A few in the gathered crowd laughed. It was a joke that both the overt tourists with their expensive cameras and the men who’d come together in their work boots and camouflaged caps, accompanied by rough-faced quiet wives, could appreciate.
We were gathered together on a brisk September morning in front of a monstrous brick building whose windows had long ago been bricked over. We were at the last standing blast furnaces that had been part of Homestead Steel Works, which until 1986 sprawled for nearly 40 acres along the shores of the Monongahela River in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. These blast furnaces, numbers 6 and 7, were the last pieces of Carrie. Down the Monongahela Valley at the Duquesne Steel Works (gone) there had been Big Dorothy, and there had been Eliza at J&L in Pittsburgh (also gone); The Boss sang about “my sweet Jenny,” a blast furnace named Jeannette in Youngstown, Ohio.
“I know you’re all here for different reasons today,” the stout woman continued. “So feel free to spend as much time as you’d like roaming around. But if you want to put your tag on the building, you’ll have to come back after dark with wire cutters, like all the other graffiti artists.”
We walked off, kicking the occasional piece of iron slag or busted brick, to see what made the country boom, or bust, depending upon how you chose to look at it.
Silo-like structures rose up behind the brick building, and conveyor tracks connected the tops of the silos. Over the bricked-in windows ran lengths of pipe; graffiti tags were everywhere. “Thor” appeared multiple times, and low to the ground and partially covered by growing weeds “Reverend,” stretched in immaculate pink and blue block letters. Next to an open door leading into a debris-strewn room was a close-up of a woman’s luscious lips blowing smoke into a sea of undecipherable graffiti letters. The word “chemist” was scribbled sloppily below her right ear.
The spray paint over the soot over the bricks, or the spray paint over the rust over the metal, the goldenrod bursting up from cracks in the ground, up and over the spray paint, bird shit splattered around over it all. What we stood and looked at was an iconic image of the rust belt, the vestiges of big industry left to crumble out in the open because someone found inherent value in it.
I might have called it beautiful, or at least intriguing, but I felt uncomfortable fetishizing crumbling industry, and to fetishize crumbling industry might be dismissive of the resulting urban blight that followed on the heels of industry’s exits. I was unsure of how I felt about taking pictures of all that defunct metal and brick and calling it something like “malignant beauty,” as did the young mayor of nearby Braddock, a town that has seen its fair share of blight and decay due to the death of the steel industry.
“Reinvention is the only option,” the mayor claims on his website, and at the Carrie Furnaces, tourism was one way of reinvention. But it was more a reinvention of perspective than an actual change in anything. If the Carrie Furnaces were suddenly described as “an attraction,” then they would become more attractive.
The rest of Homestead Steel Works shut down in 1986, and a vast mall was built in its place, complete with a movie theater and comedy club. Pieces of the steel mill still linger—smokestacks, the pump house—and they’ve become focal points, an homage of the industry that gave the valley money and vibrancy, although people are quick to forget that that economic vibrancy came at the cost of the air being as dark as night and balls of soot that gathered on back doorsteps and had to be swept off daily.
As you drive towards the mall, signs point to the old vestiges saying “Walking Tour.” Maps are available at tourist information centers. You can grab one and use your cell phone to dial up an audio tour of the Battle of Homestead; you can visit the community heritage market at the steel works’ old pump house (“HISTORIC SITE, NEW MARKET!”), or you can, per the advice of a glossy brochure, visit the “pounding heart of industrial America…that produced unfathomable wealth and hammered the modern world into shape.”
For $25, take the Carrie Furnace hardhat tour; visit the guts of the industry. Let your children run on corroding metal platforms, crunch over broken glass and busted bricks, poke around on the scaffolding, opening doors and pulling levers until a hard-hatted man below calls up, “Uh, you guys might not want to be up there.”
Come see the men who did the shoveling and sweating for a living, and watch them pantomime the same actions for free. Learn about the living legacy of the “Age of Big Steel.”
I don’t generally like being a tourist. I’m wary of the script that tourist guides tend to follow; I’m fearful that it doesn’t give me the whole picture. But I visited the Carrie Furnaces to better understand what had driven Pittsburgh in its heyday, what had brought the Greek, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Polish people en masse into this country. I knew steel was in some way responsible for why I could get kick-ass pierogies at any pub in Pittsburgh.
