Duquesne’s Nightlight and Lullaby

I came across an archive of photographs online a few days ago that I had to share with you.The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. maintains an archive of photographs that contain over 14 million items. Part of those photographs is a collection titled Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record. This collection contains documentation for more than 38,000 sites and structures. Within the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record there is a set of 76 photographs that are collectively titled U.S. Steel Duquesne Works, Blast Furnace Plant, Along Monongahela River, Duquesne, Allegheny, PA.

In 1989, photographers Jet Lowe and Martin Stupich created this overview history and inventory of individual structures of U. S. Steel’s Duquesne site. The photos feature interior and exteriors of the many various plants within the Duquesne Works. Since the time these photographs were taken, many of the structures have been demolished, as the former site of U. S. Steel’s Duquesne Works continues to transform into a pseudo industrial park.

The mill always seemed to be such an ominous and mysterious place. I was never privy to what went on beyond the front gate at the mill since I never worked there, however I was always curious. My uncles would occasionally talk “shop talk” when they got together. They would describe molten steel in huge ladles, red hot ingots weighing thousands of pounds, and many more fascinating images. By comparison, the collection’s photos capture images of a rather desolate and eerily silent group of massive buildings. What the photos show, is a mere shell of what was.

My childhood home on Thomas Street was just a little over a mile from the mill. Since my father’s business was on South 1st Street and given that I attended Holy Name Grade School, I became very familiar with the sites, sounds and smells of the plant. Whenever I visit my family in the Duquesne area, I think back to the days when the mill was an active and thriving workplace. I recall how at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m., the U.S.S. gate at the bottom of Grant instantaneously turned into a scene reminiscent of the streets of New York, as the onslaught of departing workers poured out.

Many of the men took to the sidewalks and hiked home. Others returned to their cars, although I must confess that I don’t know where they parked. Still yet, family members would often meet their husband, father or brother at the end of their day. They’d be parked all along Grant Ave. and wave frantically to get their loved one’s attention. Many guys would pour into Elsie’s Avenue News for the newspaper, a pack of cigarettes or whatever they may have needed. The seats at the numerous “beer gardens” would quickly fill up as the guys would chug down their beers to try to either cool off or wash down the dust from the mills that had coated their throats. As quickly as the throng of men formed as shifts turned, it dissipated as swiftly, and by 10 minutes after quitting time, the streets had returned to normal.

I recall how at night, there seemed to be a perpetual sunset hovering over the mills as the sky took on a shade of orange. I assume that the glow was caused by the molten steel and ingots as they passed from plant to plant and finally to railcars or barges. I remember seeing glaring spotlights that were mounted to the various buildings, cranes and furnaces that added even more dramatic light to the scene. As a child, they always reminded me of bright stars in an orange sky. From my Thomas Street bedroom, I could see that orange glow each evening as I looked toward St. Joseph’s cemetery. The scene would have made a great mood shot for some horror film, but to me, it was very comforting.

Equally comforting were the sounds that I would hear at night. Perhaps because of the silence each evening brought to my neighborhood, the sounds of industry that emanated from the mills helped to lull me to sleep. I recall muffled roars, pipes or bars clanking and trains whistling in the night from the mill. I often thought about my uncles or my brother at work on nightshift and wondered if they were making the entire racket. Even in the dead of winter, after my dad had put in the storm windows, the sounds still managed to be heard. I guess some things are destined to never be forgotten. Perhaps the images and the sounds that I’ve recalled will stir up similar recollections for you. Perhaps the next time you watch the sun set you’ll marvel at how much it reminds you of your days in Duquesne.

This entry was posted in Stores and Businesses, Summertime, The Steel Mills. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Duquesne’s Nightlight and Lullaby

  1. Bob Saunders says:

    Did you hear about Bob Dylan’s new album? He has a song about Duquesne, called “Duquesne Whistle” I was born and raised in North Carolina, but my mother (a Dynoske) was born and raised in Duquesne. (My grandfather, Walt, was a policeman and a member of the town council in the 50s) This blog brought back memories of my time visiting my Yankee cousins.

  2. Carl Kavish says:

    You can take a kid out of Duquesne… But you can’t take the Duquesne out of the kid !!!
    Growin’ older but not up…

  3. Jack Schalk says:

    I suppose we all had the late night hearth pour lighting coming into the bedroom but the most spectacular display was the night slag spills at the dump outside of Dravosburg. The Union RR would take their small ladle cars to the top of the hill and when they emptied, the light and heat were almost unbearable.
    Although my most enjoyable night time sounds were produced by the trains and their whistles that ran along the river, especially the high speed engines whose sound was long and eery as it disappeared into the night.

