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Tour forges link to steel-making past

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Andrew Conte
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jim Kapusta tells his granddaughter plenty of stories from his 20 years as a journeyman at the Carrie Furnaces of U.S. Steel’s former Homestead Works.
Few of the tales made much sense to the 13-year-old until Kapusta took her on a tour of the rusting, graffiti-covered hulk — now open for tours as part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

“Pittsburgh as a steel area is gone now,” said Kapusta, 61, of Peters. “To keep the thoughts and heritage going, we need something like this. It’s almost like going to the Carnegie museum.”

Rivers of Steel gained tour access last year to the Carrie Furnaces site — stretching along the Monongahela River in Rankin, Braddock and Swissvale — after Allegheny County purchased the former mill.

The tours help the heritage area deliver on its mission of bringing to life Western Pennsylvania’s industrial history, said Augie Carlino, president of the Steel Industry Heritage Corp., which oversees the seven-county heritage area.
About 2,000 people toured the furnaces last year, yet names remained on a waiting list. Rivers of Steel plans to start offering the tours again this month.

“There’s a big difference,” Carlino said. “It’s not imaginary anymore. The scale and magnitude and what the potential is I don’t think comes home to anybody until they’re walking around there.”

The National Park Service last year designated the furnaces as a historic landmark, and backers are hoping to win congressional designation as a full National Historic Site within the next two years.

The furnaces would be on par with the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield and Grand Canyon in terms of prestige, federal marketing and park service staffing, Carlino said. The site could draw hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.

A futuristic vision includes a monorail snaking around gleaming factory buildings, while visitors linger on wide brick walkways and at open-air cafes. At night, fireworks and flaming gas plumes would erupt from a factory trimmed in decorative lighting.

Federal and state governments could share the $100 million to $120 million cost with local foundations, Carlino said.

The plans seem far-fetched — especially from the barren mill site, choked with weeds — but have roots in similar industrial tourism sites in Germany. There, a former steel mill has been turned into an amusement park with rock climbers scaling iron ore storage bins and scuba divers swimming in a seven-story water tank.

“It’s not a museum only,” said Janis Dofner, the heritage group’s spokeswoman. “You’ve got to have other amenities.”

For now, the Rivers of Steel tour allows visitors to simply walk beneath and around the 92-foot blast furnaces as they stand silently among chirping birds. The cast house, where molten iron once poured from the furnace amid showering sparks, stands as an open-air cathedral.

Kapusta and former mill workers volunteer their time to share stories of wrestling with oversized valves and the fire-breathing machines.

“It was like you’re controlling a volcano,” Kapusta said. “It was probably the same heat and everything.”

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 320-7835.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633