If you grew up in Pittsburgh, chances are, the mills were somehow a part of your life. If you didn’t have immediate family working in them, you probably had family who had once worked there and likely been laid off from them. And if nothing else, you’d certainly passed your share of old, abandoned mills in the car as a kid, and if you were like me, you probably had a reaction of, ‘Whoaaaaaa what IS that scary/cool/fascinating place?’
Pittsburgh was once the great city of steel. That’s where our Steelers get their name (and their logo), and that’s where our city got that horrible reputation about the smoky air. But by the mid-80s, almost all of the mills were gone, leaving these giant, rusty hulls along our rivers. They’ve always been fascinating to me, so when we were given a chance to attend one of the Carrie Furnace Hard Hat Tours, we jumped on it*.
Carrie Furnace is the last-standing retired blast furnace in the ‘Burgh, located along the Monongahela River in Rankin. Somewhere along the ‘tearing down the old mills’ line, someone decided maybe we should keep some of these places around for historical purposes. It wasn’t until 2006 that the site was actually delcared a National Historic Landmark, but renovations had been going on for quite a while prior to that to make the place safe to visit. While there are even more renovations going on at present, you can now attend guided tours at the site.
I had family members on both sides who worked in the mills. My mum’s side of the family worked in Ambridge, and my dad’s side worked at Duquesne Steel. Both of my grandfathers worked as millwrights who were responsible for maintenance and repair on the machines. Although my Pap-pap (Dad’s side) died before I was born, I inherited this medal he received for 25 years of service at US Steel. I carry this with me at all times and have ever since I was a kid.
Coincidentally, the day that we chose to tour Carrie Furnace would have been his 86th birthday. So, Pap-pap, this blog post is in your honor.
Don’t be disheartened when you try to find your way to the Carrie Furnace site. It’s only been open for tours in the past few years, and prior to that, it was abandoned and was *supposed* to be unreachable (there are quite a few photos and videos on the internet that prove that stipulation wrong). The site is located in Rankin, and you have to travel a bit of bumpy roads to get there. Believe me – it’s worth the journey!
The tours are run through the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation, a local historical group that’s doing a great job preserving our local history and making sure that the coming generations can learn from it. (You can check out their website to see the other locations they manage – I know we’re going to be checking in there when we start making our 2013 list!)
Since the Carrie Furnace area wasn’t open to the public until recently, there was a ton of graffiti and ‘unique’ art (more on that soon) from vandals who had broken in. I’d been soaking up every bit of Carrie Furnace photography I could find once I knew we’d be doing the tour, and I loved seeing how things had been restored back to their former glory. This sign was one example – it used to be covered in graffiti, but now looks as flawless as if it the mill had just opened its doors.
At one time, this place was cranking out up to 1250 tons of iron A DAY. (Yes, that’s another little Pittsburgh history lesson for you: although we are the City of Steel, and Carrie was part of US Steel, this place actually made iron.) Now all that remains are furnaces #6 and #7, dormant and quiet and looming.
Your guides for the Hard Hat Tour are former millworkers. We were fortunate enough to have Ron and Jim, who had both worked together during the same time period in the 70s (although Jim, who’s 10 years older, had worked there longer overall). Not only do you get the statistical facts of this place, you get the personality of the furnaces, the millworkers, and the grounds through the stories of your guides.
(You know how I always get that creepy, tingly, electric feeling when I sit at CityLights Bookstore, because I know I’m sitting where the famous old Beats were sitting? It’s kind of like that, going through this tour in a silent old metal beast with these guys who remember what it was like when it was humming.)
One of the comments Ron and Jim made that stuck with me was how shocked they were to see all the green. They said back when they were working at Carrie, neither of them would have ever imagined anything could grow there. They said they came home with their clothes so covered in grit and dust, and that the whole landscape was covered in a film like that. But now, there’s grass and trees and even wildflowers weaving their way into the metal, which somehow adds an entirely new level to the scene, this monstrous machine rising up out of nature.