    I was a member of the Friendship St. gang along with Jerome Summerly, Kenny Denny, Bob Long, and others. We played baseball on the slag dump where a ball lasted one game and your hide even less, played football on the grass thankfully, although I can still feel the thump Dick Bowen gave me while I was trying to tackle him. That man had greatness from an early age.

  4. Claudia Repko Misage says:

    Me again just had to write regarding a piece of embroidery I have hanging in my home that my mom did is 1984. Here it is—————–
    I want to go back home once more,
    to those hills I roamed before,
    to gaze upon those hills and mills,
    where those mighty rivers flow,
    I live in that city that is built among the hills,
    where smoke is always pouring from the big rolling mills,
    and steamboats on the rivers go towing to and fro,
    where the old Allegheny and Monongahela flow.

    Pittsburgh Steelworkers’ Ballad from the early 1900.

    I just love it and wanted to share it with everyone.

  5. Colleen Byrne Travis says:

    Remember how that blast furnace used to stink? The nun would sent a boy with that long stick with a hook on the end to open the windows.

  6. Paula (Manns) Niedoba says:

    US Steele provided many many jobs for many years. My father retired from there after 45 years. Same for my father in law. One thing that comes to mind is playing outside on a hot and humid summer day. The graphite from the mill would stick to my skin and stay there until bath time. The fastidious housekeepers in those days would wipe down the window sills and porches to rid them of the sparkly specs.

  7. irene (taczak) stang says:

    Great Readings

  8. Harold West says:

    I remember the smell of sulphur in the air when they would tap or charge the blast furnaces? I also remember the shiny dust that was on the sidewaks most days. Using the hose to clean the car and the sidewalks on Saturdays.

  9. dan bonga says:

    At night, in the early 60’s (with our Cub Scout flashlights in hand) my brother Dave and I would sometimes climb the hill above our home at the top of Miller Ave. This was ,of course, before the apartment complex was there. Because Duquesne sits on the bend of the Mon you would get an incredible view of of the steel mills glowing different colors and intensities from Homestead to McKeesport! On an especially good night the sounds would also be heard from Duquesne mill, with slight echoes from Edgar Thompson . I’m sure we didn’t tell our mother about these early night adventures because the “gypsies” were known to camp out there!

    • Lou A. says:

      About that same time, we’d walk up Maryland Ave to the end of Edison St. in W Mifflin and go “over the hill” that overlooks the river, the bridge and National Tube in McK. If the wind was blowing the smoke back towards McK. you could turn your back to the river, and the glow from the Bessemers (previous reply) was bright enough to read the Daily News all night long. It was always a thrill to watch the Union RR train haul glowing ingots and billets across the RR bridge beside the Riverton Bridge ( STILL the official name of the Duquesne-McKeesport bridge. That hotmetal bridge is now a part of a bicycle trail that when completed will link the Point in Pgh with the C&O Canal trail and on to DC. The lasts segment of right of way along the Mon behind Sandcastle was recently granted by the international company that bought out Kennywood.

  10. Laurine E. says:

    Living across from the Holy Name Rectory, I always saw a steady stream of men walking up Kennedy Avenue at shift change. My grandfather would often sit with me and talk to the older men who were just young men when Pop retired. They always had a minute or two to talk to Pop, our dog, Brenda, and me. I always thought that made my Pop special but I now know that it was just the “brotherhood” of men who gave their all for the steel mill and in the end lost their livelihood when the mills closed.

    I remember going to visit my great aunts and uncles in the country and not being able to sleep at all because it was sooo quiet there. After the mill closed, it took a long time for me to get used to the absence of all the noises I was used to hearing from the mill.

    My mom worked for the Homestead Steel Workers Federal Credit Union, and one year the “girls” who worked in the office were invited to the open house for the mill families. We got to see the rolling mill there (we probably got to see more, but I was pretty young and that was what I remember most). Did the Duquesne Works have a similar open house and did anyone ever get to go to one?????

