By James E. Voelker
The train chugged gradually up the moon-like surface; it suddenly stopped, and shortly the calm evening sky exploded in a red, fiery glow. The year was 1960 and the location was a slag heap in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania known as Brown's Dump.
Slag is a by-product of steelmaking. When rock containing iron ore is melted in a furnace, the impurities separate from the iron and become a molten rock called slag. United States Steel would dump its molten slag waste from mills in Braddock, Clairton, Duquesne, Homestead, and McKeesport at Brown's Dump. Union Railroad would pour the hot slag into insulated ladle cars to be hauled to the slag pile. Upon arrival, the ladle cars were tipped over and the hot slag would pour out like lava from a volcano.
For years, families and teen-agers would park on the roads surrounding the slag pile to joyfully witness the red glow and smoke created by the flow of hot slag. In 1960 my father, a steel worker at National Tube in McKeesport, would pile the family in his 1956 Chevy for an excursion to Brown's Dump. My father, an ardent Pittsburgh Pirates fan, would turn the car radio to KDKA for a broadcast of the ball game. The sportscaster, Bob Prince, was known for his gravel voice and colorful style. My favorite player was Bill Mazeroski, perhaps the best defensive second baseman to play the game. Bob Prince simply referred to him as "The Glove".
On the way to the slag pile, my father would take a side trip to the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin. With pride, he could recall when Bettis was an early airfield where Charles Lindbergh once landed his "Spirit of St. Louis".
My mother would remind us that Bettis Laboratory designed the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. Bettis also designed the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. It can be said that Pittsburgh's Bettis Atomic Laboratory was instrumental in developing the U.S. Navy as the world's premier naval power.
After the detour to Bettis, we arrived at Brown's Dump with excited anticipation for the fire-and-light show. And what a show it was! Young and old alike would gasp in awe as the hot slag lit up the night sky. The sight was as grand as the fireworks display at Kennywood Park on the 4th of July. Most importantly, it represented the might and power of the steel industry in the Mon Valley area.
In time, slag became too valuable to dump. It was discovered that slag used in concrete develops strength over a longer period of time. The once unwanted waste product of steelmaking could now be used in high performance concretes, especially those used in construction of bridges. Eventually, U.S. Steel sold the slag pile for commercial development. In 1979 the third largest enclosed mall at that time, Century III Mall, opened on a portion of Brown's Dump. The mall has 1.3 million square feet of retail space on three levels. The artificial hillsides created by the slag can be viewed from the mall. And across the street from the mall, a surviving ladle car can be found.
Brown's Dump is more than an old slag pile. It's a time capsule from the past that tells us, YES, this happened. Brown's Dump, Carrie Furnaces, the Pump House, and the Bost Building are symbols and reminders of our rich heritage -- a heritage of a people whose audacity and fortitude mobilized our nation to its greatest industrial potential. It is a heritage worthy of pride -- it is a heritage worth preserving.