I must have been about ten when I took the roller coaster tour simulating the production of chocolate at Hershey Park. The ride started in a “tropical rainforest” where cacao beans were harvested. “Follow their journey across the ocean to America and their delivery to THE SWEETEST PLACE ON EARTH —Hershey, Pennsylvania!” The tour then wound through a simulated factory, men and women in scrubs and shower caps, pretending to make Hershey Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
The simulation ride still exists, as though the operation isn’t being shipped back to the countries where the cacao was grown, to where people will work for slave wages, where they don’t have to regulate hours or working conditions. What I liked about the Carrie Furnaces is that there was no way to hide how it really worked. There was no simulated tour, no re-constructed steel mill—at least not yet—pretending that it was pouring out molten pig iron and sending it over the Hot Metal Bridge to be casted into steel. There was no pretending that the US Steel hadn’t packed up and shipped out, opening their finishing plants in Mexico, Brazil, and the republics of Slovak and Serbia. The shut-down was as much a part of the story, and it seemed this reinvention was still being scripted. There were still a number of ways to tell this story, and the presentation was unvarnished.
Exiting down a sketchy corrugated metal walkway that was riddled with holes, we met yet another interpreter. He wore tinted glasses, and a gold cross nestled in his white chest hair. M-A-N-N-Y was spelled in reflective letter stickers across his hard hat. He watched the people trickling out of the blast furnace. We approached, waiting to hear what he had to tell us.
“Well?” he finally asked. “Got any questions?” The group was silent for a moment, and he took the opportunity. “I’m glad you came down to see what made America great,” he said. “That’s why they took it all away. US Steel,” he said, motioning up to the rusted monster in faux longing. “They like to shut everything down and kick people in the face.”
I didn’t go to the Carrie Furnaces because I thought it was what made America great. In fact, I haven’t cared much about what makes America great. It’s an American obsession, this notion of greatness. “Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination,” wrote James Fallows in an article called “How America Can Rise Again” for the January 2010 issue of The Atlantic, “or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind.” Fallows goes on to discuss the “jeremiad” tradition, our nation’s obsession with “harsh warnings that reveal a faith that America can be better than it is.” Greatness and decline, our two biggest fears. But I suppose I’d always had some level of discontent—a personal quest for something better that kept me venturing out, traveling, seeking something that might shake me, and I suppose that might make me as American as the next in my pursuit for enlightenment.
It was this search that brought me to Alaska in 2001 with a summer field course I took at my college. Not counting Hershey Park, the trip included my first dose of industrial tourism. My trip to Carrie brought this trip back to me in many ways — some obvious connections which will become clear. But there was also a less obvious connection having something to do with splendor and glory and a subsequent disillusionment. It’s funny to think of how cliché it is now — Alaska, such an obvious choice for both adventurers and exploiters, an easy way to romanticize both wilderness and the bounty of industry. America’s final frontier, some like to say, and the beauty of a frontier is the blank-slatedness of it, that each can project her own fantasy across that vast boreal wonderland.
It was a small class, and we were studying natural history and environmental issues. We came from a small environmental school in Arizona, and therefore with a preconceived opinion that what made America great was that we might still be able to save it, that if we worked hard enough we could still spare raw wilderness from exploitation. It was idealistic, an idealism that in my ten years since has subsided somewhat, but it became a foundation, and the way I live life still spirals out from the framework of an eco-ideal.
There was little question in my mind that what made America great was the fact that I could put on a backpack and start hiking into the Brooks Range (named for a geologist) along the Arctic Circle, one of the most remote mountain ranges in the US, where Dall sheep clamber and caribou herds wend through during their epic migrations. It was in the Brooks Range where I found a little piece of perfection, something that even scared me a little, an openness so distant from civilization. In early July of 2001 I hiked through sodden tundra with nine others (every step we sank so deep it was like hiking over a soft, soggy mattress). We were met with sleet at the top of a col; I was numb and exhausted, but forced myself to realize how lucky we were by such a cold snap, because all the mosquitoes could do was sit lazily on the surface of our fleeces, benign infestations on our backs as we hiked, keeping themselves leeward from the wind; they were too numb to bite. The sun made a halo of the horizon, a revolving spotlight that kept us up at night.
