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Jack Boot Safety Posters

A Home for the Culture of Steel

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By Ryan Henderson, Interpretive Specialist

Ryan HendersonTo Collect, Preserve, Display & Share

A key component of Rivers of Steel’s mission has always been the collection and preservation of materials related to steel and industrial history.  While Rivers of Steel may now be best known for our historic properties, our historians have been collecting documents, objects, photographs, clothing, and all manners of ephemera for more than twenty years.  One of our organization’s earliest goals was to create a safe place for those items that threatened to disappear during the turmoil that engulfed the steel industry during the 1980s.  Hard hats, ID badges, books relating to metallurgy, work clothes, technical drawings, commemorative lighters and paper weights, industrial magazines, safety posters, and all manner of ‘everyday’ items from that era faced the potential to end up in the landfill, or consigned to a corner of the attic or basement.

When Rivers of Steel first put out the call for donations decades ago, the community responded with overwhelming support.  Our archive has had the good fortune to receive the support of local organizations and businesses, dozens of former industrial workers, and a number of dedicated longtime donors, some of whom have made thousands of individual donations.  We have managed to unearth truly incredible items: an exceptionally vibrant series of safety posters by local artist Jack Boot, letters from a National Guardsman during the Homestead Strike, the menu that once hung in the Open Hearth 5 Canteen at the Homestead Works (image below), hundreds of black and white headshots of workers from Jones and Laughlin.  We have managed to collect and retell the stories of the men and women who made this region what it is today through oral histories, audio / visual collections, and artwork.  Above all, we have attempted to ensure that these pieces will not only remain for future generations, but will be available now for all those who wish to access them.

Not only has Rivers of Steel created an archive that safely houses over 50,000 unique items, but it also makes these collections open to the public. Our archive is free to access by appointment, and almost any of the items in our collection can be viewed in person with a few exceptions.  Additionally, portions of our collection are frequently displayed in our exhibition rooms on the third floor of the Bost Building.  We have created a number of exhibits honoring the industrial and cultural heritage from southwestern Pennsylvania, with past shows focusing on topics like Jones and Laughlin Steel, the Little Steel era, folk art from around the region, industrial photography, and our current show which features hidden gems from our collection. Rivers of Steel also frequently works with outside groups or individuals to contribute both art and artifacts our exhibits, such as our current display on the 1919 Steel Strike.

Various exhibits inside the museum.Even during the current Covid-19 crisis, Rivers of Steel is working to facilitate access to our archives as safely as possible.  While we are not currently receiving visitors to the archive, our staff is more than happy to work with researchers, students, and community members to access our collections online and to fulfill requests as best we are able.  Our collections can be searched in their entirety here.  Additionally, we have created a new Covid-19 policy for the duration of the crisis in accordance with Pennsylvania State guidelines, viewable here.

We encourage anyone interested in contributing to our archives to get in touch with us at about next steps.  We have been working hard to preserve our community’s history for the past twenty plus years, and we will continue to protect our valuable cultural resources during these difficult times.

Guide to Images

Featured Image: Two of Jack Boot’s Safety Posters

Image 1: Ryan Henderson speaks to a group in the archives at the Bost Building.

Image 2: Menu board from the Open Hearth 5 Canteen at the Homestead Works.

Image 3: A view of the Bost Building’s third floor gallery, featuring the “From the Vault” exhibition.

Artist Profile: Shane Pilster

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Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this weekly blog highlights multiple artists each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

About Shane Pilster

Our next featured artist is no stranger to the Mon Valley or to Rivers of Steel Arts.  Mural artist and designer Shane Pilster has made a name for himself, not only as the Graffiti Arts Curator for Rivers of Steel, but also as one of Pittsburgh’s most respected advocates for local graffiti culture and its important role in reshaping the future of this region.  While his work is not confined to the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, many of his most impactful projects have taken place in this region and his hometown of Wilkinsburg has, on occasion, identified itself as part of the Mon Valley.  Let’s just call him an adopted son that the valley can be proud to claim as their own.

A Message from Shane

About My Work

I started painting with a spray can around 1997 in the San Francisco Bay Area and instantly fell in love. There have been highs and lows with the medium for me over the years, but in the last several years I have pushed myself to experiment with new ideas, techniques, and styles more than ever before.

I am an artist, muralist, curator, graphic designer, and web developer. Bridging my expertise in graffiti and urban arts with community involvement, I pride myself in also being an educator, advocate, mentor, and well-rounded creative individual. I’ve worked all across Pittsburgh with various organizations while pioneering graffiti educational programming, workshops, guest lectures, and painting murals. 

My Adopted Home

When I first visited Pittsburgh in 2003, I was blown away at how completely different it was from the West Coast. Surrounded by brick, abandoned factories, and incredible people, I knew I had to spend more time here. The city became my new home in 2004 and I have not looked back. In that time I have lived in many neighborhoods all throughout the city, but for the last 2.5 years I have called Wilkinsburg home. 

In every neighborhood I have lived across Pittsburgh, I love to get involved in the community. Within the first few months of living in Wilkinsburg, I saw there was a new community organization being developed in an elementary school just a couple of blocks from my house. The people of the region are one of the reasons I have abandoned the West Coast, and the people at Community Forge are an excellent example. Within the last two years I have painted several murals on site, worked with the youth, conducted workshops, assisted in design projects, and made some amazing friends for life.

I am currently working with several building owners in the neighborhood, and across all of Pittsburgh, to paint murals that push my skills and bring awareness to graffiti culture and style in a positive way. The love and support I have received over the last decade of doing public art and education in the region has been amazing. And though there are a lot of uphill battles due to my medium, I will strive to create and work within the community.

Find Me Online



IG: @outafterdark

An aerosol artist works on a mural of a steelworker.

Understanding Historic Preservation in a Dynamic Frame: The Graffiti Arts Program at the Carrie Blast Furnaces

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By Caitlin Frances Bruce, PhD.   |   Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Pittsburgh

Caitlin Frances BruceUnderstanding Historic Preservation in a Dynamic Frame: The Graffiti Arts Program at the Carrie Blast Furnaces

The Carrie Furnaces are arguably one of Pittsburgh’s historic crown jewels. The only remaining intact prewar iron furnaces in the country, visiting the Furnaces provides the visitor with a tactile and powerful sense of one of Pittsburgh’s key threads for its identity: the iron and steel industry. The space with the towering and rusty furnaces with the iconic deer head surrounded by the verdant green of the grounds and the iron gardens generates a sense of awe.

I became acquainted with the Furnaces through my research on graffiti, which I have been involved in for the past ten years. I’ve studied the art form in the U.S., Mexico, France, and Germany, conducted hundreds of interviews and visited dozens of sites. When I moved to Pittsburgh to take a job at Pitt as an Assistant Professor of Communication, I wanted to know where the permission sites were in the city.

For the uninitiated, graffiti, or, style writing as many practitioners name it, is a form of expression that relies on complicated networks and spaces and it is not as simple as legal or illegal. Permission is what wall owners, communities, and sometimes the government provide to say that the expression is supported by more than the writer (writer is what most practitioners call themselves). Permission might not always be strictly legal, but it involves the assent and/or consent of multiple stakeholders. There are famous permission sites, like the Wall of Fame and (now destroyed) 5Pointz in New York; in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico Calle Regina and San Jeronimo are two of many places where one can find permission murals; and in Miami the Museum of Graffiti provides one example of institutionally sponsored works that function within the register of fine art. In Pittsburgh we have had fewer sites. In Homewood there is a beautiful permission wall, and until 2012 the Eliza Furnace Trail had a permission section. Permission walls are all run differently. Some are curated, like that of 5Pointz or the Museum of Graffiti. Some are “free walls” where anyone can walk up and paint—Austin has such a space. Others are sponsored—Red Bull has become a key sponsor for many graffiti events. They also are painted at different times—some stay the same for months at a time, others rotate daily, yet others are created in vibrant festival settings while others are more low-key.

