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A Literary Look—Blood on the Forge

By A Literary Look, Blog

The dust jacket for William Attaway’s 1941 novel Blood on the Forge.

A Literary Look at William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge

A Literary Look is an occasional series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel staff. For Black History Month, Dr. Kirsten L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, introduces us to William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, a 1941 novel primarily set in Homestead in 1919 that connects us with the lives of characters uprooted by the Great Migration. In the process, Paine explores one of Pittsburgh’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement and how it reveals some of the cultural and socioeconomic aspects of our region’s heritage, offering an understanding of Black life in the mills and the industrialized communities that surrounded them.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

Setting the Scene

“I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can’t be satisfied—

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.”

“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes (1925)

“Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.” The speaker, an unidentified spectator in Langston Hughes’s landmark poem, “The Weary Blues,” watches a Black musician wring love and sorrow from a piano in a Harlem bar. The music swells up in bodies cast in shades of blue and yellow; it is mournful, yearning, and melodic, its rhythm incessant. It carries the piano player from the bar, to the street, and finally to his bed, where he dreams about that melody some more.

That melancholy rhythm echoes throughout William Atwell’s novel, Blood on the Forge.  The loudest strain comes through at the end of the story as a train carries Melody Moss away from the Homestead steel mills. He sits opposite his brother, Chinatown Moss, and watches him talk with a soldier. Their older brother, Big Mat Moss, is gone.

The soldier says to Chinatown, “There’s one thing I couldn’t shut out” (Attaway 236). Chinatown responds, “What was that?” (236). The soldier bids him, “Listen” (236). Over the puffing engine and creaking cars, the men hear, “Boom! … Boom! … Boom! …” (236). The rumble emanates from their bones—a memory from one kind of battlefield or another, one kind of war or another—but Melody cannot hear it. He just knows his brother can feel it, so he feels it, too. The train rolls toward Pittsburgh. When Chinatown and Melody arrive in Pittsburgh without their brother, they need to go to a place called “the Strip,” where the brothers can disappear into the crowd and try to begin their lives all over again (235).

An archival image of the US Steel Homestead Works showing sheds and smoky stacks.

A view of Homestead, Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Journeys of the Moss Brothers

This moment is from the final scene in William Attaway’s novel, a masterpiece first published in 1941, Blood on the Forge. This blistering, harrowing, and deeply tragic novel chronicles the intertwined journeys of the three Moss brothers: Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody. The Moss brothers are sharecroppers on a farm in Kentucky in 1919, and they each dream of a bigger life for themselves.

One evening, a strange white man on a horse gives Chinatown and Melody ten dollars from a roll of cash. He promises them more. Much more. However, the Moss brothers must meet him at the station and board a freight train bound for points north. As Chinatown and Melody debate whether or not this offer is a prank—or worse—they start to wonder if there “must be a lot of that kind of up-North money,” and whether or not they could have some of it for themselves (33). While Melody and Chinatown see an opportunity for each of them to prosper, Big Mat needs convincing. The three brothers ultimately crouch on a hay-strewn boxcar floor and dream of a new life as the train takes them northward.

What the Moss brothers discover, however, is not money. Instead of a rolling Kentucky field, the roiling Pennsylvania steel mill looms ahead. The prosperity suggested by the sight of the jackleg’s roll of cash reveals itself as bug-infested bunkhouses, brothels, and the looming shadows of Jim Crow. Mill work is easy to come by, but it is both extremely dangerous and underpaid. Despite his size, Big Mat tries not to let the physical punishment grind him down. He forges ahead, sometimes too far away for his brothers to see.

Melody carries on, picking the Blues out of his guitar, trying to keep mind, body, and soul intact. When he plays “so all those long days he had been twisted inside,” Melody cannot help but feel the emptiness in his music (123). The guitar “sang all the empty notes it had,” and makes him think “it was a bad thing to have to play only the music inside him” (123). The Blues wail, but Melody does not heed the song. In fact, none of the brothers listen.

Early cars travel on a main street lined with bricks in a colorized photograph from 1916.

A postcard of Homestead in 1916, Rivers of Steel Archives

The Great Migration

The Moss brothers represent parts of a much larger early twentieth-century movement now known as the Great Migration. The Great Migration maps the mass exodus of African Americans from the South to the North, and it is one of the largest and most concentrated movements of people in American history.

The first wave of the Great Migration occurred between 1910 and 1940. It occurred in the midst of global tumult caused by two World Wars, economic instability and collapse, the influenza pandemic, and unfettered mechanization, weaponization, and technological revolution. Masses of people moved across countries and continents. As waves of European immigrants came into the United States, large numbers of Americans also crossed state and county borders.

African Americans searched for stability, safety, and opportunity in new climates, new environments, and new communities. Northern industrial cities in particular, with burning and churning factories creating the modern world, beckoned newcomers. Chief among them, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh grew fast, ran hot, and enveloped people from the moment they disembarked from a boat or a train. When they arrived in cities like Pittsburgh, however, African Americans often faced familiar racist power structures limiting their economic opportunity. While Black workers could find jobs aplenty in the coal mines, coke plants, blast furnaces, steel mills, and rail yards of the Monongahela River Valley, those jobs were often in the most dangerous locations with the lowest wages. In many instances, Black workers came north because they were promised a good, steady factory job but were instead used as strikebreakers. These strikebreakers were summarily dismissed after white workers returned, which often left them without resources in an unfamiliar city, hundreds of miles away from any place that resembled home.

A train brings the Moss brothers from Kentucky to Pennsylvania. From a few peepholes in the boxcar’s sides, they catch glimpses of the landscape emerging around them. As the train slithers along, the valley looks as though a “giant might have planted his foot on the heel of a great shovel and split the bare hills” creating a trench (43). From that trench rise mills, “half buried in the earth”(43). Off to the side the brothers see a “a dirty-as-a-catfish-hole river with a beautiful name: the Monongahela” (43). Instead of swirls of green and blue, “its banks were lined with mountains of red ore, yellow limestone, and black coke. None of this was good to the eyes of men accustomed to the pattern of fields” (43). Their hopes of a new home turn into piles of garbage, acrid smoke, ash, and the constant vibration of machines. Very quickly, readers attune to the music in this story.

A Black man rakes down manganese from a pile.

A worker moving manganese, Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Reality and Rhythm of a Working Class Novel

Over the course of Blood on the Forge, Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody Moss endure oppressive systems and racist violence, which questions what all that “up-North money” could possibly cost them in the end.

In an article about literary depictions of the ways in which factory owners used Black laborers as strikebreakers, Cynthia Hamilton, former director of African American studies at the University of Rhode Island, describes what drives men like the Moss brothers: “These men were driven by forces within: their old standards of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, their unyielding nature in the face of force, and their traditional conceptions of manhood, which centered around a silent tolerance and endurance of pain and the constant desire for respect. Ironically, the combination drove them, helplessly, into the arms of capital, which transformed all of these motives into profits for the owners and bosses” (Hamilton 158).

