Many people in Pittsburgh today, they would like to forget about their city’s steel past. They’d prefer it to be known as anything but the “Steel City.” When people think about Pittsburgh, they want it to be the Pittsburgh of today-where bright skies reign (well, most days), where there are copious amounts of green, and when you know what time of the day it is (during Pittsburgh’s steel heyday, the skies would be darkened around the clock from all the steel, iron, and coke production). While it’s undoubtedly good for a city to reinvent itself in order to move on, to survive, at the same time a city should never forget its past, a past that made the name Pittsburgh known worldwide.
Ever since I first learned about them, I had wanted to go on a tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces which were once part of the former U.S. Steel Homestead Works. Tours are only offered May to October and only on Fridays and Saturdays (each having one tour a day). So going on a tour isn’t something you can just do spur of the moment. With my parents coming in for a visit, it seemed like an opportune time to go on a tour, especially since my history loving parents would enjoy it as well.
With Pittsburgh’s nickname being the Steel City, many people think steel is the only thing that was produced here. They are very much mistaken. During its peak, 1000 to 1250 tons of iron were produced per day at the Carrie Furnaces. The furnaces were built in 1884 and operated until 1982, around the time the steel industry collapsed in the Pittsburgh area. The Carrie Furnaces are located along the Monongahela River in the down on its luck town of Rankin. All that is left of the site today are furnaces #6 and #7, which operated from 1907 until 1978, along with a hot metal bridge.
The tour is long…two hours to be precise. However, it’s probably the most interesting and educational two hour tour you will ever take. Our guide Tom was terrific and was a repository of information. He himself spent his summers working at another furnace while in college. His father had been a lifer, spending 48 years working at a furnace, if you can believe it. A lifetime essentially spent doing one of the most physically difficult jobs of all time. In addition to his accent, Tom was the typical Pittsburgher-his father a steel worker, his grandparents emigrants from Hungary to America. Throughout the tour, Tom would regale us with his own personal experiences working at the furnace, including describing how the men would cook steaks on the furnace, literally (I was mildly repulsed to hear this). A great tour guide is always a plus but a great tour guide who has firsthand knowledge, who has experienced the work himself is even better.
One of the things I found most interesting about the tour was being at the site itself. While I’ve been to Homestead (home today to a popular shopping area, but in times past it was the site of one of the largest steel production centers in the world), I had never ventured to Rankin even though it’s only five or so miles from Homestead. Upon getting to the Carrie Blast area, it was nothing but quiet and deserted. There were rolling patches of green and no cars save for the dozen or so in the grass parking area. I always like envisioning the past, but it was really hard at Carrie since I know that when iron was made there, you would have seen nothing but dirt and soot, the grass probably would have been dead or scarce, the quietude replaced with deafening noise since the furnace operated 24/7.
What I also found fascinating was that I was finally at a place where nature was once again reclaiming the land. Prior to 1884, the Carrie Blast Furnaces site was nothing but farmland. That changed once they were built and man beat upon the soil. However, visiting today you will see nothing but abandoned, derelict pieces of modern machinery. You will see vines and weeds taking over, as if the land were saying “we want this back.”
During the tour someone asked about worker fatalities and injuries. Having read enough books over the years about the life of a coal mine or a steel mill worker, I knew that accidents often happened especially since labor was cheap, safety regulations were non-existent, and men were always in need of work. The guide explained that once unions came about, conditions for the workers improved but that wasn’t until the 1930s, not until the federal government recognized labor unions. Until then misers like Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie could exploit workers as much as they wanted, all to further line their billion dollar pockets.
I always knew the life of a mill worker was unimaginably difficult. But it wasn’t until I went on this tour that I learned just how difficult it was. The men who worked at the Carrie Furnace were everyday heroes in their own way. No, they weren’t famous or rich, nor did they save the world by doing some heroic deed. And yet they were the ones who put Pittsburgh on the map through the sweat and toil of their work. They, not the Fricks or Morgans of the world. And the world shouldn’t forget that.
Read the book Out of this Furnace by Thomas Bell. It is a read that will completely pull you in, not to mention teach you more history than you could ever imagine.
The 2013 film Out of the Furnace starring Christian Bale actually had some scenes shot at the Carrie Furnaces. The fight scene at the end between Bale and Woody Harrelson’s characters is most notable.
Tips for visiting!
Tours are held on Fridays and Saturdays May-October.
For dates and ticketing click here.
For the general tour, tickets are $25 (adults), $17.50 for seniors 62+ and students with ID, and $15 for children 8-17
It’s not recommended for children under the age of 8, so parents, find a babysitter if you need to!