Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Carrie Furnace Tours

By Amanda Cooney

The ‘Burgh. The City of Champions. The City of Bridges. These are some of Pittsburgh’s many names, but one truly describes the heritage of our town: The Steel City. Whether directly or indirectly, the majority of Pittsburgh residents are here because of the steel industry. During the Civil War, Pittsburgh was the source of over 60% of steel production and eventually provided over 50% worldwide just before the fall of the industry. Recently Amanda N and I took a visit to the Carrie Furnace, a 132-year-old mill next to the Monongahela River near Rankin, to learn more about the heritage of this city.

Upon arrival, we checked in with our tour guide, Andy, and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The tour was postponed a few minutes to let a loud train pass through. During its heyday, train cars would go in and out of the site carrying materials such as iron ore, coke (baked and processed coal), and limestone which were used to create pig iron. Although the rails into the furnace are closed off, trains still carry materials up and down the Monongahela River. You may have been stopped by one of these locomotives when visiting the Waterfront.
Once the tour started, we learned that the Carrie Furnace was purchased in 1884 by the Fownes brothers. The mill was actually located in Ohio but was moved to Pittsburgh and consisted of five blast furnaces. After a decade, the brothers sold the site to Andrew Carnegie, who saw the importance of steel rails after the Civil War. The purchase price was documented at $700,000 and the eldest Fownes brother took his share and built one of the most difficult golf courses in the United States, the Oakmont Country Club.

In 1906, two more furnaces were added and those are the ones still standing today. During our tour we learned that after the site closed in 1978, it became a haven for graffiti and street artists. Despite the threat of arrest for trespassing, these artists would continue to hop the fences and tag walls, tanks, and anything they could get to. Because of the size and the unlimited places to hide, it was next to impossible for local authorities to patrol and keep people out.

After the land was sold and became a Historic Landmark, officials decided to continue to allow graffiti, but murals have to be coordinated and approved. A notable piece is the Rolling Stones logo by street artist, Ivory. When on tour in 2015 with the Stones, Ivory was asked to paint the iconic “Tongue and Lip” logo somewhere on each stop of the tour; in Pittsburgh it is located at the Carrie Furnace. Other art can be found throughout the site including the Carrie Deer; a large buck head made of materials found around the property.

My favorite part of the tour was when we went up into the car dumper. Originally when rail cars would come in, it was the job of 4-5 workers to take large shovels and empty the materials. In the span of their shift, these workers could empty 3-4 cars. In 1926 the car dumper was introduced. The rail car would roll into the dumper, large clamps would come down to hold it in place, then push it over to empty the car. The productivity drastically increased; the 4-5 workers could now empty between 30 and 40 cars in their shift!

This tour was unlike any other tour I have been on. It was really interesting to see how everything worked and what it took to make the steel that put Pittsburgh on the map. It was also interesting to get a sense of what the mill workers lives were like and how they were the backbone of the community. Please do yourself a favor and go on this tour! For more information on tours including times, prices, and more visit riversofsteel.com and navigate to the “Tours” section under “Things to do”.