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90.5 WESA's Good Question! series is an experiment where you bring us questions—and we go out to investigate and find answers.

Those strange structures along Route 51? They're mementos to a bygone trade

Alongside Route 51 by a Denny’s and a Huntington Bank in West Mifflin, there are two round, rust-colored sculptures. There’s no informational plaque, and there are no signs posted.

Their placement might seem insignificant, but Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area's Ron Baraff said the structures are there for a reason.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
During steel manufacturing, the pictured "reamer" was used to clean out slag pots after they had dumped. U.S. Steel Industrial Designer Antoli Rychalski came up with the idea to make some of the industry tools into pieces of public art.

They were installed in the 1970s, around the time that West Mifflin started changing from an industrial site to a commercial hub.

The sculptures aren’t really sculptures, Baraff said; they’re tools of the steel industry.

There’s a slag pot, reamer and buttons placed around the site, and they were all used in the production and movement of a material called slag.

“Slag, really, is all the leftover waste when you’re making iron,” Baraff said. “So it’s silica, it’s magnesium, it’s phosphorous and it’s limestone.”

Slag was used for fill at construction sites and in the making of concrete. But Baraff said there was a time when trains would load up with slag at one of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, travel out to West Mifflin and dump it.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

The dumpsite created "rivers of molten slag running down a hill,” Baraff said. “Pretty exciting stuff.”

People would gather as trains lined up at the top of the hill behind what’s now Century III Mall, which was then called Brown Dump or Brown’s Dump, and watch the slag pots flip over and pour out the orange and red goop.

“You ask anyone who grew up in this area, going out to West Mifflin to watch them dumping slag was the thing you did,” Baraff said. “You did it with your family, you did it when you were on a date, it was just kind of that place to hang out and see this action.”

U.S. Steel kept dumping there until the late 60s and early 70s when it started looking at other ways to use the land.

The thimble-shaped tool, called a reamer, was used to clean out slag pots after they’d been emptied. The three mushrooms are buttons, which are made of iron and sank to the bottom of the slag pot.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities with Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, stands in one of the buildings at Carrie Furnace on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Baraff says tons of slag was once carried from the Swissvale site to dumps in West Mifflin and around Pittsburgh and ironically, when they started redeveloping the buildings, they had to purchase slag from somewhere else.

The idea to craft these iconic tools of an evolving trade into public art U.S. Steel Industrial Designer Anatol Rychalski.

“He worked hard to apply an aesthetic to an industry that doesn’t really rely upon aesthetics,” said Baraff. “And said to them, ‘Look, these are not waste, they’re not scrap, they’re mementos of history that should be saved and used as memorials.’”

When the structures were installed, everyone knew what they were because the industry was still booming. Nowadays, it’s different.

“Most people have no idea what any of that is," Baraff said. "And they drive past it all the time.”

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.