Carrie Blast Furnace looking for volunteers with a connections to the steel industry

Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is looking to expand its volunteer base with the Carrie Blast Furnace complex for the 2013 season. The National Historic Landmark is managed by the steel heritage nonprofit and has been getting a lot of attention in recent months, with the filming of the Netflix series “Hemlock” and an A&E pilot “Those Who Kill” at the site as well as the movie “Out of the Furnace” starring Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson and Willem Dafoe, slated for release in the fall of 2013.

Rivers of Steel is looking for volunteers with a connection to Pittsburgh’s steel industry and/or heritage who can not only can interpret our region’s steel story and learn to interpret the Carrie Blast Furnace site but can also share vignettes of their own steel-related experiences. The only steel site of its kind open to tourists in the Pittsburgh region, the century-old furnace complex was the heart and soul of the US Steel Homestead Works. A tour takes visitors through the whole steel-making process including the Ore Yard, the Car Dumper, the Torpedo Car, the Blowing Engine House, the Hot Stoves and finally the cast house surrounding Carrie Furnace No. 6.

The first Carrie Blast Furnace tour date is April 27 with the site being open every Saturday in April through October and every Friday and Saturday June through August. Those interested in tour guiding at the blast furnace complex or volunteering their efforts toward preservation projects at the site can contact Angie Morini at 412.464.4020, ext. 31 or

(Photo courtesy of Rivers of Steel)

Eighty-nine years ago: on Polish Hill's bridges, speed limits were for horses, too

On March 14, 1924, a City photographer documented the bridges at two entrances to the neighborhood.  Above, the 28th Street Bridge, looking towards Polish Hill, which is obscured by puffs of steam from passing trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Below, the view to the north, as seen from the Brereton Street side of the bridge.  (Click on photos to see them bigger).

The bridge in these pictures was built in 1908, and was replaced with the current structure in 1931.  The bridge was rehabilitated in 1974 and is currently long overdue for some repairs.

And from the same day, the Herron Avenue Bridge.  Here, looking towards Polish Hill, with the Iron City Brewery smokestack and the brewery buildings on the left.

The Herron Avenue Briege fron the Polish Hill side, with the steam from the trains mixing with the smog from the mills.  Maybe it’s just a wide-angle lens, but this looks so much wider than the present-day bridge.  The railings are nicer, too.  It would be fun to re-install these speed limit signs at the neighborhood entrances, both as a nod to the past and to remind drivers to slow down.

(Photos from the Historic Pittsburgh Image Archive)

WPA map shows coal mines, seams, more

Longtime resident Dan Pagath shared a really cool 1930s WPA map of Pittsburgh with us.  The map shows active and inactive oil and gas wells and coal contours, coal seams (mined and not mined), coal shafts and openings.

The image for the whole map is too big to post here; this is a cropped section, showing what was then called Herron Hill.  The streets aren’t marked on the map, but the S-curve of Herron Avenue is unmistakeable.  There were coal mines all over the hillside above the neighborhood — they’re probably still there, sealed off.

The map legends are included, and you can click on the image to see it larger.

(Image from the PHCA archive — please ask permission before reposting)

West Penn Recreation Center, about 90 years ago

Before the current West Penn Recreation Center was built in 1929-30, this small building on 30th Street served as the recreation center.  Although the Historic Pittsburgh Image Archive lists the same date, January 25, 1922, for both these images, that seems doubtful, because the little building is gone in this photo:

The nearest building on the left is the Lyceum, which was located at Brereton and 30th Street, where the church parking lot is now.  The views were taken from different angles — but not that different — look at the upper right corner of each — those distant building are similar in each.

What do you think: is this Polish Hill?

A woman whose family used to live in Pittsburgh sent us a photo she thought might have been taken in Polish Hill.  She wasn’t sure of the name of the family in the photo; it might be Kopicki, Kowalski, Milowicki — or some combination of those.  She mentioned that she also had family in Lawrenceville.

A couple of things come to mind when looking at this photo, which appears to have been taken in the 1920s or early 30s.  First, the topography and the buildings don’t seem to resemble Polish Hill of that period.  Houses here were a different type, built close together on narrow, hilly streets.  A couple of areas just outside of Polish Hill looked a bit like this.  One is just over the border in Oakland; or it might be south, higher up the hill.  It also looks a bit like the area off the Brereton extension, west of 28th Street, which is part of the Strip District.  But if so, where’s Bigelow Boulevard and it’s billboards, which would have been easily visible in the 1920’s?

So we’re not sure; maybe it’s possible.  We’re putting the question out to our readers, particularly those whose families lived in or near Polish Hill in the first half of the 20th century.  Does this look like Polish Hill to you?  Do you recognize this family?

(Click on the photo to see it bigger)

The 28th Street Bridge in 1908

A view of the 28th Street Bridge, looking south, taken on November 16, 1908.  That’s the Hill above, and Polish Hill is off to the left.  The large building half-visible on the hill is the first West Penn Hospital, which was in its final years of service.  The road on slanting up on the right side of the hill is the Brereton Street extension (which is actually part of the Strip District, although historically and geographically it’s more connected to Polish Hill).  This bridge was in use until the 1930s, when the current bridge was built.

