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Rivers of Steel tour drives through landscape of industrial heritage

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

By Tom Waseleski, Associate Editor, Post-Gazette

A railroad runs through it. So do a few mill towns, a new retail strip and, yes, even a river. It's the Rivers of Steel Heritage National Heritage Area, where heavy industry was king and financial empires were built. Where men at the end of the 19th century worked 12 hours a day, then took up arms to keep their jobs.

Roger and Alice Hall of Beaver Falls check the seats in the Music Hall at Carnegie Library in Braddock. The hall is being renovated and donors who give $500 can have their names affixed to seats. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Talk about tough people.

Now a pair of journeys transports visitors on the eve of the 21st century through the rise, fall and fallout of Big Steel in Pittsburgh. Take one, and you can taste the squalor encountered by newly arrived immigrants. You see the smokestacks that pumped vitality through the Monongahela Valley. You learn how a man with little schooling was set for life with a job at the mill.

All that, of course, is gone or nearly gone. But the Steel Industry Heritage Corp., a nonprofit group that wants a National Historic Park to commemorate the Mon Valley's former steel sites, is not about to let us forget.

One of its missions is to educate people about the region's industrial history, where a cauldron of American tycoons, clever inventors and hapless yet hopeful foreigners forged the backbone of the Second Industrial Revolution. That mission became the Rivers of Steel Journeys.

The Blue Collar Tour, begun last year, is a four-hour bus trip on the first and third Saturdays between May and November. It traces mill yards and back yards, storefronts and church facades between Pittsburgh and Duquesne. The Deckhand Tour, which began this month, is a 2 1/2-hour cruise every Saturday between the Strip District and Braddock, which gives travelers the lay of the land from a riverboat.

Neither tour is cheap -- a ticket costs $35 -- but its value stacks up with a similarly priced seat at Heinz Hall or Benedum Center. In addition, you go home with facts, tales and oddities of the region's industrial life.

Judy Antico, the tour coordinator, says about three-quarters of those on the tours are from Western Pennsylvania, and most fall into one of three groups.

"You have men who worked in some of the mills," she says. "You have women who want to reminisce about their childhood and about life in towns along the valley. And lots of people are children of steelworkers who want to know what it was like for their parents and grandparents."

In front of the Workers Memorial at the Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel in Braddock, guide Barbara Solter addresses those on the Blue Collar Tour. The four-hour bus trip explores mill yards and back yards between Pittsburgh and Duquesne. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Antico, whose father worked at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh plant in Allenport near Charleroi, led the Blue Collar Tour that I took. After tour members gathered in Bessemer Court at Station Square, her first duty was to pass out battery-powered earpieces -- nifty devices that let us hear her above passing cars and trains.

Here in the shadow of a dark Bessemer furnace, on display in the courtyard, Antico explains the innovation brought by the machine and describes the burlap wrapping worn by steel workers before the days of heat-retardant clothing. She walks us under the historic Smithfield Street Bridge to point out the 48-foot blowing engine that served as a giant bellows for the Shenango Furnace Co. in Mercer County. Today it stands, preserved and painted green, in the corner of the parking lot. In minutes, we board a large air-conditioned bus, and it's off to the West End Overlook.

One of the city's best-kept secrets, the green parklet sits high above the Ohio River, the West End Bridge and Pittsburgh's Point. In this semi-isolated setting, without any roadside distraction, our guide sets the scene for America's westward expansion and the rise of a new city at the forks. We try to picture the urban terrain below all green and dotted with smoke from wood fires. It's not easy.

Back on the bus, we head for the South Side. Antico points out the turn-of-century architecture and traces the community's evolution from lunch-bucket neighborhood to hip hangout.

Soon, travelers get an eyeful of new development unfolding on the tract formerly occupied by Jones & Laughlin Steel. Reuse and revival are the watchwords for Pittsburgh's former mill sites, and this is but the first spot on the tour where the group will see construction under way.

As we roll along Eighth Avenue into West Homestead, Antico points out the Bulgarian-Macedonian Cultural Center, typical of the many social clubs that welcomed immigrant workers to a strange and sometimes unfriendly land. Like the Polish Falcons or the Serbian Club, the organizations often had a simple hall where members could eat, drink and meet marriage prospects of similar background.

We approach the Homestead High-Level Bridge and another guide recalls the renown of Mesta Machine, which closed in the 1980s. The story goes that when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev visited America in 1959, he wanted to see three things: Hollywood, an Iowa farm and Mesta Machine. When the Communist leader toured the West Homestead plant, a worker with Russian ancestry shook his hand and gave him a cigar. Krushchev took off his wristwatch and gave it to the worker.

Now the water park Sandcastle stands on the Mesta site.

The bus crosses the railroad tracks into The Waterfront, the new retail strip that sits on the same stretch occupied by U.S. Steel's Homestead Works, where 10,000 people once worked. We pass the new Giant Eagle on the right, a massive Dave & Buster's restaurant on the left and eventually the Loews cinema complex.

