Historic preservation is sometimes viewed as pitted against development. But that’s not how the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation sees it.
“For Rivers of Steel, historic preservation has never been a barrier to development,” said Augie Carlino, the president and CEO of Rivers of Steel. “Rather, its role is as an economic engine — an inspiration for economic revitalization to embrace preservation and a sense of place.”
River of Steel’s objective is to use Southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial and cultural heritage as components of community redevelopment. It is a long-term vision to heal the wounds created by the collapse of Big Steel through historic preservation, heritage conservation, interpretation, education and, ultimately, heritage tourism.
Now, during National Preservation Month, Rivers of Steel shares more about its stewardship of three National Historic Landmarks: the Carrie Blast Furnaces in Swissvale and Rankin, the Bost Building in Homestead, and the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Rices Landing.
A sense of place after Big Steel
One might think that the priority in historic preservation of these three iconic landmarks was only to save the buildings, but understanding their importance to the region’s identity was also key.
As an organization charged with highlighting the region’s industrial and cultural history, Rivers of Steel tells the stories of these places — places that represent the people who inhabited them, folks who sacrificed through labor and celebrated their diverse cultures, imprinting a work ethic and a rich tapestry of ethnicity on these hills and valleys.
That distinct character is the foundation for the organization to share narratives that help new generations to become acquainted with their families’ legacies, stories that help recently arrived residents gain a sense of place, and visitors to comprehend the ramifications that Big Steel had globally, in terms of not only production and iconic infrastructures, but also the effects on local culture.
The status of three iconic landmarks
The Bost Building, the strike headquarters for the 1892 Battle of Homestead, was the first of the three historic preservation landmark projects. It sat abandoned and vandalized until restored in 2002 after an investment of $4.5 million.
Today, as the main offices and visitors’ center for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, it is a place reconstructed to house the organization’s archives and interpretive galleries. Its current exhibition is Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka and is a destination for travelers seeking to explore more of the region.
More recently, Rivers of Steel announced the completion of a $1.5 million, 10-year restoration of the W.A Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Greene County.
However, it is the iconic Carrie Blast Furnaces, which Rivers of Steel began managing in 2010, that attracts visitors from across the region and the world.
Most visitors take the Industrial Tour or attend an event, like their signature Festival of Combustion. But for those looking for a hands-on way to connect, Rivers of Steel offers a variety of metal arts workshops to choose from; these and other arts programs create opportunities for individuals to appreciate the heritage experientially.
The preservation journey of the Carrie Blast Furnaces is ongoing. The National Historic Landmark site consists of 33 acres, just under 20% of the historic footprint of the mill.
The nearby Hot Metal Bridge also has a National Historic Landmark status. Allegheny County is redeveloping it with consultation by Rivers of Steel. Separately, the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) is developing an additional 55 acres east of the furnaces, a project in which Rivers of Steel plays a more limited partnership role.
The popularity of heritage tourism
In recent years, heritage tourism has been the fastest-growing segment in tourism. Travelers are seeking authentic experiences, including learning opportunities and immersive events. Heritage tourists stay longer and spend more money, and while it appeals to all ages, heritage tourism engages younger audiences more than any other type of travel.
Annual visitation for Rivers of Steel’s attractions in 2022 exceeded 50,000 people. Through its partner collaborations and efforts to entice visitors to the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, a study published in 2020 demonstrated that for every million dollars in investment Rivers of Steel receives, its impact generates over $92 million for the region.
“Retaining the authentic charter of a place resonates with visitors and builds pride with residents who witness their communities coming back to life,” Carlino said.
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