In the late 1900s, Pittsburgh—a city that had once shone bright as the United States’ thriving “Steel City”—began to fall into industrial decline. The collapse of the city’s manufacturing base, rising unemployment and falling population were all contributing factors to the downturn of the metropolis.
Despite it’s fall, however, a recent start-up boom, supported by world class universities leading research into robotics, medicine and computer science, has breathed new life into the western Pennsylvania city. Bigger tech companies such as Facebook, Uber and Google have also recently set up local offices there.
Boasting a steady supply of new jobs, the city has begun to attract educated young people seeking new careers and opportunities.
This younger demographic has driven Pittsburgh’s booming food scene into the national spotlight. Zagat named the city America’s No. 1 Food Town of 2015 and Saveur called it a “beer and spirits destination.”
Pittsburgh’s recent transformation has enabled the city to once and for all shake its lingering reputation as a smoggy, blue collar steel town. But it has not forgotten its roots.
Blast Furnace Fun
In an effort to continue to revive the city, tourism officials and preservationists are now adapting defunct factory sites to tell the story of how Pittsburgh made its name.
The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one example. This attraction has transformed the non-functioning Homestead Steel Works site, which at its peak produced a third of the nation’s steel, into an area that commemorates the rich history of the industry. Perhaps the highlight of the attraction is the guided tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces.
Constructed in 1906, Carrie Furnaces 6 and 7 stood at the heart of U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works until 1979. At one point, the furnaces and the steelworkers who labored in them produced more than 1,000 tons of iron per day. These 28-meter-tall structures presently stand as sentinels to Pittsburgh’s steel heritage.
On the tour of the furnaces, guides—some of whom are former steel mill workers—lead visitors through the iron-making process, sharing the story of the site’s technology, workers and culture from its prime to the post-industrial present.
Visitors to the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area can also explore other converted industrial facilities, cycle the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail and admire numerous public artworks crafted from steel.
Steel art can also be found in other parts of the city, with The Workers being one of the more famous installations.
Originally commissioned as a small project in 1997 by the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, this collection of sculptures now stands big and tall, celebrating the Steel City’s heritage in an unconventional but impactful way.
The 6-meter-tall sculptures of steel men at work were fashioned from leftover scrap metal from abandoned Pittsburgh steel mills, an iron hot-metal ladle donated by another mill, and the ties from bridges that once carried steel’s raw materials across the city’s rivers. For 15 years, the creators of the project—24 artists of Pittsburgh’s Industrial Arts Co-op—collaborated with industrial, foundation and political entities to make this massive artwork a reality.
The mediums and techniques utilized to create The Workers are a testament to the unions that have set Pittsburgh in motion: unions between its people, workers and capital; between the land and the rivers that run through it; unions of the past, present and future.
The Workers commemorates the rich industrial steel heritage of the Pittsburgh region and honors the individuals who contributed to it, but also celebrates the modern evolution of one of the country’s rust belt and industrial cities into a contemporary, lively metropolis for people to live, work, create and contribute.