Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area provides tours of historic Carrie Blast Iron Furnace

Iron and steel.

They are part of the heritage of Western PA running as deep as the three rivers that traverse through the region.

Many of those from this area remember the great heyday of the mills, huge furnaces blowing smoke, red glowing light radiating from the furnaces at night. At one time, more than 1,000 tons of iron a day was produced in this area.

But in Rankin, the Carrie Furnace still sits, waiting for visitors to come and learn about the past, to pay homage to the men and women vital to the heritage of Pennsylvania.

“I always say it is the ‘Siren of the Valley,’” said Ron Baraff, director of museums and archives of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, “beaconing and drawing people in.”

Carrie Furnace of U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works is a National Historic Landmark and open for tours to the public. Built in 1907, the Furnace was once home to over 4,500 iron workers, the furnace was where iron was produced then transported to other mills in the area to produce steel.

Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is a non-profit dedicated to preserving the heritage of the region and hosts various tours of the Furnace and houses archives from the steel making era. The Steel Heritage Tours include: the Carrie Furnace Hard Hat Tour, a guided tour led by a well-trained guide; the self-guided tour – visitors walk through the Furnace at their own pace and visit with retired iron and steel workers who are stationed at various sites through the mill; and the Babushkas and Hard Hat Tour, which pays tribute to the immigrants of the region and includes a famous Pittsburgh tradition, the “Cookie Table.”

Rivers of Steel also host the Cycle Through Pittsburgh’s Industrial Heritage Tour that takes visitors on a bike path along riverside trails along the Monongahela River and past sites important to the industry of the area.

“We also offer private tours for groups and host school groups. We also rent out the area for film producers and other productions and events,” said Baraff. Photo safaris are also offered for photographers.

Approaching the furnace along a dirt road across the fields, it does indeed “beacon” to visitors. Visitors park in a field next to the site, and enter through a chain link fence. The Mon Valley’s last standing blast furnace can be described as majestic as she sits there, still proud and echoing of her important past.

And yes, it is a “she.” The blast furnaces were named after female relatives of the builders, according to Marsha Resinol, retired teacher and tour guide.

“When someone asked why they were always named after women, it was explained that is was because the furnaces were hot and temperamental,” she joked. Reportedly, “Carrie” was the name of several female relatives of the builder though some say it was his sister.

Resinol is typical of the volunteers who lead the tours – people who love history and are willing to be trained to explain the background and history of the great furnace.

One of the most valuable aspects of the tour is the retired steel and iron workers who also volunteer their time. The men and women add to the tour guides stories, telling about their own experiences in the mill. Howard Wickerham was one of the retired workers and shared stories of his time at Carrie during a recent tour.

“Everything was created with safety in mind. See how this angles away – if the melted iron would spill out, it would roll down here,” he explained, pointing to a ledge outside one of the stoves. As he and Resinol showed the visitors the asbestos suits the workers would wear to protect them from the heat, it is easy to picture the workers sweating as they worked with the molten iron.

“They add things to the tour that just can’t be duplicated,” said Baraff of the retired employees of the mills.

The tour goes through the ore yards, past the old hot stoves and the cast house where thousands of local men and women worked 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year from 1907 to 1978. Although the building is empty, it is easy to imagine the mill in full steam.

The site attracts a multitude of visitors, according to Baraff including those who worked in the mills, those who had family members who were iron and steel workers, historians, photographers, artists, visitors to the Pittsburgh area and community members interested in the region’s past.

The site has also garnered national attention with the recent filming of the movie, “Out of the Furnace” starring Christian Bale and Robert Duvall. Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has also filmed a video at the site.

“There are so many reasons to visit the site – for the history of course, but also the aesthetics and the natural beauty of the place,” said Baraff.

The site is also constantly being restored according to Baraff, and they just added solar panels which will allow power to be brought on-site to light the area and improve tours.

“Every time you visit, you will see something new,” he said.

For information on tours visit or call 412-464-4020 ext. 32. Please note the site is an industrial site and visitors should dress accordingly with no open-toed shoes allowed. The site is not handicapped accessible.

By Kathleen Ganster

Kathleen Ganster is a freelance writer and journalism professor at La Roche College.  She has written over 1,300 articles for various newspapers, magazines and Web sites on a variety of topics including health; education; food; travel; current events; outdoor writing, and human-interest stories. Twitter: @kathleenganster

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What is HeritagePA?

The railroad. Canal towpaths. Lumber yards. Highways running through the mountains and fields. Small towns settled by immigrants. Iron and steel mills. 

They are all part of the rich history of Pennsylvania and all part of the HeritagePA areas.

Pennsylvania’s Heritage areas are dedicated to preserving the history along with the natural resources and culture of the state, but may also be a little-known resource to many.

The HeritagePA areas are large geographical regions in the state that represent an important industrial era of its history and also encompass important cultural assets and natural and scenic resources so important to that particular area. There are 12 heritage areas in Pennsylvania and members of the HeritagePA Association that operates under the umbrella of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

The areas include: Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area; Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor; Endless Mountains Heritage Region; Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area; Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor; Lumber Region; National Road Heritage Corridor; Oil Region National Heritage Area; PA Route 6 Heritage Corridor; Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area; Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area; and Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area.

Of the 12 areas, five are also designated National Heritage Areas including the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Rivers of Steel, Schuylkill River, the Oil Region and the Lackawanna area.

History of HeritagePA

The heritage program in Pennsylvania was formed in the late 1980s. The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Bureau of Recreation and Conservation worked with the National Park Service in three planning projects that were aimed to preserve and interpret industrial areas that had been determined to be nationally significant, according to Allen Sachse, former Executive Director of Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.  Sachse still serves as a part-time advisor to the area.

