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A red clapboard building with dozes of six-over-six windows.

A Decade-Long Journey for a 120-Year-Old Building

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Rices Landing, PA. Photo by Richard Kelly Photography.

Carly V. McCoyThe Restoration of the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop

If you haven’t yet had the chance to tour the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop, your window of opportunity is closing, for now at least; just a few tours remain on the schedule before it’s shuttered for the season. However, visitors to this National Historic Landmark in the coming weeks will get to see the structure as few have—with a completely restored exterior!

The recently completed work reflects a five-phase, ten-year process to painstakingly repair this historic workshop, an investment of nearly $1.5 million. Coincidently, it was built in several phases, too. In 1900, William A. Young, a farmer trained in carpentry, acquired a plot of land along Water Street in Rices Landing, Greene County. The following year, his mother acquired the adjacent plot that she sold to him at cost. It was here that Young constructed the workshop, which would become his life’s work—and ultimately the life’s work of his two sons, Walter and Carl.

A Hand-Built Workshop & Small Job Shop

A forge and blacksmith station

The forge and blacksmithing station in the back shop of Young and Sons. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

The core of the building is a two-story wooden structure that houses the machine shop on the first floor and the pattern shop on an upper level. Next, a, U-shaped “back shop” with an earthen floor was added to house the blacksmithing area. (Interestingly, the floor is considered a safety feature, as sparks could ignite wooden floorboards.) The gap in the center of the addition had walls lined with windows, creating a light well for the workers. Finally, a vaulted foundry, complete with a cupola and an overhead crane, was added along the side of the expanded structure in 1908.

In this image of the foundry addition taken from the catwalk you can see the furnace in the back and the crane system above. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

While the assemblage of this hand-built workshop is novel, it’s the work that occurred in the shop that makes it truly unique. W.A. Young’s business was classified as a “small job” shop. While the facility held 25 line shaft driven machines for fabricating industrial materials, in addition to the blacksmith shop and foundry, Young’s staff remained small, often just himself and a helper (later, his sons), and his client base was varied. They serviced a variety of industries, from steamboats and coal mines to residential needs and early auto repair.

A One-of-a-Kind, Historic Site

For most of the 1700s and 1800s, traditional blacksmith shops served their communities and aided industry, and by the 1900s most shops began to scale up, specializing for a specific industry. The W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop represents a transition between these two systems, which is one reason why it is so unique. The second, highly important, consideration is that the Machine Shop did not evolve with the times. Despite operating commercially though 1965, the Machine Shop remains today, more or less, just as Mr. Young built it more than a century ago, using technology from the 1880s and 1890s. (One exception is how the line shaft system was powered; originally, it used steam, then it used a Bessemer gas engine before converting to Westinghouse electric. A repurposed John Deere engine powers it today.)

the interior of the facitily showing the machines in the shop and the line shaft system

The interior of the front shop, featuring the machines and the line shaft system. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

In a recent article in the Observer-Reporter about the Machine Shop’s restoration, Rivers of Steel’s CEO Augie Carlino reflected on the building’s role in understanding our region’s—and our nation’s—industrial history.

“First and foremost, the building and its history are critical to Rices Landing and Greene County as it represents the history and heritage of the people in that part of the Mon Valley,” he said. “Beyond Greene County, however, the Machine Shop is an industrial resource unique in the United States. The National Park Service has documented this fact. All similar machine shops from that era of operation are gone and no longer exist. So, the Machine Shop is that rare, one-of-a-kind, historic site that cannot be found anywhere. That alone is why it was important to save.

“But then, when you connect the dots of industrial history in the valley and Southwestern Pennsylvania, you begin to see how a small, family-run facility like the Machine Shop played a critical role in the industrial power of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania,” he continued. “The Machine Shop helps link the story of the steel mills, the coal mines, the river barges, and the railroads by illustrating how these small shops serviced these more prominent industrial locations.”

The W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop was recognized by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark on December 23, 2016.

Stewardship and Restoration of the Historic Landmark

Understanding why the Machine Shop is so unique and historically important underscores how critical this restoration process was.  Rivers of Steel took ownership of the facility in 2009, a transfer from the Greene County Historical Society, which was its steward from 1985 until that time. Immediately thereafter, Rivers of Steel began surveys of the site to determine its needs.

Like most buildings in need of critical repair, the first step was to replace the roof, arresting future damage. In 2011, a green, standing seam metal roof was installed. The electrical system was updated, and a fire / smoke detection system was added at that time; water lines were also repaired. Save America’s Treasures, a grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, provided funding for this first phase of critical repairs.

A green standing seam metal roof.

The roof was installed in 2011. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

Then in June 2012, Rivers of Steel commissioned the architecture and preservation firm of Pfaffman + Associates of Pittsburgh to complete a Conservation Assessment Program Historic Structures Report. The goal was to develop a historic structure report that evaluated the condition and architectural integrity of the building and review existing preservation plans. The subsequent work outlined in this report resulted in a four-phase restoration that addressed the most pressing needs first.

Four Phases of Restoration

By 2014, the first phase of preservation and restoration began, addressing structural issues on the site. A failing wall in the foundry was restructured, as was the catwalk. This phase also addressed critical window repair and some adjustments to the roof. Completed in 2018, phase two focused on repairs of the central light well, including the windows and water drainage in that location. In phase three, the historic preservation focused on repairing the structure’s windows and frames on the back and one side of the building. The six-over-six windows were repaired, retaining the original single-pane, hand-blown glass with a few replacements. The second aspect of phase three was the repair of the original clapboard siding on several of the exterior walls. Phase four, which was just completed in September, saw the repair of the 22 remaining windows, five doors, and the clapboard siding on the front of the building. New red paint was applied to match its historic color, and the exterior letters that spell out “W.A. Young & Son’s Foundry and Machine Shop” were repainted white.

The side of the Machine Shop with lettering spelling out the name and showing five of the new windows.

The vinyl siding on a neighboring house is reflected in the hand-blown glass on the newly restored windows of the Machine Shop. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

 

Looking up from the light well that was repaired in phase two of the restoration. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

Maintaining the Charm & Respecting the History

Throughout the years, Rivers of Steel has also addressed the maintenance of the interior of the shop, replacing floorboards as needed. Work on the machines is ongoing to ensure that those that work remain in good operating order and to bring others back online. Maintenance also includes the repair of the belts for the line shaft system. As Augie said, “We have to be careful to retain the facility’s original charm and respect its history, while ensuring safety for those who visit it.”

For those looking to visit the Machine Shop, guided tours are available on Sundays through November 21. Otherwise, plan to return in the spring for a tour or save the date for the Hammer-In Festival on April 16, 2022.

A view from the pattern shop into the hardware store on the upper level showcases the charm of this historic landmark. Image by Richard Kelly Photography.

Support for the Historic Preservation of the Machine Shop

Support for the preservation and restoration of the Machine Shop has been provided by Rivers of Steel and by the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Save America’s Treasures, the Department of the Interior, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, The Allegheny Foundation, and from Visit Greene, the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency.

Can’t make it for a tour? Watch a recording of a virtual presentation about the Machine Shop from August of 2020. It includes a guided tour of the Machine Shop, along with a discussion by Rivers of Steel staff about the history, preservation, and restoration of this National Historic Landmark.

Picked, Baked, Chopped, and Pickled—Four New Culinary Trails

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By Cynthia Caul, Program Manager at Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University  |   Image: Weatherbury Farms, a stop on the Baked culinary trail. Photo by Emeran Irby.

Exploring PA in a Tasty Way

This week we are excited to shine a spotlight on the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University.  The CRAFT team recently created four new culinary trails for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development—trails that highlight the foodways traditions in southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the Commonwealth. In the article below, guest writer and Program Manager for CRAFT, Cynthia Caul, shares the origins of this culinary trails program and offers a taste of the Baked trail.

Picked, Baked, Chopped, and Pickled—Four new PA culinary trails take a ‘food systems’ approach to regional tourism

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) dropped four new culinary trails last month—Picked, Baked, Chopped, and Pickled. Each trail highlights regional food traditions, farms, and businesses around one of four themes: apples, grains, charcuterie, and fermentation.

The trails were developed by a small team of us at Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation with culinary historian Mary Miller being the lead on the two-year project. It was a fruitful collaboration, bringing together Mary’s decades of experience in regional culinary tourism, CRAFT’s food system knowledge, and DCED’s state-wide tourism prestige and platform.

