Monday, June 27, 2016

Braddock and the River of Steel

Flaring gas at the ArcelorMittal Monesson coke plant.
The regional landscape practically screams the reasons for Pittsburgh’s existence. Its rivers were vital arteries, bringing coal up from Appalachia to feed its vast industries, of which the base was of course steel. The factories needed so much energy that it made sense to locate them close to the coal mines, rather than the iron ore deposits up on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Along the rivers - the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio - enormous manufacturing works grew up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The scale and integration of industry was stupendous, a tremendous agglomeration. It is nearly all gone now, as steel production and other heavy industry has moved abroad or to more efficient domestic plants. The old Homestead Works, site of one of the most consequential conflicts between management and labor, has been replaced by a giant strip mall. 

I visited in March, during spring break, when my colleague Brendan Moriarty volunteered to put me up with a friend, the retired actor David Conrad (you may remember him as Bradley Cooper’s sleazy friend in Wedding Crashers). Dave lives in Braddock, an old mill town east of Pittsburgh that has been about as hard hit as anywhere in the US due to outsourcing. It does retain the Edgar Thomson Works, US Steel’s last remaining plant in the Pittsburgh area.

The view from Dave's porch.

I drove into Braddock from the south, having spent the last thirty miles or so of my drive in the Mon Valley (short for Monongahela). I-70, which I exited just south of Monesson, crosses the deep, narrow valley via the Belle Vernon Bridge. Looking up at the massive, flaking girders from below, it proved an apt introduction to the place. The valley's steep walls give the floor an isolated feel, which the economy's current status reinforces. On the winding route along the river toward Pittsburgh, I passed Glassport, Clairton, and McKeesport. The names hold clues to the past, but each city is extremely depressed, even those where plants still function. The population and the architecture is aging, much like nearby Appalachia. The signs on restaurants and social clubs suggest that ethnic white identity is still a significant source of pride.

McKeesport lost two US Steel plants in 2014.
Abandoned baseball field upriver.

Coal train across the river from the Clairton coke works.
Braddock Ave.

An original Carnegie library.
Braddock, a few miles and bridge crossings east of Pittsburgh, is an interesting town for several reasons. Its mayor, John Fetterman, has energetically pursued revitalization, winning him several admiring profiles in the national press. I didn’t get to meet him - he was in the closing stages of a doomed campaign for Senate in late March - but I did get a good look at his digs, since Dave’s pad, a converted priory, shares a driveway/courtyard with his residence. Fetterman has embraced public art, attracted a new health clinic, and sought to maintain the town’s once-proud collection of buildings, including one of the first four Carnegie Libraries. Without a reliable economic base, Braddock has a long, long way to go, but it is showing some signs of life, including a new and popular brewery called the Brew Gentleman. 

Downtown Braddock,  Friday night.
My trip began as an effort to explore Pittsburgh itself, and Dave, Brendan, Seth Tinkham (a pal of mine along for the first two days) and I did go for a long, engrossing walk around the downtown on Sunday morning, but the industrial history of the Mon Valley emerged as the trip’s key theme due to our base at Dave’s place in Braddock. On Monday morning, we visited the Carrie Furnaces, which are the last remaining blast furnaces in the area. The others were apparently bought up by Chinese businessmen, for whom it was cheaper to disassemble the existing infrastructure in Pittsburgh and ship it to China than build new works from scratch. 

One of the two remaining Carrie Furnaces
Abandoned gantry.
The Carrie Furnaces once heated iron ore up to 3000 degrees, separating out the impurities that would weaken the metal after casting. Once purified, the molten steel was poured into modified rail tank cars, which would carry it across the river, to the Homestead Works, where it could be cast into ingots that could later be rolled and pressed into their final form. The liquid steel was so hot, however, that if it spilled as it crossed the Monongahela it would melt and destroy the bridge itself. Therefore, engineers devised a specially reinforced span known as a hot metal bridge, a terrifically expensive but vital innovation. The Carrie Furnaces first went into use in 1884. In 1978, they shut down, in the midst of an industry-wide crisis due to foreign competition. For the most part, they have stood derelict since the early eighties, though the site was designated a National Historic Landmark a decade ago. Rivers of Steel, the National Heritage Area, plans to incorporate it into a regional museum on the history of the Mon Valley steel industry. 

Current inhabitants.
Dave arranged for Brendan and me to take an informal tour with the plant’s caretaker, a chatty and helpful fellow whose name I have forgotten. He explained to us how the furnaces worked and let us peer up close at the machinery. As you can imagine, the site was highly contaminated, though many of the most harmful chemicals have been removed. Currently, a flock of goats has the run of the place, munching on grass growing up from tainted soil. The furnaces have been a popular destination for graffiti artists since their abandonment, as well as an artists’ collective that clandestinely constructed a massive stag’s head from scrap metal and tubing in the interior of the plant. It’s forty feet tall, a massive and awesome monument that references the reclamation of the site by wild animals. More recently, as a broader swathe of Americans has developed a nostalgia for the days of heavy industry, it has gained some popularity as a site for offbeat gatherings, including weddings. 

The Carrie deer.
Like most cities that predate the automobile, Pittsburgh’s existence is intimately tied to its physical geography. Its rivers have waned in significance during the era of the postindustrial economy, to which it has adapted better than most of its Rust Belt peers, but the waterways retain a strong influence on local culture and identity. At some point, I hope to examine in a post two exceptional houses in the nearby Laurel Highlands: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Their owners grew rich on Pittsburgh - one for its productive capacity, the other for its markets. 

Along the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh.