Living in a rust belt city has gradually trained my eyes to see the beauty in old industrial sites. Much of the history of Pittsburgh is tangled up in the steel industry, and it’s collapse in the 1970s and ’80s took most of the physical infrastructure with it. I spent part of last summer out in Braddock, working at a farm that lay in the shadow of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, the first steel mill built by Andrew Carnegie (in 1872) and pretty much the last one still in operation in the region.
As I traveled in and out of Braddock I saw another “last of it’s kind” – an intriguing huddle of huge old blast furnaces, with a tower rising almost a hundred feet above the Monongahela River. I badly wanted to go exploring there, but it looked inaccessible – not to mention dangerous! My interest was stirred up again when these buildings featured prominently in the closing scenes of the movie Out of the Furnace.
I would never have guessed that I would end up helping with the preservation and renovation of the Carrie Furnaces, but one recent October morning I found myself doing precisely that! After two weeks of sitting through trainings on mentoring and tutoring and CPR and conflict resolution, my fellow AmeriCorps KEYS members and I were rewarded with a service project at Carrie Furnaces.
It turns out that it is the focal point of a proposed National Park, and is currently part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Furnaces #6 and #7 are all that is left of an extensive iron mill that was once part of the Homestead Works. Built in 1907, what looks like an alien tangle of rusted towers and pipes is actually a rare example of pre-WWII iron-making technology. And I got to scrape dirt up off one of it’s old floors!
When I discovered that our service project was going to be at Carrie Furnace I pretty much jumped up and down. My fellow members thought I had lost my mind. But boy, were they sorry they hadn’t brought cameras when we showed up there! I had trouble focusing on our work, and kept swapping out my shovel and wheelbarrow for my camera. As if the structure itself wasn’t fascinating enough, there were guerrilla sculptures, beautiful graffiti, and things left over from sanctioned art installations.
The Carrie Deer has a long and interesting story, and the graffiti wall is a designated area, in the hopes that it will keep folks from tagging the historic structure. Music videos are often shot here, and I believe there has been a wedding or two set against this unique backdrop. There will be an epic Halloween party at Carrie Furnace next weekend…!
I could have spent hours and hours exploring the place, picking the site historian’s brain, waiting for the light to hit various bits of the old blast furnaces in new ways…
And once I noticed that this thing looked like a huge Dalak, it couldn’t be unseen.
I was reluctantly dragged away by my friends, who wanted to go eat pizza and drink beer after all of our hard work. I was mollified by tickets the historian had given us to an event at Carrie Furnaces the following Saturday. There would be an iron pour and a casting demonstration. Of course I went.
The Penn State Master Gardener Program had partnered with Rivers of Steel to survey the plants and the land in and around the Carrie Furnaces, in an effort to better understand what was going on in the disturbed soil. They wanted to develop an interpretive component to the research project, and someone came up with a brilliant plan to cast plaques in iron – very fitting given the site and it’s history. A team of artists and master gardeners, and some folks who actually seemed to know what they were doing, got together yesterday to pull off the feat in front of a large audience of curious locals.
It was so cool to watch! They had cobbled together a scaled down version of the furnace you see above (the Dalek!), which is a cupola style furnace. They then proceeded to melt down recycled grey iron (broken radiators and bathtubs!) at 3000 degrees.
They tapped the furnace repeatedly, then poured the molten iron into prepared resin bonded sand molds for the “Iron Garden” plaques, and other items that the participating artists had come up with.
There were some very exciting moments as the molten iron flowed and the workers dashed about, refilling the furnace, tapping it, pouring the glowing orange stuff into the molds. Music was playing, the audience cheered and exclaimed, and the whole thing was very punk rock in a way!
Their little furnace was supposed to produce around 3 tons of iron that afternoon. Back in the day, Carrie 6 and 7 consumed 4 tons of raw material for every ton of iron produced, and any given day during it’s peak (1950s and ’60s) it was making 1000-1250 tons of iron. Crazy stuff!
Standing there watching the buzz of activity I couldn’t help feeling confusingly poignant. The blast furnace that loomed above me had been silent and still since 1978, it’s refractory brick-lined insides slowly crumbling away, it’s frame rusting. Back in the day…what was it like at the feet of Carrie 6 and 7?
I didn’t miss the noise and fumes and smoke I could readily conjure up, and was heartily glad that the land around the iron mill was slowly healing and the skies above were clear. Still, there was a wistfulness around the place that afternoon that mingled with the crowd and tempered the excitement. The people of Pittsburgh were once proud of the work that got done here. Back in the day…
The giants of Carrie Furnace will go on sleeping, but at their feet, meanwhile – cross your fingers! – the region will continue to find innovative ways to move forward. I feel more a part of that than ever, now that I serve (as an AmeriCorps KEYS member) at a school across the river from there, in the borough of Homestead (where so much historical stuff went down).
Living in a rust belt city has trained my eyes, and my heart, to see all kinds of beautiful new things!