The goal from the outset was to promote tourism and economic development in communities throughout our state, and we believed we could most meaningfully do this by cultivating opportunities for authentic engagement with people, places…and, of course, food.

Why food? It might seem like a leap, or at least a choice, to some. But for us, it was neither, and not just because we work in the food space.

Food is relevant to all of us, regardless of our profession or passions. It is at the center of our daily lives. It is often a defining feature of our personal and collective identities, shaping the way we organize ourselves into communities and societies.

And, of course, we all require food to survive. It is an ultimate universal experience. We all eat.

So when thinking about how to encourage travel throughout our state in a lasting way that could sustain meaningful livelihoods and vibrant communities, food was a powerful fit.

In developing the trails, we used what we often referred to as a “food systems approach,” essentially meaning we wanted to ensure that the trails were inclusive of the entire food system. We wanted them to represent the diversity of past and present contributors to our food traditions, as well as individual growers, artisans, and makers across the value chain responsible for bringing food to our tables today.

What does this mean in practice? It was different for each trail.

In the case of the Baked trail, for example, we started by focusing on the diversity of grains that have been grown in this region both historically and today. This included corn, wheat, rye, barley, and buckwheat (a pseudo-grain).

Corn was the first grain of recorded use in our region, and the western-most segment of the Baked trail begins at Meadowcroft Rockshelter. This shelter used by hunters and gatherers dates back to 12,000 BC, and the exhibit includes a corn cob from 375 BC. Corn was central to the Monongahela and Lenape societies that were present during this period, as well as other indigenous groups that migrated to and through our region for millenia caring for and sustaining the land and rivers. The Lenape who are indigenous to the Delaware River Valley and eastern part of today’s Pennsylvania believed then and now that Mother Corn birthed modern agriculture and governs all its cultivation. Corn was the basis of most meals and was eaten off the cob and as porridge, cakes, and breads.

By the 1700s, however, these indigenous populations had been largely forcibly removed from these lands by European colonizers. These migrants came primarily from Britain, but other European countries as well. They brought with them their own food traditions and cultivation practices, and because of this, wheat production in this region almost entirely replaced that of corn. By the end of the century, Pennsylvania was widely known throughout the country as the “breadbasket of America,” and milling became the first major industry in the state. Hundreds of water-powered gristmills were constructed to mill this wheat into flour, and these spaces functioned as vibrant places of commerce and communion. Farmers came to these mills to grind their own wheat, purchase freshly milled wheat and animal feed, and spend time chatting with neighbors who often lived relatively far away on their own farms.

This period of economic expansion would not have been possible without the work and innovation of enslaved and indentured populations. This period saw a rapid increase and peak in Pennsylvania’s enslaved population with many enslaved individuals working on wheat and rye farms. Indentured servitude was also common on these farms, particularly among Irish and German migrants who labored temporarily in exchange for their transport to the country.

By the 20th century, most wheat production had moved to the more arable Mississippi Valley.

There are only a handful of gristmills left today, and an even smaller number that are still operational. The Baked trail takes travelers to a number of these historical institutions.

The Saint Vincent Archabbey Gristmill, part of the Baked trail, was built by the Benedictine monks and has been in continuous operation since 1854. It has endured for many years to serve as a symbol of Western Pennsylvania’s agricultural heritage and of the vision of Saint Vincent founder Boniface Wimmer.

In addition to corn and wheat, the Baked trail also walks travelers through the history of rye production and the Whiskey Rebellion, which was particularly significant in the more rocky and mountainous western part of the state that once produced one-third of the nation’s rye. Travelers learn about the region’s fastest growing cash crop and pseudo-grain buckwheat, as well as barley’s more recent renaissance ushered in by the state’s nearly 300 breweries and the nation’s first Black beer festival.

There are a wide array of delicious foods to be tasted along the trail, including pita, empanadas, half-rye, naan, pastries, whoopie pies (or gobs…), pizza, pretzels, and more. And this is just one of the trails. You can find all four full-length trails on the Visit PA website, as well as some highlights in the Pennsylvania 2021 Happy Traveler Guide available online and at every Turnpike stop and Tourism Bureau.

All of the trails highlight businesses sourcing local ingredients, so you’ll often have the chance to trace your baked goods or beer back to the soil in which the grain was grown or milled into flour.

These trails are intentionally rich and complex. They are in many ways the beginning of what we hope will be longer-term work in this space with the goal of providing people opportunities to meaningfully connect to their food, the land, and each other.

About CRAFT

The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) works to support robust regional food systems that are equitable, inclusive, and sustainable in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

CRAFT works with a number of regional partners to develop culinary trails that support economic development particularly in our region’s rural communities.

These trails aim to highlight the rich heritage and food traditions of the region, as well as include the history and culture of all of the region’s historical and current residents. We take this inclusive approach in order to acknowledge, learn, and inform about the fraught and complex history of land ownership and food production in our region and country, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of displaced indigenous and enslaved peoples.

The trails provide regional farms and food businesses with increased markets and promotional opportunities, as well as tourists with a deeper understanding of the regional food system and the unique value and history of the food grown and prepared within it.

Cynthia Caul is the program manager for CRAFT at Chatham University and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, where she studied International Development. Cynthia’s research has focused on food and nutrition security, land access, and the role of agricultural smallholders in an increasingly globalizing economy. She also worked at the Ford Institute for Human Security, conducting research on human rights-based approaches to improving agricultural land access for women farmers and was the 2017 recipient of the Simon Reich Human Security Writing Award. Prior to her current role, Cynthia worked on public health programming in Ghana with the U.S. Peace Corps.

If you’d like to know more ways to explore the region, check out our driving itineraries for themed journeys through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Heritage Highlights: Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative

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Entrance to the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative’s ceramic studio.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

This month, we continue our exploration of southwestern Pennsylvania’s small towns. Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel spoke with Shane McManus, founder of the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative. The Cooperative is a group of artists working out of the historical Davis Theatre in Greensboro, a Monongahela River town just a few miles upriver from the West Virginia border. Providing studio and commercial space for its artists, the co-op model splits profits between members and the organization as a whole. Shane himself is a life-long resident of Appalachia, a folk artist, and a musician. Jon and Shane discussed the Cooperative’s guiding philosophy and how it interacts with the things that make Greensboro unique.

Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative

Jon Engel HeadshotBy Jonathan Engel

“In Greensboro,” says Shane McManus, “it’s really hard to throw a shovel into the ground without finding something historic.”

We spoke over the phone this summer about his work with the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative, an artists’ group and studio that he founded. Shane and the other members have become something like DIY archaeologists over the years. Guided by aged maps of the town’s 19th century ceramics industries, they have explored the Cooperative’s historic property with boots and shovels. In doing so, they discovered the foundational bricks of a 200-year-old kiln, still in the same spot that the town’s earliest potters built their businesses. Artifacts like these abound in Greensboro, with many of them on display at the Antique & Oddity Café, a local shop next to the Cooperative’s Front Street studio space.

Greensboro Origins

Greensboro is a small town, but a storied one. It was one of the first areas of southwestern Pennsylvania to be colonized. Before this, it was populated by a group of Iroquois, also know as Haudenosaunee, tribespeople, who—the current locals say—named this area “Delight” for its excellent soil and flat, riverside land. Sometime in the 1780s, a Virginian man named Elias Stone acquired it and delineated it into the street plan that stands today. On February 2, 1790, Stone’s new village was officially recognized as “Greensburgh,” named for the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. It would keep that name until 1879, when it became Greensboro.

The new town quickly found its niche as a home to industry. In 1795, a businessman named Albert Gallatin met some German glassblowers who were traveling out west to start anew in the recently created state of Kentucky. Somehow, Gallatin convinced them to move to New Geneva, Pennsylvania instead—right across the Mon River from Greensboro—and start a company there, producing high-quality “New Geneva glass,” which became famous across the nation. The factory moved to Greensboro ten years later.

From then on, like most of the Mon Valley, Greensboro lived and died by the boom-and-bust cycles of the manufacturing industry. The old glassworks factory closed in 1849. By then, Greensboro was home to several successful redware potters, who created basic pottery in small shops. Then, in the mid-1800s, they were replaced by two large ceramics companies, who used local clay to produce more durable stoneware. This became Greensboro’s main export.