There is much value in having permission walls in a city. First, they allow what I call “spaces for encounter”: spaces for multiple people to connect, explore, and engage with their home and its histories. Encounters are vital to a democratic society. Second, they have a pedagogical function: they help educate broader publics about the importance, history, and possibilities of graffiti art, breaking stereotypes that it is nothing but mindless vandalism (it’s not). It also provides much needed space for youth to practice in low-risk context—many have been seriously injured or died fleeing police—it’s important to have places for youth to express themselves. Third, it is crucial for the development of style – at such walls where one can paint at a leisurely pace, it is possible to implement more elaborate works, pushing what many writers name the “evolution” of style.

The Graffiti Arts Program with Rivers of Steel provides one permission wall in Pittsburgh. It is a curation model complemented by an education program and is run by Shane Pilster. I met Shane when I started developing a program named Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project (pronounced “hiccup”) with Oreen Cohen, and co-founded by myself, Oreen, and Shane in 2016. We were joined by Max Gonzales as a co-organizer in 2018. HCUAP has the goal of using urban art as a platform for dialogue and public engagement about issues like conscious development, youth voice, post-industrial history, and we produce murals, public conversations, and offer youth street art workshops. All of our programming is free. Shane’s role as curator of the permission spaces at the Furnaces has been key for our programming and led to our ongoing partnership with Rivers of Steel. In what follows I discuss what I have learned about the Graffiti Arts Program, how we have collaborated with Rivers of Steel and that particular program, and conclude with some reflections.

Shane Pilster lead tour.Graffiti Art Tours: Including the Whole History

Changing from a commercial iron blast furnace to a closed site that was largely dismantled for scrap metal, the dormant site became an unofficial center for urban explorers, guerilla artists, and graffiti writers. Like many industrial sites, the 1980s spelled the end of the Carrie Furnaces as an active manufacturing site. During the post-industrial period when the Carrie Furnaces were abandoned in the late 1980s and throughout the1990s, they were an informal gathering place for guerilla artists, urban explorers, and graffiti artists. Because they are not within walking distance or on a bus line from Pittsburgh, the works created by the artists from the 1990s to the early 2000s were largely left untouched—which is often impossible in more traditional graffiti ecologies where permanence is not an expectation and where city-run graffiti squads routinely erase graffiti works. As a result, the Furnaces have also become, organically, a regional graffiti museum showcasing evolutions in the style over the last three decades.  Now, it is a National Historic Landmark that combines industrial history with post-industrial culture to create an evolving relationship to the past and present (“Rivers of Steel,” 2018). In this way, the Furnaces can be perceived as a site where the fluidity and permeability of spaces and cultures to transformation is on display.

Modern graffiti culture also emerged during this post-industrial moment—in the 1960s in Philadelphia and in the 1970s in New York City (Gastman and Neelon, 2011). In New York, urban denizens witnessed the decimation of places like the Bronx. Pittsburgh’s graffiti scene emerged in the 1980s. The major crews included G-Force, Bad Asset, and TVA (The Versatile Artists).  NSF (Not Strictly Freights/New School’s Freshest) was created in the 1990s and includes old school writers. One prominent pioneer from Pittsburgh is Buda who started writing in 1983, and a piece of his painted in Millvale is featured in the eponymous book Spraycan Art (Newton, 2005). The New York scene was influential for Buda. Style Wars had massive influence in Pittsburgh as in other sites. The Martin Luther King Jr. Busway—a roadway where rapid transit buses run from Pittsburgh’s east to west sides—was a sort of “hall of Fame” for Pittsburgh graffiti. Force One, an East Liberty writer, created a shop (now located on 5450 Penn Avenue) called Time Bomb that was a point of reunion for writers. He also founded Time Bomb Crew and was influenced by the Philadelphia and New York scene. Henry Chalfant, photographer and co-author of Subway Art (with Martha Cooper) and Spraycan Art (with James Prigoff), is from Sewickley, a suburb west of the city. He met young Pittsburgh writers when he returned home and profiled some of their work and brought some out to New York (Newton, 2005). Writers took advantage of abandoned manufacturing sites and spaces (a former cork factory in the Strip District) for public transit (the Eliza Furnace trail) and used them as canvases for the growing art form. The Carrie Furnaces became one such canvas.

In the 2013, under the leadership of Ron Baraff in collaboration with Shane Pilster, the Urban Art tour and workshop began, and became integrated as part of the Rivers of Steel Arts program (Rivers of Steel arts began in 2016 co-founded by Chris McGinnis and local sculptor Sean Derry) began to offer urban art tours and workshops (Kirkland, 2013). Pilster, a graffiti artist from the Bay Area who relocated to Pittsburgh sixteen years ago, is able to tell a nuanced story about the personalities and myths behind the markings on various parts of the Furnace walls. He also offers workshop participants the opportunity to make their own works of art, familiarizing them with graffiti technique and practice and, in this way, challenging common preconceptions. Another element of the Urban Art tour was creating deterrence for illegal graffiti. Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities at Rivers of Steel, has explained that developing the urban art program was a way of finding “common ground,” and if can create “understanding and partnerships” there is more space for generativity (2019). [1] In 2020, the Urban Art tour was renamed the Graffiti & Style-writing Workshop.

Such practices are part of Rivers of Steel’s creative placemaking initiative the Mon Valley Creative Corridor. As such, the Graffiti & Style-writing Workshop uses graffiti as a way to tell a story of industrial decline and renewal, site specificity, and authenticity. The tours are still controversial: they show some of the tensions between heritage tourism and creative placemaking, where the former is interested in creating a frozen moment in time, while the latter is more about generating increased foot traffic, social connections and economic activity through the arts.

I attended one of the Urban Art workshops on August 16, 2019. In it, Shane covered his relationship to the site and history as a writer, he was complemented by another Rivers of Steel staff member who provided more detail on the industrial history, and used the works at the site to educate visitors on the history of graffiti and how to understand and read different elements (e.g. dissecting what constitutes a tag, a throw up, a burner/masterpiece).

Shane framed the tour as a “choose your own adventure” kind of event where he will present a very limited history of graffiti, its relationship to the site, his personal experience, and then they will end by “painting a bunch of stuff.” The tour did feel modular and open-ended, with various opportunities for visitors to ask questions, determine the amount of time spent in one or another location, and enter spaces (or not).

Shane’s pedagogy was rooted in the site, using existing graffiti works, much of which he has curated, to help contextualize and define key terms and elements of the culture. On the whole, the tour privileges the specificity of the site. Translating and helping visitors understand the pleasure, labor, and friendship involved in the practice of graffiti and decoding the culture and, at times, the works themselves, so that they might be more open to graffiti. Near the end of the tour one of the visitors remarked, “I think that because graffiti is so hard to read, people don’t like it. If they could read it, they might enjoy it.” Though Pilster did not discuss the value of illegibility, he did help visitors understand that it is communicating to someone.

HCUAP at the Furnaces: Site Specific Aerosol Murals and Cross-Cultural Exchange

HCUAP offers youth street art workshops, public conversations, and short residencies for graffiti artists. These residencies include the opportunity to paint at the Furnaces. The first HCUAP mural painted at the Furnaces was in April 2017 with artists from Pittsburgh, Chicago and León Guanajuato. The goal included creating a collaborative mural at the Furnaces in which the local artists and visiting artists, using archival material, would envision a project with a site-specific twist. We consulted the archives at the Bost Building, and in looking at a number of photos of the Furnaces’ prior landscape, almost a forest of metal and stone, and reflecting on their experience being in the current site, where deer and ducklings happily walk around a lush green set of fields, the artists observed how nature “comes back.”

