It’s common knowledge that the City of Steel has a storied and picturesque past. You can find evidence of it almost anywhere – just look up next time you’re waiting for a bus downtown and you’ll see remnants of Gilded Age architecture towering over you. But if you’re looking to dig deeper into Pittsburgh’s soot-covered past, check out these ten oft-overlooked historical spots.
This abandoned steel mill is a striking post-industrial wasteland and a poignant reminder of Pittsburgh’s rusted past. After its construction in 1907, the Carrie Blast Furnace was constantly churning, pumping out iron until 1978, when it closed for good. Located on the banks of the Monongahela River in Homestead, Carrie Furnace reaches an imposing height of over 90 feet. Silos, chutes, steel pipes and ladders crisscross along its expanse, and inside, graffiti pockmarks nearly every surface. And, from 1997 to 1998, a group of local artists managed to get past security and build a 40-foot deer-head sculpture, the Carrie Deer, with found materials. Get up close and personal with the furnace by taking a guided tour with Rivers of Steel, offered from May through October.
The Paramount Film Exchange
Just before the Great Depression, motion picture company Paramount hired a New York City architect to design and build a film exchange on the Boulevard of the Allies. Film exchange buildings were an essential part of the movie-making process, and they operated exactly the way their name implies — movies were screened for those who might want to show them in their theaters. When moviegoing fell out of vogue after the rise of the VCR, Paramount no longer needed the building. In 2010, after years of disuse, a collection of local businesses came together to buy the building and redevelop it. Today, it’s home to StartUptown, a space for local startups to get off the ground rent-free. A number of fledgling companies, including WebKite, Nakturnal and the Public Herald, call it home today.
The Bison of South Park
The Pittsburgh Zoo isn’t the only place to lay eyes on unusual wildlife. In South Park, a public park located approximately 10 miles from the city, a large pasture of bison sits nestled among the rolling fields. Unbeknownst to many residents, the bison have been a fixture for over 85 years, since they were imported from Colorado in the early 1900s by the American Bison Society. Originally, there were two herds — one set up in North Park and one in South Park. The South Park herd, however, stood the test of time, and today, if you’re out for a hike, you might be surprised to come across the hulking group of 1,400-pound beasts. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a spindly-legged calf.
Pittsburgh’s Ghost Signs
As a sharp-eyed citizen of the ‘Burgh, you’ve probably noticed ghost signs here and there. These fading block letters and logos tout the merits of long-since-defunct companies or products. However, you might not have realized that there are nearly 200 of these remnants around town. In the Strip District, on the corner of 17th and Mulberry, a large triangle emblazoned with the legend Improvement of the Poor proclaims the importance of family, welfare and, ominously, “fresh air camps” to homeless men. On Dobson Street, the side of an apartment building advertises Mother’s Bread (100% pure!). So next time you’re waiting for your bus or walking back to your office at lunch, do yourself a favor and look up.
The Abandoned Street: Lincoln Way
Do you believe in ghosts? After exploring this dilapidated, abandoned Clairton street, you just might. Urban legend holds that there’s something sinister afoot, but even barring that, the place is undeniably creepy. Located just across the way from U.S. Steel Clairton Works, the entire street has been devoid of residents for at least the last five years. Though the street once boasted over 30 homes, many of the houses have since collapsed in on themselves, and earlier in 2015, a fire tore through three more. Lincoln Way is a very visceral reminder of our industrial past — and the effects of the waning of that industry.
Indian Burial Ground of McKees Rocks
Indian burial grounds aren’t just for Stephen King novels. In McKees Rocks, along the Ohio River, an ancient graveyard spans about 85 feet. The burial mounds were hand-built by the Adena people between 200 BCE and 100 ACE. You’d think people would just let the dead rest in peace, right? Of course not. In the late 1800s, the indomitable Andrew Carnegie decided that he’d better dig it up. The 33 skeletons, along with their stone, copper and shell-based artifacts, were put on display in the Carnegie Museum during the 1970s, until they were unceremoniously banished to storage. Fast-forward to the present day and there’s a movement underway that would return the skeletons to their original resting place.
For just over 150 years, the Allegheny Observatory of Riverview Park has been a vantage point to the universe. It’s also one of the most noted astronomical research facilities in the entire world. Founded by the Allegheny Telescope Association, the observatory features three telescopes: two refractors and a reflector. The refractors (one of which weighs over 8,000 pounds!) bring the stars to you using two convex lenses, bending the light and making objects appear closer than they really are. The reflector utilizes a series of mirrors that catch light and form images,used to create sweeping panoramic views. Interested in taking in the night sky, Pittsburgh style? Reserve a free tour Monday through Friday between one and five p.m. for a group of up to 45.
The Neill Log House
Just off the expectedly sinuous Serpentine Drive in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park lies a road called East Circuit Drive. That’s where, if you’re paying attention, you’ll find the oldest home in the entire city: the Neill Log House. With its rough-hewn wooden front, sloped chimney and tiny windows, it matches every expectation of a frontier-era historical landmark. Thought to have been construction from between 1760 to 1785, the home was named after its second owner, Robert Neal (later anglicized to Neill). It was a stop on a Conestoga trade route. Eventually, the house fell into the hands of Mary Schenley, who, as a known patron of the arts and preserver of local history, donated it to the city. It still stands today, though with a fence to keep the public out.
The Carnegie Free Library of Braddock
You’ve probably seen a number of Carnegie libraries throughout the citywide area, but did you know that there are 2,509 Carnegie libraries in the United States? Now that you’ve got that little nugget of information stored away, consider this: Pittsburgh is home to the very first Carnegie library ever built. The Free Library of Braddock, designed by William Halsey Wood in 1889, is an imposing structure indeed, rising from Library Street in a whirlwind of stone turrets. The inside is no less impressive, featuring cast-iron panels, finely detailed staircases and intricate woodwork. In 1974, the library fell into disrepair and was closed for nearly a decade. Upon its reopening in 1983, the building was restored and now features a ceramics studio and a music hall.
The Notables of Allegheny Cemetery
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Allegheny Cemetery, in and of itself, is worth its own entry on this list. The sweeping expanse and intriguing stonework that makes up the final resting place of thousands is picturesque. If you look closely you might notice a particular mausoleum or a name that sounds familiar. Some residents left a mark on Pittsburgh and beyond. Legendary baseballer Josh Gibson, catcher for the Homestead Grays, is buried here. Stephen Foster, one of the most noted names in the American songbook, lies in Allegheny Cemetery too. In fact, letters etching his name into his tomb look so clear you’d think they were carved yesterday.