For a while, Greensboro was the gateway to Pennsylvania trade, attracting up to 500 residents to this .11 square mile town, which consists of about a dozen blocks and a dock. Then in 1880s more efficient potters began to outcompete the James Hamilton Company. Their manufacturing economy suffered further when engineering changes to the Mon River shifted trade traffic toward Morgantown. Tides turned again in the early the 1900s as Greensboro became a cultural hub for the Valley’s network of coal settlements, a place where the miners could come to church and enjoy a night on the town. This lasted until the local coal industry collapsed in the 1930s, and, again, the local economy went with it.

These familiar trends have left a vast weight of history, metaphorically and literally, on Greensboro.

Promoting the Past; Sustaining the Future

A black and white image of a bearded white man in his late 20s or 30s.

Shane McManus

Enter Shane and his father Keith McManus, local musicians and artists and proud citizens of Appalachia. In 2010, Keith purchased the Davis Theatre, a performance venue built in 1909. The Theatre had sat abandoned since the 1950s and fallen into disrepair. Shane has spearheaded the effort to restore the Theatre, preserving its historical façade and converting the interior into extensive artists’ studios. These include a woodshop, a bike repair shop, pottery kilns, music practice spaces, and more. These studios are now home to about 40 members of the Art Cooperative.

Shane puts their goals eloquently: “We are promoting the past, sustaining the future, and encouraging people to look around them and create with what they see.”

“Sustainability” is the big word for him. Not only does the Cooperative seek to give a reason for artists of all stripes to come to Greensboro,  but it seeks to sustain the current population with cultural engagement and the earth itself with reuse-based philosophies. Ninty-eight percent of the materials that Cooperative artists use are recovered from trash, dug up from Greensboro’s rich veins of material history, or gifted to them by friends. Clay for the kilns is dug up from the same banks used by the Hamilton Company. Their bicycles are retrieved from local garages. Even the wood they use is pulled from decaying barns or burned-down buildings. Scrapping, dumpstering, recycling. They do their best to avoid spending money.

“In this part of Appalachia, I’ve always said the living’s easy. In the summertime, there’s always work to be found. In the wintertime, there’s always someone willing to share their harvest of whatever they had in their garden. The fat of the land is so rich, it’s kind of superlative to buy anything we need.”

Embracing Tradition; Building Community

That 200-year-old kiln has been restored and is firing new ceramics today. The artists in the Cooperative use many of the same art methods that Appalachians have always used, processing wood and clay just as their ancestors did long before they thought of it as “recycling” or “green.” Of their three pottery wheels, for instance, two are powered by the traditional method, spinning uniquely shaped pots every time. Shane hopes to one day use these wheels to launch a line of pots inspired by Greensboro’s 19th-century makers. It is this combination of the Davis Theatre’s space and Greensboro’s historical methods that draw members to the Cooperative.

And many have been drawn. The group claims members across 11 countries, ranging to France, Senegal, Ghana, and China. Many are musicians that are drawn to town to play a gig booked by Shane, often at the Antique Café. It is relatively easy to join. No portfolio or particular artistic expense is required. You simply have to earn the others’ trust. In exchange for access to the Cooperative’s resources, members must commit to a few hours a month volunteering to help repair the Theatre. This work is also great skill-building. Shane is a carpenter by trade and has taught one member, a musician from Maine who is nearly blind, how to swing a hammer and work on the building despite his failing vision.

The Cooperative’s resources include their studios, living space in town, and a huge array of scrapped supplies, such as large piles of local stained glass. But most valuable is their social network of committed craftspeople. Members regularly share skills and their own connections. This crosses borders, too. Greensboro has made friends with another art cooperative in Aarhus, Denmark, and the groups have now worked out an exchange program allowing members to visit each other’s spaces.

In the immediate, the Cooperative’s goal is to produce and sell quality works of arts by local artisans. In an economic sense, they one day strive to incorporate as both a small business and a nonprofit. They want to create a model where artisans cultivate their materials from the resources present in small towns like Greensboro and give back to those towns through public art and educational resources like their community garden. On a philosophical level, the Cooperative lives out the communal values of Appalachia and applies them to answer the problems that face the Mon Valley today.

A white man leans over a length of wood that is in a vice.

Cooperative member Gabe Acita making a paddle.

Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative’s Core Values

Shane takes a view both practical and worldly. His investment is not just in the business or the artmaking, but in the ideas guiding both. When he talks about his aspirations for the Cooperative, he talks about notions of self, ideas borrowed from philosophies like Taoism and hippie back-to-the-earth movements. “It’s always been our goal [as humans] to distract ourselves from ourselves,” he explains, “so we should try to distract ourselves with something positive.” Hence art: an act where the mind can wander away from its worries and into a state of flow.

Though this suggestion seems simple, it is a complex part of how Shane works through the difficult history of the Mon Valley, where the same cycles of economic growth and decline have dominated for hundreds of years. “That’s the hardest part, is being able to read the future, to know when the next cycle is gonna hit. The best way I’ve found to do that is to listen—to not try to predict, but to know what is happening around me. So when I don’t feel like creating, I don’t create. When I don’t feel like participating, I don’t participate. Those are actions that I choose not to be counterproductive, but to be productive in a different way.”

Giving people the freedom to listen to themselves is one of the Cooperative’s core values. Its salvaged materials and low rental costs allow members to keep their expenses low, meaning that their need to sell work is lessened, allowing them time and space to create according to their own individual vision and internal clock.

Initiatives like the Cooperative abound in our region today, as many of us look to art and culture as a way to “revive” industrial areas we consider “dead,” but Shane is much humbler than that. “One of our mottos at the Cooperative is, ‘If you’re doing it, you can talk about it. If you’re not doing it, you cannot talk about it.’ We notice a lot of people saying to us, you could do this, you could do that, you could do this, you could do that. ‘You could make a lot of money doing that!’ And, yes, somebody could. But the question is, is it going to be you?”

“It’s mainly a focusing goal for us,” he continues, “because we’re so multidisciplinary. And the way we fill in each other’s gaps is by humility.” The Cooperative keeps their eyes on the immediate. Their approach to improving Greensboro is to ask, what can we do right now as the people we are? For them, it means not only creating a space for sharing work and knowledge, but also taking time along the way to honor their neighbors.

A workshop with a man lined up in front of clay pots.

Cooperative member Keith Koury pouring ceramic cups.

Residents Coming Together, Defining Community

Not all that long ago, Greensboro almost ceased to exist. On Election Day 1985, Virginia and West Virginia were ravaged by floods as Hurricane Juan came to land and tore through them. The Mon Valley was hit hard, too. Large parts of Greensboro and other rivers towns were damaged by the rising river and ten inches of rain. Shortly thereafter, the Army Corps of Engineers began to redesign the Monongahela River dam system, threatening to raise the water levels permanently higher and destroy many of Greensboro’s oldest buildings.

Residents banded together to organize against this. Their efforts culminated in 1994 with the creation of the Nathanael Greene Historical Foundation, now called the Nathanael Greene Community Development Corporation. The NGCDC has launched many initiatives to preserve the town’s historic buildings and share them with the world. They now work with the Cooperative on a yearly cultural festival in Greensboro, Art Blast on the Mon. It is in this tradition that the Cooperative really arose – those people who refused to let Greensboro die.

Shane speaks about elders with the utmost respect. He admires people like Betty and John Longo, who owned and operated the local confectionary for decades, even as businesses elsewhere in town disappeared. And, when he reflects on the ways the Cooperative most improves Greensboro, what he calls “the giveback,” his mind does not immediately go to economic development or their community arts initiatives—it goes to them. “Emotionally and spiritually, we have gained so much from helping the seniors in town,” he says. “Their kids are no longer in town, grandkids no longer in town, and they need someone to just listen to them, really. And when I think about it, that’s probably the proudest thing I’ve done at the Cooperative, is talking to the seniors and hearing their stories. Some of them aren’t around anymore to tell them.”

“Really, they’re all artists in their own way.” He reflects on not only the glassblowers and the potters, but also the miners and ice cream shop owners. “They brought their artistry with them wherever they went!”

Guided by this respect, members of the Cooperative seek to help their neighbors naturally, in the course of their daily lives. “It’s that Buddhist notion of karma,” Shane says, “We all have to find something to give every day.”

