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Steel museums offer bridge to the past

Keywords: Tags  steel museums, Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, The Steel Plant Museum, Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, The Steelworks Museum of Industry and Culture, National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Scranton Iron Furnaces Lisa Gordon


America loves its iron and steel, which is clearly illustrated by the continuous effort to preserve and honor the history and heritage of the industry throughout the nation.

There are museums dedicated to the metal scattered across the country to educate future generations on how molten iron runs through the nation’s veins. One has been established on a shoestring budget in a single room at a local historical center, while others are elaborate endeavors, with one even retaining world-renowned architect Michael Graves to design it.

Alabama is home to two museums. Sloss Furnaces, located in the heart of Birmingham, has been declared a National Historic Landmark, making it the only publicly owned industrial site in the country, according to its website. Visitors can stroll the premises at their leisure or book a one-hour guided tour of the blast furnace, which went cold in 1971. The site, which includes a tunnel that leads to a station along the Underground Railroad used by abolitionists to move slaves north, reportedly is haunted and has been the subject of numerous television shows that explore paranormal activity, including Fox’s Scariest Places on Earth. The museum not only hosts night tours of the furnace and outlying woods, but also offers birthday parties for children and wedding packages.

Also situated in Birmingham is the 1,500-acre Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, which houses the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama. The 13,000-square-foot museum features a timeline that spans from iron trading in ancient Egypt to U.S. Steel Corp.’s Fairfield Works. The museum has a cast iron exhibit and houses artifacts that were discovered on the site. An archaeological dig revealed that a bloomer foundry once existed where the pig iron furnace still stands. The furnace went out of commission after it was set on fire as a tactical move by northern troops in the Civil War, museum curator Jennifer Watts said.

The Steel Plant Museum, once housed in a Lackawanna, N.Y., public library, found a permanent home in November 2011 when the Heritage Discovery Center opened its doors in Buffalo, N.Y. The majority of the collection is comprised of artifacts and documents from Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s Lackawanna plant, but other collectables from other producers—including Republic Steel Co. and Hanna Furnace Corp.—are on display.

In Ohio, the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor is jammed with such artifacts as tools and scale models of a hot-strip mill, a seamless tube mill and a butt-weld tube mill. The steel museum—designed by Graves, one of the most famous architects of his generation and who is known for his line of housewares at Target—also contains life-size replicas, including a mill-owned home constructed for employees and a 1970s mill locker room used by workers before and after their daily shift. On the upper level is a public library where researchers can listen to preserved oral histories or find out if an ancestor worked in the town once known as Tube City because it was home to so many pipe and tube mills.

The Steelworks Museum of Industry and Culture in Pueblo, Colo., focused on preserving the history of Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. (CF&I), documents the importance of steelmaking in the western part of the country. The museum got its start in 2003 when Evraz Group donated CF&I’s massive archive collection to the Bessemer Historical Society, which oversees the operation. Aside from the museum, which is in a building that once served as a medical dispensary, the facility offers excursions to former mines operated by the vertically integrated steelmaker. Visitors can learn about steelmaking and mining and see a life-size replica of a 1940s medical dispensary. Aside from getting a glimpse into the life of a steelworker, the museum offers an extensive research library.

A more modest tribute is the recently launched Kaiser Steel Fontana Museum at Sweeten Hall in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., overseen by the Fontana Heritage Museum Association. In addition to oil paintings of the steel facility, the permanent exhibit displays such artifacts as a section of the last piece of plate rolled at Kaiser Steel Corp. in 1983. The collection was started when a local historian began work on a now-published pictorial history of Kaiser. While working on the project, former employees donated an overwhelming number of items and the author became determined to find a permanent home for them. Visitors can view wooden shoes, hard hats, logbooks and thousands of photographs dating back to 1943.

Pennsylvania pays homage to the industry at five locations, with a sixth under construction.

In Coatesville, just a few blocks from ArcelorMittal USA’s carbon plate mill, is the National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum. Included at the complex is the Lukens Steel Co. office building and three iron masters’ residences from three different periods. The home of Rebecca Lukens, America’s first female industrialist, is among the residences available to tour. The museum, overseen by the Graystone Society, also has procured pieces of structural steel, known as trees, produced in Coatesville for the foundation of the World Trade Center. The steel was brought home to Coatesville after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“This site sits next to an active ArcelorMittal steel mill, so it has energy. You can see the scope of the size of the mill, hear the sounds and see the trucks rolling in and out of the mill,” Graystone Society president Scott Hughes said. “Whereas most steel museums pay homage to the history, being on an active site we are pushing the relevancy of tomorrow within the boundaries of steel.” The society is raising more money to open an actual museum. “Graystone started to save one house and it has grown from there,” Eugene DiOrio, a founding director, said.

A short distance from Coatesville is the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, Pa., which features a preserved furnace that operated from 1771 until 1883, when modern steelmaking techniques made it obsolete. The furnace had a capacity of just 700 tons of hot iron per year. More than a dozen buildings have been restored, including the iron master’s residence, workers’ housing and a company store. The visitors’ center offers an orientation program to become acquainted with what guests will see on the outdoor walking tour, and there are a small number of artifacts on display, including pig iron, slag and items that were actually made at the site.

For those who prefer a wheeled tour, Pennsylvania’s Chester County promotes its Iron and Steel Heritage with four steel-themed tours. The topics range from forging freedom to supplying freedom.

Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon, Pa., is another antiquated iron furnace that went cold in 1883 after anthracite coal furnaces, which were much more efficient, were invented. The furnace’s ore mine was absorbed and became an asset of Bethlehem Steel. The visitors’ center is situated in the original charcoal barn, and the tour of the mill includes the furnace charging room, a steam engine to power the mill and the casting house, which were all under one roof. The visitors’ center hosts permanent exhibits such as an original forge. “Steelmaking people love it here and say it is kind of the same thing that goes on today, but only more refined. Just like comparing an old telephone to a modern one, or comparing a typewriter to a computer—not much has changed, except there is a lot more produced at one time,” said Karen Viozzi, an employee at Cornwall. “When people who are into blast furnaces come in and see the wheel, they are blown away. It is a real highlight for them.”

Remnants of the Scranton Iron Furnaces, once part of Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co., are part of a park and are open year-round. A nearby visitors’ center focuses on the iron and steelmaking. The four furnaces, at one time one of the largest producers of iron in the United States, went cold in 1902 when a decision was made to relocate the business to Lackawanna because of its access to iron ore and the Great Lakes. A few miles from the furnaces is the Anthracite Heritage Museum, which is dedicated to the steelmaking coal and the lives of European immigrants who labored there. “We focus on iron and steel related to the Scranton area, as well as the rail industry, because it was an important vehicle that moved the steel,” said Chester Kulesa, site administrator for Scranton Iron Furnaces.

On the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Center offers online capability to search its archives and features a museum, as well as a self-guided tour using cellular phones to explore a three-mile area. There are more than 40 stops on the tour, featuring such items as a pump house, a battery of coke ovens and antique steelmaking equipment. The center offers self-guided and guided tours of the Carrie Furnaces from April through October, and guided bicycle tours of the city’s industrial heritage are available from May through September.

The Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, Mich., is on the site of the state’s first iron forge started by Jackson Iron Co. in 1843. By 1890, Michigan mines were producing 80 percent of the iron ore needed for steelmaking. Visitors can learn about the evolution in mining techniques, from hauling rocks to dynamite and drilling. The museum exhibit includes helmets and the evolution of lighting, from candles to lamps and electricity. After touring the state-owned museum and watching an educational video depicting the hardships facing the work force, visitors can walk a path to the original forge site.

The Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site in Saugus, Mass., offers tours and insights into iron making efforts 300 years ago. Open April through October, the nine-acre National Historic Site is a complex that includes a museum, water wheels, blast furnace, forge, rolling and slitting mill, and a 17th Century residence. The museum claims to be North America’s first integrated iron works, thanks to the arrival of European iron making immigrants who brought their trade to the colony. An archeological excavation launched in 1948 provided details on the original mill. The tour includes reconstructions of a charcoal-fired blast furnace used in 1646, a forge and a slitting and rolling mill.

There also are museums dedicated to individuals who commercialized or advanced the industry.

Roebling Museum in New Jersey is dedicated to preserving the history of John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. The 7,000-square-foot facility explores Roebling’s life and his steel and wire rope innovations. Roebling’s accomplishments include the Brooklyn Bridge and the Niagara Falls suspension bridge. The museum offers walking tours through the Village of Roebling, where 767 homes were constructed for the company’s work force. The museum has five galleries featuring railroad and steelmaking equipment, and wooden patterns used for machine parts. The life of the steelworker is documented with photographs, catalogs, hand tools and employee identification badges.

The Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh offers visitors a view of the life of Henry Clay Frick, a coke and steel industrialist who partnered with Andrew Carnegie. While Carnegie founded numerous museums in the United States, anyone wishing to visit the actual monument erected at his birthplace will have to visit Scotland.

More than 100,000 people tour the Frick mansion each year to see his fleet of automobiles in the Car and Carriage Museum. Included in the display are a 1914 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost touring car and an 1898 Panhard that purportedly was the first car to ever arrive in Pittsburgh. Frick also was an avid art collector, and a large museum on the grounds includes his private collection.

The National Museum of Industrial History, under construction in Bethlehem, Pa., promises to educate the public on the evolution of processes used in steelmaking. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the facility will include an iron and steel site interpretation tour, where visitors can try on clothes used in steelmaking and walk through an idled blast furnace.

No timetable has been established for when the museum will open, but it has raised $17 million of the $27 million to $30 million needed and has already restored the two-story 40,000-square-foot building it owns, according to Steve Donches, president and chief executive officer of the National Museum of Industrial History. The building is adjacent to a newly built casino, and its owners preserved the five blast furnaces at the former Bethlehem Steel facility. “It is time to recognize the steel industry, which for some reason never put itself out there and promoted its important role in our country,” said Donches, who once served as Bethlehem Steel’s spokesman.

The newest museum is the ArcelorMittal Steel Heritage Center in Cleveland, which opened in May. It is located inside an early 1900s red brick clock building which once served as the point of entry for workers arriving to clock in for their shifts. “With ArcelorMittal Cleveland operating in the background, this center provides visitors with a unique vantage point of the steel industry’s past, present and future,” Eric Hauge, vice president and general manager of ArcelorMittal Cleveland, said. Visitors can watch the “How Steel is Made” video on loan to the center from ArcelorMittal, and other exhibits include photographs, protective equipment, a steel coil, a slab, a bottle car and an ingot car. ArcelorMittal donated cash and exhibits to launch the museum, and plans are on tap to develop more permanent exhibits.

Regardless of size, each location serves as a living testament to the awareness of how important it is to preserve the industry’s heritage. While modern marvels like the Internet might connect the world, it is steel that holds it together. 


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