At two AM our teacher would announce from his tent that he couldn’t sleep and he’d walk down to one of the lakes (he only had to pick a valley) and jump in. From my field journal: Now we could see the gentle hills, mellowing and rolling to the north. Where little streams had hit depressions in the land, more crystal lakes had formed. I assumed they were surrounded by more marshy land and short willows like the lakes we were camped next to. The glacial river below that flowed east, or perhaps it is northeast, joined with another stream. Right before it did so, I could see where it had changed course several times in the past. Yellow curves told a mixed-up past of the river, contrasting against the tundra’s green, where vegetation had not quite reached the state of that around it.
In 2001, Bush was pushing for exploratory drilling for crude oil and natural gas in the Arctic Refuge. The House had voted to allow drilling, and in 2002 the Senate would reject it, but it was a moment when everyone was poised, waiting to see what would happen, most people in Alaska falling vehemently on one side or the other of the debate.
The fate of this place lies in the hands of people who have never set foot here, laid eyes here, or perhaps have even thought about what’s here besides what lies hundreds and thousands of feet under the surface. A thousand mosquitoes moan around my head. Their voices are dissonant, but they cannot touch my face. Their swarms resemble great herds, perhaps of caribou, maybe musk ox, but in their behavior is a pathetic nature no other animal is so eager to display.
We had begun this leg, our middle leg, of the journey in Valdez and traced our way up the Alaska Highway, freshly chip-sealed, following the Alaska pipeline mouth to source. The first leg had been all about nature—a canoe trip down the Tanana River, backpacking in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory (the first third of my journal is riddled with my fears of grizzlies), kayaking in Prince William Sound. We had seen kittiwakes perched on cliffs by the thousands, the cacophony of their squawks so loud we had to yell to be heard, and we felt the fiberglass of our boats turn icy as we neared a glacier in Shoup Bay. Our natural history portion of the trip ended too soon, and we were on to the “issues” part. The day after we returned from kayaking we found ourselves inside the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal.
No longer was I counting stamen of a lovely little Primula cuneifolia, but rather grappling with the overwhelming statistics being hurled at me amidst the concrete and steel. Our introduction takes place in a dingy old school bus, painted white to make it incognito or more likely to cover up the rust spots. Our tour guide is a pleasant lady with a sharp haircut. She seems proud of her part played in the pipeline, and she rattles the statistics off like a pre-recorded and automated touring headset.
A blast furnace is used in smelting, generally to produce industrial metals, and in the case of Carrie the furnaces made pig iron, which was then used to make steel. At Carrie, the liquid pig iron was shipped in molten form across the river to Homestead Steel Works, where it was then casted into steel. Three elements—called “the burden”—are loaded into the top of the furnaces. For pig iron, it’s iron ore pellets, coke (a refined coal product), and limestone, or flux. Air is blown into the bottom of the furnace. The molten iron pours out of the bottom of the furnace, as does the slag, the byproduct of iron making, which floats on top of the iron. The pure iron goes one way, the slag another. Flue gasses also come out, and the long rusted pipes supported by scaffolding still ran along the building’s edge, ending abruptly in open gapes. I could almost feel the hot sulfuric wind that might have blasted out at one time, and hear the roar of constricted air, but instead there was the mild chatter, the sound of an occasional sparrow from the nearby line of trees, the former Carrie Furnace workers explaining how the process had worked, who’d shoveled what into where, who was in charge of opening the bleeder valves, each man trying to out-reminisce the next. The click of cameras. Laughter.
The guides at the Carrie Furnace would pick up raw iron ore that could still be found on the ground and roll it around in their hands.
“When I came back here to do the tours, I couldn’t believe that trees had grown back,” said Ron, who had worked in the ore yard. You wouldn’t believe what it used to look like, he said, piles of raw iron ore pellets over his head, twenty feet high. Now he stood in a patch of grass that was mowed infrequently, and it was sharp and prickly. He’d been sitting in a lawn chair, waiting for the group to arrive. Arranged in buckets nearby he had three separate piles representing the burden. He handed around iron ore pellets, then a piece of coke.