For instance, one older woman in town walks from her home to the post office each morning as part of her daily exercise routine. When it snows, Shane and the others will shovel the sidewalk for her. On other days, the Cooperative will load up in their trucks and drive out to a local florist to collect discarded flowers from their dumpster. Some of these they keep for art, but most they hand out at local retirement homes. “It’s about becoming the heroes of that moment,” he concludes.

“It can be as simple as just picking flowers out of the garbage. And all the moments leading up to it, the driving, the traffic… everything leading up to donating that flower might be mundane. But that moment when you give that flower to that senior, I see the spark in their eyes. And first-time members who have never been on these trash-picking journeys before, they’ve never had that opportunity to be a hero in the moment. It’s a moment that, if we pay attention to and listen to, it can linger on inside of us. We can dwell on it for a really long time and it can create opportunity for creation. We don’t just feel good about ourselves because we’ve achieved something, we know we want to continue that feeling of good and continue that achievement.”

This is the real utility of the Cooperative—empathy. As Shane puts it, though he enjoys creating art, he is most motivated to do so when working with a community. This goes not only for art, but for improving the Theatre or simply being kind.

“When we work together as a group,” Shane says, “we find something that we can’t find alone. It’s a simple word—it’s called ‘muse.’ Like, as in to amuse, as a word. To amuse somebody is to give them the inspiration of humor, or of joy, or of just sorrow. Sorrow can be amusing.  So that’s the benefit of a cooperative. You have somebody who’s pushing you, not to create necessarily, but just to have somebody there with you doing their thing is really powerful. It’s an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to another experience.”

Two black women with braids look at colorful and geometric art on a gallery wall.

Community Spotlight: Kelly Strayhorn Theater

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By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer   |   Image: Community members visit the new Gallery KST to see the exhibition by Women of Visions. Photo by  Lindsay B. Garvin.

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations whose work contributes to the vibrancy of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Gallery KST Unveiled

For the first time in two years, guests have been welcomed back inside the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in a joyous revival of the arts, dance, music, and performances the venue has hosted for decades.

When guests walk through the front doors now, they are immediately immersed in a new arts and performance space, the Gallery KST.

Thanks in part to funding provided by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by Rivers of Steel, Kelly Strayhorn Theater has spent the previous year updating and enhancing their former lobby space. These renovations allow the theater to host additional artist showcases that greatly augment visitor experiences.

Four people of color walk through a white walled gallery showing paintings and sculpture.

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s new Gallery KST.  Photo by Lindsay B. Garvin.

Kelly Strayhorn Theater—A Neighborhood Icon

An icon of the neighborhood since 1914, Kelly Strayhorn Theater (then Regent Theatre) was originally one of the nation’s first nickelodeons. Over the century since it first opened, it has remained a haven for artists and the arts, though the theater itself has shifted and evolved through leadership, mission, and name changes.

What makes Kelly Strayhorn Theater unique, though, is the way the organization celebrates their interaction with the community. It isn’t just about selling tickets; programming is chosen with a goal of forging connections with patrons as well as neighborhood businesses and service organizations, a priority that can continue to grow with the new Gallery KST.

“Kelly Strayhorn Theater is more than a performing arts theater in a historic space,” says Joseph Hall, KST executive director. “Our vision is to uplift our community by being a brave space to create for BIPOC, LGBTQIA folks, and historically resilient communities. We want the theater to be a place that makes everyone feel at home, both on stage, in the audience, and while in our lobby.”

A Community Space

The inaugural exhibit for the renovated Gallery space is MAGNIFICENT MOTOWN! Art Inspired by the Music, in partnership with Women of Visions in celebration of their 40th anniversary. Inspired by the revolutionary musical genre, this exhibit showcases interpreted titles of Motown songs as physical artworks.

Through a connection with Women of Visions, the Gallery has also welcomed ORIGINS Marketplace, a multifaceted effort driven by Bridgeway Capital’s Creative Business Accelerator that supports initiatives aimed at advancing Black voices and aesthetics in the regional arts and cultural economy / ecosystem.

With pandemic closures shuttering nearby businesses and community spaces, the staff at Kelly Strayhorn Theater have been keenly aware of the need for a safe, cultural hub in East Liberty. The Gallery KST will serve as a space for the community with open hours outside of performances, where visitors can explore showcases that include photography, paintings, mixed media, and sculptures.

Gallert wall partitions intersect the lobby space of a old style theater with tin ceilings, ornate wall panels, and a mosaic tile floor.

“With the uncertainty of the pandemic, our community’s health and safety come first for us at KST,” notes Marketing Manager Kelsy Black. “Moving forward into our 2021-2022 season, we will continue to closely follow the CDC and Allegheny County Health Department’s guidelines to make sure that all of us can enjoy the performing arts without fear or unease. All our performances, workshops, and classes will be masked and physically distanced because to us, you can’t have a great show without an audience who feels safe and at home.”

A full season line-up, along with the theater’s most up-to-date Covid policy, is available at kelly-strayhorn.org.

Additional funding for this project was provided by Bridgeway Capital and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel Heritage Area’s Mini-Grant program is designed to fund projects that sustain Rivers of Steel’s sense of place through the preservation, interpretation, cultural, and recreational assets of the region’s industrial and cultural heritage.  The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant program. The Kelly Strayhorn Theater is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

The application for Round 26 funding is through September 30, 2021. Click here for more information on how to apply for funding. 

All photos of the Gallery KST are by Lindsay B. Garvin.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about Women of Visions, the artist collective that is mentioned in this story, check out this profile article featuring them from our Heritage Highlights series.

A bird from recycle rusty metal.

Alloy Pittsburgh: Process & Product

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: Detail of Jan Loney’s Flight in front of the stoves and stack for the Carrie Blast Furnaces Number 6 & 7.

Carly V. McCoyAlloy Pittsburgh

When Alloy Pittsburgh returned to the Carrie Blast Furnaces late last month, it offered six fresh perspectives of this National Historic Landmark, informed by the legacy of the site and the communities surrounding it.

Unique to this year’s process, Alloy Pittsburgh artists went beyond their residency experience at the Carrie Blast Furnaces themselves—they were to be embedded in neighboring communities. Each artist was partnered with a community-based organization adjacent to the Furnaces. This informed their work, pulling not just the history of the site, but also taking inspiration from the generations of people living today whose communities are now deindustrialized.

Previously, we highlighted three of these artists as they were out and about during their residencies.  Now that the show is up, we wanted to take a minute to reflect on the process and final products of the three remaining artists—Jan Loney, Sandy Kessler Kaminski, and Darnell Chambers.

Take a look at the photo essay below to learn more. If you’d like a chance to see their works for yourself, we welcome you to join Rivers of Steel for a happy hour artist-led tour on September 23 or sign up for a guided tour of the exhibition on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday before the show closes on September 26.

Jan Loney—Flight

Jan Loney adds a few final touches to her work “Flight.”

Jan Loney is unique among this year’s cohort of Alloy artists. Instead of being embedded with a neighboring community organization, Rivers of Steel was her host organization, and the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark was her residency site.

A metal bird sculpture silhouetted by a cloudy blue sky.

Detail of Jan Loney’s “Flight.”

Jan is keenly aware of songbirds, the avian companions who visit her daily and those encountered throughout her journey in life. During her residency at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, she relished a variety of perspectives onsite, from the ground and river level, to high atop the furnace. In a mill that was once inhospitable to nearly all wildlife, birds now inhabit the dizzying heights where most humans can only dream of reaching.

For Jan, these birds represent so many people; countless people from many places and moments in her life. Like any flock, they migrate together and apart.

A woman uses a plasma cutter to release sheets of metal from part of a metal structure.

Jan Loney sourcing her materials.

 

A brass bird is hoisted to a metal cage for support.

Jan Loney’s brass bird is affixed to a support structure.

In this installation, she created birds from recycled materials gathered onsite to represent the many people who have migrated in and out of her life, as well as those workers who once animated the Carrie Blast Furnaces, immigrating to and from this region over the centuries.

Sandy Kessler Kaminski—Legacy

Details of “Legacy” by Sandy Kessler Kaminski.

Sandy Kessler Kaminski’s work is influenced by society, culture, and the environment.  Legacy is a temporary installation located on the grounds of Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark.

A partly gray haired white woman screen prints with the help of black youth.

