Tours of Carrie Furnace brings heritage to new generations

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Carrie Blast Furnace tour guide Howard Wickerham has one word for the men who toiled to make iron for steel during the industry's glory days: brilliant.

"There was a lot of trial and error and guys who knew what they were doing," the volunteer guide said. "Furnaces 6 and 7 had not been upgraded since 1936. Steelworkers utilized their skills and Yankee ingenuity to maintain these furnaces without high-tech engineering or computers," he said Saturday during a guided tour of the former Carrie Furnaces Nos. 6 and 7 in Swissvale.

The guided tours are held at 10 a.m. Saturdays through October and at 10 a.m. Fridays, June through August.

Self-paced tours run monthly, starting Saturday, with the nonprofit Animal Friends and some adoptable pets, and the local bluegrass/folk band The Seams. A portion of every ticket price benefits Animal Friends.

The self-paced tours begin at 9 a.m. and run every 30 minutes; the last starts at 11:30 a.m. They will also be held June 15, July 6, Aug. 31, Sept. 21 and Oct. 5.

The site housed seven furnaces from 1907 to the mid-1930s, five of which were in Rankin and two in Swissvale. Today, the only remaining furnaces are Nos. 6 and 7, which operated until 1978. At their maximum, they each produced 1,250 tons of iron a day.

The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area acquired the rights to the pair of furnaces, including acreage surrounding the former steel complex, in June 2010. Two months later, the site was opened to the public for tours.

Beneath the shadows cast by the soaring monuments to a bygone era are enroachments of modern times. A 40-foot salvage structure known as the Carrie Deer has hovered over the base of the stoves since 1997, and there are Hollywood-style plastic foam "bricks" and foam rubber iron ore made for track-side fight scenes for the upcoming movie "Out of the Furnace" starring Christian Bale, which filmed there last year.

Among the guided tour stops is the stationary car dumper, which was installed during modernization efforts at the two furnaces in 1925-1926 and, as such, is one of the oldest car dumpers in existence in the U.S.

As the bin filled, its iron ore contents were dropped into transfer cars that moved the material to the proper ore yard unloading pit.

Visitors also view the stoves, which heated air up to 1,800 degrees that was blasted into the furnaces to support the smelting process.

Coke, limestone and iron ore were put in the furnaces and cooked at 2,800 degrees. The resultant molten iron was poured into a ladle called a torpedo car and transported across the Rankin Hot Metal Bridge to the open hearth furnaces of the Homestead Works. The end result: steel.

While facilitating the process, the steelworkers battled the heat, weather, rodents, rusted decks, perilous floor openings and more in the 92-foot-tall structures.

"We came to depend on each other like guys in a war zone," said Mr. Wickerham, who worked as a welder on the site from 1968 to 1973.

Among the 20 tourgoers was Bill Bird, 62, who traveled with five others from Indiana County, and who worked as a laborer in the McKeesport Tube Mill in the late 1960s, when he was in college.

"It is something that you want to pass on to generations." he said of the region's steel legacy.

Also on the tour was Rudi Batzell, 27, a Harvard University graduate student working on a doctoral dissertation on the rise of corporate capitalism in the steel industry, which compares Pittsburgh's steel industry with that of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

Anecdotally, Pittsburgh bests Sheffield as the latter has no guided tours, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mr. Batzell said.

The Budig family drove from Ashland, Ky., where Craig Budig, 37, is a foreman with AK Steel.

He said the tour taught him how fortunate Pittsburgh is to have volunteers, such as Mr. Wickerham who help preserve the history of steelmaking members for future generations -- like his son, Hunter, 16.

Mr. Wickerham, of South Park, said the message he hoped to convey is one of pride and heritage.

"I want to keep everyone mindful of the small town that helped create a great nation," he said.

Tours cost $25 for adults, $17.50 for college students and seniors over age 62; $15 for ages 8 to 17.

Reservations can be made at, although tickets may be purchased at the site with cash or credit card. Proceeds benefit ongoing preservation.

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: First Published May 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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