Sometimes a person is so well suited to her job that all seems right with the world. At least, that’s how I felt meeting Corinne Bechtel, who loves all things Pittsburgh; in particular the massive Carrie Furnace, the prize relic of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Corinne’s an expansive person. When she says, “We took the concept behind this National Heritage Area, to celebrate Pittsburgh’s iron and steel making past, and expanded it to include all the groups that came here because of steel and the art and architecture that resulted from it.” you realize that she’s wrapped her arms around anything that’s ever happened in Pittsburgh and given the city a huge hug.
The actual real estate of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area includes the Bost Building in Homestead, PA, a hotel that served as labor headquarters during the Homestead Strike of 1892; an Historic Pump House in Homestead, and the Carrie Furnace across the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. For those, like me, wanting a history refresher, Corinne explained that the Homestead Strike occurred when Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie’s main man in the world’s largest steel works, locked out workers trying to organize. Frick hired Pinkerton Guards, who wound up surrendering to the workers at the Pump House. Victory for the workers. Except that the overzealous laborers and their families taunted and beat the Pinkerton Guards on their retreat back to the train. When Harper’s and other media of the day captured the beatings, public opinion swayed against the strikers, who eventually capitulated to Frick. Organized labor didn’t reappear in Pittsburgh for over forty years.
In 1892, 4,000 men worked in the Homestead plant. River barges plus rails to handle over one thousand train cars brought raw materials to Homestead, where they were turned into iron. Then it was transported across the river (first by boat, later by a ‘hot rail’ bridge that reduced the need to cool and then reheat the iron) to become steel. Making steel takes volumes of water, provided gratis by the Monongahela.
No lockouts are required now. The 300 plus acres that Andrew Carnegie owned on either side of the river closed for good in the early 1980’s, leaving a toxic legacy on land and water. Most of the facilities deteriorated and were demolished. Local preservationists rallied to save the Bost Building, eventually earning Heritage Are designation and adding the Pump House and Carrie Furnaces, which operated form 1907 to 1978 and are now the last remaining blast furnaces of that era in Pittsburgh.
Today, the Bost Building is a museum, the Pump House a function space, and the Carrie Furnaces fragile ruins where local artists create intriguing site-specific art. Rivers of Steel is trying to stabilize the Carrie furnaces (blast furnaces all had women’s names) but not refurbish them. Corinne guided me up the narrow stairs and across the metal gangways. It’s refreshing to experience an unsanitized industrial landscape.
But these structures are just the starting point for Corinne’s Pittsburgh enthusiasm. Every surface triggers a story. She explained the origin of Pittsburgh rare steak (charred on outside and rare inside by furnace workers who threw their meat against the 1200 degree furnace wall until it fell off, than singed the flip side). I learned the local tradition of a wedding cookie table, where guests bake their specialties to share. Corinne offers tours well beyond the Homestead steel works, including local churches, ethnic food tours, and other cultural destinations. “The immigrant history often unfolds for work reasons, but immigrant maintained a high level of autonomy. They segregated into work groups, neighborhoods, churches, food, and language.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I think and hope that people want a greater connection to the past, to the things we make with our own hands. We see this all over Pittsburgh; in arts, crafts, cooking, and landscaping. We get our cultural richness from the past, and that is how we’ll live tomorrow.”
When we returned to the Bost Building after our tour, I thanked Corinne for her time and insights. “On a daily basis, I create experience that last a lifetime.” So true.