New Life Comes to the Carrie Blast Furnaces

  • Trees, and soon art installations, are popping up at the former industrial site. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • Mullen plants thrive where no plants could grow in the not-so-distant past. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • Ron Baraff with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, says the site is now a very serene place where people can see history and nature. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • At one time this machinery turned out 1,000 tons of iron a day. Rusty and unused, it's getting a new life as a canvas for moss. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • On the 133-acre property, nature is making a comeback. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • The Carrie Furnaces still loom large on the landscape. Photo: Lauren Knapp

September 28, 2013

The site of the Carrie Blast Furnaces is immense. Set alongside the Monongahela River, the two steel furnaces, tower at nearly 100 feet—totally eclipsing the site’s two football-field sized warehouses. Since its closing nearly 35 years ago, much of the machinery was stripped and sold for scrap, leaving a rusty skeleton. But it’s also become a welcoming habitat for wildlife. 

You can find Ron Baraff, the Carrie Furnaces resident expert, on site most days, leading tours and leading the charge for its reinvention.

“There’s really nothing better than to be here early in the morning when there’s no one else around and it is so serene,” says Baraff. “And you almost forget that for 100 years this was that creature—that blast furnace that was producing all of this iron, that was consuming all of these raw materials, that was really stripping the earth.”

Baraff works with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, the organization that owns the site. He’ll be the first to tell you about the awe-inspiring production that took place here between 1906 and 1979. At its peak, the workers turned out 1,000 tons of iron a day.

In the furnaces’ epi-center, Baraff explains what the workers would have experienced day in and out. “The heat’s overwhelming,” he says. “There’s constant action—constant movement—so visually it’s overwhelming. But from an audio standpoint, it can be deafening, where you can’t pick out any certain noises because there’s so many.”

It’s not the most inviting place for nature. Basically nothing grew on this 133-acre site while it was in operation.  Not so today.

Rick Darke, a horticulturist who focuses on how humans manage landscapes, is here helping The Rivers of Steel draft a plan for how to manage their own urban landscape. He lists some of the various foliage on site, “We’ve got yellows, we’ve got whites, we’ve got all these grasses, we’ve got different shapes and textures on the same footprint.”

Darke has worked on projects in places like New York City that create space for humans and wildlife to coexist in urban areas.

The plan for the Carrie Furnaces is to work with the existing plants to create an enjoyable environment for visitors, mowing paths and using natural shade for seating areas. Darke tells me this approach is atypical. “Most of the time when we’ve taken post-industrial sites and redone them, they’ve been scoured clean and then any new plants are planted at great expense,” he explains.

Here, there is plenty of nature to work with. Ron Baraff and Rick Darke beat down grass as they walk the perimeter.

“They are the first pioneers,” says Darke as he crouches down and rubs a soft green leaf from a plant known as Mullen. “So you see this is a situation where, for whatever reason, it’s still rock on the surface. That plant can deal with it.”

These plants pave the way for larger species like the poplar trees a dozen feet away.

“We have a thin veneer of dirt and underneath it is the refuse of industry and fill and everything else,” Baraff says. “And so the fact that nature is able to come in and to cling to this is remarkable.”

The Rivers of Steel have opened the site to field trips, too. It’s a hands-on way for students to explore the rich industrial history, the post-industrial experience, and now the ecological rebound.
Baraff is embracing all those aspects of the Carrie Furnaces.

“We want to combine all of that and make it more inviting for people to slow down, to spend some time here, to show what man can do, what nature can do.”

Baraff and the Rivers of Steel hope their work ushers in a new era for the Carrie Furnaces —one that brings interest and life back to this historic landmark.

Artists from the greater Pittsburgh region are creating site-based works at the Carrie Furnaces.  The project, called Alloy Pittsburgh, will be open to the public after September 28, 2013.