Sandy works on her installation with help from the youth at the Rankin Christian Center.

In this work, she reinterprets engineering drawings created by the steel industry detailing the river system and the Carrie Furnaces ironworks and machinery, along with architectural drawings of the Rankin Christian Center. The enhanced drawings are held in place over the course of a month using native songbird paperweights.

Line drawings of youth by Sandy Kessler Kaminski

Details of “Legacy” in progress.


Two visitors look around a room full of drawings and bird figurines.

Exhibition-goers examine the “Legacy” by Sandy Kessler Kaminski.

The iron, aluminum, bronze, copper, limestone, glass, and wood used to form the birds represent the various industries found in Pittsburgh. A gilded bird represents the faith of communities central to each neighborhood. As the birds age during the month-long exhibition, she hopes the resulting patina will stain the paper as an allegory to how industry continues to mark the landscape of Western Pennsylvania and the people of Rankin.

Darnell Chambers—Strikebreakers

One of Darnell’s cast iron gloves with a tool from Rivers of Steel’s archives.

Darnell Chambers’ work is deeply inspired by world history and his personal experiences growing up poor in America as a man of color. For Alloy Pittsburgh, he created six iron-cast gloves accompanied by five paintings representing the African American workforce employed at the Carrie Blast Furnaces—workers that held 84 percent of the most difficult and dangerous jobs onsite. Paintings included in the installation depict various players from the Homestead Grays, a negro league baseball team that grew out of the legendary U.S. Steel Homestead Steel Works.

A full room view of the cast-iron gloves installed with the paintings of Homestead Grays ballplayers

A view of “Strikebreakers”


Sand molds for casting

The molds with the cast iron gloves inside.


A black man on the ground drilling into the cast iron.

Darnell working on the gloves.

He molded the hands into positions that these workers might have held while using a variety of tools. Alongside these cast pieces are actual tools from the 137-year-old furnace site. The artwork intends to reveal the skin tone of the workers beneath the gloves. Rusted and dark, the layer underneath the gloves represents people of color, with the intention of the hints of rips and tears in the gloves to help showcase the importance of black strength, courage, and resilience.

Another detail of Darnell Chamer’s “Strikebreakers”

For more information about Alloy Pittsburgh, visit the Exhibitions page or check out our recent Instagram posts.

Alloy Pittsburgh 2021 is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

Additional support has been provided by the Fine Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The Carrie Blast Furnaces in 1988

An Iconic Symbol—the Carrie Blast Furnaces

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The Carrie Blast Furnaces in 1988. Photo from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

By August Carlino, President and Chief Executive Officer

August R. CarlinoSaving the Carrie Blast Furnaces and Envisioning Tomorrow

After the recent announcement by Allegheny County and the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) that they have entered into a partnership to redevelop the Carrie Furnace site, Rivers of Steel’s President and CEO August Carlino reflected on our organization’s role in the process—historically, presently, and in the future.

An Iconic Symbol of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Industrial Legacy

In 1989 a group of concerned partners from Pittsburgh and Homestead rallied together to call attention to the need to save the Carrie Blast Furnaces as an iconic symbol of our region’s legacy as the Steelmaking Capital of the World. Those partners—residents, business leaders, community groups, and historical organizations—encountered much resistance, with many dismissing the idea as without merit, an obstacle to economic development, an impediment to job-creating, and a barrier to the redevelopment of the old mill site. Undeterred, that same group of partners created an organization that would eventually lead the preservation efforts at Carrie and work with communities throughout southwestern Pennsylvania to help conserve their industrial and cultural heritage.  Today, 31 years later, Rivers of Steel celebrates the recent announcement by the Regional Industrial Development Corporation and Allegheny County to redevelop the Carrie Furnace site, with the historic blast furnaces as a central element to its revitalization.

A semi-developed brownfield

The remaining structures of the Carrie Blast Furnaces can be seen across the river from Homestead as the Waterfront was being developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Photo from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

Working Together

With this announcement by Allegheny County and the RIDC, the primary goal of Rivers of Steel has come to fruition. The redevelopment of our industrial sites can be accomplished without the erasure of the history that is the identity of our communities and the legacy of our region. RIDC and Rivers of Steel have a long track record of working in partnership to advance the development of industrial sites in southwestern Pennsylvania. Rivers of Steel’s work with RIDC dates back to the early 1990s when we assisted RIDC with documenting and preserving industrial artifacts and documents at the former U.S. Steel sites in Duquesne and McKeesport. Our work together helped RIDC meet federal historic mitigation requirements resulting in the release of public funds used for redevelopment. Because RIDC appreciates the region’s industrial heritage, the former steel mill sites at Duquesne and McKeesport function as modern industrial campuses that showcase industrial technology of the 21st century on sites that were considered “high tech” locales constructed and operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As successful as these sites have been, the opportunity at Carrie Furnaces, with the Blast Furnaces as a central component of the site’s redevelopment, will be unique in the world. Allegheny County’s leadership resulted in the formation of a Carrie Furnaces Redevelopment Steering Committee that includes Rivers of Steel, representatives of the Boroughs of Rankin, Swissvale, and Braddock, the Woodland Hills School District, and the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County. This working partnership has endured trials but persevered: not only accomplishing the early work to prepare the site for this development opportunity but also ensuring that the National Historic Landmark—Carrie Blast Furnaces Numbers 6 & 7—remain a focal point for the site, the surrounding communities, Pittsburgh, and southwestern Pennsylvania.

A group in hard hat walk through the ore yard in front of the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

A hard hat tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, late spring 2021.

Stewardship of the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark

As stewards of the National Historic Landmark, Rivers of Steel has worked since 2005 to make the Carrie Blast Furnaces Numbers 6 & 7 accessible to the community and visitors to the region. As a result, today visitors can participate in interpretive tours, educational programs, art exhibits and workshops, and special festivals and events on a site that was historically walled off from any type of community access. Rivers of Steel’s stewardship has also included investing in stabilizing and preserving the historic structure and raising significant private and government funding to ensure its survival as a monument to the region’s nationally significant industrial heritage.

At the beginning of 2021, Rivers of Steel began working on a comprehensive strategic plan for the historic site. This plan focuses on interpretation and exhibition, arts and culture, education, and recreation. It will inform a conceptual site plan to ensure that the proper infrastructure and resources are in place to meet these programmatic goals. In addition, the conceptual site plan will lead to a business plan and fundraising strategy to make these goals and visions a reality. This process includes integrating the historic site within the larger development, working closely with the county, RIDC, and the municipalities.

Rivers of Steel envisions that the Carrie Blast Furnaces will be the centerpiece and headquarters of not only the Mon Valley and the Pittsburgh region but of the entire national heritage area it manages, acting as a hub that drives visitors and tourists to Rivers of Steel’s other sites and its many heritage partners in the southwestern Pennsylvania region.

Rivers of Steel looks forward to working closely with Allegheny County and the RIDC to ensure that the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark can complement the development and connect to the community green space and trails that are planned. In the end, the result will be the marrying of the engineering brilliance and industrial technology of Pittsburgh in the 19th century with the engineering brilliance and industrial technology of the 21st century, making Carrie Furnaces a site like none other in the world.

A black and white aerial photo of the Carrie Furnace site when it fully active, showing lots of buildings, smoke, and raw materials.

An aerial view of the Carrie Furnace site it its heyday. Photo from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

Interested in reading more about the history of the Carrie Blast Furnaces? Check out this article by Ryan Henderson about John Hughey and the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces.

Aluminum in a Steel World: Pittsburgh’s Industrial Legacies

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Aluminum Illustrations, 1948. Illustration of aluminum smelting at Alcoa. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities

Ronald BaraffAluminum—Born of the Pittsburgh Spirit

This August, Rivers of Steel will host the second session of its three-day Sculptural Aluminum Casting workshop, along with another opportunity for newbies to try the casting process—the three-hour introductory Aluminum Casting Session.  So we thought it would be a good time to share this article by Ron Baraff on the origins of aluminum and its industrial rise in the Pittsburgh region.

