Peculiar Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s iconic blast furnaces were named after local women. Here’s why.

Edith, Isabella, Lucy, Ann, Carrie, Eliza, and Dorothy.

Carrie Furnaces

Carrie Furnaces

Courtesy of Rivers of Steel
MJ Slaby

When Dorothy 6 came up as a possible name for Tom Kazar’s restaurant, it just clicked.

Kazar said he was already thinking of naming his restaurant after a blast furnace, and his brother David, who’d died a few years earlier, had worked on the crew that demolished the Dorothy 6 blast furnace in the late 1980s.

So Kazar named his Homestead restaurant Dorothy 6 Blast Furnace Cafe and came up with the slogan that doubled as a jab to U.S. Steel — “If we can’t pour steel, we’ll pour beer.” The cafe opened in 2014, and the menus explain the story of its name.

The tradition of giving women’s names to blast furnaces is one that’s steeped in honor but is also a marker of the time.

Naming a blast furnace after a loved one was a way to honor the family, said Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities for Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, adding that the machinery was “a source of pride and ingenuity and progress.”

Plus, they are bold and delicate machines, he said.

At the height of steel production, there were 75 blast furnaces in the region, Baraff said. The best way to describe what the machine as and does is to think of it as a manmade volcano used in the iron production stage of steel making.

Rivers of Steel created a map that shows the growth and the decline of steel industry in this region. You can see the map here.

While some furnaces were labeled with numbers or letters, others had names. In the Pittsburgh region they were Edith, Isabella, Lucy, Ann, Carrie, Eliza, and Dorothy.

Per the Post-Gazette, Here’s how Ann and Eliza got their names:

When Ann was built in 1899, two existing furnaces on the site were each called Eliza, named after women in the families of steel barons Benjamin Franklin Jones and James Laughlin, the company’s founders. As a new furnace, Ann didn’t have a name. She was simply called P3, for Pittsburgh 3, a designation she would carry until 1966. After being rebuilt that year, she was christened Ann, in honor of a relative of one of the company executives.

While the names were after real women and meant as an honor, there’s not much in the records that shows there was a big naming ceremony, Baraff said.

A 1936 photo of the Carrie Furnaces

A 1936 photo of the Carrie Furnaces

Courtesy of Rivers of Steel

A centuries-old tradition

The tradition is “in the same vein of naming a ship after a woman,” Baraff said, adding that it goes back to the early to mid 19th century.

If you look back in history, riverboats, ships and countries all were referred to with female pronouns, added Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center. It seems connected to an old practice of English language that assigned gendered pronouns to objects, but that started to die out in the middle ages, she said.

In the example of a ship, Przybylek said there is some symbolism to it as well — that a ship can be a mother figure, protecting and providing for the people on it. So it has that connection to people, like the blast furnaces, she said, adding the furnaces have a protective shell.

The Atlantic explained the tradition like this:

Humans have a longstanding tendency to anthropomorphize the objects and appliances we use—boats, cars, computers, even electric drills and washing machines. Think of a device, and someone out there has probably given it a human name.

It’s a habit that explains the way humans see their relationships with machines—that is, your relationship with the individual machine you name, and the larger fact that machines do the jobs that humans once did.

And later when there were efforts to save Dorothy 6, the T-shirts used “she” pronouns for the blast furnace — “Save Dorothy. She can work,” Przybylek said.

See Carrie Furnaces

Today, the last two working blast furnaces in the state are at Mon Valley Works – Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock and North Braddock, Baraff said, adding that those blast furnaces don’t have names.

The lack of blast furnaces is in part because now there is more steel recycling than steel production, he said. And if you want to see a blast furnace up close, the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale are the only ones left in this region to visit.

Carrie 6 and Carrie 7 remain, of the original Carrie 1 to 7.

And they are the last of their type, Baraff said, adding that the blast furnaces were put in place in 1907 and were last updated in 1936 before they closed in the 1980s.

Rivers of Steel leads public tours at Carrie Furnaces from May to the end of October.

“You can go into the furnaces themselves and hear about the stories and what it was like to work there,” Baraff said.

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.