This is the famous (or infamous?) deer head. Back when Carrie was off-limits, some guy got creative and came in here a few times, gathering wire and cables from the ashes, and sculpted this gigantic deer. And then left it there. I have to admit, it’s pretty impressive, although I’m not sure how I feel about its placement on the grounds. Wouldn’t be surprised to see this get moved somewhere as the renovations progress (art from found objects on historical grounds = cool, but massive deer head does not really = authentic blast furnace decor).
This was the lunchroom. And no, they didn’t have microwaves and toaster ovens here, so if you needed to heat up your lunch, you tossed it onto some hot pipes and waited for it to sizzle. The workers also took salt tablets (since this was the pre-Gatorade days) to help themselves stay hydrated while working – Ron said he would come home from work every day weighing significantly less than he had when he’d left in the morning, simply due to the amount they would sweat in the furnace.
Any time you think you’ve got a crappy job, look at this picture and think, “At least I don’t have to climb in that little furnace door to clean it out!” Talk about claustrophobia! Ron and Jim also said that it would be so loud up in certain parts of the furnace that they would rely on hand signals to communicate, since you couldn’t hear each other talk.
And here’s where the magic happens! This is the site where the molten iron became something really special – a lovely temperature of 2300-2600 degrees! This was probably the most interesting place at Carrie, but also incredibly dangerous. Both of our guides had stories of people who had fallen into the molten iron (or even suffered burns after the iron was gone and the trough was still hot when they stepped in to clean it). Jim told us he once stood for too many seconds on the hot ground and had to take off his shoes when he got out because they were burning straight through to his feet.
We also learned about how, for such a clunky, lengthy process, there was so much precision involved. Each guy in the room had his own job, and if one step of the line messed up, it created a whole set of problems that everyone had to try to fix. One small mistake could lead to a lengthy cleanup task, and it could even get you sent home early without pay. (Don’t worry though, the workers were compensated for this dangerous job with a hefty salary of $8 an hour – okay, okay, seems like a mere pittance, but in 1970s standards, it was actually FAR above the minimum wage, believe it or not!)
Look at that behemoth. There’s something about old industrial relics and skeletons that I just love. (This is also the point when my World of Warcraft nerd husband turned to me and said, “Honey… we’re really in IronForge.“)
After you’ve made iron magic happen, it’s time to fire up the World’s Largest Caulking Gun and seal that hole up so you can move on to cleaning. (And cleaning was more important than you’d think in a mill like this – you could hear the pride in both guys’ voices when they talked about this place, and keeping it looking like a million bucks was part of that – also, of course, not a bad gig to make $8 for sweeping the floor for an hour instead of pushing around hot metal!)
After the formal tour was over, Ron offered to take those of us who wanted to stick around up closer to the hot metal bridge. That’s the red bridge you see here – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the guys had to be up climbing around on this bridge. They said it used to sway in the wind, and they didn’t have nets or other safety measures to keep them in place. Ron had worked on electrical parts of the mill, and he said he was pretty relieved when they scrapped the ‘rewiring of the bridge’ plans.
On the way back to the parking area, we passed by the old torpedo ladle on the grounds. This could transport the liquid iron around to different parts of the mill. Back when Carrie was running at full capacity, there were trains and trucks coming through constantly, day or night.
We had such an incredible time on our Carrie Furnace tour. With all of the renovations that are going into developing this site, I know that we will be back to visit again over the years. The ultimate goal is to incorporate this into a much larger project called the Homestead Works National Park. (You can support that endeavor by signing this list to help them gain funding to complete the project.)
If you want to see more of Carrie on the internet, two music videos were recently shot there: one by Wiz Khalifa and one by Formula412. (Heads up, if you’re reading this at work, there may be a bit of NSFW language in those videos, but they are awesome and deserve a view!)
However, I cannot strongly enough recommend that you go out and schedule a visit to the Carrie Furnace. They’re running tours regularly this summer, and it’s only $25 per ticket. This tour is excellent for anyone who wants to dig deeper into our city’s past, and I really encourage you to check out the tour page and schedule a visit. I promise, you will truly enjoy the tour and learn so much.
If you want to see the rest of the photos we took on our tour, you can visit our Facebook page.
*full disclosure: we were invited to tour Carrie Furnace for this blog entry free of charge, thanks to the generosity of Sherris Moreira and the Rivers of Steel organization