In September 1989, a chirpy Madonna love tune dominated the airwaves, but the song seemed jarringly out of place in Pittsburgh. Many of us awaited a more angst-ridden soundtrack for what had become a turbulent decade. Our beloved city anchored the grotesquely named “rust belt,” a swath of the country defined by epic failure.
Not much of an identity for a place of such pride. “We built the United States, right here in this valley,” said one former steelworker, who emphasized his point by jabbing his stubby finger into the bar at Chiodo’s Tavern in Homestead, two blocks from the cold carcass of the the mill that had employed he and his father for decades.
A question hung in the air: If we’re no longer makers of steel, then who are we?
It was a difficult question to ponder with those terrifyingly empty mills still looming over us. Their demolition and transformation would dramatically change our landscape and our psyche.
On a warm and sunny Tuesday in early autumn, a reporter and photographer for The Pittsburgh Press were offered a pre-demolition tour of two idled mills: the Duquesne Works and McKeesport’s National Tube Works. The story and pictures were published in October 1989 and gave readers a tiny glimpse of the cost and waste inherent in the shutdown of an industry.
The Duquesne mill was an assortment of steel sheds, stoves, ovens and brick buildings that stretched two miles along the Monongahela River. The McKeesport mill continued across the river for another mile.
The size of the sheds is difficult to convey. Most of us today never enter a structure larger than a Walmart. Some sheds within the mills were large enough to swallow a few big box stores and still have room for a movie theater and a few fast food joints.
Ceilings rose nearly 100 feet above the dusty floor. Everything was oversized — the huge hooks still dangling from overhead cranes, the 15-foot high iron ladle laying on its side like a monstrous thimble. The only items human in scale were the boots and gloves scattered on the floor of a locker room.
“At the site, there is an eerie sense of quiet,” wrote Press reporter Christine Vorce. “The air smells of dust, rust and the slightly acrid odor of coke gas wafting out of a pipeline that a USX contractor is removing ….”
Frank Bunda, supervisor of the demolition, was blunt: “It’s like walking into a tomb.”
The mills were full of asbestos, various forms of oils and lubricants and PCBs. Dismantling the the facilities would be one of the largest demolition jobs ever undertaken in the United States.
The Duquesne mill had closed in 1984. McKeesport’s mill closed Oct. 28, 1987. Workers on the final shift tapped a keg and ate a picnic lunch. A few lifted beers and sang “Oma Rechka Pegla …”, a Croatian tune about a mother who irons one day, sings another and dances on Saturday.
It was a prescient tune. We’d all have to broaden our skill set, learn to become something new.
Today, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, with our high-tech mojo and new bike lanes and the accolades that come almost weekly: most livable city, must-visit city, most affordable city, best place to retire.
But it’s worth remembering that we’re here, among these rivers and hills, because of what we had once been: A city that gathered a few of earth’s elements and cooked them into a useful thing called steel.