Carrie Furnace in Rankin opened in 1907 and spent its first seventy years as a true crucible of steelmaking, its vessels, stacks and lattices becoming icons of the Mon River Valley. After its closure in 1978, it spent thirty years as an abandoned ruin, falling prey to both planned deconstruction and vandalism.
More recently, though, the former industrial site has been making star turns in movies and television, documentaries and music videos. Not surprisingly, it appears most often as a forbidding symbol of decay and doom. In real life, the reduced but still imposing complex is no less rusty than it appears on-screen, but it is a hotbed of affirmative historic interpretations and artistic events. The icon of industrial decay is actually experiencing a cultural renaissance.
You could be excused for being obsessed with Carrie Furnace’s numerous screen credits over its current events. Last year, it was the setting for the video of “Work Hard, Play Hard” Wiz Khalifa’s platinum single, and it appeared in a segment of the Travel Channel series Off Limits.
In the movies, it recently figured prominently in the post-Industrial thriller Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Zoe Saldana, as well as the screen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Also in 2013, the Netflix adaption of Brian McGreevy’s novel Hemlock Grove, which the author rewrote after being inspired by Carrie Furnace, featured footage taken on location. Each screen appearance seems to inspire more.
“We have people seeing these productions and asking where they were shot,” says Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. And more productions are coming. The A&E Series Those Who Kill, starring Chloe Sevigny features scenes on location. “These are all positive for us,” says Ron Baraff, director of Museum Collections and Archives for the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, which now owns and operates the 36 acre historic site and historic structures of Carrie Furnace. “They get the site out there with promotion and attention. People become curious and want to visit.”
During its decades of abandonment, there were precious few visitors, none of them authorized. The first hint of a turnaround for the site began with construction of the Carrie Deer in 1997 by the Industrial Arts Coop. The core group of seven Pittsburgh area artists found themselves inspired rather than dismayed by the abandoned factories and warehouses of the region’s conspicuous industrial decline. Group member Tim Kaulen explains, “We were so inspired by this setting. We wanted to show people that there was a response to the vacant space that was once a center of productivity and action.”
Working one day a week over the period of a year, using only hand tools, collective members assembled pipes, wires and other exclusively found materials into a forty-foot-tall deer head, complete with antlers, on an elevated platform out of sight of the primary access road.
“The deer is a true response to the site,” says Kaulen. “With hardcore industry when people leave, nature has its way and brings everything back to the earth.” The Deer has survived to become an attraction in its own rite, whose visitors seemed to recognize that it combines respect for hard work with appreciation for the gentle incursions of nature.
As a historian and curator, Ron Baraff works tirelessly to restore and interpret the historically authentic parts of the site, but he also sees the Carrie Deer as an important contributing element in the experience. “The artists created this piece out of love of place and exploration and trying to create something beautiful,” says Baraff. “Some of the guys who worked [during the steel era] and can still see it as it was. They come to understand the importance of the artwork.”
Indeed, while certain pieces of graffiti have been scrubbed away, others, whose skill and sense of place are more apparent, become parts of the site. Rivers of Steel has even conducted tours of them.
Along with historic equipment and the natural landscape, the idea that the Carrie Furnace can be an ongoing inspiration for art has become part of the guiding spirit of the place–an inspiration for events and a way to draw crowds. Rivers of Steel has worked actively to schedule performances and events.
Last October, the Pillow Project brought music, dance and site-specific art to day and night performances at the site. “We’re pretty avant-garde,” says Artistic Director Pearlann Porter. “We want to connect ourselves as a new generation of Pittsburghers to an old identity that is very much part of the city.”
The combination of attractions and events means that Carrie Furnace attracts many different kinds of visitors. Old time Pittsburghers and history buffs are attracted to the old industrial plant. Artists and hipsters are excited by the permanent and changing artworks and performances. And a growing interpretive framework for landscape is drawing a nature-oriented constituency. All of these contribute to a growing popularity of the Carrie Furnace Rivers of Steel works to expand its capacities and attractions.
It may seem like a bleak post-industrial ruin in the on-screen entertainment in which it is so popular, but the Carrie Furnace is really a productive site once again, now motivated by history, art and nature.
Photos by Dave Hammaker who is holding a workshop to photograph and explore the Carrie Furnace on April 5.