“Feel how light that is?” he asked.
The iron ore was mined in Minnesota, shipped on ore boats across the Great Lakes. Since Carnegie had been buddies with John Edgar Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie used railroads instead of rivers to transport his ore. The raw ore would be loaded onto trains off the shores of Lake Erie. The coal that made coke was mined not too far away—likely West Virginia, southwest Pennsylvania. The limestone, called the flux, was a neutralizing agent, and the three elements were driven up conveyor belts and dumped into the furnaces, men opening a door at a time on the carts. If the doors weren’t opened in the right order it might upset the balance of the car and tip over on top of a man, pinning him to the tracks as had happened to a coworker of Manny’s.
“Charlie opened ‘em all up on the right hand side and didn’t do shit on the left hand side, and the car tipped over on him. Well, luckily, the tracks were banked high and there was room for him to lay down, and the car settled on top of him but it didn’t crush him, it laid on the rails. Big Mike was the trestle foreman. He ran down those steps…and picked up a railroad jack, and that jack must weigh over 150 pounds, he picked it up, put it on his shoulder and ran back up them steps all the way to the top again. Put it under the car, jacked it up, and pulled the guy out from under it, by himself. That’s the kind of man he was.”
Manny’s story wasn’t about how a man almost died. It was about how great Big Mike was. His stories were like that. “I remember how they took me under their wing and taught me,” he says of the guys he worked with at Carrie and the other blast furnaces he worked on. “They showed me this, they showed me that, they taught me this and they taught me that, and I lost this piece of finger and they never knew it, you know?”
Indeed, Manny was missing his right ring finger from the knuckle up, just above his gaudy gold and sapphire school ring. He’d lost it in one of the blast furnace gates when he was working in McKeesport. Luckily, at that time, he worked right across the street from the hospital. He told the doctor he’d slammed it in a car door, but the doctor said, “What, did it weigh about ten tons?” Manny never told the management what had happened. “You didn’t turn in accidents. That was a big no-no.”
“Not much changed over three generations,” said Ron, whose grandfather, a German immigrant, had also worked at Carrie. Furnaces three and four had buttons that opened valves, but not Carrie. “I never got to work at three and four,” Ron said. “I worked here,” where he had to pull a chain for ten to fifteen minutes to open a valve. Fires “2800 degrees would be rolling down in front of you.” He rattled off all the jobs he held at the furnaces, talked about the men he worked with. “I tell people that I love talking about it, but I hated the work.”
At the Carrie Furnaces, as a tourist (at least until they refine it, get more money to make it safer for viewing) you can turn corroded wheels and shift cranks. You can open little panel boxes and look at where pilferers stripped out the copper decades ago. You can lift the levers that allow heavy gates to settle into a shallow chute where molten iron used to run—you can cut off the chutes on one end where the slag iron was poured out. Or you can open a chute on the other end, imagine the pure molten iron running down into the railroad cars—torpedoes, they’re called — 130 tons of it into a brick-lined cars layered with gunnite on the outside, a thick mud daub to protect the steel of the car from melting when the molten iron slopped out as it was dispensed. Hundreds of tons of iron per day, every single day, year after year, the furnaces never stopping. Out of the blast furnace the railroad cars go, carrying their dangerous molten load over one of the many Hot Metal Bridges whose sole purposes were, at first, to transport molten iron, that still speckle the greater Pittsburgh area in various forms of functionality and rustedness, over the Monongahela River and a few miles down stream to the Homestead Steel Works where the liquid iron was poured into casts, creating sheets for airplanes, joists for bridges, steel pipes.
Pieces of the USS Enterprise. The Empire State Building.
Another man in a hardhat stands outside the blast furnace and ticks off Homestead’s contributions to the country. “The Brooklyn Bridge,” he says. “The Alaska Pipeline.”
The entire pipeline cost approximately $8 billion after completion in 1977. The terminal itself was about $1.4 billion,” our pleasant tour guide at the pipeline terminal told us. The pipeline was finished the year before Carrie was shut down, one industry overlapped with the one that was to follow. Pittsburgh and the eastern seaboard were in decline and Anchorage was becoming a new boomtown; we heard about how it was rebuilt overnight in the ‘70’s.