As a reader, I often find myself compelled by characters who succumb to inevitable tragedy or characters who conjure feelings of sympathy despite their horrifically unsympathetic actions. Blood on the Forge compels me as a reader precisely because I have never, and will never, have to experience a life remotely close to the violence the Moss brothers endure. Unlike most of the texts in my library, Blood on the Forge is not sentimental fiction; meaning it does not bank on overwrought emotional scenes in order to move a reader or spur them into action. Rather, this novel is a realist novel in that the language Attaway uses is straightforward, unvarnished, and evident in everyday surroundings. It is also a working-class novel, sometimes called the proletarian novel, which emerged as an influential genre in the early twentieth century. Working-class writing centers on the lives and desires of laboring people, and it often exposes the inequalities and excesses of capitalism. The story affects me because it requires my attention to the language. I cannot turn away from the bloodshed because the reasons for this bloodshed are not swathed in simile or metaphor. As a reader, I think this is hard, but I also think this is why Blood on the Forge is worth seeing through to the end.

I come back to the music in Blood on the Forge, the Blues. I listen to Melody’s songs and let them tell me the story within the story, and I find a rhythm that way. In the darkness Chinatown and Melody tell stories to each other as a form of camaraderie, and at one point, Chinatown asks Melody to pick up his guitar again. He says, “Blues drive away that hungry cravin’[…] I jest sit here in the warmth and listen” (Attaway 163). Melody begins singing a song about snakes, and for the first time in a while, he “thought a little and let his thought ride high through the endless spades of his mind. He hit a bad chord on his music.  But it was good enough to carry him on a bit” (164). An accident at the mill cost Chinatown his sight, so Melody becomes his brother’s eyes. Another accident at the mill cost Melody use of his picking hand, so he learns how to play and sing the Blues again. The Moss brothers move through their world like a Blues song in search of a home.

People create homes everywhere. People establish neighborhoods, cultivate communities, and anchor their identities to experiences and environments in order to tell their stories. In many instances, those stories are haunting and tragic, and they bear witness to violence, its aftermath, and the soul-deep scars it leaves behind. That does not mean we should turn away or otherwise disengage from it. Sometimes it means we should look more intently and read with even more openness, especially if it means reconciling visions of home and community with the painful losses endured in the quest to find these places of restoration and respite.

Suggested Reading

Blood on the Forge is a traditional migration story, but it also fits in with art from the Harlem Renaissance.  There are so many ways to read Blood on the Forge in conversation with other literature from its time, and I highly recommend using the novel as an anchor for lots of literary exploration. I suggest pairing Blood on the Forge with Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace, also published in 1941. However, if readers are in search of the Blues in poetry, delve into Langston Hughes’s work. Consider collections like The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), A New Song (1938), or Fields of Wonder (1947). For novels about movement, migration, and the search for identity, try Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938) and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Jean Toomer’s Cain (1923) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). If the “play’s the thing,” then seek out Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) or any work by Pittsburgh’s own August Wilson.


Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge. New York Review Books, 2005.

Hamilton, Cynthia. ‘Work and Culture: The Evolution of Consciousness in Urban Industrial Society in the Fiction of William Attaway and Peter Abrahams.” Black American Literature. Vol 21. Spring/Summer 1987: 147-63.

Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues. Second ed. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Dr. Kirsten L. Paine is an educator and researcher with more than a decade of experience working in higher education. She started working for Rivers of Steel in 2017 as a tour guide at the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark and was inspired by the mission to preserve such a national treasure held in public trust. Kirsten is committed to the work of public humanities education in her role as Site Management Coordinator and Interpretive Specialist. By creating and facilitating public programs that make the National Heritage Area’s history come alive for the community, she believes in archival study and teaching from primary sources as vital community resources.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series.

Top Five Industrial Transportation Stories

By Blog

A CSX train approaches Station Square, August 2020.

Top Five Industrial Transportation Stories

Created over eons, as water carved away layers of the Allegheny Plateau, southwestern Pennsylvania’s hilly topography set the stage for entrepreneurs. Over time, this land and the local economy continued to transform. Agriculture gave way to boatbuilding and river trade. Business shifted from commerce to industry, making use of the region’s natural resources for glassmaking, coal mining, and small scale iron production, which laid the groundwork for the “Big Steel” era of the 20th century. Industries waxed and waned—each innovating and building upon the one that preceded it. Through it all, industrial transporation has been key to our region’s development.

Here are five of the most popular stories we’ve written on the topic:

  1. Pittsburgh’s Time as a Steamboat City
  2. Mill Marks: A Legacy Stamped in Steel
  3. Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges
  4. Pittsburgh and the Automobile Industry of the Early 20th Century
  5. Exploring the Heritage Area—Trains and Tracks

And a bonus story: The Steamboat Race of the Century, complete with links to the radio broadcast from the time!

Interested in reading more? Check out our transportation-themed driving itineraries.

A freshly painted train engine.

Restoring the Pusher Engine

By Blog

The Pusher Engine, a highlight on the Industrial Tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces. Photo by Kevin Scanlon.

Restoring the Pusher Engine—A Volunteer Story

In our recent story on The Historic Preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, we mentioned that much of the early cleanup onsite was done with the help of volunteers. Keith Clouse and Kevin Scanlon are two individuals who have donated their time and expertise with us in many ways, including acting as tour guides, since that time. In recent years, they have led the efforts at Carrie to restore the Pusher Engine, a General Electric 80-ton locomotive . . .

A Familiar Feature, the Pusher Engine

Over the last decade, several hundred thousand people have taken an Industrial Tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces. The tour follows the iron-making process, sharing behind-the-scenes knowledge of the operations along with stories about the workers and their culture. The #101 Pusher Engine, also known as a switcher engine, is just one of the many assets found within the site that had been left behind at the mill’s closure, an important part of the tour that helps to show how raw materials become iron.

“A vital cog in the movement of raw materials within the Blast Furnace site, the engine served as an intramodal form of transportation,” said Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel’s director of historic resources and facilities. “It was used to move hopper cars full of iron ore into and out of the stationary car dumper so that they could be unloaded and the ore distributed to the ore yards and blast furnaces.”

Yet for much of that decade of tours, the #101 Pusher Engine sat in disrepair, damaged by the effects of nature and defaced with graffiti—until 2019.

The train engine with layers of paint visible amongst the rust.

The Pusher Engine as it appeared in the late summer of 2018.

Removing Layers of the Past

Keith Clouse and Kevin Scanlon began volunteering for Rivers of Steel in 2010, but their friendship goes back decades before then. They had bonded over their passion for railroads and the industrial history that goes with them, so volunteering at Carrie was a good fit—and restoring the #101 was the perfect project for them.

“Kevin and I were among the volunteers working to undo almost 30 years of neglect to open the site for visitors,” said Keith Clouse. “Early on, we worked around the car dumper, cutting away the thick foliage, uncovering the 101. Although the idea of restoring her was something we considered, it would have to wait until more pressing work was completed.”

“In the fall of 2019, Ron Baraff and Ryan Henderson [an interpretive specialist for Rivers of Steel] convinced us it was time to move ahead to begin the restoration of #101,” Keith continued. “First, we needed a thorough cleaning of the accumulated debris and leaves; taconite pellets were everywhere inside. Next the big job—remove the rust. The first attempt at sand blasting didn’t work out well. It was going to take more time, but using grinders with abrasive disks proved to be a better choice.”

Kevin Scanlon added: “The restoration stretched over the summers of 2020 and 2021. We stripped it down to bare metal with hand grinders, then had to patch some pretty large rust holes in the corners of the car body. There are reservoirs in each corner that hold moisture and ended up eating away the metal. We also had to contend with a yellowjackets’ nest inside one end. They did not like us fussing around their home and let us know about it.”