Graffiti artist Stef Skillz speaks with a family with a her mural in the background.Stef Skills reflected on how even extreme changes to landscape can be slowly repaired by the march of nature. She connected this idea to larger indigenous movements to protect water and land (she had been part of protests at Standing Rock and camped in solidarity with the water protectors, integrating themes from her Standing Rock experience into a number of her previous pieces). Wes and Orion were more interested in the scale of the site, and the strength of the workers. Devine, a more old-school style writer, was interested in the history of the trains passing by the site—as trains are a crucial surface for graffiti practice. Stef suggested that they use the design of a series of train cars, and each artist would have his or her own “car,” but that there could still be some shared concepts.

After the initial planning meeting, the artists went on a tour with one of the Rivers of Steel docents, Adam Taylor, who comes from multiple generations of steel workers, and walked us through the site explained the casting process, pointing out some elements of international exchange that were part of the labor history of the site. He noted that in the early nineteenth century, a number of Mexican workers actually helped construct the furnaces, living in dormitories in Homestead. He also spoke to the racial politics of labor, how higher-paying skilled jobs generally went to races and ethnicities seen as more powerful, and how women also worked on the site but also experienced limits in terms of the range of jobs they could perform. The artists took videos and photos throughout the tour, explaining to the camera that they wished to “pay respect to the history.”

The painting process took about two days. Orion chose to paint a portrait of a steel worker, and Wes painted a landscape including the furnaces and a deer looking out at the viewer, its antlers ending at the top of the wall. Wes placed two bricks about ten feet from the painting and sprayed “stand here” on the bricks: from that perspective the branches of a tree behind the wall completed the antlers. Kif and Stef did two freight train pieces with the theme of plants emerging from the cars, enlisting the idea of “nature coming back.” Stef did a piece with her name made up of the smokestacks of the furnaces but rusted and increasingly covered with vines. She also painted a large character of a fictional Haudenosaunee woman, including a purple wampum belt. Shane, Devine, and DuVall did burners (multicolored letter-based, graffiti-based pieces with a complementing character). Charles painted a comic-style replica of the furnaces with his iconic “Don’t do bad stuff” and his “Chu” characters. To some extent, the artists integrated elements of both site and history into their works, offering a tentative image of hemispheric graffiti worlds.

HCUAP returned to the site in 2019. The guest artists were Victor Ayala Kart from León Guanajuato and Bel2 from Chicago. Both have had long careers as graffiti artists and also have done significant sanctioned graffiti work. Bel2 and Kart had done preliminary research and gone on tours of the site to better understand its history and context which was evident in their resulting pieces.

Bel2’s piece– her name in metallic hues with three figures of steel works climbing, pouring, and stirring molten metal – functioned as an homage to the labor that went on for decades. It is also quintessential Chicago style—large, solid letters, straight from the City of Big Shoulders. Bel2 has been painting since 1990. Of her piece she said:

I wanted to put at least two people on there, poking through my piece, so that the hot metal would come out and so I really wanted it to represent the hard work that happened in there. Because there was so much hard work. And so many crazy hours were worked there. It’s like they lived there. It was crazy. So, I was thinking a lot about the history and trying to push all that through my piece (2019).[2]

Her work attempts a kind of site specificity: creating an explicit dialogue between the work of art, the site, and their audiences. The site shaped her work energetically due to its haunted character. She explained: “… it was overwhelming. It was really, really, dope…just something in the atmosphere there was like a ghost city kind of because so many people were in there at one point, that space was up and living. Hardcore. All day and all night. So to be there now where there was [almost] nobody there it was a little like tripped out” (2019).

The theme of labor is central to her work as it was for Orion. Graffiti is the product of industrial technology and economies but also uses postindustrial landscapes as canvas. Many demonize or stigmatize graffiti as “vandalism,” without considering the labor that goes into it. She explained:

It’s hard work and it’s a lot of dedication. You go up to these walls and see these pieces and people might just be like “Oh, its just graffiti.” But if you walk up closer to it you can just take so much out of it. Whether it be the little little details you don’t see until you get up close to it. So I would hope they really approach it and really kind of absorb what’s there and think about like ‘Damn, they took time to paint that.’ (2019)

Kart, too, was interested in the history of labor in the site, but also how the Furnaces historically, and in the present, are at the crossroads of global flows and ecological processes. Kart’s flatter piece that read Mesik with curls of flame and geometric detailing, reminiscent of pre-Hispanic temples, pointed to the kinds of combinations and cultural homages that occur when artists get to install their work in a new place but with the desire to share some of their background and identity. Kart has painted since 2006. In terms of themes he is very interested in what he calls “arte visionario (visionary art)” that reflects the visions he experiences as a participant in temescal or sweat lodges that are part of the indigenous culture in Mexico.

The space of the Furnaces shaped his decision to do a letter-based piece and his use of the name Mesik instead of Kart:

I think the space has an important role. It has a lot of history in Pittsburgh, a place that comes from lots of work and is now rusted—but when I was there I was imagining how it was with so many people there. Many workers from many parts of the world were there. The space was magical, marvelous. To see the entire history of human beings on the earth in one place. So, in this intervention I did something a bit more free with letters because it [the space] has a lot to do with graffiti. (2019)[3]

Like Bel2, Kart points to the role of labor as well as international flows, and the kind of energetic traces that remain in the space. He also emphasizes how graffiti is part of the industrial and post-industrial identity of the space since it became a site for guerilla intervention in the 1990s and also an ideal spot for watching painted freight trains pass.


At the Furnaces, a more complex constellation of city images emerges. Themes of work, endurance, and abundance emerged both in conversations and in their work, and those themes will be refracted and reframed in later graffiti art tours that Shane leads, in the work of artists who are influenced by their pieces, and in the ongoing transformation of the Furnaces themselves.


[1] Ron Baraff, tour for graduate Space and Place course, October 5, 2019.

[2] Bel 2, Interview, May 11, 2019.

[3] Kart, Personal Interview, May 12, 2019.


About Caitlin Frances Bruce

Caitlin Bruce’s research is in the area of visual studies, affect studies, and critical theory. She is currently investigating the relationships between public art in urban spaces in transition within a transnational milieu. Largely focusing on graffiti and muralism, Bruce argues that such public art creates spaces for encounter between different publics, and between publics and central, peripheral, or marginal spaces. Her research takes her to Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Paris, Perpignan, León Guanajuato, and Mexico City. Dr. Bruce has recently published a book on transnational legal graffiti titled Painting Publics: Transnational Legal Graffiti Scenes as Spaces for Encounter, with Temple University Press, and is at work on her second book about legal graffiti in León Guanajuato, Mexico.

Guide to Images

Featured Image: Orion painting Steelworker, April 2017. Photo by Rivers of Steel.

Image 1: Photo of Caitlin Bruce

Image 2: Shane Pilster leads a tour. Photo by Corrine Coulson.

Image 3: Group on a graffii arts tour in front of Wes’ piece. Photo by Corrine Coulson.

Image 4: Stef Skills discussing her work with visitors to the Carrie Blast Furnaces, April 2017. Photo by Rivers of Steel.

Image 5: Bel2’s piece, May 2019. Photo by Rivers of Steel.

Image 6: Kart’s “Mesik,” May 2019. Photo by Rivers of Steel.

Artist Profile: Rachel Sager

By Blog

Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this weekly blog highlights multiple artists each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

Rachel Sager in her studioAbout Rachel Sager

Sometimes the universe brings together artists with unique places, where each possesses the capacity to breath new life into the other.  This can certainly be said about Mon Valley mosaic artist Rachel Sager and her creative investment in the Ruins Project.  Cut from the same stone as Rivers of Steel Arts, Sager’s work harnesses the power of creative inquiry and exploration to re-imagine the future of a former industrial site and in doing so, challenge us to reevaluate our relationship with history. 