In jarring contrast to the fresh pavement and new exteriors are the artifacts of steel-making, preserved along the perimeter of the $300 million shopping tract.

Near the river bank is an enormous steel gantry, set in a grassy area and still perched high above its tracks. It was used to lift loads of steel onto barges. Behind Loews is the row of brick smokestacks, lined up like 12 giant candlesticks. Built in the 1940s, they stand 100 feet tall and are illuminated at night.

We return to Eighth Avenue and see a different kind of business district, the one that steel built, then left to wither. With a historic streetscape and a struggling character, old Homestead appears to have all the potential of Carson Street, but the turnaround looks years away.

Near the end of the business section, the bus passes the Bost Building, the former hotel that was the worker headquarters of the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike. We stop at the Pump House, where the bloody clash occurred. Before history gave it capital letters, the pump house was used to provide water to temper steel. It was here that the Pinkerton guards hired by steel company chairman Henry Clay Frick arrived by barge and tried to come ashore to break the strike. One of our guides recites a dramatic first-person account of a steelworker holding his ground.

Strikers and the townspeople waged a 14-hour battle against 300 Pinkertons. In the end, seven mill workers and three guards were dead. Another casualty was the cause of union organizing, which was set back by decades. While millions of history students have read about the event in textbooks, only a handful have stood on the soil where it happened. For better or worse, the site is now across the street from Lowe's Home Improvement Center.

From Homestead it's on to Braddock, where the tour encounters the only working mill of the day, U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works. We stand at a memorial erected along a fence outside the plant gate, where Antico describes the old aspects of the operation and the continuous caster that gave the plant new life. In the meantime, trucks lumber by, steam hisses and the mill is a sprawling industrial giant that will work round the clock.

Across the street is an old, semi-vacant building. It's built on a slope, and every few feet along the side of the building is a door. Antico calls it "two-up-and-two-down," housing for mill-worker families with two small rooms on the first floor and two above.

The bus carries us up the hill to the first public library endowed by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Library of Braddock. But there are more than books, computers and handsome woodwork behind the muscular granite exterior.

We get a behind-the-scenes look at the building's indoor swimming pool and its pair of bowling lanes, built for the recreation of Carnegie's workers. Unfortunately, the pool is dry and the lanes are stacked with boxes, both victims of too few resources and too much stuff to store. Another little-seen relic is Carnegie Music Hall, a vintage performance space with stage, balcony and velveteen chairs. For a $500 donation, you can support the renovation and have your name engraved on a plate affixed to one of the new seats.

After Braddock, we take the Tri-Boro Expressway under the George Westinghouse Bridge and skirt East Pittsburgh. The span, opened in 1932, has five massive concrete arches, the tallest of which is 200 feet. Legend has it that a couple of workers slipped into the concrete while the bridge was going up and there their bodies remain; others say no.

In North Versailles, we turn in to what remains of Eastland Mall, one of the first shopping centers in the region with stores under one roof. Steel paychecks made the registers hum, and the lack of them (plus the opening of Monroeville and Century III malls) turned the place into a ghost town. Now the most activity is found in the parking lot, where scores of makeshift stalls form an outdoor flea market.

The bus heads around to the back, where an overlook affords a handsome view of a curve in the Monongahela River, from McKeesport down to Duquesne. In the center of the picture is the remaining red hulk of Dorothy Six, the blast furnace at the former Duquesne Works. You need a fertile imagination to picture the smoky valley that was there 20 years ago.

Antico points out that we're standing on a slag dump, built from the red-hot, rocky deposits left after the steel-making process. Eastland Mall and later Century III were both built on areas filled in with slag.

Back on the boulevard, Antico notes the neighborhood of tidy brick homes, built after World War II. Steelworkers who had "made it" left the gritty mill towns for houses like these, with a yard and a garage, in the more suburban settings of North Versailles and East McKeesport.

We cross the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge and take a spin through the old Duquesne Works and see the rusting, idle edifice of Dorothy Six up close. Other mill buildings have been gutted, painted and restored for use, and new roads cut through the industrial park setting. As if providing its own social commentary, the site is home to the expanded operation of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

The tour is winding down as we pass Kennywood Park, an enterprise that boomed with the steel economy, then learned to survive its aftermath. We make a quick stop in a muffler shop parking lot to get a cliff-side view of Edgar Thomson and its countless moving parts.

Our final swing comes on the return trip through Munhall and Homestead, where we head up the hill from Eighth Avenue into a handsome residential neighborhood.

We count a dozen churches in a three-block stretch, each one representing a different strain of Christendom, each one an ethnic welcome mat for workers who would man the mills.

There's the Hungarian Reformed Church and Park Place African Methodist Episcopal Church. There's St. Anthony's, built by the Poles, and St. Maximilian's (formerly St. Michael's), built by the Slovaks.

To drive home the time and place, there's a statue atop the steeple of St. Maximilian's. It's St. Joseph the Worker. At his feet is a ladle pouring a river of steel.

To reserve a seat on either the Blue Collar Tour or the Deckhand Tour, call 412-464-5119.

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