Historic U.S. steel furnaces to be given new life as a tourist spot


Carrie’s Kilns are intriguing and gritty historical attractions, if you can find the now abandoned blast furnaces.

The two rusty and dilapidated 13-story kilns sit on the north side of the Monongahela River near the Rankin Bridge, seven miles from downtown Pittsburgh, surrounded by almost nothing.

The complex with the giant furnaces and associated buildings in the boroughs of Rankin and Swissvale is an industrial ghost, a relic of Pittsburgh’s colorful steelmaking past.

At 92 feet tall, the two kilns are the biggest attraction in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area and are becoming a real tourist attraction. The Rivers of Steel Corp. offers tours of the Carrie Kilns where 3,000 workers once worked.

The two remaining furnaces offer a glimpse of when the Pittsburgh area was the world’s premier steelmaking region. Iron from the Carrie furnaces became steel that was used in the Empire State Building, Battleship Missouri, Gateway Arch, Sears Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Panama Canal, United Nations Building, the George Washington Bridge and the Alaska Pipeline. .

The Carrie Furnaces are rare examples of pre-World War II ironmaking technologies, the only two surviving blast furnaces from that era in the United States. Carrie 6 is intact; Carrie 7 has been partially dismantled on the 13-acre site. They were constructed of 2.5 inch thick sheet steel and lined with firebricks to withstand temperatures as high as 3,500 degrees.

The first Carrie furnaces were built in 1884. The furnaces operated as independent merchant iron furnaces that sold their pig iron to other businesses.

The blast furnaces bore the name of women; the name Carrie was a surname of one of the original owners.

The furnaces were acquired in 1898 by Andrew Carnegie and became part of US Steel in 1901. Carrie 6 and 7 were built in 1907 by US Steel.

The Carrie Kilns operated until 1978 as the heart of the giant Homestead Steel Works, the adjacent steel complex across the river in Homestead.

The blast furnaces consumed about four tons of iron ore, coke and limestone for every ton of iron produced. The cooling system required over 5 million gallons of water per day.

Carrie 6 and 7 each produced at their peak 1,000 to 1,250 tons of iron per day. The molten iron was moved in special 35-ton pocket wagons across the river over a special bridge – the Hot Metal Bridge – to Homestead Works to be turned into steel.

The Carrie Furnaces were among 48 blast furnaces in Pittsburgh and area in the early 1900s.

The two remaining kilns are a National Historic Landmark and the focal point of the proposed 38-acre Homestead Works State Park dedicated to the area’s industrial history. Under this plan, the two kilns would undergo stabilization and a renovation costing tens of millions of dollars to allow visitors to climb the walkways and see the kilns up close.

In its 105-year history, the Homestead Works, with its open-hearth mills, produced over 200 million tons of steel. It was US Steel’s flagship plant and one of the largest steel mills in the world, covering 430 acres with 450 buildings and employing 200,000 workers over the years, 15,000 during World War II. It was closed in 1986.

The old complex has been redeveloped as The Waterfront with shops, hotels and restaurants in Homestead.

Rivers of Steel offers two Carrie Furnaces tours: guided and self-guided with guides at the appropriate stops.

Carrie Furnace attractions include the two kilns, an oversized brick blower, the ore yard, a car dumper, a torpedo car, a blow room, hot stoves, a foundry and a 15 ton crane to move the iron-ore.

It’s a great unpolished setup. For example, the two furnace blower motor room is 220 feet long, 104 feet wide, and 84 feet high. It housed four large gas engines to produce air for the blast furnaces.

Visitors love an unlikely attraction: an oversized metal sculpture of a stag’s head that dominates part of the installation, which is about 45 feet by 35 feet. It was built in 1997-99 by a team of artists, the Industrial Arts Collective, from materials found at the site.

Tours are designed for ages 8 and up. No high-heeled or open-toed shoes are permitted on the industrial site.

Getting to the Carrie ovens was an adventure. The freeway was closed for tunnel repairs and traffic was diverted onto a long, winding road through Pittsburgh and suburban streets. This killed our printed instructions and delayed our arrival by 40 minutes.

Industrial ovens are in the middle of nowhere. You can cross active train tracks and drive through tunnels and barely passable dirt roads to get to the fenced site. It is surrounded by much desolation and nothingness.

Rivers of Steel offers tours of the Carrie Furnace site from April through October. Two-hour guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. on Saturdays from May to October and at 10 a.m. on Fridays from June to August.

Self-paced tours are scheduled every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on June 15, July 6, August 31, September 21, and October 5.

For both tours, tickets are $25 for adults, $17.50 for seniors and students with valid ID, and $15 for ages 8-17. Advance reservations are recommended. Tickets are available here.

Your volunteer guides will likely be retired steelworkers who worked in the factories. Tours are supported by the National Park Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Rivers of Steel, a Federal Historic Area, also houses a museum in the Bost Building in Homestead. It’s at 623 E. Eighth Ave., 412-464-4020.

The building, an old hotel built in 1892 and a National Historic Landmark, played a key role in the infamous 1892 Homestead Lockout and Strike. This pitted the merged Iron and Steel Workers’ Association against the Carnegie Steel Co.

Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children under 14. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

The Pump House in Munhall is the site of the bloody battle in which locked-out steelworkers clashed with Pinkerton guards who had traveled up the river on barges to reopen the factory. After a day of gunfire, 10 were dead and the Pinkertons surrendered. But Carnegie kept steelworkers from unionizing for decades.

The Pump House at 880 W. Waterfront Drive houses exhibits today. It is near a trailhead on the 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage Trail that connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland.

Rivers of Steel also offers insight into a historic smelter at Rices Landing on the Monongahela River in Greene County. The WA Young & Sons foundry and machine shop are open for tours April through October.

It also offers two bus tours: Pittsburgh Memories and Babushkas and Hard Hats. It also offers guided tours via mobile phone and MP3.

Rivers of Steel won federal designation from Congress in 1996, showcasing the industrial, cultural and ethnic heritage of eight counties around Pittsburgh. For more information, visit www.riversofsteel.com.

(c) 2013 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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