Aluminum is a Pittsburgh product—not because Pittsburgh had abundant supplies of bauxite ore, for she has not; and not because Pittsburgh had abundant hydroelectric power, for she has not. Aluminum is a Pittsburgh product because Pittsburgh, despite its reputation for smoke and grime, is primarily interested in men. Here in Pittsburgh as in no other community of the United States, does creative genius get a hearing and sound backing…. It was Pittsburgh that listened to an Ohio college boy with the vision of the possibilities of a new and light metal. Not only did it listen, but it gave substantial assistance.[1]

—Arthur Vining Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America, 1927

The mantra of the contemporary moment is that Pittsburgh has reinvented itself, rising up on a new arc of innovation and ingenuity. The region is being heralded as the new, shiny beacon on a hill, setting the stage for the 21st century and beyond through robotics, biomedical research, and education. While we are moving forward in these fields, fostering civic and fiscal revivals, the very fact that Pittsburgh is a hub of innovation, capital, and ingenuity is as old as the grand metropolis itself. Since its incorporation, Pittsburgh has been a vanguard city, cloaking itself in the comfort of working-class ideals and mores, all the while inviting and nurturing capital investment, research, discovery, and innovation. It has been a leader in the development and success of the boatbuilding, steam power, glass, airbrakes, electricity, rail, oil, iron, and steel—revolutions that shook the world to its very foundations and inextricably changed the course of human development. Often overlooked, or at least underappreciated in all of the civic and economic boosterism that lead to the heralding the city as the “Iron and Steel City,” is the aluminum industry. The rise of the industry through the Pittsburgh Reduction Company and its later incarnation as the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) provided for cross-pollination and integration with other major industries, investors, and industrialists from the Pittsburgh region and was part of what has been described as the “Pittsburgh Spirit,” a mindset that encouraged investment and cooperation among Pittsburgh’s elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A black and white photo of aluminum stones in an ornate aluminum box.

Photograph of “Crown Jewels of the Aluminum Industry.” The large globule of aluminum at the right is the first run of aluminum made in 1888 by the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (predecessor of ALCOA). The smaller globules are those made by Charles Martin Hall in February 1886 by the electrolytic process he discovered. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

When American inventor Charles Martin Hall (1863 – 1914), along with Frenchman Paul Heroult, demonstrated the means for aluminum extraction and production in 1886, the stage was set for a new revolution in the metals industry: here for the first time was a way to economically produce aluminum.[2] This process, known as the Hall-Heroult process, attracted the attention of manufacturers and investors alike who saw the opportunities not just to make and market the lightweight, wide-reaching, and durable aluminum, but who also saw benefits for use in other aspects of industrial manufacturing. Among those who was attracted to the new world of possibilities was Pittsburgh industrialist Alfred Hunt. Hunt, whose initial interest in aluminum and the Hall-Heroult process was focused on how it could be applied to the steel industry in a process known as “killing” which would efficiently help to remove dissolved oxygen in the steelmaking process, came to be a central figure in the rise of new industry in Pittsburgh. For Hunt and Hall, efficiency and economy of scale were prime motivating factors, as they would go on to partner in the Pittsburgh Reduction Company and its later incarnation, Alcoa.

The Pittsburgh Reduction Company, Aluminum Price List, 1900. Founded by Alfred Hunt and Charles Martin Hall, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company was the predecessor to the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Rivers of Steel Collection.

The most interesting thing to this Chamber, however, is that the Aluminum Company of America is a Pittsburgh industry. In the early days when there were only six partners in the business they were all Pittsburgh men connected with the steel companies and other companies of this city. Later on when it became necessary to get in more money, the Messrs. Mellon, Mr. Thaw and one or two others joined us, but they were all Pittsburghers. Since that time we have had practically no money put into the company so that it is as true today as it was then that the money of the company is Pittsburgh money.[3]

—Arthur Vining Davis

Hunt was not alone in his interest in aluminum. Being an “East Ender” in Pittsburgh—part of the enclave of rich industrialists who settled in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning East End—he worked hard to entice some of his neighbors to invest in his new venture. Some of the early investors were those whose fortunes laid in Pittsburgh’s dominant industries: Howard Lash and Millard Hunsiker from the Carbon Steel Company, Robert Scott from the Union Iron Mills, and George Hubbard Clapp and W. S. Sample from Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory. Their interest and investment enticed other titans of Pittsburgh like the Mellon Brothers, who were lured by the investment possibilities that the new industry would bring. They were early and eager investors, working hard to raise much needed capital, as well as providing legal advice where needed. Their concerns and money allowed Hunt and Hall to reinvest earnings into expansion of the company, taking a page from another fellow industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. The idea was to keep building for the future and long-term strategies.

The company was focused on the ideal of vertical integration—again based on the Carnegie model—to keep the profits at home, invest in needed raw materials and supplies, and bring all elements of production under one banner / company. Vertical integration provided a control over all facets of production, from the supply chain to production to end product distribution. This model was heavily rooted in the Pittsburgh tradition—Carnegie Steel, Westinghouse Electric and Airbrake, and the Heinz manufacturing empires were built upon it. Like the Mellon’s, George Westinghouse saw the opportunities that would come with the growth of the industry as it was applied to his Alternating Current (AC) power interests in Pittsburgh, but even more so in Niagara Falls, the aluminum reduction industry was heavily reliant on hydropower. Westinghouse Electric would “manage the building of one of the world’s greatest hydroelectric stations” without which the growth of the industry would have been stymied.[4]

Aluminum Illustrations, 1948. Illustration showing Charles Martin Hall and A.V. Davis showing “the Pittsburgh Spirit” making Aluminum. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

Another Pittsburgh East Ender who would play a large role in the success of Alcoa was Philander Knox, who served as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General. For over a decade the company “grew up in the shadow of the large trusts; steel, oil, tobacco, cotton, and pig iron.”[5] In 1903, President Roosevelt instructed Knox to initiate a series of lawsuits under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the first federal regulation of monopolistic business practices. Given Knox’s closeness as a poker buddy and neighbor of the founders of Alcoa (and United States Steel), the company managed to avoid the federal antitrust lawsuits. Operating under patent protections, their control of aluminum pricing, supplies, and distribution was deemed to be valid. While there were some later antitrust issues concerning their involvement in the international cartel, which produced roughly ninety percent of the world’s aluminum supply, the company remained mostly unscathed. The government-issued Consent Decree of 1912 and the coming of World War I a few years later, ended any ongoing and pending legal proceedings. Alcoa agreed to “stop all questionable practices” and ostensibly ended their involvement with the cartel.[6] They were able to withstand competition and ultimately dominate the global aluminum market.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pittsburgh region was ripe with opportunity. The region was a hotbed of innovation, ingenuity, and investment. The crosspollination and investment of capital that built the early manufacturing industries of Pittsburgh ushered in a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity. This practice became the standard upon which the region was built and is still being built to this day. The “Pittsburgh Spirit” is as alive and well today as it was for Alfred Hunt and Charles Martin Hall when they launched the aluminum industry and changed the course of metals manufacturing worldwide.

[1] Speech to Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Arthur Vining Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America. Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Spirit, Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, 1927, p. 185

[2] Heroult developed a similar process in France, thus sharing the patent known as the Hall-Heroult process.

[3] Speech to Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, A.V Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America. Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Spirit, Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, 1927, p. 177

[4] Skrabec, Quentin R.. Aluminum in America: A History. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017. P. 56, Kindle edition

[5] Ibid, p. 64

[6] Ibid, p. 65

This article was first published in the catalog for student curated exhibition, Metal From Clayat the University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh, October 24, 2019.

Bringing Mad Max to Life

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: Character from Mad Max: Fury Road.  Image by Jeff Zoet Visuals with J Potosky as Immortan Joe.

Carly V. McCoyGetting in on the Action

Next Friday, Rivers of Steel will screen Mad Max: Fury Road as part of this summer’s Carrie Carpool Cinema, but for moviegoers the fun will begin well before the opening scene flickers onto the screen.

For one thing, Mad Max: Fury Road is just night one of a weekend themed as “Heavy Metal Menagerie” with Wayne’s World being screened the following evening. What’s the connection? Well, it’s the hot metal pour that is occurring both evenings presented by Rivers of Steel Arts’ metal arts crew. Everyone is welcome to watch the Hot Metal Happening, plus anyone can buy a scratch mold, carve their own artwork, and have it cast in aluminum right there!

But that’s not the only way to get in the action—18 cosplayers will be onsite to bring the Mad Max franchise to life! Guests are encouraged to dress in costume themselves or join in and be photographed with the characters, including Immortan Joe, Furiosa, Max, The Wives, and a whole host of Wastelanders.