Inside the pipeline terminal, where cameras are not preferred, we are kept busy with a video for fifteen minutes. After, we stand in a small room with Plexiglas windows looking into another room. The OCC [Operation Controls Center] room. THE room, the big-daddy of all rooms. Screens are arranged in a circle in the center of the room, and a group of people coagulate at its center. Eyes are glued to screens, fingers point occasionally, and people nod to one another and it is evident that great deal of consulting is happening. The screens display every pump station, and the majority of what occurs along the pipeline can be monitored. If something goes wrong, these are the people who cease the pumping of crude oil from the ground. If there is a leak, these are the people who must find it and who are responsible for assigning someone to fix it. Gene, the OCC director, steps out of the room to talk to us. He is a tall man, with a bit of a hefty load drooping over the top of his belt. His hair is silvery, parted down the middle, and big square glasses frame his nondescript eyes. When he opens his mouth a slow monotone is released with a hint of a twang or a drawl—I can’t decide which. The questions start and my second round of statistics for the day starts flying.
77,000 barrels of oil enter the terminal every hour. If no ship is ready to take them there are 18 storage tanks. All of the storage tanks can hold up to five days worth of oil, or about 9 million barrels total. I also learned today that Prudhoe Bay crude oil evaporates as an extremely toxic fume called benzene. It consists of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and in this case a ring of six carbons with alternating single and double bonds. This chemical makeup, when inhaled, can create mutations in DNA messages, and is therefore cancer causing.
As we drove north out of Valdez and towards the Arctic, we left behind the RV parks where visitors park for the entire summer and bring their own Astroturf, where you can always find a fish fry on Friday and a jug band if you’re lucky. We left behind Chugach, the lush coastal forest all together, and then we drove north, left behind Denali and Healey, the town nearest the Stampede Trail and Chris McCandless’s bus. (Don’t be like that boy who disappeared into Alaska with a bag of rice and died, my mother told me when I was a teenager.) We drove deeper into wilderness, but with growing disillusionment. Our romantic notions were somewhat shot—maybe there was no place free from the hand of industry.
We stopped just north of the Arctic Circle in Wiseman and visited a man who’d lived above the circle nearly his entire life. He lived in a small house and grew his own food. He trapped animals and sold their furs, and I remember standing in the doorway to his house running my hands over the bounty of the Arctic: Red fox, arctic fox, ermine, lynx, and wolf. A child slept in a window seat throughout our visit, which was very strange to me. He talked to us for hours, pored over maps of the Brooks Range with us. Told us how Chernobyl was still in the lichen, and therefore the caribou, the rabbits.
Then there we were, hiking up the Brooks, that first day almost painful. With every step we sank into mossy tundra, water seeping into our boots, some of the most exhausting hiking I’ve ever done. But then came that glorious afterglow, hiking into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We’d learned that the people who wanted to put a pipeline through it called it ANWR, those who didn’t “The Arctic Refuge,” and I think now of the word refuge, how it implies a sacred space from things that otherwise encroach, and that the need for refuge implies something about our world, something about control and dominion, about obsession with greatness, fear of decline.
When we finally reached Prudhoe Bay, I remember feeling disappointed. I hold my breath for a moment and look around. This could be just another truck stop in Iowa, prairie winds howling at 15 mph. Flat. Barren. The 1960’s modular pea green holding terminals, pump stations, gas stations and motels are all indistinguishable from one another. We felt depressed. Or maybe exhausted. Nobody would talk to us in Deadhorse, not like in Valdez; here it was mum, the tour all packaged onto a bus and given by a kid from Illinois or California who was just up there for a summer job, following the script Alyeska Pipeline Company had written for him (Alyeska, Wikipedia tells me, is the archaic spelling for the Aleut word meaning “mainland,” “great country,” or “great land”). We watched two Arctic fox tumbling and playing on the pipeline. They chased each other under, then over, then collided into a bundle of fuzzy cuteness, rolling across the tundra together. We watched for an hour through binoculars until we grew bored. One of my classmates pointed out that one effect of the pipeline was how fox populations had thrived as industry boomed, throwing off the ecology of the North Slope as the fox wreaked havoc on bird eggs. Smog and acid rain, he’d also learned, were worse at Prudhoe than in Washington D.C.