A selfie of two older white men, wearing jackets, in front of the primered car.

Keith Clouse and Kevin Scanlon pose with #101 when it was in red primer.

With the patch welding completed, a layer of primer was applied, stabilizing the engine body. By the fall of 2020, additional repairs were made to the floorboards inside the cab, and the windows were repaired, securing the interior before winter’s arrival.

The train car is half in primer and half gray and black.

Keith Clouse painting the base layers of color over the primer. Photo by Kevin Scanlon.

Painting the Pusher Engine

While removing the layers of old paint, the crew uncovered several paint schemes from over the years. However, with input from Ron Baraff and Ryan Henderson, the decision was made to use an orange and black design from the 1960s.

While Kevin Scanlon and Keith Clouse led the project (and did much of the hands-on work), they were not alone in their efforts. Rivers of Steel’s volunteer crew assisted with applying the final coats of paint in 2021. The team included volunteers Tommy Britt, Mike Dietrich, Alex Hiniker, Grant Kenny, Mike Lickert, Laura Lovett, and Shelley Parkerson.

Just a few details remain to complete the project. A sign with the U.S.S. Steel Homestead Works logo will be added to the sides of the cab, along with signage that reads “REMOTE CONTROL,” which is to be hung on both ends of the engine.

“Recognizing that it was an important asset to the story of iron production at the Carrie Blast Furnaces and being great lovers of railroad transportation, Keith, Kevin, and the entire volunteer crew embraced the challenge of restoring and preserving this important piece of history,” said Ron Baraff.

Four volunteers, several with paint or brushes in hand, stand in front of the engine.

The volunteer crew helping to complete the paintwork in November of 2021. Photo by Kevin Scanlon.

The Impact of Volunteers

The efforts of the volunteers who participated in this project have allowed Rivers of Steel to use the engine as an educational tool and attraction at the site. This and other labors of love by our volunteers allow us to continue to enlarge our narrative, engage the public, and enhance our interpretation of our region’s industrial legacy.

“Without their dedication and enthusiasm, we would not be where we are as an organization, nor would the site be the attraction that it has become,” said Ron Baraff. “From landscape management to historic preservation projects, the Carrie crew has made an immeasurable impact on the National Historic Landmark site.”

“Their efforts have greatly aided our work and made our jobs more enjoyable,” Ron continued. “While every volunteer comes into the organization with different skill sets and perspectives, they all bring a great love of history and a dedicated commitment to excellence with them. They are our friends, our supporters, and among our greatest assets. Their work is historic preservation at its grassroots, hands-on finest!”

A different view of the engine with the furnace in the background.

The Pusher Engine with the car dumper and ore bridge in the immediate background.
Photo by Adam Piscitelli / Primetime Shots.

Interested in reading more? Check out our recent story on The Historic Preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces

The Historic Preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces

By Blog, Historic Preservation

The Carrie Blast Furnaces in 2006.

The Historic Preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces

This past fall, when the tour season ended at Carrie, construction season began. Working along with Century Steel Erectors, Rivers of Steel has initiated the first of several significant projects that will facilitate the stabilization of the Carrie Blast Furnaces and allow for expanded access to previously restricted parts of the site for visitors.

These latest projects are part of the historic preservation work on this National Historic Landmark that began when Rivers of Steel first started to manage the site in 2010. In these first dozen years, the reach and impact of Rivers of Steel’s work at the site has been exponential. Tens of thousands of visitors experience the Carrie Blast Furnaces each year. Now, as the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC)-led development of the adjacent Carrie Furnace site has begun, including the building of two tech-flex structures, we anticipate this trajectory to continue. With more exposure and visitation projected, the historic preservation and stabilization of the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark is crucial now more than ever. 

A view of the Ore Yard, partially landscaped.

A view of the Ore Yard in 2011; one year after Rivers of Steel began its stewardship of the site, a path has been cleared for tour groups.

Dispelling the Myths

Beyond being an industrial and cultural icon in our own region, the Carrie Blast Furnaces are a standout in international industrial heritage preservation. Following benchmarking trips as part of a comprehensive master planning project Rivers of Steel undertook over the last year, we discovered that the Carrie Furnaces have one of the best-preserved cast houses in the world. Additionally, Rivers of Steel’s arts programs—including metal arts and graffiti arts—are lauded by our global counterparts as an innovative way to introduce audiences to our site and the importance of industrial heritage preservation. Most people who stumble on Carrie—through channels outside of our word-of-mouth or marketing presences—are introduced to it as an “abandoned” place; it became internet famous (with the help of cable television shows) for its rust and overgrowth, as well as for the Carrie Deer guerilla art sculpture.

To be fair, the site sat empty and unsupervised for quite some time. Furnaces #6 and #7 (which remain today) went offline in 1978. The rest of the plant closed in 1984. It sat, as is, until 1988, when the Park Corporation took ownership and focused on scrapping most of the buildings—including two of the remaining four furnaces—while Rivers of Steel fought to save what it could from demolition. Then, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County took over ownership in 2005. The following year, Rivers of Steel secured National Historic Landmark status for the Carrie Blast Furnaces #6 and #7 and became stewards of the site in 2010. Thus, there were over twenty-five years when Carrie was not in daily use. However, locals know that it was never truly “abandoned.” It was frequented by artists, graffiti-writers, and everyday folks—people who were looking to connect with part of our region’s heritage by entering a place that was off limits to the public during its heyday.

From the last years of the plant’s operation until Rivers of Steel took stewardship of the historic site in 2010, the structures of the National Historic Landmark did not undergo any care or maintenance. This essentially means that Rivers of Steel has been playing historic preservation and stabilization “catch-up” for those decades of neglect.

Vast overgrowth between buildings.

A view of the Central Courtyard as it appeared in 2006. Image by Randy Harris.

What It Means To Be a National Historic Landmark

National Historic Landmarks represent an outstanding aspect of American history and culture; they are places that illustrate the nationally significant history of the United States.

The Carrie Blast Furnaces contribute to the understanding of how the Pittsburgh region was responsible for creating the steel that transformed the world’s infrastructure during the 20th century, a time when it also earned the title of “arsenal of democracy” for its military supply contributions for our national defense. On a more human scale, this vestige of the past helps Rivers of Steel to share the stories of our region’s workers and their families, their accomplishments and sacrifices—actions that help define the character of our communities even today. Yet when you consider Carrie’s landmark status from a maintenance point of view, it represents both challenges and opportunities that are as unique as the stories it represents.

A black and white image of sun coming through holes in the roof of the Power House.

Sun streams through the roof of the AC Power House in 2008, reflecting the state of neglect prior to Rivers of Steel’s stewardship. Photo by Ron Baraff.

Historic Preservation Work on an Industrial Scale

Upon being granted stewardship of the Carrie Furnaces, Rivers of Steel immediately began addressing the preservation of the site, guided by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Rivers of Steel’s staff and a handful of volunteers worked tirelessly to pull back overgrowth, especially from the structures where it could continue to degrade the architectural integrity. In 2011, staff raised the funds for the first major stabilization project, installing a new roof on the AC Power House, along with other smaller initiatives. This triage work, occurring roughly from 2010 to 2015, helped to slow the rate of degradation and open up spaces to make them safe for visitors . . . but there was more work to be done.

