Still Working: What Comes Next? Remaking A Life In The Mon Valley

Dec 4, 2015

The main building on Carrie Furnace’s 80-acre site in Braddock looks like a giant has just scattered its playthings and stomped off, not too far away, to eat a few goats. Inside the blowing engine house a 48-inch universal plate mill lies in 40- and 50-ton pieces on the concrete floor. A sign hanging at the south end lists the safety guidelines (“6. Be aware of crane movements”). Bill Sharkey sits on a few benches meant for visitors.

Sharkey isn’t a visitor, really. He worked as a foreman at Carrie from 1974 to when it shut down in 1982. At its peak, the plant produced 1,250 tons of iron a day to send across the Monongahela River to the Homestead Works and refined into steel.

It’s quiet now. The sound of the trains passing by to the north competes with the faint whistle of wind moving through the big doors a volunteer fashioned from found steel.

“In the old days it was all noisy—there’s whistles going all the time, steam hissing, ah, there's railroad engines going all the time, moving ladles, moving cars, a lot of noise. A lot of noise and a lot of dirt. If it went quiet you knew you had trouble,” said Sharkey.

Carrie Furnace was one of the mills, foundries and coke ovens lining the riverbanks in the Mon Valley, or Steel Valley as it was sometimes called. At its height, the region accounted for more 60 percent of national steel production.

“Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of the world for iron and steel manufacturing,” said Sharkey.  

Carrie is unique, not only because it has two of the remaining blast furnaces in the United States, but because of its in between status: It escaped demolition—unlike the Homestead Works or J&L Steel—but it isn’t an active mill. And yes, Pittsburgh still makes steel, at places like the Edgar Thompson and Irvin Plants.

Ron Baraff is Director of Museum Collections at Rivers of Steel, the organization that manages the site. He said it’s important to have the physical space.

“Not everybody realizes that they’ll love a place like this,” he said.  

But they do, he said, taken in by the furnaces looming 92 feet over their heads, or the 80 acres of land around them.

Sharkey said Carrie is about who we once were, when the region’s economy and culture revolved around places like these.

“This is Pittsburgh. This is Pittsburgh at its best and Pittsburgh at its worst,” he said.  

The Golden Age of the steel industry lasted roughly 40 years, from 1870 to 1920; by the 1960s it had begun to decline. It was possible to make a decent living through the 1970s and '80s, but it was a turbulent way of doing so, said Sharkey.

“The old timers used to say it was always soup bones and noodles, and you were lucky to get the soup bones sometimes. It was tough keeping families together when there’s no income coming in, nobody’s working and that stuff, through downturns and strikes, it was a hard place to live,” he said.  

On top of that, working on furnaces built just before the turn of the 20th century, loaded with hundreds of tons of combusting material, required a combination of skill and grit.

“It was like working on a time bomb. It could explode on you any time and you try to just, you know, keep it all together and make the most iron you could,” said Sharkey.  

Jim Kapusta started working at Carrie right out of high school in 1964. He said he doesn’t remember being intimidated by Carrie, but that it took some getting used to.

“If you weren’t meant to work in a furnace, you learned real quick. The sulfur smell sometimes when I first started, it was so bad, I used to lean over the rail and gag and puke and everything else. Just to try to get it out of my system,” he said.  

For all its challenges, maybe because of them, Sharkey said the furnace men reveled in their work.  

“It’s like being the gunslinger in town, you know? You try to control everything to keep yourself out of trouble, but when things went south on you, you wanted to find out how good you were, if you could control it,” he said.

Carrie is tucked away on the river, bounded by rail lines, and largely invisible from the road. But in the course of its history, thousands of men, and towards the end, women, stood where Kapusta and Sharkey stand—under the No. 6 furnace, looking out toward Rankin’s hills.

“I used to wonder why the old timers always were staring out there at the hillside,” said Sharkey. “They were looking at their past. Their youth had gone just watching the hillside.”

Thirty-thousand people lost their jobs in the Mon Valley in 1982, leaving just a few thousand. Carrie stands as a reminder of what happens when entire communities, people like Sharkey and Kapusta, lose their futures. And then have to figure out how to remake them.

90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC.