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Carrie Furnaces preserve Pittsburgh’s steel legacy

The Carrie Furnaces offer visitors and longtime Pittsburgh residents alike the chance to catch a glimpse of the Pittsburgh steel industry’s glory days. The site, in Rankin, Pa., is currently open during scheduled hours. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Strong) The Carrie Furnaces offer visitors and longtime Pittsburgh residents alike the chance to catch a glimpse of the Pittsburgh steel industry’s glory days. The site, in Rankin, Pa., is currently open during scheduled hours. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Strong)

Newcomers to Pittsburgh may be curious to know where they can find the steel mills that the city has long been known for. Until recently, there was little left of Pittsburgh’s claim to fame. Thanks to a new project undertaken by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, however, visitors and Pittsburgh natives alike can now see a remnant of Pittsburgh’s glory days.
Rivers of Steel has entered into a lease agreement with Allegheny County over an area of land in Rankin, Pa. The property has a long history in iron-making and was at one time owned by Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel Corporation. In 1901 Carnegie gave $2 million to found the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later became Carnegie Mellon University. His philanthropic effort began in earnest with the sale of his holdings in the Carnegie Steel Corporation to J.P. Morgan earlier that year. Buying out Carnegie and other steel manufacturers, Morgan created U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation.

One of the properties Carnegie sold to Morgan was in Rankin, Pa., the site of Carrie Furnaces. Carnegie had bought the furnaces in 1897 to help feed his Homestead Works with purified iron. Of the furnaces on the Rankin site, only two remain today: Carrie No. 6 and No. 7.

The remaining two furnaces, built by U.S. Steel in 1907, showcase an era before computer control. All valves are operated by hand, and all levers are manual.
Materials science professor Chris Pistorius explained the details of blast furnace operation in his course on processing design.

“Iron ore, coke, and limestone are fed into the top of the furnace, while air at 1000°C is forced in near the bottom,” he said. “Inside, the coke burns continuously, 24 hours a day, and ultimately strips the oxygen out of the iron ore. The furnace is tapped periodically to extract the iron in molten form, purified to about 95 percent.” Before they closed, Carrie No. 6 and No. 7 each produced around 300 tons of iron every four hours.

The heat and gases make blast furnaces very dangerous environments, and very few people are allowed near them while they are operational. However, visiting Carrie has been made possible by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which is offering tours on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9.

Jim Kapusta, who worked the Carrie furnaces from 1964 to 1982, will be in the cast house describing his experience.

“When you were on the cinder crew, you knew you didn’t need to worry about a stuffy nose — the sulfur in the air was so powerful it just cleared you out! But if you were tapping iron, that smelled sweet to me,” Kapusta said.

Furnaces No. 6 and No. 7 were idled in 1978, and the entire site had been abandoned since the mid-’80s, until the furnaces were named a National Historic Landmark in 2005. Recently, Rivers of Steel held a media day to bring attention to the tours and remediation plans for the area.

Similar redevelopment occurred in the South Side and Homestead in the past, creating the South Side Works and Waterfront shopping areas. While some evidence of steelmaking was left on those sites, it is not in the same raw form as Carrie.