“2010 marked the beginning of our hands-on work at the site to reclaim it as a historic landmark,” said Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel’s director of historic resources and facilities. “Not only did we have to learn how to creatively manage the landscape and formulate best practices in preservation on the fly, but we also had to change the culture of the site that had developed over the previous twenty-plus years. No longer was it an “abandoned” or dormant site, it was a National Historic Landmark that needed to be protected and nurtured.”

“While we fully understood the attraction that the site had become,” Baraff continued, “it was incumbent upon us to ensure its long-term safety. To do so, we had to tackle not just the encroachment by nature, but also by scrappers, urban explorers, and the curious. To this end, we worked diligently to secure the site and initiate stabilization efforts.”

Safety has always been the first priority. Rivers of Steel performs regular structural surveys to determine a priority listing of issues to be addressed. In 2017, on the second major stabilization project, with funding from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) Keystone Preservation grant fund, Rivers of Steel worked with Songer Services to remove 75 feet of distressed steel and brick from the Hot Stove’s Draft Stack and place a cap on it. This project ensured that Rivers of Steel could continue to safely bring visitors onsite.

Over the last five years, much needed work has been done by a few full-time staff members of Rivers of Steel. Life safety, security, electricity, and lighting systems were installed, including in the AC Power House, where most events and programs take place.

A man looks a motorcyle in the AC Power House

The Glory Daze motorcycle show is just one of the events that was hosted in the AC Power House last year. Photo by Adam Piscitelli / Primetime Shots, Inc.

Big Challenges and Big Money

The historic preservation efforts at Carrie exist beyond the scope of many historical landmarks. Most of the time, professionals that are versed in historic restorations specialize in more traditional types of structures, like historic homes or brick or stone buildings. Preservation and restoration experience on industrial structures is quite limited, especially within the United States. Last year, Rivers of Steel’s efforts to determine the best path forward led to researching work that’s been done in Europe, particularly in Germany’s Ruhr and Emscher Valleys, the Saarland, and in parts of Belgium and Luxembourg. Rivers of Steel also joined TICCIH, the International Congress on the Conservation of Industrial Heritage, to connect with colleagues globally to discuss the unique challenges we face.

Over the past two years, with the support of Senator Jay Costa and other state and federal elected officials, Rivers of Steel has raised significant funding for continued preservation and stabilization, including funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program; the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures grants program; the National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant; and the PHMC’s Keystone Historic Preservation grant program, along with support from local foundations and corporations.

A digaram shown from an aerial overhead view outlining the structures onsite with a pink box over a small area behind the cast house and a blue box that goes behind the stove deck, designating phases 1 and 2 of the work.

This site maps shows the areas of work for the project currently underway in the offseason at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Our current project—the first major undertaking since the stack stabilization—includes stabilizing the #6 Cast House, rebuilding the sluiceway behind the Cast House, opening up the sluiceway alley to visitors for the first time, and additional stabilization work that will continue to allow visitors on the Stove Deck. Funded by the Save America’s Treasures and Keystone Historic Preservation grants mentioned above, this work is crucial to Rivers of Steel’s interpretation of the site, which features industrial tours that follow the iron-making process.

Additional projects are also pending. With the support of U.S. Senator Bob Casey in 2021, Rivers of Steel received a Save America’s Treasures grant for stabilization work on the shell of the AC Power House, including concrete and masonry repair, along with the paving of the internal ramp. Beyond structural integrity, this will improve the usability of this historic building.

Recently Senator Bob Casey and former Congressman Mike Doyle both announced separate federal grants for stabilization work on the Blowing Engine House. These funds will support the work necessary to preserve and stabilize the building following historic guidelines, and lay the groundwork for securing occupancy of the building. This is the first very important step toward the Blowing Engine House becoming the Visitors’ Center for not only the Carrie Blast Furnaces site, but for the entirety of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Augie Carlino, president and chief executive officer of Rivers of Steel, lauded the support from the elected officials and said, “Senator Casey, Congressman Doyle, and State Senator Jay Costa are strong advocates for Rivers of Steel and our work at Carrie and throughout the National Heritage Area. In addition, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald is delivering on his promise to work with Rivers of Steel, RIDC, and the communities surrounding Carrie to make the site’s development a priority for Allegheny County, positioning the development for 21st-century jobs.”

The Furnaces at night, awash in colored lights.

How the Furnaces looked during the Festival of Combustion in 2022. Photo by Ron Baraff.

A Vision for the Future

As mentioned briefly above, Rivers of Steel has completed a comprehensive master plan for the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark site. Approved just this past December by the Board of Directors, the master plan not only recommends steps to stabilize and preserve the historic structures, but also includes plans to renovate and reuse existing interior spaces—and build new structures—for interpretation, exhibition, education, recreation, and special events. The Carrie Blast Furnaces are the centerpiece of Rivers of Steel’s operations—the hub reaching out to the spokes of our other historic and touristic sites as well as our many heritage partner sites throughout our eight-county National Heritage Area.

The implementation of this master plan is on the horizon. Rivers of Steel’s vision dovetails with what has been planned by RIDC and the Pittsburgh Film Office for the adjacent commercial development, as well as with what Allegheny County plans for the Rankin Hot Metal Bridge, also a National Historic Landmark.

Each step of the way, we have been working with our community partners in Rankin, Swissvale, Braddock, and North Braddock, along with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, and now, RIDC, on the preservation and redevelopment of the entire development site.

As Rivers of Steel has done with other redevelopment projects in Duquesne and McKeesport, we are working to ensure that former industrial sites are interpreted for the public and their stories are told. Unlike those other redevelopments, including the much-lauded Hazelwood Green, the Carrie Furnaces development is a National Historic Landmark. While this adds more stringent guidelines for redevelopment, the result will be an internationally known destination—an asset for our immediate neighbors in the Monongahela River Valley and to the many visitors the site will draw to the region.

It has been a long time coming for Carrie, for the team here at Rivers of Steel, for our partners, and for the residents of the region who have been working to build its future. We are on the precipice of a new era and we are grateful to be the stewards of this landmark—a space that reflects the resilience of our region’s people, both historically and today.

Interested in reading more about the work of Rivers of Steel? Read our story. 

Community Spotlight—Upgrades at Kelly Strayhorn Theater

By Blog, Community Spotlight

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer   |   Image: The Sunstar Festival is among the upcoming community events at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

Community Spotlight—Kelly Strayhorn Theater

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Tech Upgrades Create Enhanced Experiences for Community Partners

Since its inception, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) has always been more than just a performance space. They hold true to their mission of offering some of the most bold, unique, and inclusive events found in the city, but it is the organization’s dedication to its location that makes it exceptional. To call KST “neighborly” would be an understatement. Everything KST offers is infused with care for the community—from creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all who enter to highlighting and elevating the longstanding East Liberty community.

The Producing Partners program at the theater allows for a broad range of associates to rent the theater space for public shows, and in turn, KST staff support the renters with equipment and technical support.

“Different organizations are using the theater for multifaceted purposes, from presenting performances to presenting awards shows to recitals to full theatrical productions—all sorts of different kinds of engagements,” says Ben Pryor, Programming Director at KST. “And we really work with the producing partners to flesh out the details of their event. There’ll be a range of different folks that come through the program, some who are really well versed in producing their own work and some producing an event for the first time and really maybe coming in with not a lot of experience in doing that. So we work really closely with them to figure out what they’re going to need and how we can accommodate that.”

