Iron and steel.
They are part of the heritage of Western Pennsylvania running as deep as the three rivers that traverse through the region.
Many of those from this area remember the great heyday of the mills, huge furnaces blowing smoke, red glowing light radiating from the furnaces at night. At one time, more than 1,000 tons of iron a day was produced in this area.
These days, the mills sit empty, many torn down and replaced with shopping malls, office complexes or simply wide-open fields.
But in Rankin, the Carrie Furnace still sits, waiting for visitors to come and learn about the past, to pay homage to the men and women vital to the heritage of Pennsylvania.
“I always say it is the ‘Siren of the Valley,’” said Ron Baraff, director of museums and archives of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, “beaconing and drawing people in.”
Carrie Furnace of U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works is a National Historic Landmark and open for tours to the public. Built in 1907, the Furnace was once home to over 4,500 iron workers, the furnace was where iron was produced then transported to other mills in the area to produce steel.
Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is a non-profit dedicated to preserving the heritage of the region and hosts various tours of the Furnace and houses archives from the steel making era. The Steel Heritage Tours include: the Carrie Furnace Hard Hat Tour, a guided tour led by a well-trained guide; the self-guided tour – visitors walk through the Furnace at their own pace and visit with retired iron and steel workers who are stationed at various sites through the mill; and the Babushkas and Hard Hat Tour, which pays tribute to the immigrants of the region and includes a famous Pittsburgh tradition, the “Cookie Table.”
Rivers of Steel also host the Cycle Through Pittsburgh’s Industrial Heritage Tour that takes visitors on a bike path along riverside trails along the Monongahela River and past sites important to the industry of the area.
“We also offer private tours for groups and host school groups. We also rent out the area for film producers and other productions and events,” said Baraff. Photo safaris are also offered for photographers.
Approaching the furnace along a dirt road across the fields, it does indeed “beacon” to visitors. Visitors park in a field next to the site, and enter through a chain link fence. The Mon Valley’s last standing blast furnace can be described as majestic as she sits there, still proud and echoing of her important past.
And yes, it is a “she.” The blast furnaces were named after female relatives of the builders, according to Marsha Resinol, retired teacher and tour guide.
“When someone asked why they were always named after women, it was explained that is was because the furnaces were hot and temperamental,” she joked. Reportedly, “Carrie” was the name of several female relatives of the builder though some say it was his sister.
Resinol is typical of the volunteers who lead the tours – people who love history and are willing to be trained to explain the background and history of the great furnace.
One of the most valuable aspects of the tour is the retired steel and iron workers who also volunteer their time. The men and women add to the tour guides stories, telling about their own experiences in the mill. Howard Wickerham was one of the retired workers and shared stories of his time at Carrie during a recent tour.
“Everything was created with safety in mind. See how this angles away – if the melted iron would spill out, it would roll down here,” he explained, pointing to a ledge outside one of the stoves. As he and Resinol showed the visitors the asbestos suits the workers would wear to protect them from the heat, it is easy to picture the workers sweating as they worked with the molten iron.
“They add things to the tour that just can’t be duplicated,” said Baraff of the retired employees of the mills.
The tour goes through the ore yards, past the old hot stoves and the cast house where thousands of local men and women worked 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year from 1907 to 1978. Although the building is empty, it is easy to imagine the mill in full steam.
The site attracts a multitude of visitors, according to Baraff including those who worked in the mills, those who had family members who were iron and steel workers, historians, photographers, artists, visitors to the Pittsburgh area and community members interested in the region’s past.
The site has also garnered national attention with the recent filming of the movie, “Out of the Furnace” starring Christian Bale and Robert Duvall. Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has also filmed a video at the site.
“There are so many reasons to visit the site – for the history of course, but also the aesthetics and the natural beauty of the place,” said Baraff.
The site is also constantly being restored according to Baraff, and they just added solar panels which will allow power to be brought on-site to light the area and improve tours.
“Every time you visit, you will see something new,” he said.
For information on tours visit www.riversofsteel.com or call 412-464-4020 ext. 32. Please note the site is an industrial site and visitors should dress accordingly with no open-toed shoes allowed. The site is not handicapped accessible.