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.