RANKIN, Pa. — The Carrie Furnaces are intriguing, gritty historical attractions, if you can find the now-abandoned blast furnaces.
The two 13-story furnaces, rusting and dilapidated, 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 Rankin and Swissvale boroughs is an industrial ghost, a relic of Pittsburgh’s colorful steel-making past.
At 92 feet tall, the two furnaces are the biggest attraction in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area and are becoming a bona-fide tourist draw. The Rivers of Steel Corp. offers tours of the Carrie Furnaces where 3,000 workers once toiled.
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The two remaining furnaces offer an up-close look at the time when the Pittsburgh area was the No. 1 steel region in the world. Iron from the Carrie Furnaces became steel that was used in the Empire State Building, the battleship Missouri, the Gateway Arch, the Sears Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Panama Canal, the United Nations Building, the George Washington Bridge and the Alaska oil pipeline.
The Carrie Furnaces are rare examples of pre-World War II iron-making technologies, the only two blast furnaces from that era that survive 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 steel plate and lined with refractory brick 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 companies.
Blast furnaces were named after women; the Carrie name was a family name of one of the initial owners.
The furnaces were acquired in 1898 by Andrew Carnegie and became part of U.S. Steel in 1901. Carrie 6 and 7 were built in 1907 by U.S. Steel.
The Carrie Furnaces operated until 1978 as the heart of the giant Homestead Steel Works, the adjoining steelmaking complex across the river in Homestead.
The blast furnaces consumed approximately four tons of iron ore, coke and limestone for every ton of iron produced. The cooling system required more than 5 million gallons of water daily.
Carrie 6 and 7 each at its peak produced 1,000 to 1,250 tons of iron a day. The molten iron was moved in special 35-ton ladle rail cars across the river on a special bridge — the Hot Metal Bridge — to the Homestead Works to be turned into steel.
The Carrie Furnaces were among 48 blast furnaces in and around Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.
The two remaining furnaces are a National Historic Landmark and the focal point of the proposed 38-acre Homestead Works National Park devoted to the region’s industrial history. Under that plan, the two furnaces would undergo a stabilization and renovation costing tens of millions of dollars to enable visitors to climb catwalks and see the furnaces up close.
In its 105 years, the Homestead Works with its open-hearth mills produced more than 200 million tons of steel. It was the flagship plant for U.S. Steel and one of the world’s largest steel mills, covering 430 acres with 450 buildings and employing 200,000 workers over the years, 15,000 during World War II. It was shut down in 1986.
The old complex has been redeveloped as The Waterfront with stores, hotels and restaurants in Homestead.
Rivers of Steel offers two Carrie Furnaces tours: guided, and self-guided with docents at appropriate stops.
Carrie Furnace attractions include the two furnaces, an oversized brick blower house, the ore yard, car dumper, torpedo car, blowing engine house, hot stoves, cast house and a 15-ton crane for moving iron ore.
It is a big and unpolished facility. For example, the blowing engine house for the two furnaces 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: a metal sculpture of an oversized deer’s head that towers over part of the facility, about 45 feet by 35 feet in size. It was constructed in 1997-1999 by a crew of artists, the Industrial Arts Collective, using materials found on the site.
The tours are designed for ages 8 and up. No high-heeled or open-toed shoes are allowed on the industrial site.
Getting to the Carrie Furnaces was an adventure. The interstate was closed for tunnel repairs and traffic was detoured on a long, winding route through the streets of Pittsburgh and suburbs. That killed our printed directions and delayed our arrival by 40 minutes.
The industrial furnaces are in the middle of nowhere. You can cross active railroad tracks and pass through tunnels and wind along dirt roads that are barely passable to get to the fenced-off site. It is surrounded by a lot of desolation and nothingness.
Rivers of Steel offers tours of the Carrie Furnace site from April through October. Guided two-hour tours are offered at 10 a.m. on Saturdays May through October and at 10 a.m. Fridays June through August.
Self-paced tours are scheduled every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on June 15, July 6, Aug. 31, Sept. 21 and Oct. 5.
For both tours, tickets are $25 for adults, $17.50 for senior citizens and students with valid IDs and $15 for ages 8 to 17. Advance reservations are recommended. Tickets are available at www.showclix.com.
Your volunteer guides likely will be retired steelworkers who worked in the plants. The 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 at the Bost Building in Homestead. That’s at 623 E. Eighth Ave., 412-464-4020.
The building, an old hotel built in 1892 and a National Historical Landmark, played a key role in the infamous 1892 Homestead Lockout and Strike. That pitted the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers 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 squared off against Pinkerton guards who had come up the river on barges to reopen the plant. After a day of gunfire, 10 were dead and the Pinkertons had surrendered. But Carnegie kept the 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 runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
Rivers of Steel also offers a look at a historic foundry in Rices Landing on the Monongahela River in Greene County. The W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop is open for tours from April through October.
It also offers two bus tours: Pittsburgh Memories and Babushkas and Hard Hats. It also offers cellphone and MP3 tours.
Rivers of Steel won federal designation from Congress in 1996, spotlighting the industrial, cultural and ethnic heritage of eight counties around Pittsburgh. For information, go to www.riversofsteel.com.