Staycation destination: Carrie Blast Furnaces in Rankin | TribLIVE.com
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Staycation destination: Carrie Blast Furnaces in Rankin

Joe Napsha

Need a break? Looking for new adventure? There’s no reason to leave Western Pennsylvania. In this occasional series, we highlight “staycation” ideas found in our own backyard.

For those who want to see a part of Pittsburgh area’s heritage as the center of the nation’s steelmaking, there is no better place than the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Rankin. The Allegheny County town is next to Braddock and across the Monongahela River from Homestead — three towns that were an integral part of U.S. Steel Corp.’s mighty Mon Valley Works.

From May through October, the non-profit Rivers of Steel operates tours of the mill, which melted coke, iron ore and a flux-like limestone to produce iron that was shipped to the Homestead Works, where it was made into steel. Much of the mill was razed after U.S. Steel closed the plant in 1982 during the industry’s recession. Carrie furnaces 6 and 7 that remain standing are the only pre-World War II non-operating blast furnaces in the region that were not demolished.

A knowledgeable tour guide will take visitors on a walk around the base of a 92-foot-high blast furnace and show where molten iron that was tapped out of the furnace flowed at more than 2,600 degrees into tanker cars. Visitors walk through an open space larger than two football fields, where a six-month supply of iron ore from Minnesota was dumped in an area 580 feet in length, 135 feet wide and 25 feet deep, according to Ronald Baraff, director of historic resources for Rivers of Steel.

On a recent tour, Doug Styles, a guide from Mt. Lebanon, talked about the dangerous jobs and harsh working conditions in the mill. A steelworker had to be alert, otherwise, he might be run over by a rail car, burned by molten iron, overcome by toxic blast furnace gas or buried under tons of iron ore. A century ago, 500 to 800 men a year — the industry’s “grist” — were killed in the nation’s mills, Styles said. Those who survived “were worn out by 40 and dead at 50.” Hearing about the dangers of the job and the labor-intensive work will give visitors a better understanding of why companies looked for thousands of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to man the mills, making Pittsburgh a true melting pot.

“Pittsburgh always will be the Steel City. This is our heritage,” Styles said.

Several times a year, the mill is host to weddings, said Carly McCoy, a Rivers of Steel spokeswoman. Some brides have their wedding ceremony in front of the metal Carrie Deer sculptureor the expansive field once filed with iron ore, then have their reception in the spacious metal power house, McCoy said.

For information on the tour, which generally last about two hours, contact the Rivers of Steel in Homestead at 412-464-4020.

Homestead Works

After touring Carrie Blast Furnaces, take in the enormity of the former Homestead Works, now home to a shopping center, numerous eating establishments and offices as well as residences. What remains of the once mighty mill, which made steel plates for U.S. Navy battleships, is a series of smokestacks along one entrance off the Homestead Grays Bridge.

The Homestead plant is famous for being the site of the bloody steelworker strike of 1892, when Andrew Carnegie’s steel company battled unionized steelworkers who were locked out of the plant by Henry Clay Frick. Nine strikers and seven Pinkertons guards were killed in a gun battle in July 1892. The Bost Building at 623 E. Eighth Ave. served as the headquarters for the Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers during that strike. It now houses offices, a museum and a visitors center for the Rivers of Steel. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Grab A Bite

Walking around the blast furnace, up and down ladders, through fields that held piles of coal 15-feet deep, a person can work up an appetite. Check out the Dorothy 6 Cafe at 224 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead. Older Pittsburghers will know the significance of Dorothy 6 — the modern blast furnace that was part of U.S. Steel Corp.’s Duquesne Steel Works, which closed in 1984 and was demolished in 1988. Like so many other blast furnaces, Dorothy 6 was named after a woman — the wife of former U.S. Steel president. While on Homestead’s Main Street, check out the artifacts of the steel industry. A picture of Homestead Works adorns a wall near the entrance. For information, see the Dorothy 6 Facebook page.

While You Are There

Take some time to drive along Braddock Avenue, where U.S. Steel still makes steel at its Edgar Thomson Plant, and the company is planning to build a sustainable endless casting and rolling facility. Part of the giant plant was built on the site of British Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat by French and Indian forces in July 1755.

Sadly, the drive along Braddock Avenue is a lesson in what happens when a mill town’s fortunes take a turn for the worse. People leave and stores, banks and even bars close. New businesses are emerging and giving hope for a turnaround.

If you are looking for a place to eat by the mill, try Superior Motors at 1211 Braddock Ave., the former site of an indoor Chevrolet dealership. It bills itself as a restaurant that draws its inspiration from Braddock, its people, history and perseverance. The restaurant can be reached at 412-271-1022.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .


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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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U.S. Steel Corp.’s Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock
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Bost Building, Eighth Avenue, Homestead
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Superior Motors, Braddock Avenue, Braddock
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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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A tour group makes their way through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Attendees of a tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces check in prior to getting started on July 10, 2019.
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The Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Tour guide, Doug Styles, leads a group through the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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The Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, on July 10, 2019.
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Carrie Blast Furnaces iron ore yard, showing iron ore bridge and crane. The date of the photo is not known.
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