The original three areas were the Steamtown National Historic Area (later to become Lackawanna Heritage Valley), Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor and Southwestern PA Industrial Heritage Commission.  The projects each tied together various partners and community groups to promote and preserve the heritage of the area including ‘telling the story’ of the heritage for future generations, said Sachse.

“We believed that in order for any resident of Pennsylvania to understand the history of the state, they need to know where we came from – the Heritage areas allow us to preserve that story,” he said.

The groups also recognized that the natural resources were important to the heritage as well.

As the projects evolved, the group began to look at models in other states to assist in creating a program for the entire state of Pennsylvania. DCA also sought input from various state agencies and, according to Sachse, a task force worked with community groups to move towards creating heritage projects.

Sachse said a report by the PA Historical and Museum Commission, Made In Pennsylvania, was used as a guide to define the role and relationships of industry, landscape and the people.  The project continued to evolve and gained the support of the then governor, the late Bob Casey.  In 1989, the Heritage Parks Program came to be.  The program is now administered by DCNR.

The program’s name was changed to Heritage Areas when people were confused and looking for parks according to one of the “founding fathers” of the program, Alan Chace, coordinator of HeritagePA.

Why HeritagePA?

According to Chace, the program was created to tie together various entities to preserve and promote the resources and landscapes important to the history and industrial growth of our state and nation.

Jane Sheffield, president of the HeritagePA  Association and executive director of the Allegheny Ridge Area, said there are five goals of the Heritage Program: to conserve historical and cultural resources; to conserve and enhance natural and recreational opportunities; to develop educational and interpretive resources; to help stimulate heritage tourism and economic development;  and to establish partnerships between all resources including community leaders, businesses, non-profits, and government agencies to steward the advancement of the Heritage Areas.

The Heritage areas work with the other entities in each region to preserve and promote their areas to visitors and local community members alike.

“Pennsylvania is so rich in industrial heritage – all of the areas have an identified industry that they have been centered around, but it is also all of the aspects of the area,” she said.

One of the key elements of the HeritagePA areas is to identify and help promote these resources for visitors and those who already live in the region.

“We want to add authenticity to visitors’ trips. We develop the heritage of the region to give them a great sense of place, but also want them to be able to take advantage of recreational and cultural opportunities,” said Sheffield.

What are the heritage areas of HeritagePA?

Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area was the first, established in 1991. The area encompasses Lackawanna County and portions of Luzerne, Susquehanna and Wayne counties and includes the Steamtown National Historic site. The area focuses on the iron, anthracite coal, transportation and textile manufacturing heritage of the area while also highlighting the diverse ethnic traditions and recreational opportunities in the communities along the Lackawanna River.

Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area was established in 1992 and includes Cambria, Blair, Huntingdon, and Somerset counties. This area promotes and develops the communities along the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway, a 320-mile long corridor following the historic Pennsylvania Main Line Canal. The Heritage Area’s primary focus is on transportation, natural resources and outdoor recreation.

In 1993, Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor was created along the Corridor. The region included Luzerne, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton and Bucks counties.

National Road Heritage Corridor, which includes Fayette and Washington counties and a portion of Somerset County, was established in 1994. This area promotes the National Road, a National Scenic Byway- All American Road and is one of the nation’s oldest byways. The National Road is overlaid in some sections by U.S. Route 40.

The Oil Region National Heritage Area was also created in 1994 and honors the petroleum industry. It emphasizes Venango County and eastern Crawford County’s legacy as the 1859 birthplace of the world’s petroleum industry.

Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor promotes the transportation heritage of part of the first transcontinental highway. Located in Adams, Franklin, Fulton, Bedford, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, this area is mostly (but not exclusively) along U.S. Route 30. This area was established in 1995.

Schuylkill River National and State Area, created in 1995, celebrates the American, industrial and environmental revolutions of the Schuylkill River Valley.  Portions of Schuylkill, Berks, Chester and Montgomery Counties are represented as well as the City of Philadelphia.

In 1996, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area was established and focuses on the industrial heritage of Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania. The region pays homage to the iron, steel, coal and coke industries that played a major role in the country’s heritage, also encompassing the cultural heritage and ethnic traditions of the immigrants who came to the U.S. to work in these industries. The heritage area includes: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The Endless Mountains Heritage Region was founded in 1998 and highlights the legacy of people living with the land. Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties are included in the Endless Mountains Region.

The Lumber Heritage Region is quite large with a 15-county region that promotes the history and heritage of the people and their relationship with the forests of rural Pennsylvania. Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Forest and Warren are included in this region with portions of Cambria, Clarion and Indiana counties. The Lumber Region was established in 2001.

Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area was also created in 2001 and commemorates the role of the river in the cultural and natural heritage while also honoring the environmental and recreational assets of the area for visitors and residents alike. This region includes Lancaster and York counties.

The PA Route 6 Heritage Corridor was the most recent HeritagePA region, instituted in 2005. This region includes Crawford, Erie, Warren, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Bradford, Wyoming, Lackawanna, Pike and Wayne counties.  The PA Route 6 Heritage Corridor promotes the assets of one of the nation’s first transcontinental highways while sustaining and enhancing the small, rural communities linked by the highways. US Route 6 crosses the state of Pennsylvania.

HeritagePA Regions continue to expand and to promote their specific areas and assets. The program has developed into a model for other states while enhancing the state of Pennsylvania for not only visitors, but for those who already call the state “home.”

 By Kathleen Ganster

Kathleen Ganster is a freelance writer and journalism professor at La Roche College.  She has written over 1,300 articles for various newspapers, magazines and Web sites on a variety of topics including health; education; food; travel; current events; outdoor writing, and human-interest stories.
Twitter: @kathleenganster