication and a chance to carve a mold that will be cast with an iron pour. The festival includes craft beer, food trucks, live music and an artisan market. Tickets are $15 at the gate and free to children under age of 18.
Just across the river, visitors might want to stop at the 1892 Bost Building, located at 623 E. 8th Ave. in Homestead, constructed as a hotel for workers and used during the infamous Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 as the union headquarters. Open Monday through Friday, the building houses a giant diorama of what the Steel Works looked like during its peak years. Two other rooms in the building have been restored to show what one could expect in accommodations when the hotel first opened, and the other focuses on the restoration of the building.
Take a 20-minute drive to Pittsburgh’s North Shore, the launch site of Rivers of Steel’s double-decked, “green” riverboat Explorer, and get ready for a sightseeing “Pittsburgh 101, An Introduction to Innovation” tour of Pittsburgh’s three rivers.
In addition to getting to see impressive sights up close from the middle of the river such as PNC Park, Heinz Field, the fountain at Point State Park and Station Square, tour-takers will also get a primer on Pittsburgh history beginning with the French settlement, then tracing its 250-year industrial heritage from its early glass making and manufacturing era through today’s emphasis on technology and robotics
Along the way, you’ll learn interesting facts, such as the city having more bridges that anywhere else in the world, that young George Washington spent a cold winter’s night on an island in the Allegheny after his boat capsized, that each letter on the UPMC Building weighs 3,000 pounds, that the Liberty Tunnels were the world’s first to eliminate car exhaust fumes and that Forbes Magazine once rated Pittsburgh as the nation’s second smartest city. Not to worry: there are plenty of other fascinating facts!
Tours are offered only on weekends through September, and advance tickets ($23 for adults) are recommended by visiting website www.riversofsteel.com.