Four black performers dance and sing onstage while a crowd shown in silhouette, appears in the foreground, raising hands and taking photos.

The Fully Expressed performance at the KST, September, 2022.

Kelly Strayhorn Theater recently received a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant that supported equipment upgrades for the Producing Partners program.

“The mission of Kelly Strayhorn Theater is to be accessible to the community. But it’s hard to say that we’re helping if our equipment isn’t up to par,” says J. R. Shaw with a laugh. Shaw serves as Production Manager at KST, where he works to ensure partners have the equipment and setup they need.

“When our existing microphone system was purchased, there was a certain radio wavelength that we could use, but over time that has been opened up to more general use,” Shaw explains. “Which has meant that as development and more people move into the area, we’ve run into more issues with interference, with static, with the equipment being not as reliable. And so being able to upgrade this equipment is great.”

The theater has purchased new wireless lavalier microphones, handheld microphones, and headsets as part of their robust sound system to allow for a broader range of performances including more movement-based shows or more conversational settings.

Both Pryor and Shaw are quick to point out the significance of something as seemingly mundane as an equipment upgrade. “For a lot of our partners, in many cases, this is their first time ever producing a show,” says Shaw. “And so they don’t necessarily have the resources for an additional outside rental or they may not know initially that this might be an issue that they need to work with. So being able to have high-quality equipment on hand that our partners can use is really going towards the experience and to the service that we provide and how we can serve people as they are making their voices heard.”

A black man stands in front of a gallery wall, his gaze directed off camera. The artworks are hung salon-style and depict protest signs recreated on cardboard.

The Marking this Moment in Time exhbition at the KST, September, 2022.

Programming at KST includes public events, classes and workshops, artist fellowships, family programming, and so much more. The lobby space has also been updated as a gallery and exhibition space offering multiple showcases for guests.

Upcoming features include Neighbor to Neighbor, a group exhibition that challenges artists and patrons to visualize ideas around equitable and active neighboring, and R.E.S.P.E.C.T. An Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert, both of which open on February 11, 2023.

To learn more about the mission and programming at Kelly Strayhorn Theater visit

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

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 eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

All photos are courtesy of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

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

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

An image of the first half of the first page of the National Heritage Area Act of 2022

A Christmas Miracle inside the Beltway

By Blog

By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications | Image: The National Heritage Area Act of 2022

A Christmas Miracle inside the Beltway

During the final days of the 117th Congress, the National Heritage Area Act of 2022 was passed by both the House and Senate. It awaits a final signature by President Biden. While any legislation is a triumph in a sometimes politically contentious era, this particular story is nothing shy of a Christmas miracle.

For more than two decades, Rivers of Steel, along with other National Heritage Areas, has been working to secure a National Heritage Areas program bill in an effort to ensure stability, not just for our organization but also for National Heritage Areas (NHAs) across the United States. Finally, decades of work came to fruition in a matter of hours . . . but it very nearly did not happen.

Darkness Descends on the Winter Solstice

The situation was bleak. It was the morning of Wednesday, December 21, and coincidentally the darkest day of the year. There were three days left in the 117th Congress, and the National Heritage Area Act appeared to be dead on arrival. The usual channels for passage of any Heritage Area act—as part of a public lands bill or an omnibus spending package—had failed in the days prior.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to think that the future of National Heritage Areas was on the line. Forty-five of the fifty-five National Heritage Areas, including the Rivers of Steel NHA, were on course to lose their Congressional authorization in the coming months. And without legislative authorization, a National Heritage Area cannot receive federal funding. For Rivers of Steel, this equals a substantial portion of our annual operating budget as a nonprofit.

Many of the National Heritage Areas had spent the past ten years attempting to receive reauthorization—only to find themselves receiving temporary, short-term extensions. For Rivers of Steel, this drama played out in 2012, 2015, 2020, and again in 2021. Without action from Congress, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area would sunset on September 30—just nine months from now.

Despite the odds, all was not lost . . .

Snow blankets the ore year in fronto of the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

The Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Rivers of Steel’s Role as a National Heritage Area

Before we go further, it is important to share what it means to be a National Heritage Area.

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally significant landscape. Through their resources, Heritage Areas tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. For Rivers of Steel, Congress recognized southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial and cultural heritage as being nationally significant to the story of America.

Through a public-private partnership with the National Park Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Rivers of Steel supports heritage conservation, heritage tourism, and outdoor recreation as a means to foster economic redevelopment and enhance cultural engagement.

What this work looks like in practice can vary from year to year, but it serves as a guiding principle for our work. Heritage tourism, be it at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, on the Explorer riverboat, or through the eight counties that compose the Rivers of Steel NHA, is among our most visible practices to the public. However, programs like our Mini-Grant Funding, made possible through our role as a National Heritage Area, strengthen the network within the region by aiding other organizations working to achieve goals like ours. Through creative placemaking programs, we collaborate with communities to raise the standard of living through the arts. Even outdoor recreation becomes part of our scope of work!

Now with that understanding, we can continue our story . . .

Designations without an Overarching Federal Program

The first National Heritage Area was designated in 1984. After that, Rivers of Steel was among a handful to be created in a small wave of authorizations in 1996. Subsequent additions occurred in 2000, 2006, 2009, and more recently in 2019, which brought the total to fifty-five National Heritage Areas in thirty-four states.

Despite the proliferation of NHAs, Congress has designated each one with its own individual legislation to work in partnership with National Park Service (NPS). However, unlike the NPS system of national parks, seashores, and battlefields, among others—where there is a congressionally designated program that governs how those units are defined and how NPS and the unit work together—there has never been a comprehensive program established for NHAs.

The lack of a national program for NHAs has proved problematic at many levels. Examples of challenges include:

What planning is necessary to petition to become an NHA? In what ways should the National Park Service work with NHAs? What rules must an NHA follow for their spending of appropriations? Finally and most importantly (and what has contributed to the current disordered state of National Heritage Areas), how should National Heritage Areas be funded?  

A National Heritage Area legislation would create a program within the Department of the Interior and could secure a stable foundation for federal funding. In the process, it would streamline the regulatory bureaucracy for NHAs while creating a sound foundation for each National Heritage Area to plan for the future, focus on their missions, and be less distracted by the constant need for reauthorization.

Four white men in suits and two white women in blazers stand for a formal picture in front of an American flag in a building with columns.

L to R: Tim Fenchel, Deputy Director, Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area; Augie Carlino, President and CEO, Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation; Joseph J. Corcoran, Executive Director, Lackawanna Heritage Valley National Heritage Area; U.S Senator Bob Casey; Elissa M. Garofalo, former Executive Director, Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor; Elaine Paul Schaefer, Executive Director, Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area.

Attempts at a Program Bill

Since 2001, there have been attempts to pass a program bill to house National Heritage Areas. Funnily enough, the first of these was drafted by opponents of NHAs and intentionally designed to kill off each NHA. When Rivers of Steel’s President and CEO Augie Carlino chaired the Alliance of National Heritage Areas in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, he and the coalitions of NHAs worked Capitol Hill to defeat those early bills.