Being at the start of the pipeline honestly didn’t feel much different from the terminal. I’m starting to feel as though the whole pipeline and all the parts that come along with it are just one whole entity.
The Carrie Furnaces had been the melting pot, literally and figuratively, minerals from all over the country collected and melted down here, the product hardened off and spread out over new territory to continue similar work. Steel stretched across what had previously been vastly untouched, probably would have remained that way save for the people who already lived there and for a few adventurers. Along with the pipe came a road, came easier access, and dust from the road, which billows out into the delicate tundra, strangling the flora. Everything changes, then changes again.
Manny loved blast furnaces so much that he named his daughter, Amanda, after one. “There was two furnaces at Ashland Works in Kentucky, Amanda and Bellefonte, and I think Bellefonte is a gorgeous name. Poor girl, I couldn’t name her Bellefonte though, she’d a killed me.”
The early oil drillers up in Alaska named the lakes after women. Girlfriends and wives they missed, “Colleen” or “Deborah” hand painted on plywood and stuck into the tundra near the water. The hot fiery furnaces, the icy cold lakes, the men who labored carried the women with them in their work, transposed them onto the most unbearable elements. The history of colonialism tells us that naming something can be another form of conquering, like taxonomy, the naming of species: What is definable can be controlled. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the Brooks Range—no trails, no cairns, so many unnamed peaks, the streams that wove in and out of the tundra were just blue veins on the topo maps.
In reading old accounts from people who worked at Homestead Steel Works, one man recollects his father’s time working at one of the open hearths. “I remember his best buddy at work was Joe Mulhearn, and there was a woman who worked there, I think her name was Betty or Sara or Lois or something.” What respect is earned in a name, and what respect is taken away?
The aurora borealis was named for the Greek goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. The rays from the northern lights send an electrical current through the steel pipe that runs across Alaska, just one of the many contributors to rusting of the pipe. As it turns out, the pipe wasn’t “corrosive free,” as it was supposed to be, a phenomenon that’s virtually impossible. We learned this on our return from Prudhoe Bay from the journalist Richard A. Fineberg, the first person ever to do a complete assessment of corrosion for the entire pipeline. When we met him he was wearing a turquoise tee-shirt that said “God Bless Big Oil” and spoke with a stutter that halted him mid-phrase, causing his neck to strain or eyes to bug out; he talked us into the next century. Geophysicists warned that too much was still unknown, but the pipe was built anyway, without complete studies being done to estimate safety and effectiveness.
Corrosion, he says, can take 20 pounds a year out of the pipeline, but they didn’t even invent the corrosion detecting pig [a mechanical device] until 1989, 12 years after the pipeline had been corroding and patched. Up to 30% of the pipeline is corroded. The more he talked about it, the more blatant and absurd the whole safety and regulation scheme (more like lack thereof) became. The strength of the pipe simply can’t be trusted. Each section of the pipeline goes across the data screen in the Valdez OCC every 8 seconds. Sometimes the vertical support members (VSM) shift in the ground, tweaking the pipe. Imagine, this shift occurred in between one of those 8 second intervals. It only takes a few seconds to happen but maybe 6 months to be known.
What was tragic to the former steelworkers, to people like Ron and Manny, was loss of control, loss of an industry that gave them power, gave the nation power. It seems as though they sincerely believed that what they were doing made the country great, but it’s hard to know how much is nostalgia, yearning for bygone days. What’s tragic about the Arctic is the potential for it to become dominated, because what makes a place great is the near untouchability of it, and that’s why we go to places like the Arctic, to seek out something that isn’t easy, something that isn’t within daily reach.
It’s easy to envision something like reinvention standing in the weeds at the Carrie Furnaces. Like changing the name from “ruins” to “relics” or to “vestiges of our national heritage.” You can’t see the PCBs and sulfates in the dirt beneath our shoes, but it’s there. What does the word brownfield mean if you can just build over the top of it? Just when it seemed the Monongahela River couldn’t get anymore polluted, the water recently became so salty from Marcellus Shale fracking that it began to corrode cooling containers at steel mills. But that’s another industry, another story. The next one, perhaps.