Hoping to gain a more critical historical perspective of my hometown of Pittsburgh, I went on a tour of the nearby Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a remnant of the U.S. Steel Homestead Steel Works.
I went into the tour worried that the steel industry would be romanticized. As I’ve previously written, Pittsburgh has a certain affinity for steel baron Andrew Carnegie, whose name graces many Pittsburgh institutions (e.g. Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library, etc.). The darker sides of Carnegie’s legacy—like pollution and dangerous labor conditions—is often ignored in favor of his philanthropy. Luckily, my tour guide, a retired draftsman, offered a nuanced tour. He emphasized the economic growth and job opportunities the steel industry provided while tempering praise by acknowledging the racism and unsafe working conditions that also defined the mills.
Many 1900s steel-making implements have been updated or destroyed. Carrie Furnace is the only pre-World War II blast furnace, (a large structure in which iron ore is heated under pressure so that it melts and pure iron metal separates out and can be collected), making it a rare and important piece of cultural heritage in the region.
Rivers of Steel is the nonprofit that preserves Carrie Furnace. It seeks to strengthen “the economic and cultural fabric of western Pennsylvania by fostering dynamic initiatives and transformative experiences.” I spoke with Suzi Bloom, director of education, and Ronald Baraff, director of historic resources & facilities at Rivers of Steel to learn more about the organization’s work.
Baraff came to Rivers of Steel in 1998 to assist with building the tours. Although tours had been ongoing since the nonprofit’s founding in the late 1980s, no formal tour or script existed.
“As far as true tourism at Carrie, that started in 2005 and 2006 when, in a partnership with Allegheny County, we were able to finally get access to the site,” Baraff said. After stepping back from tours for a few years and working on their relationship with the county, Rivers of Steel started the current tour program in 2010. School tours followed, along with specialized tours of the graffiti and wild garden on the Carrie Furnace grounds.
The variety of programs offered reflects the multi-use nature of the site, Bloom said. During COVID-19 the large, outdoor space at Carrie has proved invaluable to their success in staying afloat. They have added new programming, like drive-in movie screenings, and continued with socially distanced outdoor tours.
The ability to adapt so quickly to the pandemic stems from an attitude of being open and flexible to new ideas.
“Generally, we are pretty fluid in what we can do. And what we’ve discovered is it opens up new opportunities for us, something that we may not have thought about in a particular way that when we’re approached we try it and then it can become part of our regular palette of things we can do,” Baraff said.
Bloom expressed a similar sentiment: “We want the site to be used by all types of groups because different people have different ideas.”
Another key to Rivers of Steel’s success in preserving Carrie Furnace is the tour guides. From retirees to young folks, each guide brings their own knowledge and experiences. New guides are trained by seasoned guides and have access to the Rivers of Steel archives to learn more. Public tours cover the same key points, but tour guides are given autonomy to elaborate on their areas of interest, whether transportation or environmental protection.
“It’s been a growing group over the years with some of our older tour guides retiring completely or unfortunately passing on,” Bloom said. “So their stories are now the stories of the younger folks that have trained under them.”
The passion the tour guides share builds pride in community and history. Bloom believes this is important because it helps children appreciate and see the value in their home rather than thinking there is nothing great about their town.
Although instilling a sense of pride is important, especially in Appalachia which many young people leave, Rivers of Steel recognizes that not every part of the steel history is honorable.
“The way we view it is this: History isn’t always pretty. For all the wonderful things, there are warts and you have to talk about it,” Baraff said. “You can’t be afraid to discuss this.”
Warts and all, Rivers of Steel preserves an important piece of regional industrial history at Carrie Furnace that offers an immersive trip into Pittsburgh’s past.
Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad.
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