Imagine renovating a Pittsburgh row house built in the early 1900s and restoring it to its former glory.
Now, imagine multiplying that work by a million.
That's how much work it will take to secure, restore and stabilize the Carrie Furnace site in Rankin into a museum and park, according to Ron Baraff, director of museum collections and archives for the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, which has owned the furnace site since 2009.
But that's exactly what dozens of "dedicated, wonderful" volunteers are trying to do.
The furnaces were built in 1884, acquired by Andrew Carnegie in 1898 and were the iron-producing facility for the U.S. Steel Corp.'s Homestead Works, now the Waterfront shopping complex, for more than a century. The No. 6 and 7 furnaces -- the ones that remain on the site -- operated from 1907 to 1978.
By 1986, all of it was shut down.
Mr. Baraff said the fact that the Carrie Furnace is still standing after years of neglect and destruction is a testament to how well it was built.
Graffiti tags mar the furnace and surrounding buildings; most of the tags are low, close to ground level, but some are so high one wonders how the vandals scaled the rusty structure.
Mr. Baraff said he doesn't take issue with some of the graffiti at the site and said he would be willing to work with artists who wanted to work at the furnaces.
"Tagging is different than graffiti," he said.
Mr. Baraff and the volunteers have made tremendous progress at the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though it's hard to tell because of the magnitude of what remains to be done.
"It's about making choices" on what to save, what to demolish and what to rebuild, Mr. Baraff said.
"It's not like there's a handbook: 'How to Preserve a Blast Furnace on $1.10 a Day,' " he joked.
Staff from the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area and volunteers are constantly assessing their work and tackling the most urgent projects first. Anything on the site that is marked for demolition is extensively documented with the hope of someday rebuilding it. Some structures and buildings have deteriorated too much to restore them.
The site is mostly stable, and half the battle was securing the site and "battening down the hatches" to prevent people from coming in and "undoing what you've just done," he said.
"Unless you know the site and you know where you are, it's a death trap," Mr. Baraff said. "Unless you're with someone who knows this site, it's a big risk."
One of the biggest challenges was getting the necessary tools and equipment to the site. The "blowing engine house," which was a metal fabricating and central maintenance building in the 1940s, had no doors and windows. Volunteers installed doors and windows to secure building and have a place to store tools and equipment.
Security cameras are set up around the engine house, according to head volunteer Rick Rowlands, 38, who has been volunteering for a year and a half. He travels from his home in Youngstown, Ohio, to give tours and clean up the site.
In the engine house, volunteers repainted a wall listing safety instructions originally painted by furnace workers.
A hypocycloid in the familiar yellow, red and blue is contained by a white circle, with the word "safety" where most are used to seeing "Steelers." To the right, in white block letters, are a list of seven safety rules, including "use proper hand signals," "be aware of crane movements" and "maintain good housekeeping."
That sign was left alone until two years ago, when a vandal spray-painted "Go Browns" over the hypocycloid. The volunteers painted over the graffiti and carefully restored the safety sign.
Mr. Baraff said having people at the site every day deters would-be vandals.
"Having a presence does a lot," Mr. Baraff said. "We're here all the time."
Chris Mierzejewski, 21, of Munhall, was volunteering for the first time Aug. 1.
"It's not an abandoned place you can sneak into and not worry about getting caught anymore," he said, adding that he decided to donate his time after taking a tour of the furnaces.
The immediate goal for the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area and the volunteers is to keep the Carrie Furnace standing and preserve it as a museum and park.
But Mr. Rowlands said the jobs "will never end," comparing it to painting the Golden Gate Bridge.
"We're asked, 'When does this become a museum?' " Mr. Baraff said. "It is."
A $500,000 grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources paid for a contractor to do major repairs like replacing roofs at the site.
As volunteers work, more sections of the plant will open, but they're "being extremely creative with very little," Mr. Baraff said. "You can spend 50 grand on something, or you can get something just as good for a fraction of the cost.
"You have to look at it in pieces and attack each piece as it needs to be attacked."
No matter how overwhelming the task seems, the goal is to preserve the history of the steel industry for future generations.
"This is about doing what's right for the region," Mr. Baraff said. "This is a really, really important site. There's nothing else like it."
Annie Siebert: email@example.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert. First Published August 16, 2012 8:45 AM