Historic Carrie Furnaces Tour: A Pittsburgh Time Capsule

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Pittsburgh is known for its industrial heritage. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pittsburgh was a top producer of steel, iron, and coke and put millions of American-born and immigrant laborers to work. However, much of that history lives on today in museums, while expansive industrial sites have been redeveloped or abandoned. Carrie Furnaces is an exception.

Preserved by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark is a 130-acre former industrial site along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. It is one of the last remaining sites of its kind in Pittsburgh, and the only one open for guided tours and events. Here at the Carrie Furnaces, you can walk through history as you explore and tour this historic site near Pittsburgh. As a National Historic Landmark, Carrie Furnaces is nationally recognized as one of the last remaining pre-World War II blast furnaces.

Join us in exploring this time capsule of Pittsburgh’s history as the Steel City! The Carrie Furnaces is one of the most unique things to do in Pittsburgh! In this post, we’re going to share with your our experience touring the Carrie Blast Furnaces in Pittsburgh! 

Touring the Carrie Blast Furnaces, Rivers of Steel

A Photo Safari Tour at Carrie Furnaces, Rivers of Steel

History of the Carrie Furnaces

Carrie Furnaces is a complex of buildings and structures dedicated to processing iron, a parent material of steel. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, steel was the preferred material for infastructure and machinery because it was lighter, stronger, and less expensive than iron. Still, iron was the base metal for steel and therefore a necessary ingredient. Iron smelting facilities like Carrie Furnaces were needed to extract the pure iron from the raw ore and send it to steel mills for processing.

Built in 1881, the Carrie Furnaces was part of the Homestead Steel Works, a large network of mills and railways that served as the flagship operation for Carnegie Steel Company and later the U.S. Steel Company. The Homestead Steel Works once sprawled across the shore of the Monongahela River, employing thousands of workers, some of whom participated in the famous Homestead Strike of 1892. The steelworks closed in 1986 as part of the collapse of the domestic steel industry.

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Today, Carrie Furnace is one of the few sites that remains of the Homestead complex, as much of it was razed to build the Waterfront shopping plaza and Sandcastle Waterpark. A line of towering chimneys at the Waterfront and the Hot Metal Bridge are among the remnants.

On top of that, what we see at Carrie Furnaces today is only part of once stood. Only furnaces #6 and #7 remain. These furnaces were built in 1907 and ceased operations in 1978. Carrie Furnaces may look run down and abandoned, but it is actually carefully preserved.

Touring the Carrie Furnaces in Pittsburgh

Carrie Furnaces offers a few types of tours and programs. Rivers of Steel, the organization that oversees Carrie Furnaces, is pioneering unique ways to connect with Pittsburgh’s industrial history through guided tours, art programs, concerts, and festivals.

Carrie Furnaces offers a few special tours:

Industrial Tour

The Industrial Tour connects you with the history of Carrie Furnaces through stories of industry, innovation, and the life of workers and their cultures. Learn how the complex operated from a mechanical standpoint while also discovering how the iron produced at Carrie Furnaces contributed to steel production, the economy, and modern technology.

This tour also explores the lives of thousands of workers, including their work in hot, loud, and dangerous conditions, contributions to workers rights and the labor movement, and their daily lives and diverse cultures.

Arts & Grounds Tour

The urban, rugged look of Carrie Furnaces and its rich history has inspired many artists. Sculptors, painters, photographers, landscape designers, and graffiti artists have used the site to create works of art, many of which are incorporated into the site itself. Carrie Furnaces is not only an outdoor history museum but an artist’s playground. The Arts and Grounds Tour shows you works of art around the site that are not on the Industrial Tour.

Iron Garden Tour

It may be hard to imagine nature flourishing where a blast furnace melted metal and coughed smoke. Yet at the Iron Garden, you can see both nature and artists reclaiming the industrial landscape. In the shadow of Carrie Furnace, the Iron Garden’s trails meander through meadows and groves of young trees. Informative signs explain what you see and the many challenges of caring for a post-industrial landscape.

Other Rivers of Steel Tours and Locations

If you want to continue learning about Pittsburgh’s industrial, you can venture off-site and enjoy other tours offered by Rivers of Steel.

Hop on a riverboat and take the 90-minute Intro to Innovation Tour, where you learn about the ever-changing shores of Pittsburgh’s rivers and enjoy views of the bridges and skylines. Watch demonstrations at a 1900 machine shop in Rice’s Landing, about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Gather some friends and book a special tour of the 1892 Pump House, a key location in the Battle of Homestead, where striking workers faced Pinkerton agents sent to suppress them.

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Carrie Furnaces Photo Safari Review

We recently attended a Photo Safari at Carrie Furnaces. This art workshop invites photographers to explore Carrie Furnaces from an artistic perspective. We joined a group of about 20 photographers of all experience levels on a cloudy day in October for our Photo Safari.

The Photo Safari allows photographers free time and essentially free rein to take photographs throughout the complex. Of course, not all sites are accessible for safety reasons, but the site is so large that these restrictions are not noticeable. It is important to note that this walk does not include historical background – book an Industrial Tour to get this experience (and we highly recommend both!)

We booked our Photo Safari online through the Rivers of Steel website. When we arrived, we were greeted by a volunteer, who also happened to be a former steelworker. He gave us a brief orientation before walking us through the site and explaining where we could and could not walk. These rules are important to follow as they keep you and the historic site safe.

Afterward, we had 2.5 hours to take photos. We brought digital and film cameras to play with. A tripod or flash is recommended for interior shots since some areas can be quite dark.

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What would you like to experience at Carrie Furnaces?