Top 50: South Side site a snapshot of city's history

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Related Media:

Ken Kobus was 16 the first time he walked into the Jones & Laughlin Steel mill on the South Side. It was 1963 and they were still tapping the furnaces with dynamite.

His father, John Kobus, was taking him on a tour of the mill where he had spent his own career and his father, Ken's grandfather, also had worked.

Ken Kobus was 3

7 years old and working at the mill when the furnaces went cold and the molten steel stopped flowing in 1984.

Now when he goes to his old work site, it is for physical therapy on his back at UPMC Sports Performance Complex. He is 59 and still works at a steel mill, this one in Clairton.

The first mill where he worked -- the mill he really loved -- is gone.

The mill site, which once produced the steel for the cars built in Detroit and the beams used to build skyscrapers from coast to coast, has been torn down.

In its place are apartments, offices and stores. The land that once was the foundation for steel production is a place where Pittsburghers go to watch movies, buy kitchenwares and eat cheesecake.

That land at the southern end of the Hot Metal Bridge is, and has been, a microcosm of Pittsburgh's economy, which in turn provides a snapshot of the nation.

It was 1853 when Bernard and John Lauth, the sons of a South Side tavern owner, Samuel Kier and B.F. Jones built the puddling mill in the Brownstown section of Pittsburgh. They named the company Jones, Lauth and Company and the plant the American Iron Works.

"The ground selected was in a free orchard, which was flanked by Bennett's Chemical Works and Grierson's Fenced Orchard," according to the 1910 recollection of Thomas Boyle, who was one of the early workers.

The nation was well into the Industrial Revolution and the land everywhere was being converted from agricultural to industrial use.

Mr. Boyle wrote that the opening of the mill was delayed in 1853 because Mr. Lauth died and his sons wanted to wait until after the funeral.

The site was down the hill from the mouth of a coal mine that fed the furnaces.

"They were using the Pittsburgh Seam, that's why these things developed here," Ron Baraff, the manager of the archives at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, said. The coal, combined with the available Western Pennsylvania iron ore, made Pittsburgh the logical site to build steel mills.

The original plant was built on an acre and a half of land. It had four puddling furnaces, a squeezer, muck rolls, two heating ovens and a guide mill and created seven tons of wrought iron bars and cut nails per shift, according to a 1954 history of the company.

Mr. Boyle lists the men who worked the mill: Joe Myers, the first guide roller; Bill Duval, the rougher up; and Hesac Foley, the rougher down.

Others in Mr. Boyle's account, Dennis Heaphy and Tony Helig, he noted, died in the battles of the Civil War. He did not know, in 1910, they would be followed by other workers at the mill who would be killed in later wars.

The company expanded across the river in 1859 when James Laughlin, who had become a partner, bought land there, formed Laughlin and Company and built two coke ovens and the first two Eliza blast furnaces, named for Mr. Jones' mother.

The goods were carried back and forth across the river by barge until the Hot Metal Bridge was built for the Moncon Railroad, which was founded just to service that site, according to information from the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

The name was changed to Jones & Laughlin Ltd. because of a change in Pennsylvania law in 1883. According to a history of the plant in the "Iron and Steel Year Book" written in 1954, Mr. Jones and Mr. Laughlin had full control of the company after the last Lauth retired in 1861.

The plant started to produce steel in 1886 when the company installed two seven-ton Bessemer converters. By 1894, iron was no longer produced on the site. The company name also went through some changes until 1923 when it became Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.

In 1941, it was the fourth largest steel plant in the United States and produced about 3.6 million tons of ingots. During World War II, when about a quarter of the plant's approximately 13,000 workers were women, the mill, like the others in Pittsburgh, was vital to producing the steel needed for the war effort.

It was hard, hot work.

Mr. Kobus, who grew up on the South Side, remembers his first trip into the mill.

"The mill was always there when I was a kid. You could hear the mill all day every day," he said.

Every year the mill ran tours, but every time he got close to the age at which children could take the tour, J&L raised the age.

He knew he could go in at 16. He didn't let his father forget about it. Then, at age 16, he persuaded his father to take one of his days off to walk him through the mill.

John Kobus worked on the open hearth. Around his work area, where he led his son, there were machines "moving back and forth and going up and down," Ken Kobus said. Ladles carrying molten iron were moving up above.

He remembers trying to dodge the machinery. When they tapped the hearth, there was an explosion of dynamite. He jumped at the noise and then watched the metal, pouring out of the hearth and dropping 18 feet to the refractory bricks that lined the bottom and the sides of the ladle. The sound of the liquid was unlike any he had ever heard before; it was the heavy sound of steel dropping onto bricks.

The workers had dumped bags of coal onto the bricks below to change the carbon content.

"There was one heck of a fire. It was hitting the roof over our heads about 80 feet up," he said.

Like Mr. Boyle 98 years ago, Mr. Kobus remembers the names of the men who worked with him, and if not that, their nicknames.

