Last summer, I went to Carrie Furnaces with my dad and my grandmother. The above images are from the beginning of the tour. My grandmother is in her 90s, and she co-opted the tour a few times telling us about when she worked in the office of a mill in Swissville. One of the other tour participants worked in the mills shortly before they closed, so he told us some first hand stories also about what it was like to work in a furnace.
I also found out that my grandfather actually worked at Carrie Furnaces. It is amazing the things you never know; I guess because you have to ask those specific questions. My grandfather was a stationary engineer and worked in the mills for about forty years.
My dad grew up in North Braddock, and my grandmother wanted him to work in the mills too–because what else would you do? My father had the prescience to turn away from the mills and attend college and then graduate school. That decision changed the course of his life and paved the way for an economic stability that he would not have had had he followed the traditional path to the mills, which were collapsing in the years immediately before and after my brother and I were born.
I was paying good attention on the tour, but a year out I cannot remember exactly the details of everything we saw in the steel mill. (Carrie Furnaces were actually producing iron, but it is hard not to call it a steel mill, or a still mill, if you will.) What I mostly remember is the sheer scale of the equipment. I felt awed by the scale of the machines and the power they represented. The furnace seemed like a force of life that was not exactly god-like but demanded its own creation-based respect.
I mean, look at that thing. I was born in 1984, so I don’t remember this Pittsburgh. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it was like to work in an environment where you were in danger of dying on a very regular basis. Standing in front of this furnace, I try to feel the heat. I try to picture the molten iron emerging from the furnace, but it is all to remote to really capture. I know there are still many dangerous jobs like these mill positions to be had, but as someone who has mostly performed intellectual labor this kind of work is very foreign to me.
Yet, it also seems very intrinsic to who I am. The mill provided a connection to a long line of my ancestors who were mill workers, carpenters, and various other kinds of laborers. While I wear a lot of skirts and sandals and have never owned steel-toed boots, I am a hard worker and can be rather tenacious. There are little flints of steel inside of me that tell me to persevere. Looking at the slanted light in the mill, I can imagine that I got that endurance from the workers in my family who came before me and had to be resilient every single day of their lives just to make it through the day–just to do the jobs they had to do.
If you are a Pittsburgher, and you haven’t been to Carrie Furnaces you should go and maybe take family members who will tell you surprising facts about their lives before you were born. “Grandma, why did your father leave Scotland?” I asked. “Well, his father died of the black lung and…” Yeah, why did no one tell me this before?
Finally, on a different note, there also were goats chomping the weeds. And baby goats are really, really cute.