Pittsburgh Area Costumers

Many of the members of the Pittsburgh Area Costumers have decades of cosplay experience, from local comic conventions such as Steel City Con, as well as local film premiers. Some travel to other events like the Dragon Con in Atlanta—two members were recently part of the Black Widow film premier. And for the group attending Mad Max: Fury Road, the Wasteland Weekend outside L.A, would be a fitting event.

As a group, the Pittsburgh Area Costumers were largly connected through the work of one man—Jeff Zoet. Jeff is a photographer, digital compositor, cinematographer and editor based in Pittsburgh. Back in 2018, he started a series of Cosplay Supershoots, which led to new friendships among the participants. The series of photographs featured in this article showcase Jeff’s photography and visuals. J Potosky and Annie Graves are the subjects, appearing as Immortan Joe and Furiosa from the Mad Max universe.

As a member of the group, J Potosky reflected on role of cosplay:  “It’s freeing and fun to be someone else, not to mention the artistry of emulating the works of art on screen—It’s a true love letter to any film, comic, or video game you may enjoy. Also the cosplay community, especially in Pittsburgh is so much fun, honestly like a big accepting family of nerds.”

Follow Jeff Zoet, J Potosky, and Annie Graves on Instagram.

Tickets are available for the Carrie Carpool Cinema here. The films start at 9:15; doors open at 7:45. Be sure to stop by early to meet the characters from Mad Max: Fury Road on Friday, or to participate in a hot metal pour either evening!

Alloy Pittsburgh: Out & About

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: Lori Hepner demonstrates the light wand at the Doors Open Homestead Event.

Carly V. McCoyAlloy Pittsburgh—Interrupted

When Alloy Pittsburgh returns to the Carrie Blast Furnaces later this summer, it will be the fourth iteration of the site-specific art installation. Six local artists are currently immersed in a three-month residency that will inform the scope and process of their work, but this year is unlike any other.

The shadow of the pandemic looms large. It is hard to say yet if the collective traumas of the last year or so will be evident in artworks themselves—they are still being created. What we do know is that the process of creating the works has seen some challenges. For one thing, the exhibition was delayed; when it opens on Saturday, August 28, 2021, it will be just about one year off schedule. Beyond that though, the scope of the residency itself changed dramatically.

For the first time, Alloy Pittsburgh artists were to go beyond their residency experience at the Carrie Furnaces themselves—they were to be embedded in neighboring communities. Each artist was to be partnered with a community-based organization adjacent to the Furnaces. Their work was to be informed by not just the history of the site, but by the generations of people living today whose communities are now deindustrialized.  As one can imagine, the pandemic changed what organizations could do in partnership with the artists, how people could interact within their spaces, or if they could even participate at all.

Fortunately, both artists and arts administrators are quite resilient, so by June of this year, each of the six artists had found a home for summer exploration. Now, we are happy to report, these community connections have begun!

Check out the photo essay below to learn more about three of the six artists—and read about how you can get involved!

Alloy Pittsburgh—Community Events

Reba Harmon

Reba Harmon is a rust belt born and raised visual artist, living and working in Pittsburgh. This summer, she has partnered with the Three Rivers Village School in Hazelwood. In June, she toured the Furnaces with a small group of local students to experience the site with them.

Four youth follow an adult to the car dumper.

Afterwards, they had a hands-on experience working with her, helping to knit the fabric that will be used in her installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. This relationship with the students has been an ongoing part of her residency.  Reba’s piece at Carrie aims to foster new community relationships while reconnecting with the historical role of women in the steel industry. She says, “knitting illustrates a dichotomy: a media used in domestic craft backdropped by the industrial space accentuates women’s presence and role in the steel industry, while acknowledging the struggle to find acceptance therein.”

Two youth create a large knit yard from a spool.

You can check it out for yourself! Join Reba, along with Artist Excursions Unlimited at Elizabeth Street Parklet in Hazelwood, Elizabeth Street Parklet, Elizabeth and Gloster Streets, 15207, on Friday, July 23 from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. You can experience her process and help create the artwork that will be installed in the Hoist House of the Carrie Blast Furnaces. You can also catch up with Reba during the Open Streets event in Hazelwood on Sunday, July 25.

Bradford Mumpower

While Bradford Mumpower’s career history has been varied, he couldn’t escape the pull of “creating” things. In 2010, a sewing course inspired him and set him on the road towards fashion design. His concept for the installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces is inspired by the “greens” that workers wore while on the job, scaled to size proportionate with the historic importance of the site itself.

An illustration of a giant green shirt over a photo of the Carrie's Blowing Engine House

From the image below, you can see the beginning of the shirt spread out adjacent to the place where it will be installed. The larger-than-life replica of the jacket is almost ten yards from the high point shoulder to the bottom hem, and about 20 yards from end of sleeve to end of sleeve with the jackets arms outstretched.

Part of the artwork lays on the ground

Bradford is in residence at the Wilkins School Community Center, 7604 Charleston Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15218. Stop by there on Sunday, July 25 from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. to meet the artist, ask questions, discuss the project, and find out ways you can help work on this art project.

Lori Hepner

Lori Hepner is an artist working primarily in photography, new media performance, and public art in community centered projects. Her project for Alloy Pittsburgh explores the connection that the Carrie Blast Furnaces have with the surrounding communities via the air above it.

“My inspiration for the project came from thinking about the Carrie Blast Furnaces as a specific site: pressurized air made the transformation of raw materials into something that could be used for industrial purposes,” said Lori. “The air from the sky above was drawn in through the large air duct pipes that can be seen throughout Carrie, some of which blocked out the actual sky from those working there. Now that Carrie is a non-active site, the air above us floats in from the surrounding communities rather than the pollution from the active site floating out.”

 

Pipes at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Lori’s process for creating this work directly engages the community in the process. Recently at Doors Open’s June 28 Homestead Event, Lori invited the community to collaborate to visualize themselves, along with their families and friends, as part of her project, entitled The Air Above Us.  Participants used 6’ light-wand, along with photographs of the sky above them, to create images that will be incorporated in the project, in the process allowing event-goers to becoming light artists.

A small child holds a light wand as mom and sisi watch

The Braddock Carnegie Library Association is the community organization that is hosting Lori, so naturally she also worked with children there to create images to use in the final project, which will take the form of a mural. Taking inspiration from the graffiti works onsite, the digitally created decal mural will be allowed to age in place. However, Lori also has plans for an interactive aspect of the installation—to use augmented reality to form the final presentation of the piece. Check it out for yourself at the Alloy Pittsburgh opening reception on Saturday, August 28 or during one of the exhibition tours scheduled for Friday, Saturdays, and Sunday in September.

Boys play with the light wand

For more information about Alloy Pittsburgh, visit the Exhibitions page or review the April 29, 2021 news release.

Alloy Pittsburgh 2021 is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

Additional support has been provided by the Fine Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

a colorful radiating light behind a chalice

Heritage Highlights: Holy Martyrs’ Sawdust Carpets

By Blog
A sawdust carpet from the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Holy Martyrs Parish.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person to- person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

For this month’s story, Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel visited the borough of Tarentum, just 20 minutes up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. Tarentum is host to Holy Martyrs Parish, a Catholic church with roots in the 19th-century industrial boom and the only church in America that carries on the tradition of creating sawdust carpets to mark religious events. He spoke with David Kuniak, a long-time participant in the tradition, who shared his philosophy on the carpets and the community they create.

a sawdust carpet featuring Jesus and a dove

Holy Martyrs’ Sawdust Carpets

By Jonathan Engel

The Sawdust Carpets of Corpus Christi

Like its many cousins in southwestern Pennsylvania, Tarentum is a small industrial town right on the river. It is carved, sometimes deftly and sometimes awkwardly, into the steep hillsides of the Alle-Kiski Valley. Early last month, I found myself walking up one of Tarentum’s slopes to Holy Martyrs Parish. There, I met David Kuniak, who laughed and complained about the hot afternoon he spent that weekend mowing the church’s lawn. David is a lifelong member of Holy Martyrs and an expert in one of this region’s singular artforms—the sawdust carpets of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

After the construction of railroads in 1866 and the opening of CL Flaccus’s glass factory in 1879, Tarentum’s population boomed with immigrant workers. In 1896, Catholic priests from the Holy Ghost Seminary established a new church for the borough’s large German community. It was called Sacred Heart. In 1969, as Tarentum’s population declined with its glass production, Sacred Heart was merged with a nearby Italian church called St. Peter’s. A new building was constructed in the same space, becoming Holy Martyrs Parish. It consists of two distinct flat lots about halfway up the hill that is West Tarentum and a modern church, with a prominent cross on its side and a grotto shrine dedicated to St. Mary up the hill from the entrance. David let me inside and the two of us sat together in the pews as we spoke about the carpets.