A Message from Rachel

About My Work

One of my favorite lines as an artist is that “a girl can never have too many hammers”. As a mosaicist who breaks rocks, glass, and most anything else that gets in my way, I have learned that there is a hammer for every material and every quirky job. Having spent some quality time with Italian mosaic maestros, I brought back that specialized knowledge to the hills and hollows of our little corner of Appalachia and its unique geology. I use stone to tell stories and glass to weave color into the intricate patterns of nature. As an artist who fell in love with the pieces of things twenty years ago, I love to tell my students that mosaic is the most powerful medium and with it we can change the world, one small rock at a time.

My Home in the Mon Valley

My home and studio are located in Whitsett, Fayette County, along the banks of the Youghiogheny River and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, at mile-marker 104ish.

My mom used to tell me that Belle Vernon, where I come from, means beautiful green in Latin. The rolling hills of the Mon Valley are in my blood. I have dug my heels into this patch of earth and consider it a great privilege to represent the people and land of Southwestern Pennsylvania through my art.

In the winter of 2015, I found myself the surprised owner of a giant cement canvas that covers several acres of land; the ruins of an abandoned coal operation originally run by The Pittsburgh Coal Company. These ruins have become The Ruins Project, which is the most significant challenge of my career. In the beginning I struggled to fit these walls and rooms of concrete and brick into some kind of category, but I have come to the conclusion that what we are doing here does not fit into any existing mold.

Myself, along with mosaic artists from near and far, are in our fifth year of using art to bring back to life the stories of this often forgotten little corner of the world. The coal that came out of Banning #2 mine literally helped to build Pittsburgh and fuel the Industrial Revolution. When I met the wonderful people at Rivers of Steel, we all recognized the poetic justice of my coal mine and the Carrie Furnaces project as being once connected through industry and once again connected through art. There is no doubt that the coal from this mine traveled by train to the furnaces of Pittsburgh. Our biggest project to date is a resurrection in mosaic of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie locomotive, coal cars, and caboose that stretches almost seventy feet long and seven feet high by Stevo Sadvary of Pittsburgh.

There is no finish date and no budget. I am the guide for this lifelong intuitive art installation that encourages artists from every corner of the globe to express themselves while they help to tell the story of The American Coal Miner.

Tours of The Ruins are by appointment through the Sager Mosaics website.

Find Me Online


IG: @sagermosaics

FB: Sager Mosaics

Carrie Blast Furnaces


By Blog

By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities   |   Image of the Carrie Blast Furnaces

Ronald BaraffCelebrating Our Industrial Heritage

Time has taken its toll on sites such as the Carrie Blast Furnaces and the W. A. Young and Sons Machine Shop, but it has not dimmed the visceral impact that it they have on the region. What were once integral parts of a roaring complex web of industry that fueled and fired the twentieth century now remain in silent homage to Western Pennsylvania’s industrial past and its enduring legacy.

Many folks in our region have said, “We’re not a Steel City anymore. We’ve cleaned up. We’ve transformed.” But the past cannot—and should not—be denied. The lessons of the industrial age should not be pushed aside and forgotten. They should be celebrated and respected. This is our past, our heritage.

The image of the region rising from the ashes of post-industrialism has fueled many essays and travelogues, and rightfully so. Steel and heavy industry moved this region forward. To this end, these treasured industrial heritage sites stand not only for the glorious past, but also for the future of the region. They are the first-day attractions we have all have been clamoring for, and are the palette on which we can paint our past, and celebrate our future. It is on their grounds that we can tell the story of industry and the hard, dangerous work that was part of the daily life for generations of men and women.

A crowd gathers around a tour guide with a hard hat on.

Their story is quintessentially American, the drive for the American Dream, a better life. Upon these palettes, we can tell the story of the “great” Industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, and their dominance on the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and those of the individual entrepreneurs—the small shop owners who worked hard to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society. We can tell the story of the rise of labor unions and how during the second half of the twentieth century their efforts and drive for a share the nation’s rich economic pie helped to shape the post-war landscape of this country. It is at these rich sites that we can explore the multitude of reasons that brought about the fall of manufacturing in this region during the late-twentieth century, and how the landscape of the region was forever transformed not just physically, but also emotionally by the massive layoffs that took place and the hundreds of thousand lives that were affected.

Tour guide demonstrates how machine works

At these sites we can investigate the impact that manufacturing had on this region’s ecology; how alluvial plains, rich forests, and rivers and streams were decimated by industry and how the efforts of the people in this region to clean up the mess that man wrought had a vast and positive effect on our quality of life, all the while helping to hasten our industrial decline. It is at these sites that we can think outside the box of industry. We can invite culture and ingenuity to come together and dream of new and exciting ways to redevelop former industrial sites with cultural events and heritage tourism. The list is endless, as are the aspirations and greatness of this region. All of these qualities are embodied within the physical and emotional contexts that allow our treasured industrial heritage sites to stand as testament to mankind’s accomplishments, past, present, and future.

fireworks over the furnace

Guide to Images

Featured Image: Carrie Blast Furnaces

Image 1: Tour Guide Keith Clouse leads a group on an Industrial Tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, 2018

Image 2: W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop, 2019 Hammer-In Festival

Image 3: Fireworks over Carrie, 2019 Festival of Combustion

Artwork by Jarrod Russell

Artist Profile: Jarrod Russell

By Blog

Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this weekly blog highlights multiple artists each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

About Jarrod Russell

This weekly series was launched with the desire to not only showcase the many talented creative professionals familiar to Rivers of Steel, but also with a hope that our project might also introduce us to new artists who call the Mon valley home. Our first artist feature for the month of May, 2020 does just that, by traveling upriver to the Mon Valley community of Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania for a look at tattoo artist and pop-surrealist painter Jarrod Russell.

A Message from Jarrod

About My Work

I currently work at Black Star Tattoo in Belle Vernon, PA. I was born in 1971 in the Mon Valley, and grew up in Charleroi, PA.  I graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1992 and began tattooing in 1993 before opening up Black Star Tattoo in 2006.

I’ve always been interested in painting, but took a more serious interest in the medium around 2003.  Through my artwork, I try to show a youthful sense of adventure, and on occasion include some social and political opinions based on personal experiences.  At some point, the lower jaws were removed from my characters, taking away their ability to speak. It felt like an opportunity for the observer to make his or her own story from my painting.

My Home in the Mon Valley

Although I now live in Lawrenceville, I still work and will always be connected to the Mon Valley.  I grew up in a once-thriving town, and seeing its decline and struggle to rise up has been disheartening. That being said, I feel there is a growing positive momentum throughout the Mon Valley demonstrated by many people moving forward and up in their community. This experience has affected me as an artist, and continues to influence the content of my artwork.

The people of the Valley have always been supportive of our business at Black Star Tattoo, and it goes without saying, thank you all.

Find Me Online

You can check out my work as a tattoo artist on Instagram or at the shop Black Star Tattoo, in Belle Vernon, PA.

Facebook: Jarrod Russell Art

Instagram: Lessurdorraj

Instagram: Black Star Tattoo

Giving Tuesday Logos

Giving Tuesday Gratitude

By Blog

By August Carlino, President and Chief Executive Officer

August R. CarlinoAn Extraordinary Day of Giving


Dear Friends of Rivers of Steel,

The hardworking spirit of the people of southwestern Pennsylvania is legendary—and as I have said before it is only matched by their generosity toward one another. When times are hard, we lean on one another, so our resiliency is not surprising. However, the level of support that we received yesterday is truly extraordinary.