  11. Dave Bonga says:

    I worked 3 summers at the mill, 69, 70 and 72. (No one was hiring in 71 because of the bad economy). My summer of 69 was at the BOP shop (basic oxygen plant). The oxygen furnace was a newer steel making technology which took the place of the old open hearth furnaces at Duquesne. In 70, I unloaded coke cars at blast furnace #6 , known as “Dorothy”. This was the largest blast furnace in the world at the time it was built. In 72, I moved to the primary mill, where ingots were reheated and then sent down the line to become various sized and shaped bars. Work was one week of 7-3, one of 3-11 and then a week of 11-7. I believe I made about $3.50/hr, which was certainly better than the $1.00/hr. I got at Kennywood !! Anyway, the job kept me returning to college, since I determined early that this hard work was not for me !! 🙂

  12. Bob Nelis says:

    The top pic and the bottom pic bring back first hand memories of my 4 years working in the open hearth at J&L Steel on the Southside of Pittsburgh. The top pic appears to be the main floor of the open hearth, where huge “tubs” of raw materials arrived from the blast furnaces to be dumped into the hearth and heated to over 2000 degrees. The bottom picture with the troth pouring the white hot steel into most likely a 300 ton ladle was the back of the furnace. I worked back there when a heat was “taped” or opened up with a long rod with explosives on the end was set off to open the bottom of the hearth and allow the steel to pour into the ladle. We wore special coverups and head gear to withstand the heat. If it was steel to be used to make automobiles, we had to manually throw in so many bags of maganese to temper the final product. From there the ladle would be moved across the “pits” to the other side where a long series of flat railroad cars had ingot molds ready to be filled with the steel. There each ingot mold was capped with a piece of steel and then hosed down to begin the cooling process. From there they would be moved to the rolling mills as the process continued.
    Unfortunately, over the years as the antagonistic relationship between the unions and ownership heated up, the Japanese began making larger and more efficient ladles and gradually began increasing their market, as the backbone of American manufacturing gradually disappeared along the Three Rivers of Pittsburgh.

  13. Carol Janusek says:

    My Dad worked in the Duquesnr Mill.. I was just a little thing… and I remember when my dad worked 3-11….. We lived up on Monterey… My mom would load up my brother and I and we would drive down to pick my dad up.. we parked in the lot across from the bank.. I thin there was a KFC there then.. not sure.. but the lot now has save a lot food store now. but we waited for the guys to come out.. and if there was a train.. it was a wall of people once it passed.. I dont remember the ride home or even going to bed.. but i do remember being in my pj’s in the back seat with our sleeping bags….waiting.. I miss the old neighborhood.. Most of what you write about is all gone.. all the buildings are gone.. from second and pracilla all the way to 5th….. gone…. such a shame….

  14. Lou A. says:

    That orange glow you saw was probably the blast from the Bessemer Converters at National Tube in McKeesport. Living on Maryland Ave, my bedroom window faced toward the Mon and I too remember those sights and sounds. I believe the converters were the oldest in the nation, a technology unchanged over 100 yrs; the last one shut down in 1968 when the basic oxygen and electric arc processes could produce a similar tonnage at a better quality. You can still see one at Station Square on the “sahth-side”.

  15. cathy sturm says:

    I live in rural Arkansas now …my neighbors are mostly farmers …In the last few years they have been putting gas wells in all over the area ….the locals complain about all the clinging and banging sounds they make through the night … I find it really comforting …Duquesne night sounds …better than any cd of rain falling

    • Bill Larkin says:

      Hi! Cath nice to hear your memories of old Duquesne I remember hot summer nights as a kid sleeping out on our front porch and hearing the rumbling sounds of the steel mill use to put Me to sleep and your right it was very comforting, and I use to think, my Dad is working down there right now. Cath didn’t you work in the mill also. The sunsets here in New Mexico are great but I will always remember the orange yellow night lights of Duquesne.

  16. Tom Lane says:

    I worked one summer in the electric furnace section. It was right at the bottom of Hamilton ave so not the main entrance. It was amazingly noisy inside and quite scary at first. I almost lost a finger in an accident and as I now look at the scar, I can still see that place. Constant dirt in the air and hot, hot, hot. And you had to wear long sleeves and gloves, hard hat and googles. It all convinced me to go to college. The work was not hard and you sat around alot as you waited for the tap. That is the dumping of the red hot steel into ingots. My job was to take the ingots from the furnace to the stripping mill. That was 1963. A sad thing to see those monsters shut down and just rusting away.

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