After that, he and the Alliance worked with supporting members of the House and Senate to write a program bill that created a partnership with the National Park Service—one that fostered a sensible process for the designation of new NHAs and a policy that governed existing NHAs.

With every Congress since 2002, the Alliance of National Heritage Areas has advocated for this program bill’s passage. Unfortunately, those efforts failed in every congressional session since 2002.

Bipartisan Efforts and the 117th Congress

With that short history lesson covered, that brings us to the current Congress—the 117th. Here’s where our story gets a bit wonky for a minute, but it also sets the stage for this miraculous saga:

The National Heritage Area Program Bill was reintroduced, along with several other bills, for every NHA needing to be reauthorized. Senator Bob Casey and Congressman Mike Doyle took the lead on the reauthorization of Rivers of Steel.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate held hearings and mark-ups (votes to approve the legislation) on the program bill, with the individual reauthorization bills now added as one legislative package. Also included in that bill was legislation designating six new NHAs and authorizing the study of several others for possible future designation.

Despite the vigorous efforts that played out over the two-year cycle of the 117th Congress (2021 and 2022), an attempt to include the NHA package into a much larger public lands bill was attempted, but Congress could not reach an agreement.

After the bill failed to reach a compromise, the only remaining legislative vehicle was the end-of-year omnibus appropriations bill, which Congress needed to pass in order to continue federal government funding and operations. The NHA coalition tried to get the NHA program bill package attached. For a short time, things looked promising, but that also failed on Thursday, December 15, when the effort to get congressional leadership approval was unsuccessful.

Congressional staffers declared the whole NHA package dead, and it looked like everything would need to start over again with the new Congress when it convened in January 2023.

A white woman in a floral print sits at a desk in front of rows of seats.

Sara Capen, Executive Director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage area and Chair of the Alliance of National Heritage areas, testifing before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Sara Capen’s Long Shot

Despite the gloom, there was still one (complicated) path forward. With Congress still in session working on the federal government funding package, there was possibly time to resurrect the NHA legislation.

First, the House and Senate leadership and committee leaders would need to agree to advance the package. Next, objections by senators, if any, were required to be cleared. And after that, another House committee—the Rules Committee—would need to meet to establish the guidelines of debate and voting procedure on the House floor before the bill could be considered.

Under any other situation, that process would typically take weeks or even months. The NHAs had a few legislative days remaining. Even if the bill had the votes, it was unlikely to move through this procedural hurdle in time. But a Christmas miracle did occur.

Enter Sara Capen, the executive director of Niagara Falls NHA and chair of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas. She and a small group of NHA executives began strategizing on possibly saving the NHA legislation and advancing it for a vote.

They worked with Senate leadership to resolve and remove outstanding objections to the legislation, allowing the Senate to consider the legislation. The bill passed on Tuesday evening, December 20.

Next, the legislation was sent to the House of Representatives. But President Zelensky of Ukraine arrived in Washington, DC, and Congress paused for an entire day on Wednesday for his speech, consuming another precious legislative day. With that unplanned event taking a day off of the legislative calendar, many said “good try” to the NHAs as only two days remained for Congress (Thursday and Friday)—and those were already reserved for the other bills.

A Window in Time Opens the Door for a Christmas Miracle

As stunning as it was to get the bill as far as it had, what ensued in the next 24 hours was truly remarkable. Because the Senate still had to vote on the omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government, there was a window of time for the House to consider the NHA package.

In the House, rarely (if ever) do non-critical bills get through in one half day. That only happens with nationally important bills like economic relief packages, end-of-year government funding, or other nationally significant legislation. However, with determination by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY), the leading sponsor of the bill, and an onslaught of bipartisan House members, the NHA legislation was debated on the House floor.

The NHA bill passed the House on Thursday afternoon (December 22) by a vote of 326-95, with all Democrats (217) and 109 Republicans voting in favor. A true, bipartisan victory!

The National Heritage Area Act (H.R. 1316/S. 1942) provides our nation’s fifty-five National Heritage Areas with certainty and predictability by extending their authorization for fifteen years, establishes a streamlined process for the foundation, designation, and management of new National Heritage Areas, designates six new Heritage Areas, and authorizes several more National Heritage Area studies.

What once was an experiment in a new way for the federal government to work with communities to conserve the nation’s nationally significant history and culture was now a permanent program fortified by the thirty-year track record of successful NHAs across the United States.

As part of what was passed, Rivers of Steel received a fifteen-year extension of its authorization and is eligible for additional federal funding.

The bill has been sent to the White House and is awaiting a signature from President Biden to be signed into law.

Strong Support from the Pennsylvania Congressional Delegation

Rivers of Steel is overjoyed, and we thank our representatives in Congress for their support! All of the House members representing our area—Congressman Mike Doyle, Congressman Mike Kelly, Congressman Conor Lamb, and Congressman Guy Reschenthaler—voted in favor of the NHA package, as did our two senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey.

“I’m pleased to have supported the reauthorization of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area,” said Congressman Mike Doyle. “This legislation is a strong endorsement by the United States Congress of the organization, and it guarantees Rivers of Steel’s continued work in southwestern Pennsylvania for the next 15 years, preserving the industrial legacy of our region while our communities transform into a new economy.”

And Rivers of Steel would be greatly remiss if we did not extend our thanks and appreciation to Sara Capen and the Alliance of National Heritage Areas. Augie Carlino, Rivers of Steel’s president and CEO, said, “Without Sara’s determination and steadfast leadership, along with other Alliance of National Heritage Area board members and executives, the events of recent days would not have been possible. Thank you!”

Beyond that, Rivers of Steel extends our thanks to all of our partners throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and our friends and visitors who participated in our offerings throughout the year. The effort to get a bill through Congress to benefit our region is only an example of a behind-the-scenes saga of some of the work we do. You are the reason we are here and why we will never give up—applying our region’s legendary work ethic to whatever challenge arises. Each day, we work together to commemorate our industrial culture and history, making our communities stronger and building opportunities for future success.

Support the work of Rivers of Steel with an end-of-year donation today!

brown, steel toed boots, a orange hard hat, greens protective wear, and safety glasses.

Community Spotlight—Battle of Homestead Foundation

By Blog, Community Spotlight

A worker’s gear from the Battle of Homestead Archives & Special Collections.

Community Spotlight—Battle of Homestead Foundation

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Battle of Homestead Foundation Expands Reach with Digital Archive

A core tenet of the Battle of Homestead Foundation’s mission is to promote “a people’s history” of southwestern Pennsylvania’s labor movements and in particular to memorialize the 1892 Battle of Homestead. Though the organization has rich reserves of memorabilia from the past century and a diverse program series to share these stories and collections, they do not yet have a physical museum in which to showcase the collection of workers’ ephemera.

Thanks to funding from a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant, the Battle of Homestead Foundation (BHF) Archives team is working on expanding their reach another way—a digitized version of the organization’s collections.

“We have a lot of information that we want the public to be aware of and want them to be able to use for research,” says Cassidee Knott, archives administrator at BHF and the lead on the Mini-Grant-funded digitization project. “Being able to put these things on the internet really makes us more accessible not only to our local community, but on a national scale as well.”

“Right now, we’re housing a lot of union-based items,” she continues. “Our three primary collections belong to Mike Stout, Charlie McCollester, and Mark Fallon, and really vary from material items like t-shirts, union banners, union buttons, photograph slides, and then of course a lot more paper items. Charlie’s collection especially is full of paper items in relation to some of the books that he’s written.”

