Usually, when blessed with good weather, I end up squandering it inside playing World of Tanks. But every now and then I manage to get out and enjoy it, as was the case this weekend when I went out to take a tour of the Carrie Furnaces with some young architects. The tour was 2 hours long and I only brought a camera, not a notebook, so I don’t remember everything about what you’ll see here. I’ll chime in with the facts I remember which will sound like real facts, and then I’ll just make some stuff up which will be marked with an asterisk. All of the images can be clicked on and enlarged.
The tour starts in a big warehouse space where they give you some background on the site. Up there is the site plan, which shows the site at its height overlaid by what remains now. There are now just two furnaces remaining, Carrie 6 and Carrie 7, named for singer Carrie Underwood.* The furnaces here, built by the Fownes brothers in 1881, made iron, not steel. Business was good for nearly 20 years before the iron business at this site began to falter. In 1898 Andrew Carnegie sensed an opportunity to vertically integrate the iron produced here with the steel he was producing in Homestead. He made the Fownes brothers an offer on the furnaces and they took the money and ran, straight to Oakmont where they founded the Oakmont Country Club.
Carnegie went to work bringing rail lines to the site which would bring the train-loads of iron ore, coke and limestone to feed the endless appetites of the furnaces. The raw materials were stored in great heaps in the yard above before being brought up that tilted elevator 3 and 4 tons at a time.
Originally all the unloading was done by hand, meaning workers with shovels emptied both the train cars and the buckets at the top of that elevator. Imagine standing at the top, staring down into the belly of the furnace, shoveling tons of iron-food into the open mouth as the February winds pull at your clothes.
You could work, quit, or die. Many did the latter.
I regret not asking if there were any ghosts that haunted the site.
Eventually there were improvements to the furnaces that did things like invert the rail cars to dramatically speed up the process of unloading material. The picture above is part of that machinery. There were still dangerous jobs to be done inside the furnace, though.
There was no button to be pressed or switch to be pulled if you wanted to switch between which furnace was being fired. You had to manually pull that chain (low in the image and slightly to the left), exposing yourself to the hot toxic breath of the furnaces. Carbon monoxide could silently overtake you, leaving it up to your spotter to drag your lifeless body out of danger and sound the gas rescue alarm.
Before there were unions to protect workers injured workers were simply written up, resulting in suspensions and termination of employment. Here are some other warnings and signs from the tour:
Once fired in the furnace, the molten iron was spilled out onto the casting floor (not pictured). Workers here stood over 1,600 degree metal in asbestos suits and used hand tools to separate the slag from the useful metal, which then flowed through sand-lined troughs into “torpedo cars”.
As I mentioned before, Carnegie needed the iron made here to turn into steel at his plant across the river. These torpedo cars, loaded with 150 tons of molten iron, trundled across the hot metal bridge three to a train, where they were tipped over (to the position above) and emptied into the plants on the other side of the river.
Today, middle schoolers visit the the torpedo cars for life-size re-enactments of the Miracle of Life.*
The iron-making process above went largely unchanged until 1978. Falling demand for steel brought the industry to its knees and continuous casting (a more efficient way of manufacturing steel) dealt the death blow. The tens of thousands of workers at this site alone were cast out, joining the rest of the workers in the valley to scatter across the country in search of the few remaining jobs in the steel industry. Pittsburgh wheezed through smog and withered betwee its poisoned rivers for decades.
Over time, Pittsburgh healed and adapted. Clean air and rivers brought clean industries such as healthcare and technology. In its eagerness to move on and reclaim the waterways Pittsburgh razed many industrial sites like this. But the Carrie Furnaces still stand not only as monument and reminder but, through collaborations between the site stewards and local artists, it also stands as a living laboratory for the art community that grows out of Pittsburgh’s industrial cracks. There’s the famous Carrie Deer …
… as well as smaller sculptural installations …
… and the graffiti commissioned for the long low brick walls:
That’s it for the tour, but I want to thank our knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide, Mr. Doug Styles. This was a guy who had spent some time working in a mill himself, and he had true passion and love for the history of steel making. You could hear the sadness in his voice as his story of the decline of manufacturing in the Mon valley echoed through the empty halls, and I heard some real resentment just behind his teeth as he recounted the checkered biographies of Carnegie and Frick.
He also beat boxes at the semi-annual, semi-illegal Carrie Furnace Raves under his stage name, Doug E. Styles, often partnering with legendary MC Slick Frick.* You’re the man, Doug.
If you want to take a tour of your own, check the dates here and bring $25 for each adult and $15 for each child. There might be tax, I forget. You can also take a Photo Safari and an Urban Art Tour which sound awesome. You get to make your own graffito on the Urban Art Tour, how cool is that?