Pittsburgh’s future looks awfully bright even if you’re not an optimist. The stars are aligning. But what makes us love this place is everything it brings with it from the past to the present.
A fascinating past that you still can see, even if some of it is in shreds, is one of our greatest assets going forward.
For this little spate of ‘burgh love, Walkabout takes you south and east to Munhall, where the Carrie Furnaces are out standing in their field, a post-industrial Oz that you reach not by yellow brick road but by jarring gravel and rubble that suggests there was once paved access.
Everything about the site suggests what once was, from the way there to the colossal destination.
Three friends and I took a tour of old Carrie on Saturday. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area offers these tours in part as a way to fund Carrie’s continuing stabilization as an industrial museum within a national park of 38 acres of the original Homestead Works. Rivers of Steel describes its mission as “to preserve, interpret and promote the resources of the Age of Big Steel.”
It was my second visit to the site but the first one that afforded a full view of the scale of the hot and arduous 10-hour work day for thousands of men whose daily visits to the neighborhood tavern become all too understandable when you consider the trappings of their jobs.
One friend described the gorgeously rusted monstrosity as “ a crime scene” because of all the jobs that went away. A former mill worker whom we met agreed with him. I sympathize, and a lack of complete understanding of the vagaries of economics prevents me from taking a stronger position, but Carrie as she stands today is a gift to this region.
For one thing, she’s still standing, if not entirely at least in large enough scale to make our jaws drop. From the ground, the cluster of missile-like stoves and the two furnaces on each end, their shapes jutting with fierce asymmetry into the sky, make you feel as insignificant as you are and yet strangely empowered as a member of the species who had the audacity to build something like this.
What I have felt both times at the Carrier Furnaces is an emotional gut-wrench and a sense of pride. Even though I am grateful for environmental standards that have resulted in cleaner air, that sense of great loss is palpable on this site.
When you climb the metal steps up and up into the guts of the place, you start to feel the ghosts. Some people roll their eyes at that image, others exchange a knowing look. The butterscotch floor tiles that once lined the corridors are intact in places. The rest is rubble. Daylight streams into the gaps between one humongous rusting piece and another. Enormous bolts, enormous wheels, enormous values and the monstrous cluster of stoves are offset by delicate catwalks.
It helps to have a clutch of elders on hand to tell us how the systems worked — from the rail cars hauling in ore and limestone to the intricate monitoring of ore, coke and limestone cooking up in the furnaces. These volunteer docents spent their younger days working in mills, whether at Carrie or various others.
The two furnaces at the site, which are 92 feet tall, were built in 1906 and functioned until 1979. The original furnace began operating in 1884. The site turned out as much as 1,000 tons of iron a day.
Tours continue every Saturday through October. They begin at 10a and run every half hour. The 11.30a tour, the last of the day, highlights works of art that have been commissioned throughout the site.
The tours cost $15 for students, $17.50 for elders and $25 for everyone else. You can take a guided or self-guided tour.
Next Saturday, the Pillow Project presents "The Jazz Furnace," a day of performance events from noon to 5p and from 7p to midnight. That costs $15 for general admission and $10 for students.
The event will infuse tours with live music, dance and chalk installations and exhibits. The night session will feature full-length dance performances, video illuminations and multimedia installations with live music.
Reservations are recommended because people who walk up could be turned away and because the tour could be cancelled if not enough people reserve a spot. Cancelled tours are made up to you or you can get a refund. Private group tours are available Monday through Thursday by appointment only.
To reserve a space for any of these events and for more information, visit www.riversofsteel.com or call 412.464.4020 ext 32.
photo by Paul Nawrocki