A table with framed items on it.

Items from the BHF Archives & Special Collections on display at the Pump House.

BHF is an organization that is about as grass roots as the labor movements that inspired it. It was founded and is run by citizens, workers, educators, and historians, all of whom share a passion for preserving the history of Western Pennsylvania’s laborers. McCollester is a founding member of the Battle of Homestead Foundation; McCollester, Stout, and Fallon all currently serve as board members there and have direct ties to Homestead, its steel mills, and unions.

“Homestead was home to a steel mill that is extremely important in the larger scope of American history—that is certainly true,” says Dr. Jacqueline Cavalier, BHF Archives and Special Collections Committee Chair. “However, Homestead also has a story to tell because of people from many different backgrounds who lived here, who worshipped here, who ate and drank here, who were educated here, who engaged in public service here, and the list goes on. Those stories are equally important, and our organization is committed to preserving and sharing those stories as well.”

Knott is eager for the collections to be ready, but is quick to point out the care that is going into the digital conservation of each item. “It’s been slow and steady—it is a big undertaking. Right now, we’re currently working with three people: myself and two of our interns. [We are] just scanning these items and making sure they are processed correctly. So it’s very nitty-gritty work, but it’s going to have a big payoff.”

The BHF Archives team has partnered with PA Power Library to create the final full digital collection, which will be accessible through the BHF website.

Hats, pins, paper items, and a metal.

Items from the Mike Stout collection.

“Something that’s big for me, especially having a master’s in public history, is that public element of having the community know and be involved and having access to these items,” Knott notes. “Because it’s wonderful to have these collections, and we have these rare buttons and we have, you know, political banners and union items. And that’s all well and dandy to say yes we have it. But then sharing it, getting it out there—these items really do belong to the community, and I know our donors have that in mind when they’re donating these collections.”

“The Battle of Homestead Foundation is committed to preserving those stories and experiences that are available to all of us as an inheritance from those who came before us,” Cavalier agrees. “We utilize these experiences in hopes of having a better understanding not only of the past but of the future as well, particularly with respect to work. Our goal with the archives project is to tell the important story of work and the worker and to share the experiences of those individuals and groups who shaped the community in many, many ways.”

The BHF Archives & Special Collections currently provide ongoing labor education to students and citizens, research opportunities for scholars, and public history programs for the larger community, among other resources. To learn more about the BHF Archives and Special Collections visit

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

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 Battle of Homestead Foundation is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

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

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Dragon’s Den.

An older white man in a hard hat addresses a group of four in an industrial setting.

Immersed in the Battle of Homestead

By Blog

A Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop

As we reflect back on the accomplishments of 2022, one of this year’s highlights was a collaboration with the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System to present a Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Two men gaze out from a riverboat towards downtown Pittsburgh, while one takes a pictures of the skyline.

Workshop participants traveled upriver, following the route taken by the Pinkerton force in 1892.

Entitled The Homestead Steel Strike and the Growth of America as an Industrial Power, the program hosted sixty-seven teachers from across the United States for a weeklong immersive experience.

Divided into two cohorts over two weeks in July, the educators explored the circumstances that led to the 1892 Battle of Homestead and its lasting impact on the United States.

An older white man stands at a podium in a brick room, in front of a slideshow projection for a group of people.

Les Standiford addresses the group at the Pump House.

Their first visit? The Pump House, once part of the former Homestead Steel Works and the site of the actual Battle of 1892. During an evening reception, the group had an opportunity to meet with one another and greet many of the speakers who would be giving sessions later in the week.

Even for this first meeting, the participants were prepared to surpass small talk. They were tasked with reading in advance three books that would provide context for the week: Paul Krause’s The Battle for Homestead, Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, and Les Standiford’s Meet You in Hell.

Each day, teachers attended a morning lecture series that featured local and national industrial history, immigration, and labor experts, including: author and professor Dr. Charles McCollester, filmmaker and labor educator Steffi Domike, author and historian Edward (Ted) K. Muller, historian Tammy Hepps, interdisciplinary educator Joel Woller, author and steelworker Ken Kobus, author and professor Quentin Skrabec, author and historian Paul Kahan, and author Les Standiford. You can check out their bios here.

A group of 30 people pose for a photo in front of an industrial structure.

The group at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Afternoons were spent visiting various attractions in southwestern Pennsylvania that relate to labor history, immigration, and steelmaking. Field trips included a tour of Clayton at The Frick Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh home of Henry Clay Frick; a tour of the Bost Building, a site that received National Historic Landmark status for its role as the strikers’ headquarters during the Battle of Homestead; a narrated river tour of the former industrial sites on the Monongahela River on the Explorer riverboat; a stop at the Carnegie Library of Homestead; an Industrial Tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces; and a visit to the Born of Fire exhibit at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, which was interpreted by the museum’s former curator, Barbara Jones.

A white man in a work shirt gestures towards archival images on a table adressing a small group of women.

Interpretive specialist Ryan Henderson shows part of the group items from Rivers of Steel’s archives during the visit to the Bost Building.

Beyond lectures and site visits, the educators also had the opportunity to view and photograph primary source materials related to the strike in the University of Pittsburgh and Rivers of Steel archives. Highlights from the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System included the Allegheny County Coroner’s inquest reports on the fatalities at the Battle of Homestead and the papers of William Martin, who served as Carnegie Steel’s Chief of the Bureau of Labor during the period of the strike. Rivers of Steel displayed the Daily Record of Allegheny County Prison featuring Alexander Berkman’s name in the arrest records and letters from a Pinkerton guardsman.

Cursive writing with a fountain pen on slightly yellowed paper.

A 1892 letter to the coroner detailing the events around the death of one of the laborers.

While the workshop focused on America’s well-known industrialists, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, teachers also delved into information on the immigrant experience and additional content on iron- and steelmaking to set the context for the events of 1892.

The end result of this unique experience? Participating teachers developed lesson plans based on themes from the workshop, most of which can be found here: The Homestead Steel Strike and the Growth of America as an Industrial Power (

Initially, this workshop was to be offered in 2020, but it was postponed twice due to the pandemic. It was worth the wait. Given the response by participants and collaborators, Rivers of Steel and our partners at the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System plan to apply for another NEH grant to offer this workshop again in the near future.

To view and search the resources on the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike in the University of Pittsburgh Digital Collection, click here:

To view and search the Rivers of Steel Archival Collection, click here:

Interested in reading about other Rivers of Steel education programs? Check out this story featuring Community Collaborations in 2022.

Rivers of Steel’s 2022 Year in Review

By Blog

A Preservation Story, 35 Years in the Making

2022 Marked a Significant Turning Point in Rivers of Steel’s Journey 


Setting Out to Save Carrie

When Rivers of Steel’s founders set out to save the Carrie Blast Furnaces in the late 1980s, they knew there would be challenges ahead, but they likely didn’t grasp the enormity of the task that would consume the then-burgeoning organization for the next thirty-five years.

But what those community advocates were sure of was that this iron mill—a place that literally built our nation and produced the arsenal of democracy that would save the world from tyranny—represented the very heart of southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage. They knew that with each steel plant that closed and with every former steelworker who left to live and work outside the region, the hard-working culture that built the 20th century was fading into memory.