It is with much gratitude that I am happy to share that we exceeded our $10,000 giving goal yesterday, while surpassing amounts raised during previous days of giving. While these funds will help us bridge the gap caused by the pandemic, they represent so much more. They are a testament from our community that Rivers of Steel’s work is valued. They demonstrate that collectively our community, board of directors, and staff are invested in the success of our programs and initiatives.

I’m also happy to share the news that because of your generosity, I will be personally donating $1,000 to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in the name of Rivers of Steel. Thank you for that too. While it lightens my pockets, it also fills my heart to be able to give back to those with the greatest need.

Sincere thanks to you all,

Augie Carlino
President and Chief Executive Officer,
Rivers of Steel

Detail Richard Hass Steel Town Mural on Byham Theater

Exploring the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area

By Blog

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranRoutes to Roots!

You might be a Pittsburgher, a Monacan, a Vandergrifter, a Farmingtonian, or a Rices Landing resident. But if you live in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, you can also feel proud that you’re from the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

A National Heritage Area is designated by Congress as a place of significance to America where natural, cultural, and historic resources highlight an important period of history in the development of the United States. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area draws its strength from the region’s industrial history, the landscape that fueled it, and the hardworking men and women who made it possible. The eight counties—and the hundreds of cities, small towns and main streets within them—that form the heritage area are linked not only by their river valleys, but by their shared cultural and industrial heritage through five journeys that each reveal an element of the region’s legacy as the Steel Capital of the World for more than a century.

The historical sites, cultural attractions, family-owned restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, and natural beauty that tell the story of these journeys also combine to make a fantastic travel itinerary filled with meaningful and memorable experiences. That’s why heritage tourism is a key component of Rivers of Steel’s mission. Defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present,” heritage tourism immerses travelers into the roots of culture and shows them how the past lives on in modern ways.

In celebration of National Travel and Tourism Week, below is a description of each of the journeys in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area—along with a few sites in each that resonate with the themes of Big Steel’s industrial and cultural heritage. Much of this information is sourced from Routes to Roots, a driving guide published by Rivers of Steel that is available in the Bost Building’s gift shop.

To protect yourself and others and to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is important to limit your travel to essential activities only during this time. Additionally, many businesses and sites are closed because of the pandemic. Please enjoy the sites below as an armchair traveler for now—they all tap historical topics that make for great reading until it’s safe and permissible to travel again. Don’t forget to bookmark this page for your list of “Things to Do When Quarantine is Over!”

The Big Steel Journey | Allegheny County

The Big Steel Journey recaptures the dynamic era when the city’s steel empire was the backbone of the nation’s industrial economy, building the modern world. Thousands of immigrants were drawn to the promise of jobs, and they would go on to produce millions of tons of steel that built the Empire State Building, the Bay Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, and the battleships and tanks that won two World Wars. The industrial core was the Monongahela River’s Steel Valley, where U.S. Steel’s massive mills and furnaces dominated both sides of the river for more than ten miles, and 18 contiguous communities on the lower Mon.

The industrial power and astonishing work ethic drew awe and respect from visitors as long ago as 1868 —five years before Andrew Carnegie started construction on his first mill, when James Parton wrote a 13,000-word travelogue of his visit to “Pittsburg” (we’d been separated from our “H” at the time) for The Atlantic. He was quite taken with the city, starting off the article, “In other towns the traveler can make up his list of lions, do them in a few hours, and go away satisfied; but here all is curious or wonderful, — site, environs, history, geology, business, aspect, atmosphere, customs, everything. Pittsburg is a place to read up for, to unpack your trunk and settle down at, to make excursions from, and to study as you would study a group of sciences. To know Pittsburg thoroughly is a liberal education in “the kind of culture demanded by modern-times.” It’s hard to believe that this is the same article that earned the city the moniker of “hell with the lid taken off,” but in reality he was describing the view from the Hill District overlooking the smoky, fiery, bellowing nighttime skies of the Strip District as “a spectacle as striking as Niagara.”

There are a number of Rivers of Steel sites in Allegheny County that tell the story of Big Steel and the men, women and communities that fueled it. We’d love to welcome you at all of them! Here are a few more ways to connect with the Big Steel Journey:

  • Joe Magarac statue as it appeared at KennywoodFlex your muscles in front of the 15-foot-tall statue of Joe Magarac bending a rod of steel in front of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock. Magarac is a legend of the steel industry akin to Paul Bunyan, symbolizing the impossibly hardworking mill workers. If you visited Kennywood Park before 2009, you might remember seeing this statue there. The mill behind it is also a site to be seen—the only remaining integrated steel mill the state, Edgar Thompson, a.k.a E.T., was Andrew Carnegie’s first mill, and has been active since 1875. Want more Magarac? Iron Eden, a Pittsburgh blacksmithing studio known for ornamental ironwork, operates a gallery and gathering space bearing his name. MAGARAC has an industrial vibe and is furnished and decorated with Iron Eden’s Magarac line of ironwork; the gallery is open by appointment.
  • The Energy Innovation Center (EIC) isn’t too far from Cliff Street, the spot that The Atlantic article suggested for views of “hell with the lid taken off.” (Cliff Street is just a block behind the August Wilson House). The EIC is housed in the former Connelley Trade School, which was built in 1930 in The Hill District because its altitude put it above much of the air pollution that clogged the city, and because it was well connected to other areas by trolley and Union Station. Once a place where students learned bricklaying, plastering, plumbing, auto mechanics, electrical wiring, carpentry, cabinetry, and more—today it has been reborn as a LEED Platinum certified National Historic Landmark that is a “living laboratory” for industry-informed education and training programs, housing STEM industry leaders and offering job readiness training. For a similar feel with a rooftop bar, check out the new TRYP in Lawrenceville, a boutique hotel in the historic former Washington Education Center, where men learned bricklaying, woodworking, drafting and metal work. Elements of the original structure are at the core of the building’s design, and Over Eden restaurant and bar on the rooftop has incredible skyline views of Downtown while overlooking former steel sites like Bay 41 at the Foundry and the National Robotics Engineering Center.
  • If you’re speeding past on Fort Duquesne Blvd., you might not have noticed that the mural painted on the side of the Byham Theater downtown depicts scenes from the region’s history as a Steel Town. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust selected renowned American muralist Richard Haas to create the Trompe l’oeil mural in 1993. Take a walk downtown to get a good look.
  • The McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The Center houses the City of McKeesport’s first schoolhouse, built in 1832, and has displays featuring McKeesport and the Mon Valley’s history, including an Industry Wing with a large-scale model of the U.S. Steel National Tube, church collections, and an exhibit honoring Helen Richey, the first licensed female commercial pilot who helped to create an airmail system.
  • George Westinghouse was an engineer who received 360 patents for his work, founded 60 companies, and invented things like the railway air brake, nuclear reactors, and alternating current. Residents of Chalfont are familiar with the Westinghouse Atom Smasher, looking like a large, upside-down silver lightbulb. The world’s first industrial Van de Graaf generator was created by Westinghouse Labs in 1937 (after Westinghouse’s 1914 death), and while the lab is no longer there, the atom smasher is resting on its side in an overgrown parking lot on Service Rd. No. 1, across the street from Tugboat’s Restaurant and Bar at 105 West St., East Pittsburgh, PA 15112. You might also want to take a stroll in Westinghouse Park in Point Breeze, built on the land where Westinghouse’s estate and home laboratory once stood. It’s thought that his underground labs may still be intact!

