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Explore Pennsylvania's Rivers of Steel

Imagine the great city of Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century. Massive pillars of black smoke twist into the sky over the city’s towers. The air is murky, and factories and warehouses are almost overflowing with tired, underpaid industrial workers. In 1875, Pennsylvania became the steel capital of the world, making the steel needed to build some of America’s greatest icons like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building in 1931, the tallest building in the world until the 1970 construction of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. In World War I and II, southwest Pennsylvania made more steel, armor, and armaments than entire nations. It was a reputation that would last until 1980 and gave one of the most famous sports team their name, “Steelers.”

The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, created by Congress in 1996, is devoted to the historic preservation, development, and education of the southwest region of PA. The phenomenon of this region is studied because of its massive transformation from the colonial-era French Fort Duquesne, eventually Fort Pitt, into the most powerful industrial complex in history. Notable sites that the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area encompasses are Pinkerton’s Landing, Rice’s Landing, Carrie Furnaces (A National Historic Landmark), and the infamous Homestead Steel Works.

In 1892, a 30% drop in the price of steel per ton resulted in Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Steel to slash wages and push laborers to their limits. While strikes were springing up all over the country, the Homestead Steel Works laborers—just 8 miles from downtown Pittsburgh—conducted an organized strike that resulted in nine of their deaths. A 12-foot high fence with barbed wire and rifles was constructed around the steel mill to keep the strikers out. Occupied under martial law, Homestead became a battleground between the labor union and the governor of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the labor union was oppressed with the threat of thousands of soldiers and Gatling guns. The incident became Carnegie’s greatest regret and one of the only blunders in an otherwise progressive business career. 

Today, the site of the Homestead Massacre is a popular tourist destination, and recently featured by the History Channel as “One of the Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.” It is also part of the Allegheny Passage Trail, making it available for a bike ride or walk. To find more information, things to do, and tour opportunities around this Heritage Area, visit https://www.riversofsteel.com.

Brandon Sherbo, Guest Blogger

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