Progress along the Way

Since its inception, Rivers of Steel has helped to share this historical legacy, through our archives, oral histories, research, and interpretive exhibits. And as we have moved forward, we have also worked to help rebuild communities from the ground up. At times, we built trails and redeveloped brownfields. More recently, our efforts have included supporting the creative economy and community collaborations. All the while, we were pioneering what is now known as heritage tourism.

Throughout those thirty-five years, the preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces mirrored each of those efforts. But first, critical parts of the site had to be saved from the wrecking ball and National Historic Landmark status needed to be secured. Even now, ongoing preservation efforts are required to keep grounds safe and the structures standing as we work to conserve and stabilize the site for future visitors.


Redevelopment of the Carrie Furnaces Site

Each step of the way, we have been working in concert with our community partners in Rankin, Swissvale, Braddock, and North Braddock, along with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, and now, RIDC on the preservation and redevelopment of the land that surrounds our historic site. Ground has finally broken—and with that, we are on the precipice of a new era.


What’s Next

We have a vision. Exciting things are on the horizon. Your support today will help us reach the next step. After all, you—citizens of this region and friends of industrial heritage preservation—have been with us from day one, and with each advancing step, we find more and more support to move us forward. Thank you for joining us on this exciting journey.


Donate Now

Rivers of Steel’s 2022 Year in Review Video

tudents holding a rope in a lot across from a church

Community Spotlight—Dragon’s Den

By Blog, Community Spotlight

Homestead youth engage in a group activity across from Dragon’s Den, which occupies the space that was formerly the St. Mary Magdalene church.

Community Spotlight—Dragon’s Den

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

A long view of the former church which has a ropes course occuping two levels of the former sanctuary.

The two-story ropes course at Dragon’s Den.

Helping Homestead Youth Reach Great Heights

When Giulia and Bill Petrucci purchased the former St. Mary Magdalene church in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 2015, they knew they wanted to create a space where the community, especially its children, could come together. At the time, they never imagined the space would be centered around a two-story ropes course and a zip line that ran from the old choir loft to the altar.

While the couple was working out how to restore such a large, open space in a way that was financially feasible, they considered closing off the top half of the cathedral to make heating and cooling more practical.

“We knew we wanted to do something for children, but the issue was that in a part of our church, we have the ceiling that is more than fifty feet high. So the challenge was how are we going to heat this big, open space,” says Giulia Lozza Petrucci, Executive Director of Dragon’s Den. “And so the initial idea was to build a second floor because this way you could heat one floor and not the other one, but then that would mean having to cover all the beautiful details of this church. The ceiling is absolutely stunning. We have terracotta medallions with different faces on top of each window, and everything would have been, you know, hidden.”

Since a key piece of their mission was also to preserve the history of the space, installing a second floor that would cut off visitors from the church’s grandeur was not an option. Luckily, a trip to Italy provided unexpected inspiration.

“When my kids and I went to Italy that summer, my kids went to tour a ropes course with my aunt. They came home and they started talking about being terrorized and walking in the air and thinking that they were going to die,” says Petrucci with a laugh. “But then actually they didn’t. And they loved it so much, and I could see a difference in self-confidence and joy from my own children.”

Curious about their experience, Petrucci visited the ropes course the following day to learn more.

“In Italy, field trips must be educational. But I really didn’t understand what was educational about moving from one platform on a tree to another,” she says with another laugh. “To me it looked more like a physical thing, like a gym or something. I really didn’t see the connection until I talked to the teachers, and they told me that it’s part of the curriculum because there are so many studies that support how doing ropes courses helps team building and working together among participants, and also following directions, problem solving, and an increase in self-efficacy, self-control, focus, and self-confidence.”

After doing some more research into the benefits of participating in a ropes course, the Petruccis had made up their minds.

“So that is when the decision was made,” Petrucci continues. “We realized that we could do a second floor without covering the beauty, because our ropes courses would allow people to move on two different levels as if there were two floors. But it’s open, so you see all the beautiful details while walking next to it. Imagine when you go to a cathedral, you see things that are, what, thirty feet away, right? Well, in our case, you walk next to it.”

A younger black girl in a harness on the ropes course gives the camera a thumbs up.

A youth on the ropes course at Dragon’s Den.

A neighborhood Oratorio in Homestead

Beyond the benefits a ropes course would add to their programming, Petrucci saw potential in the location of St. Mary Magdalene to recreate a space familiar to her from growing up in Italy.

“We have one little church in every little town in Italy, and next to each church is a safe space called an oratorio, where children are free to walk to after school,” explains Petrucci. “And there are structured and unstructured activities, a space to run, a space to do homework there.”

A desire to create an oratorio for the Homestead community solidified the concept of Dragon’s Den.

“The position of St. Mary Magdalene being across the street from Propel Charter School and a block and a half from Barrett Elementary school and across the street from a park makes it very, very easy for the kids to just walk to us independently,” says Petrucci.

Dragon’s Den has been deeply embedded in the community from the start. The Petruccis were drawn to St. Mary Magdalene not only for its beauty, but also because of the stories they had heard about how hard the neighborhood rallied to keep its doors open. The organization’s name—a nod to the church’s former school whose mascot was a dragon—was chosen through a large community-wide naming contest.

“One of the people that submitted a name, actually I remember that email because it was a turning point, like a light bulb went off,” says Petrucci. “This person was saying, ‘You want to preserve our church? Please also preserve our past.’”

Recently the Petruccis were afforded a unique opportunity to do just that. Thanks in part to funding from a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant, the organization will be able to restore an original model of the church that was found in the rectory.

“It’s an historic model because it’s assumed that it was built in 1895 by architect Frederick Sauer, who is the architect that built St. Mary Magdalene,” says Petrucci. “But what happened at that time, there was a huge fire in 1934 that destroyed completely the old St. Mary Magdalene. So what you see now, the building we are in, it was rebuilt—but that model, it’s the only remaining evidence of what the historic building looked like before its destruction.”

Two white women in gloves carry the model out.

Removing the model for restoration.

Mary Wilcop, an object conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, will clean the model, which provides a unique architectural glimpse into the Steel Valley’s past. Once the restoration is complete, the model will provide an invaluable tourist attraction as part of the area’s heritage.

This attention to the site’s history and the neighboring community, along with the distinctive programming a ropes course offers, has endeared Dragon’s Den to the Homestead families it serves. Despite opening at the onset of a pandemic, the programs at Dragon’s Den have been wildly popular out of the gate. The ropes courses and open space of the church naturally lent to social distancing while offering a chance for physical activity and social interactions. Since then, the programs at Dragon’s Den have grown to include after-school programs, summer camps, community events, and facility rentals for corporate retreats and team building.

Giulia Petrucci is eager to point out that beyond reading about it and seeing pictures, you really need to see the space to appreciate all that it has to offer. She recalls how even a colleague of the ropes course designer, who had seen hundreds of photos of the space, marveled during his first in-person visit. “He said, ‘Well, I believe that Dragon’s Den is like the pyramids in Egypt. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen, it doesn’t matter how many words you have read—you don’t fully appreciate them until you are there.”

Learn more about the history, programs, and ropes course opportunities at Dragon’s Den at

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

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. Dragon’s Den is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

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

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Meadowcroft Rockshelter.