Thunder of Protest | Beaver County

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s people are known for strong values and deeply held beliefs—something that is evident in more than 200 years of history along the Ohio and Beaver Rivers where the communities have shown a willingness to take a stand. For hundreds of years, the Ohio-Beaver riverfronts were a Native American trading area. The region’s first century of European settlement was strongly influenced by the Harmony Society, German Protestant religious dissidents who were also successful industrial entrepreneurs. Their industrial pursuits included some of southwestern Pennsylvania’s earliest iron foundries and rolling mills. Due in large part to the Harmonists’ early ventures, iron production prompted the growth of a string of towns along the Beaver River. A sect of the Harmonists broke away in the 1800s, disagreeing with lifelong commitment to celibacy that was part of the societies’ practices, to build towns on the other side of the Ohio River.

The second century of the area’s development were shaped by iron and steel. The town of Ambridge, started by the American Bridge Company, was built on property purchased from the Harmonists. Across the river, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company (J&L) built southwestern Pennsylvania’s largest basic steel mill complex, the Aliquippa Works, in 1900. Thousands of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, along with African Americans from the south, flocked to the area to work in these new mills. The Ohio-Beaver area soon became divided between the management who lived in fine homes in Beaver, far away from the cramped milltown workers’ quarters. Fearing labor unrest and trying to keep production high and costs low, J&L kept tight control over its facilities and workforce. In Aliquippa, J&L required workers to live in company-built neighborhoods segregated by ethnicity, with round-the-clock surveillance by company police and strictly enforced curfews. Things came to a head in 1937 in an uprising that challenged J&L’s policies, resulting in the 1937 Little Steel Strike.

  • View of Old Economy VillageOld Economy Village tells the story of the Harmony Society, one of the oldest and most successful religious communal groups of the 19th They sought to create a utopia inhabited by German Lutheran separatists who subscribed to the mystical religious teachings of their leader George Rapp (1757 – 1847). They created a self-sustaining village with agriculture, blacksmithing, tanning, cabinetmakers, and textile mills powered by steam engines. Their Economy was successful, and they sold their products throughout the world. Ultimately their belief in celibacy spelled out the end of the society by 1905. Old Economy Village features 17 authentic Harmonist buildings, gardens, streets and artifacts on six serene acres in Ambridge.
  • Built in 1910 to create an entrance to the J&L Steel Company’s Aliquippa Works beneath the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad tracks, the Tunnel was the way that the mill’s 15,000 workers came to work every day. In May of 1937, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers must bargain in good faith with union representatives, talks between the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) and J&L were getting nowhere. When the union voted to strike on May 12, the Tunnel became the staging ground for thousands of workers leading up to the 11 p.m. shift change. As May 13 dawned, only a few hundred workers remained in the mill, and the possibility of serious violence was imminent. The next day, Gov. George Earle arrived to tour the Works, and then urged the parties to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Later that day, J&L agreed to recognize union elections, and a new contract was signed. Today the Tunnel still stands as the entry to the Aliquippa Industrial Park, with a Workers’ Shrine To get there, follow Franklin Ave. underneath Constitution Blvd. until it becomes Station Street. After your visit, take a drive through one of the housing plans to see the scale of J&L’s company control.
  • Nearby to the Tunnel is the B.F. Jones Memorial Library, built in 1929 by Elisabeth Horne to honor her father, Benjamin Franklin Jones, Sr., co-founder of Jones & Laughlin Steel. Elisabeth saw it as an opportunity to serve the educational and cultural needs of the white-collar managers and immigrant laborers who settled in Aliquippa. The ornate 15,000-sq. ft. facility was designed in a restrained Italian-Renaissance style.
  • Edward Dempster Merrick made his money as an industrialist at his family’s Standard Horse Nail Company, but his passion for art would define his life and legacy. He wasn’t permitted to pursue art as a child, but as Merrick approached his 50th birthday he began buying paintings, particularly those of the Hudson River School, and painting his own works. In 1880, he founded the Merrick Free Art Gallery and Public Library. He became an eccentric collector and creator, and his gallery is still open to the public in New Brighton. Down the street, the Merrick family’s Standard Horse Nail Company still stands in a building dating from the mid-1880s, as well – these days they make precision parts.

Mosaic of Industry | Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties

The variety of industrial work is matched by the diverse cultural heritage of the region. During the 18th century, early European fur trappers and explorers encountered Seneca and Delaware villages along the Allegheny River from Kittanning southward as Scots-Irish, German, and English settlers began to stake out farmsteads. After the Revolutionary War, the pace of European settlement quickened. Originally agricultural, the area soon began to attract workers for its burgeoning industries—especially after the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal and the rise of “Big Steel” in the region. By the late 19th century, the Alle-Kiski area was home to many eastern Europeans, as well as Italians and African-Americans. German settlers settled in Butler’s Harmony village, in what was a precursor to the Economy settlement in Ambridge. Today, the cooking traditions, sacred spaces, dances, and music create a rich tapestry of cultural experience for visitors.

  • At the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, visitors can tour Carson’s childhood home, where she could see the Allegheny River from her window while heavy industry came into its own all around her. A graduate of the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Rachel Carson’s work and writing created the modern environmentalist movement and led to the outlawing of DDT pesticides. Her modest childhood home in Springdale was just downriver from a DDT manufacturing plant.
  • At the Tour-Ed Mine & Museum in Tarentum, visitors ride in trams through the former Avenue Mine that formerly served as a source of raw materials for Allegheny Ludlum Steel. In 1964, the Wood Coal Company took over operations, and for the next six years it supplied coal to local businesses like Tarentum Power and PPG. In 1970, operations changed when owner Ira Wood decided to use the mine to preserve the culture, the tools—the life—of the men who once worked there. Former miners are the tour’s docents, who talk about the coal industry, the mining process, and the workers’ culture.
  • Timing is everything. That was certainly the case for the builders of Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church in New Kensington. In 1941 as the grand Richard Beatty Mellon Mansion in Pittsburgh was being demolished, Mt. St. Peter was being constructed. A longtime Mellon employee and friend to the Kew Kensington Italian Community saw the opportunity to reuse the Mellon’s finery in the new church. The parish’s Italian congregants mostly worked in the nearby Alcoa plant, but in their native land they had been stonemasons, carpenters, and metalsmiths. They set out to transform the Mellon mansion’s porch banister into the communion rail, a chandelier was reconfigured into the baptismal front, and former library doors now surround the confessionals. Antonio Muto spent more than six months on his knees, cutting and piecing together marble to form an intricate pattern on the basement floor. There is even a red Verona marble pulpit that was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, along with a 19th century painting, Behold the Lamb of God, that once hung in the Vatican and then in the original Heinz Chapel on the North Side.
  • Great strength can be found at the Saxonburg Museum, which includes the Roebling Workshop. Saxonburg was founded by John Roebling, a German immigrant who invented wire cables in this workshop. He went on to design the Brooklyn Bridge, putting his suspension cables to good use. There’s a small replica of the Brooklyn Bridge onsite! In addition to a history of the Roeblings, the Saxonburg Museum features exhibits on communications, blacksmithing, a general store, and laundry practices.

Saxonburg MuseumBrooklyn Bridge Diagram

  • Before Economy, there was Harmony. This small Butler County town was founded in 1804 by 90 families who followed religious leader George Rapp away from the official Lutheran Church and out of Germany. Learn more about their way of life – in addition to 250 years of history – at the Harmony Museum.

Whereas some parts of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area were dominated by one industry, such as steel or coal, the Mosaic of Industry Journey boasts an array of businesses and crafts that were connected to or influenced by steel. Aluminum, plate glass, refractory brick making, foundries, limestone quarries – all flourished here. Salt extraction methods developed here led to the first oil drilling. And, of course, there were steel mills and coal mines as well. Many of the companies with large-scale plants in the area, such as Alcoa (formerly Aluminum Company of America) and PPG Industries (formerly Pittsburgh Plate Glass) are household names throughout the United States.