His father, who had straight black hair that he wore slicked back, was known as "Crow." There was another man Mr. Boyle remembers who was known as "The Mexican."

The Mexican, he said, was able to lift the handles of a wheel barrow loaded with about 1,000 pounds of scrap steel. In a single shift, Mr. Kobus said, The Mexican would move 25 tons of scrap iron and coal. Though he was a man in his 50s, Mr. Kobus remembers, he had the body of a man in his 20s.

In 1968, the plant was still running, but the ownership was changing. The LTV Corp. acquired 63 percent of the J&L stock. By Nov. 22, 1974, the company was wholly owned by LTV.

The mill stopped producing steel in 1984, the same year U.S. Steel's Homestead Works shut down. Across the river where Mr. Kobus was working, coke production continued until 1998.

But on the southern bank of the Monongahela, the work had stopped. Ronald Reagan was president and as the Cold War warmed and the Soviet Union was dismantled, so were the buildings of the old Jones & Laughlin mill, the last steel mill inside the Steel City.

The steel buildings were sold for scrap, but the elaborate tunnels, built with brick archways to shield the pipes that ran through the site, were left behind.

The site was cleared of usable scrap and sitting fallow by 1994 when the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority bought it.

There were proposals to use it as a site for riverboat gambling, but ultimately The Soffer Organization, which also owns Penn Center West, was chosen to be the master developer for Southside Works -- 34 of the 106 acres of the former mill site on south bank of the river.

Other organizations bought and developed other parts. On the east side of Hot Metal Street, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 5 built a hall, the FBI built its headquarters and the Steelers built their training facility and practice fields.

New apartment buildings have been built across 26th Street from Southside Works.

Soffer, led by Damian Soffer, presented the city with an image of a development that would take the brownfield and build a new urban area where people live above stores with dining and entertainment just a short walk away. It took four years from when the Soffer Organization first answered the redevelopment authorities request for proposals to when the first building was built on the site in 1999.

The boundaries of Southside Works are Carson Street, 26th Street, Hot Metal Street and the Monongahela River. In that 34-acre area, the developers plan to keep 11 acres of open space, counting the parks and sitting areas between the buildings, which, though attractively landscaped, also act as loading docks.

Three acres of the open space is Tunnel Park, which runs the three blocks of the development. It's called Tunnel Park, and is not being built on, because the grass and the chess sets sit on top of a railroad tunnel. Visitors who walk in the park hear the whistle of the approaching train before it disappears underground.

Mark S. Dellana, the executive vice president for development and construction at the Soffer Organization, said when Soffer first proposed the site plan, which included the Southside Works movie theater and a bistro where The Cheesecake Factory is now, they were met with disbelief.

He said they knew they were on the right track when they convened a focus group and asked people in their target market what they wanted in an apartment.

The group talked about a safe neighborhood that was close enough to the movies, coffee shops and nightclubs to walk there.

"For the first hour and a half, they never mentioned anything that was in an apartment," such as a washer and dryer, he said.

Soffer has built 84 apartments over the stores in the development. Continental Communities of Columbus built another 273 apartments between 25th and 26th streets.

The full scope, and the future, of Southside Works is visible on second floor above Ann Taylor in an office with no furniture but a couple of credenzas and a 12-by-17-foot model in 1/8th inch scale. There, shoppers, frozen in place, stand on the sidewalks. Cars are stopped in the road and some guy has fallen off a boat. Oops.

The model, which has all the buildings that have been built at Southside Works, also has others that are planned for the site. Between 26th and 27th streets the developers are planning to build a marketplace shopping area with the same feel of Boston's Quincy Market or Seattle's Pike Place Market.

There is a model of an apartment building between REI and 27th Street.

But the big difference between what's there now and the buildings to come is the development on the water side of Tunnel Park, where three tall buildings have been proposed.

Along the water there is enough room for seven buildings, but Soffer Organization is taking one of those slots to build a park at the end of 27th Street that will have ramps down to an amphitheater and possibly a marina.

Up river from the park, Hofbrahaus, a Bavarian beer garden, is designing a restaurant with three office buildings in a row from there to the Hot Metal Bridge.

Downstream from the park, the company is planning to build a 144-room hotel with 23 condominium units on top in a building that is expected to be 165 feet in height.

Two other buildings are proposed between that hotel and the end of 26th Street. Mr. Dellana said they will each be between 75 and 165 feet high and hold either condominiums or offices.

Right now, Mr. Dellana said, Soffer has built 1 million square feet of offices, commercial and residential space on the site. When all of the buildings are done, he said, the development will have 2 million square feet of floor space.

Mr. Dellana pointed to a photo of the old J&L plant in his office taken early in the last century. There are homes right next to the plant, with a baseball diamond on the next corner.

"This was the original live, work, play environment," he said.

Ten decades later, it is again.

Return to Top 50 Index

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?