The story goes that, in 1943, a new priest arrived to lead the church. Like all his predecessors at Sacred Heart, Father James McNamara was trained at the Holy Ghost Seminary, which is located in the Black Forest mountain range in southwestern Germany. There, priests have been creating elaborate “sawdust carpets” for a variety of church events for centuries. These were temporary murals, the sawdust dyed various colors and assembled on the ground, often used in religious processionals. Similar traditions occur at other Catholic churches all around the world, such as the flower petal carpets constructed inside Arundel Cathedral in England and in the streets of Antigua, Guatemala during Lent. Holy Ghost’s specific practice developed around the white pines common to the Black Forest, the sawdust of which is incredibly good at absorbing water-based dyes. It is said that Father McNamara was so moved by these images that, when he came to Tarentum, he led his new parish in creating their own carpets and processional. They did so to mark the feast day of Corpus Christi, spawning an annual tradition.

That story is a little spotty. Tarentum historian Skip Culleiton has found footage of sawdust carpets at Holy Martyrs’ events as early as 1942 and testimonials from church members who recall making them years before Father McNamara moved in. “That’s sort of the mystery of the carpets,” David says, smiling, “Nobody actually knows how they started. The people who knew are dead.”

Each carpet lives for only one day, most of which is spent creating it. The process is long, meticulous, and hard. Participants must bend over concrete in the summer sun and patiently arrange sawdust, soil, and whatever else they choose to incorporate. But despite the labor and the ephemerality of its products, the practice has continued for nearly eight decades. It had never been rained out or delayed, until the pandemic forced them to cancel the event in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, the diocese combined Holy Martyrs with seven other churches to create Guardian Angels Parish, which is spread across several buildings. David hopes that the carpets will return next year bigger than ever with help from the new parishioners. This would continue a tradition he has helped maintain for most of his life.

A sacred heart fashioned after stained glass made of dyed sawdust displayed like a carpet in a parking lot.

David Kuniak, Steward of the Sawdust Carpets

Back in the ‘50s, the Corpus Christi celebrations were organized by a group called the Holy Name Society, which only allowed its all-male membership to participate in making the sawdust carpets. In 1972, an 18-year-old David Kuniak, fresh out of high school, was made chairman of the carpet committee. He had been making them since middle school, starting with small carpets on the sidewalk outside the old building.

“I wanted to do them because you weren’t allowed! When you were in 8th grade, at Sacred Hearts Church, kids could join in. It was something that you had to grow into and was obviously sacred to the older people, but it took forever to get to 8th grade. And when you can’t participate, for a little kid, that’s tough. When I took over, that ended right there.”

Immediately, David opened the process up to women, children, and even non-Catholics. These days, all sorts of people flock to Tarentum for the celebrations—worshippers, neighbors, and professional artists. It is common for families to make carpets together, passing the art from generation to generation as everyone gets involved at once. Some years, participants have created up to 30 individual carpets, all in the two-level parking lot beside Holy Martyrs. Though David passed the reins over many years ago—to his cousin Jim Huey—he remains heavily involved. It is a family tradition—his brother creates murals with his children every year, too. He speaks of previous works wistfully, musing to himself about how “absolutely gorgeous” the carpets he’s seen have been.

“People are coming from distances now to do them, to make them. Whenever I see somebody new, I always take the chance to sit down and talk to them. I stick their name and their phone number in my address book. If you’re here and you really like them, you can do them. Don’t stand there and say you’d like to do them. You’re welcome to do them, we want you to do them.”

He continues: “We had some kids who lived on West 10th Ave. here and they don’t go to church or whatever, but they would just be sitting up there on their porch and watching. They said to me one year, ‘Can we take some sawdust and go on the sidewalk and make our own carpet?’ and I said, ‘Instead of doing it off to the side, why don’t you do it here with us?’”

That attitude permeates all aspects of the process. Many different styles abound, from traditional religious scenes to abstract geometries to simple kids’ drawings. “Everybody has their own talents,” David explains, “What can you do? Some people draw, some people just like to fill them in. That’s a talent too, y’know, making the colors blend together. Your skill level doesn’t matter—God appreciates all skills.”

Likewise, the subject matters vary. The church asks that the carpets remain religious in some sense, but participants have expressed themselves not only in Biblical scenes but in various symbols, national flags, and portraits.

The Making of the Sawdust Carpets

The process has remained largely the same since it began with the Holy Name Society. Jim, David, and other church members dye the sawdust a week before the event, although they have shifted from seven natural dyes to a wide array of artificial colors. The dyes are mixed in with white pine sawdust, donated by a mill in the North Side, which is turned in cement mixers and left to dry in burlap sacks outside the church.

Work on the murals begins around 6:00 a.m. on the feast day. Many participants arrive earlier in the morning, sometimes even the night before, to sketch out their carpets on the cement. To do this, they use chalk donated by a local welding company. Since David took over in the ‘70s, Holy Martyrs has provided drawings on grids and stencils to make the design easier and help people nail difficult proportions. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘I want to make one, but I can’t draw’…no excuses!”

Participants sculpt their images by hand, piling sawdust on to their outlines and using combs to even it out. Several helpers move through the lot, spraying the carpets with a hose set to “mist”. The water holds the sawdust to the ground on windy days and pulls the colors out more vibrantly, allowing the delicate materials to last. At 4:00 p.m., work ends. Shortly after, the priests of Holy Martyrs lead a processional around the lot, weaving around the carpets up to their outdoor shrine. The carpets are left out for a few more hours for people to view until a street sweeper, borrowed from the Tarentum borough, comes by and clears them out.

“It’s hard to push a broom and clean them up once you’ve put all that work into it!” David laughs, “But also, we have them in the pictures and movies, so they’re never really gone. And their purpose was not for us to begin with. Other people, I’ve seen them in tears once you start sweeping them up.”

The Feast of Corpus Christi—Celebrating Love & Community

“See, I can’t draw.”

Instead, David typically creates large, tapestry-like prayers with a set of letter stencils he made years ago. “A lot of the priests would come around and say, why are you doing prayers all the time? I says, ‘well, for a number of reasons, Father. First one is, I went to a confession and that was my penance.’ But people, when you start making it, they start reading it. So by the time I’m done, every person has said a prayer.”

In David’s eyes, the carpets are offered up for God, and the act of creating them is an act of love. Even among non-Christian participants, he sees deep love in the effort they put in to create images for others to enjoy.

“Love, that’s the catch-all term for everybody who’s doing it. For a Catholic, that comes in the body and blood of Christ—that, here at the altar, bread, and water change into. That’s the Eucharist. That’s our belief.”

The Feast of Corpus Christi is dedicated to that belief. It is a holiday unique to Catholics and a small cluster of other Christian faiths. But, through the spontaneity and inclusivity of the sawdust carpets, that day has been opened up for the entire community to celebrate.

“I think that’s what God would want, too. He wants people to come together, He wants them to live together. People getting involved with other people. People caring about other people, and working with other people, and being happy with other people. How many things like that are there in life? You wanna’ be a professional baseball player? You can’t, you don’t have the skill level. We don’t care about skill level here. We want you, you as a person.”

The next Feast of Corpus Christi will occur on Thursday, June 16th, 2022 at Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Participation is open to all.

a sawdust carpet with a rainbow and a cross

Citations

All images courtesy of David Kuniak.

Culleiton, Skip. Corpus Christi Carpets: Holy Martyrs Parish, Tarentum, PA. Creighton Printing Company, 2004.

“About Tarentum”. Tarentum Borough, tarentumboro.com. Accessed June 30, 2021.

McDonnell, Sharon. “The Flower Carpets of Antigua Presage Easter in Guatemala”. Garden Collage Magazine. 5 April 2017, gardencollage.com.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this story about artist Kathleen Ferri or this interview with members of Women of Visions.