Mountains of Fire | Westmoreland and Fayette County

For most of a century, hundreds of beehive ovens burned day and night across the hills and valleys of Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. Today the landscape charms with green rolling hills, but at one time this is where coal was transformed into coke, the fuel for steelmaking. These “Mountains of Fire” produced millions of tons of the highest quality coke to power the steel mills throughout the Pittsburgh industrial district, and coal mining and coke production came to define and dominate this part of the region. It reshaped and expanded older farming communities like Uniontown. It created scores of company-built patch settlements like Morewood, Leisenring, Bessemer, and Indian Head. It also spurred the growth of other industries, such as glassmaking and railroads. Henry Clay Frick rose from this region as the coke king, going on to become the partner of Andrew Carnegie in the Carnegie Steel Company.

  • The Westmoreland Museum of American Art overlooks the city of Greensburg’s main street. Two of the museum’s regional collections, Southwestern Pennsylvania Landscapes and Valley of Work: Scenes of Industry vividly portray the evolution of this region’s landscape from rural farmland to a nighty industrial concept. The stunning “before and after” view of the region draws a stark contrast.
  • The Saint Vincent Grist Mill and General Store are cornerstones of Saint Vincent College. Visitors can watch the gristmill in action and purchase bags of Saint Vincent’s own whole wheat flour, made by the 185 monks who live at the Saint Vincent Archabbey—the first Benedictine order in the United States. When the three-story mill was built in 1854, it was originally powered by a coal furnace, stoked by the monks who mined their own coal. Electrification came in 1952, and in the early 1990s the Monastery Run Project effectively treated the abandoned mine drainage that followed the decline of the local mining industry.
  • Meaning is everywhere at The Ruins Project in Perryopolis, where mosaicist Rachel Sager tells forgotten stories with raw materials. An outdoor experience close to the banks of the Youghiogheny River and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, a masterpiece of mosaic art has come to life on the walls of an abandoned coal mine banning, representing the rebirth of abandoned American coal country into a spiritual and artistic pilgrimage and destination for adventure seekers and lovers of art and history.
  • Debut of Little Giant Mosaic at the Ruins ProjectThe rural setting of West Overton Village & Museums was the birthplace of Old Overholt Whiskey and Henry Clay Frick. With eighteen original buildings, West Overton is a charming pre-Civil War village. With distillery tours and tastings, homestead tours, and demonstrations of the backbreaking work that made this village self-sufficient, a visit to West Overton is a visit to the past. Frick was always looking towards the future, however. As he grew older, his grandfather paid him to keep the books for the distillery. Recognizing that the region was rich in bituminous coal deposits, Frick formed his own company and began buying land, building coke ovens, and making a lot of money. By his early 30s he was a millionaire living in Pittsburgh with his bride, Adelaide Howard Childs, at Clayton. His H.C. Frick Coke Company became the largest producer in the world, and Frick became the business partner—and then enemy—of Andrew Carnegie.
  • At the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State’s Fayette Campus in Uniontown, the soul of the coal patches and is on display in the displays of artifacts, tools, gear, home goods, and oral histories of miners and their families. In Farmington, the well-preserved, limestone Wharton Furnace stands tall as an example of the iron-smelting furnaces that dotted the early 19th-century landscape in southwestern Pennsylvania. This one was used from 1839 – 1873. And near a lake in Mt. Pleasant’s Mammoth Park, visitors can explore a row of preserved beehive ovens and two narrow-gauge “larry” cars.

Fueling a Revolution | Greene and Washington Counties

Once hailed as the “hardest working river in the world,” the Monongahela runs north from its origins in West Virginia into the Pittsburgh region. For more than a century, the Mon has carried millions of tons of high-quality bituminous coal to power southwestern Pennsylvania’s steel mills and electrical generation plants—the fuel for America’s Industrial Revolution. Along the way, the river offers breathtaking views and enjoyable pastimes like fishing and boating, and the fleets of barges that still ply its waters today speak to the river’s long history as the steel era’s most vital industrial artery.

Early in the 20th century, as by-product coke production replaced the older beehive method, the Mon became indispensable for transporting raw coal from the mines to the processing plants. The river’s system of locks and dams was built to facilitate the transportation of coal, and the coal companies’ riverside barge loading facilities, as well as river-related industries such as barge building and repair, provided employment for many.

  • The Donora Smog Museum is operated by the town’s historical society, and it maintains permanent exhibits related to the founding of the town, town life, steel mills, and the 1948 smog tragedy. In 1948, two large plants dominated Donora—the U.S. Steel Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire plant. Just before Halloween of 1948, a dense haze blanketed the town that wouldn’t blow away. A temperature inversion in the valley trapped the noxious emissions from the two plants, and soon residents began to fall ill. Five days later a rainstorm helped to clear out the smog, but not before roughly half of the town’s population of 14,000 became sick and 20 had died. Fifty more people died soon after the smog lifted. While in town, take a drive around Cement City, a company town built by Union Steel Company in 1916 to create housing for workers. A building concept that was the notion of inventor Thomas A. Edison, 80 homes were completed overlooking the mill. Rent ranged from $22.50 to $40. Drive around Walnut, Modisette, Ida, Bertha and Helen Streets in Donora.
  • The Flatiron Heritage Center in Brownsville stands in a building that over the years has housed ethnic banks, taxi services, a trolley stop, and a number of different tailors, as well as the original Brownsville library and post office. In the Flatiron Building’s first floor, visitors learn from exhibits about Brownsville’s colonial past, sitting at the western point of Nemacolin’s Trail, which went on to become the National Road. Brownsville’s role in river travel and commerce includes the production and launch of the nation’s first steamboat, the Enterprise, in 1814. In terms of its industrial legacy, the coal and coke mined in Fayette County passed through Brownsville on its way to feed the steel mills in Pittsburgh. These stories are told through artifacts, maps, photos, models, and paintings. On the second floor is a gallery dedicated to local artist Frank L. Melega. He got his start creating signs for Brownsville businesses.
  • When Rices Landing Riverfront was incorporated as a borough in 1903, its streets were lined with shops, taverns, and trading posts. Its abundant natural resources—clay, sand, coal and lumber—helped local businesses prosper. Its proximity to the Monongahela River made it an ideal industrial and transportation hub. More than 100 years later, the stores, coal mines, and lock and dam that once defines this community are gone, but a strong connection to the river and the land remains. One piece of that history remains on a bank above the Monongahela River: Rivers of Steel’s W.A. Young & Son’s Foundry and Machine Shop. Built in 1900, the shop produced parts for steamboats, coal mines, railroads, and local businesses. In 1908, the shop expanded to include the foundry, and twenty years later electricity was added. Very little has changed since the doors closed in 1965—calendars, invoices, tools, patterns are still in place. But the place comes to life when the series of line shaft driven tools are powered up and local blacksmiths fire up the foundry.
  • Step back to the dawn of the Electric Age when in 1918 the Pittsburgh Railways Company operated some 2,000 trolley cars, 65 different lines, and 600 miles of track. At the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, the nostalgia and history of those days are alive and well. Visitors can step aboard and see the restoration in progress of more nearly 50 cars, interact with hands-on STEM exhibits, and even take a roundtrip ride on a vintage trolley.
  • PA Trolley Museum Trolley Car and StationBefore this region was known for steel, it was known for glass—and by 1920, 80% of the glass made in the U.S. was produced in the Pittsburgh area. Access to the rivers, abundant raw materials and coal supplies for fuel allowed the region to find huge success in the market west of the Appalachian Mountains. One renowned glassmaking company was Duncan and Miller Glass, whose roots can be traced to 1865 producing clear, colored, and patterned decorative glassware. Collectors of the company’s products can be found across the globe, and a large display of gorgeous sugar bowls, creamers, salt and pepper shakers, ash trays, shot glasses, plates, and vases are on display at the Duncan and Miller Glass Museum, which recently re-opened in a larger and updated space in Washington.

