PITTSBURGH (AP) — Bounded on one side by a cliff and on the other by the Ohio River, what's left of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co.'s Aliquippa Works is an overwhelming stretch of emptiness punctuated by debris — metal scrap, concrete, office material and building detritus piled and strewn over miles of rutted clay.
Former mill floors are now platforms the size of football fields sprouting weeds, junk trees and twisted rusty cables.
A band of eight salvagers, six of them volunteers, arrived on a recent expedition to the last remaining building — the tin mill offices, where all of the plant's records ended up. On a brilliant morning, they climbed to the third floor and propped open the door. Dusty amber rays shot into the entrance, where a message spray-painted on the paneled wall read: "Last one to die please turn out the lights."
Moving about the room under bobbing headlamps and flashlights, opening file drawers that screeched, kicking aside ribbons of vellum, sneezing, and stepping around empty plastic jugs, an overturned chair and electric typewriters, they were undertaking one of the last outings to save remnants of Big Steel's story for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
Based in Homestead, Rivers of Steel is a nonprofit organization that for more than two decades has preserved and archived the region's industrial legacy.
As the salvagers traipsed up and down the fire escape carrying entire drawers of microfiche punch cards plus file cabinets, boxes of maps, engineers' reports, drawings, blueprints, binders and interoffice memos, cranes in the distance tore into concrete foundations and Canada geese flew overhead.
Near the fire escape door, inexplicably, a detailed sketch of a reinforced railroad spike from 1937 lay alone on a desk.
Saving records is strenuous work. Then there's the challenge of moving tons of equipment — sometimes an entire shop.
Rivers of Steel has been trying to salvage as much of both as its archives staff — Ron Baraff and Tiffani Emig — deem worthy. They have salvaged and stored many large pieces, all from U.S. Steel operations: the carpenter shop from the Duquesne Works, the pattern shop from McKeesport National Tube, and the blacksmith shop, roll shop and 48-inch universal rolling plate mill of the Homestead Works.
"It was one of the last steam-driven universal plate mills in the country," Baraff said. It operated from 1898 until 1979.
These industrial relics — which moving companies have transported at low or no cost over the years — give scale to the story Rivers of Steel hopes to tell someday in an interpretive museum on the site of the Carrie Furnace in Rankin and Swissvale. Carrie, also once part of the Homestead Works, is the last remaining pre-World War II blast furnace site in the nation.
"It's a monumental site that tells the story on different levels," Baraff said. "It could be a major attraction and (tourism) vehicle for this region."
Rivers of Steel recently negotiated a lease agreement with Allegheny County that turns over the Carrie site to the nonprofit in exchange for the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh. The bridge, which once connected J&L operations on both sides of the Monongahela River, was donated to Rivers of Steel by the Union Railroad.
The next steps: to get collectible items inside and secure the site against surreptitious visitors, Baraff said.
"When people come to Pittsburgh, they want to go inside a steel mill," Emig said, "but you can't because of liabilities." An interactive display, she said, would "at least show people how a rolling mill works."
Recovering machinery may be the glamour part of building a museum, but ferreting out documents can yield exciting results, too.
"It's like a treasure hunt when you don't know there's a treasure," Emig said. "And there are things you think nobody's ever going to care about, but to someone out there, it could be the Holy Grail. (A model railroader) called from Seattle to see some weird section of railroad track, and he flew in to see it."
"We have researchers, engineers and people who want to know where water lines are," said Baraff, explaining why maps and site plans can be valuable. "We have people who want to see exactly where their dads worked."
Rivers of Steel uses its collection — which includes extensive oral histories — for exhibits, educational programs, multimedia shows, documentaries and research.
At former mill sites, the immensity of what used to be there makes the barrenness seem apocalyptic.
The Aliquippa site could be a backdrop for a "Mad Max" sequel — it's so empty you can see from one end to the other, but you couldn't walk it in an hour. The salvagers obtained permission from owner Charles J. Betters to be there.
Perry Blatz, an American history professor at Duquesne University, volunteered to help with the effort and brought along several students. Wearing a head lamp, he took up residence in a corner of the tin mill and began poring over large drawings to look for keepsakes.
Coming out of his warren at one point, he carried a plan of the steel-making facilities that looked like the map of a small city, complete with street grid. It showed oil tanks, sludge tanks, a pig iron-casting building, an oxygen furnace, a scrap yard, a converter building, an open-hearth building, a sinter plant, an auditorium. The map unrolled to a length of seven yards.
"This plant was four miles long," Baraff said.
"Given the money and time, you could reconstruct the history of a facility like this with all the documents here," Blatz said.
Not that anyone will do that anytime soon.
Rivers of Steel, like most nonprofits, faces dwindling federal subsidies. It depends on grants, many of which have been eliminated or reduced.
"We're more dependent on individuals donating and being frugal and using interns and volunteers," Emig said.
Rivers of Steel was created in 1988 as the Steel Industry Heritage Task Force. The goal was to make a record of industrial assets and preserve what could be preserved.
At that time, Baraff said, "people still thought steel might come back. They were shell-shocked. Nobody was thinking post-industrial, and we were waiting to take over the bones. People didn't want to be part of history. That wasn't going to feed them."
But preservationists felt a sense of urgency.
"You've got to save things," he said. "It's a huge story, a huge legacy, huge and traumatic and central to the region and the growth of this country."
In the Duquesne Works' carpenters' shop in 2004, Baraff and Emig recovered boxes of records, films, tools, signs, hard hats, blast furnace tools and employment cards from 1919 into the 1930s.
"We were crawling over stuff in the dark, blowing pigeon feathers out our noses," Baraff said.
In Aliquippa on the day of the salvage, the rest of the crew was getting ready to wrap up when Baraff, still working in the dark in the back of the offices, yelled "Holy cow!" Everyone ran to the back of the room.
He had found drawings, one from 1918 of Crucible Steel's Park Works, then located in the Strip District. Another, even older, showed Pittsburgh spelled without the "h."
Emig said that employee and corporate records "are what we have little of. They were highly guarded and as companies closed and merged, some stuff walked and some ended up in a Dumpster."
Rivers of Steel also has collected items from former workers, among them Jim Kapusta, who donated things he kept from his years at the Carrie Furnace.
"I still have hold of my original ID card. Eventually, I'll give that to them," said Kapusta, who hopes to see a museum created on the site. "A few torches that have the name of the furnaces stamped on it, that'll eventually get to them. And safety belts."
Kapusta, a 25-year employee of Peters, where he lives, worked at numerous jobs in 19 years at the Homestead Works, but his longest stint was at the Carrie Furnace.
"It was so big, it depended on where your locker room was, who you paid your wage tax to," either Rankin or Swissvale, he said. "It would be 2,800 degrees when you'd get down to clean the runners, and sometimes your sweat would give you a steam burn."
On a tour of Carrie Furnace with Baraff and Emig, he said, "I took my granddaughter, and she didn't believe people could have done work like that."