(Photo from the Historic Pittsburgh Image Archive.  Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Lecture from the editor of a book of Polish Hill remembrances

In 2006, Hampton High School English Teacher Mary Louise Ellena and her students from the After School Writer’s Club decided to try to capture memories of Polish Hill.  The project involved a series of field trips to the neighborhood, numerous interviews with longtime residents, and many after school meetings and Saturday morning working sessions.  Through it all the students and their teacher developed keen insights into what it was like growing up in an ethnic enclave like Polish Hill.

The book they produced, Polish Hill Remembered, depicts a rich culture and heritage that thrived for decades a few miles from the heart of the City of Pittsburgh.   The book is not a detailed history, but a volume that preserves a set of remembrances and provided a glimpse into an era that was already fading.  The book is still available on the Polish Hill Remembered website and at the Heinz History Center gift shop.

This Thursday, November 15, Mary Lou Ellena, whose students produced Polish Hill Remembered, will be keynote speaker as part of the public lecture series sponsored by the Lawrenceville Historical Society.  This free event takes place at 7:00 p.m. in the McVey Auditorium at Canterbury Place, 310 Fish Street.  The lecture is free and open to the public.  For more information, email the Lawrenceville Historical Society at

77 years ago: political graffiti on the 28th Street Bridge

On October 7, 1935, a City photographer recorded this hand-painted political advertisement on the southeast wing wall of the 28th Street Bridge.  Despite the unprofessional quality of his campaign outreach, Joe Dobbs was elected, and was quoted in the Pittsburgh Press on Friday, April 11, 1941 about the “rampant” numbers business in the 6th Ward (which includes Polish Hill), and how the police would not co-operate.

It should be noted that  many hard-working, church-going Polish Hill residents played the numbers in those days; it was just a part of life.  Most of the people interviewed by Mark O’Connor for his oral history project recounted being sent by parents or grandparents to pass along a scrap of paper and a few pennies for the daily numbers.

Constable Dobbs’ request was opposed by Alderman John Fiorucci, who said, “… why should Dobbs ask to have two deputy constables appointed?  The numbers business isn’t rampant.  And besides, Dobbs doesn’t do any work as constable himself.  He hasn’t done any since the six month following his election in November, 1934”.

It’s interesting that this graffiti remained in place for almost a year after the election — and that someone from the City saw fit to record it.

97 years ago…a house near the end of Downing Street

Here’s a classic Polish Hill house, photographed on September 29, 1915.  Perched on the hillside — indeed, it seems in danger of falling off the hillside.  The description on the detail shot states that it is “showing earth slip from rear wall”, and part of the yard retaining wall is propped up.  Nothing here looks particularly solid — the rickety stairs up the back, and that door at the bottom of the wall — what could it lead to?  There are windows in the wall, indicating interior space, but people are visible standing (in the yard?) directly above.  Perhaps there’s a sub-sub basement.

In the detail shot there’s a small sumac, a weed tree that still flourishes here, and in the distance, between the fence slats, the valley with smokestacks and industrial buildings.  (Click on the images for a larger view, and then zoom in to look at the details).

The description accompanying these images from the Historic Pittsburgh Image Archive indicate that this house was located at 320 Downing Street.  A City plat map from 1914 shows that number 320 had houses on either side of it, but some buildings were set back from the street, near the edge of the hillside, so it’s possible that this is one of those.  The building may have ultimately collapsed or been demolished.  The hillsides of Polish Hill have suffered erosion over the years; today, the hill behind this street falls away, and a search on the Allegheny County Real Estate Site doesn’t list a 320 Downing.

Nearing completion on the (first) Bloomfield Bridge, August 14, 1914

The Bloomfield Bridge lies at the eastern border of Polish Hill.  The current bridge, built in 1984, is the second bridge built at this spot.  The first Bloomfield Bridge was built in 1914.  According to Wikipedia, the first Bloomfield Bridge was built by the Fort Pitt Bridge Works and was 2,100 feet (640 m) long.  It was closed in 1978 and demolished in 1980.  The current bridge was completed in 1986.  (for more information on the old bridge, check out this page from Pittsburgh Bridges)

In this City photograph (above) from August 14, 1914, the first bridge was nearly completed.  The two triangular scaffolding structures on top of the bridge had slowly moved together as the span was closed.  This view is from the Bloomfield side, looking southwest.  Polish Hill (then called Herron Hill) is the hillside visible under the middle span.

Here’s a view from two months earlier, on June 14, looking east.  The barren hillside on the right is the eastern portion of Polish Hill, and Bloomfield is on the left. (click on images to enlarge)

Also looking east, here are a couple of the anchor piers to the bridge on the Polish Hill side.  The building with the arched windows in the center background, barely visible beyond the mound of dirt, still stands on Bigelow Boulevard.

Some of the anchor piers of the old bridge are still there today.  One on the Polish Hill side under the bridge off Melwood Avenue, provides a perch for a top-hatted metal man who looks out over the ravine towards Bloomfield.

(Black and white photos from the Historic Pittsburgh Image Archive.  Photo of the metal man by Leslie Clague for the PHCA.