Guide to Images

  • Detail Richard Hass Steel Town Mural on Byham Theater, Downtown Pittsburgh
  • Joe Magarac statue as it appeared at Kennywood, Pre-2009, West Mifflin, PA
  • Old Economy Village, Ambridge, PA
  • Saxonburg Museum and Roebling Workshop, Saxonburg, PA
  • John Roebling diagram for the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Debut of the Little Giant Mosaic at the Ruins Project, Perryopolis, PA, June 2019
  • Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, Washington, PA
tour group poses for photo with point state park in the backgroun

The Spirit of Travel

By Blog

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience    |    Image: Group Tour on the Explorer Riverboat

Brianna HoranNational Travel and Tourism Week

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy National Travel and Tourism Week! This annual celebration honors the lifechanging effects that tourism has on travelers, along with the livelihood the industry provides for employees and local economies. One of the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the devastation of the travel industry. Trips have been cancelled on a massive scale. Restaurants, hotels, and attractions have been shuttered. At the moment, our focus needs to be on navigating the new normal rather than charting a new destination. As such, the theme of National Travel and Tourism Week this year is the Spirit of Travel—and that it cannot be broken.

While I love a grand getaway, in many ways it’s the quick escapes close to home that have had the biggest impact on my life. A night out for dinner and a show at a local community theater packs just as much culture and culinary delight as Broadway, with the added bonus of being awed by the level of talent and passion that my own neighbors bring to the stage. The tapestry of global markets, shops, and festivals in the region reveal new cultures and ways of life—taking me from Mexico to the Middle East in an afternoon, while also reminding me of the strength and sacrifice of the immigrant communities that have given our region a strong sense of place. It’s hard to go more than a few hundred feet around here without coming across a historic marker to stop and ponder. A lunchbreak walk around Homestead takes me past too many to count! And disappearing into one of the State Parks or trails for a walk in nature is the quickest and most effective way I know to reset my outlook. Entertainment, education, cultural appreciation, eye-opening experiences, rejuvenation—that’s the Spirit of Travel to me, and it’s alive and well right here in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Country Roads in Greene County, PA.As a lifelong resident, I often marvel at how lucky I am to live in southwestern Pennsylvania. And as Rivers of Steel’s manager of tourism and visitor experience, I often tell tour operators how lucky their travelers would be to visit southwestern Pennsylvania! I work with them to design itineraries and orchestrate trips for groups traveling throughout the region. These experiences are shaped around a wide array of group interests: art, architecture, history, ethnic groups and ancestry, food and spirits, outdoor adventure, literature, seasonal sightseeing, and many more affinities. Rivers of Steel’s most popular tour, Babushkas and Hard Hats, gets to the heart of the Steel Town story by visiting sites that illuminate the ways industry and immigration have shaped our region. A highlight of the tour is a from-scratch meal served with love by Iron Oven. On the menu are stuffed cabbage, halušky, pierogis, and a Pittsburgh cookie table sampler. The smells and flavors never fail to evoke reminiscences of Grandma’s cooking. Keeping the past alive and creating new memories—that’s another part of the Spirit of Travel.

Cookie Table DisplayThe elements of an itinerary would be meaningless without the ambassadors who bring their stories to life. In every corner of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, there are history buffs, artists, performers, cooks, art lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, sports fans and locals whose passion and hospitality are a tangible part of the Spirit of Travel. Their authenticity and hard work are also an integral aspect of the local economy. Across the commonwealth, travel and tourism supported one out of every fifteen workers in 2017. That same year, travelers spent nearly $8.2 billion in Pittsburgh and its Countryside, and the travel industry employed 8.8% of the region’s workers. And in our own Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, a 2013 economic impact study found that tourism and visitation related to our organization’s efforts had an annual economic impact of nearly $67 million and an annual employment impact of about 875 jobs. These spirited workers and small businesses need support right now.

Tour group view sacred Torah at Rodef Shalom's synagogue in Oakland.Many have imagined the various ways that travel—and everything—will be different in the post-COVID-19 world. Travelers will be more tentative at first. The health and safety measures will be more visible. The smiles on our faces may be covered by facemasks. What it will look like is yet to be determined, but I’m certain that at its core the Spirit of Travel will remain the same. In the coming week, we invite you to check out our social media pages daily to see how Rivers of Steel keeps that spirit alive throughout the Heritage Area.

And if you would like support Rivers of Steel’s work in the region, we invite you to participate in Giving Tuesday Now, this week on May 5, 2020. Click here to learn more about donating to Rivers of Steel on that day and how your gift will go further.


Guide to Images

All images by Brianna Horan

Feature image: Tour Group on the Explorer Riverboat

Image 1: Country roads in Greene County, Pa.

Image 2: Cookie table for a Babushkas & Hard Hats lunch by Iron Oven

Image 3: A tour guide at Rodef Shalom Congregation shares the story of a sacred Torah with a group of visitors.

Tribe by Curtis Reaves

Artist Profile: Curtis Reaves

By Blog

Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this weekly blog highlights multiple artists each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

About Curtis Reaves

It is with great excitement that we close our April 2020 Mon Valley artist features with the passionate work of Curtis Reaves. Few creative professionals have invested more in the Mon Valley than Curtis.  Through his work as a documentary filmmaker and fine art photographer, to his dedication to the community of McKeesport, Pennsylvania via C-Clear Empowerment, Curtis exemplifies a brand of true grit and perseverance so often found in artists from the Mon Valley Creative Corridor.

A Message from Curtis

About My Work

My work embodies video documentaries, installations, and fine art photography. My fine art photography and installations have been exhibited at museums and galleries across the United States. My contemporary work concentrates on still life photography, where I utilize organic and repurposed materials and translate pieces for diverse environments and public art. I’m also an arts educator in schools with at-risk youth. In 2009, I co-founded my passion project, C-clear Empowerment, a nonprofit 501(c)3 community and economic corporation, located in the City of McKeesport. C-clear provides youth and adult employment and training programs centered around the arts, technology, and entrepreneurial initiatives.

My Home in the Mon Valley

I was born and raised in the Mon Valley, and I still live and work here. My entire family is from Braddock, and I now reside in the City of Duquesne with my wife and children. Professionally, I work with at-risk youth in schools throughout the Mon Valley, and my non-profit organization is located in the City of McKeesport. The Mon Valley has always been a family oriented and working-class environment, and I valued that as a child while growing up here. The community was tight knit, everyone knew their neighbors, and my parents were entrepreneurs in Braddock.

When the steel mills closed, the community folded and suffered in numerous ways. Families left, jobs were lost, the neighborhoods were no longer vibrant walkable communities, but rather places of blight and decline. As an adult, who lives and works here, my desire it to build upon the legacy that I remembered growing up. When my wife and I co-founded C-clear, we did it with a mission “To empower economically disadvantaged youth and adults by helping them to reach their true potential while serving as a catalyst for economic growth and change in the community.”

Our 6,000 sq. ft building located in the City of McKeesport, is currently under active construction. The space boasts three floors, two storefronts, and an enclosed outdoor rear green space. Upon completion, C-clear will offer community programming in the arts, technology, and entrepreneurship. We will provide co-working space available for lease, and a community gathering space for shows and events. We plan to open a coffee house, named Urban Java that will double as a youth employment and training program. It is our vision to bring back neighborhood vitality and connectivity through arts, culture, and economic opportunities for youth, families, artists, and entrepreneurs within the Mon Valley.

Find Me Online