Touring what remains of the Carrie Furnaces as the sun was setting over Rankin, an industrial neighborhood of Pittsburgh, clad in designer jeans and my DSLR, I was prepared to hear about local history and capture some epic golden hour shots of a rusting steel mammoth before heading to the craft beer happy hour after. What I was not prepared for was how personal that site felt.
Although I was born just one year before the infamous Homestead Steel Works ceased operations permanently, as a native Westsylvanian, my own history is tied up with the industry that turned this region from farmland to industrial powerhouse and attracted countless thousands in search of jobs for a century.
The irony (sorry!) was not lost on me that in two generations, my family went from mining coal to Instagraming defunct blast furnaces. Like many Americans, our story here begins in the late 19th century, with poor German immigrants in search of something better. My great-grandfather was a farmer and stone mason who settled a homestead in Western Pennsylvania and helped build the beautiful arch abbey basilica at Saint Vincent College, part of the first Catholic parish in Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains.
My grandfather was a plumber by trade, but was swept up in the times and ended up mining bituminous coal seams in Westmoreland County for the Jamison Coal & Coke Company. Since my idea of hard labor as a child was husking corn for dinner in the summers, I always pitied his misfortune at having spent his days in the dark, underground, in a terribly dangerous environment. But he loved it, or so I’m told. His male relatives and friends all worked in the mines together, had supper on the table at 5 o’clock sharp, and slept like a log from a hard day’s work. He also died at 65 from black lung, so I never got the chance to ask him myself.
I’ve spent a large chunk of my life uncomfortable with my Rust Belt heritage, with a constant yen to travel to far away places convinced that anything different from what I knew was better. But sometimes it takes being a tourist in your own backyard and a giant guerrilla art deer to make you appreciate your roots.
Thanks to the people at Rivers of Steel who maintain heritage sites like the Carrie Furnaces and organize cool events like the tour I recently went on, which includes homemade welcome pizzelles and a happy hour with a local brewery after. We left full of beer, halushki, cookies and warm fuzzies. That was their first happy hour tour, but look for more the first Wednesday of each month through October.