Growing up in Swissvale

(In the Shadow of Carrie Furnace)
By Regis Harkins

Swissvale in 1950-1960 was a happy place. My Dad was a foreman at US Steel’s “Carrie” Furnace located just over the hill. He worked there from the mid 30’s to his retirement in the late 60’s. My memories include my Dad walking to work from Swissvale to Rankin and down the long steps to the mill. It seemed like he worked all the time, especially when a steelworker strike was taking place. On more than one occasion he was locked in the mill for weeks on end to keep the steel flowing until the labor situation could be resolved. Dad was always being called by the mill to resolve some sort of problem. I never heard him complain. It was his job and livelihood and I believe he loved it. He was very proud of US Steel and it showed.

The main focus in 1950 was Baseball and riding bicycles. On a daily basis every 10-14 year old boy would gather at the ball field next to the Swissvale dump and wait for our favorite coach, Les Getz, to school us in the finer points of baseball, this all before little league and organized ball existed for us kids. Les would pick us for the different positions and teach us everything about playing baseball. This happened every summer day with a session at 9 AM and another at 1 PM.  Of course, all of this within view of US Steel’s Carrie Furnace and Homestead Steel Mill across the river.  The sounds of the mill and railroads were all background noise we all learned to ignore. I remember all too frequently we would have to suspend baseball due to the smoke from the dump completely obliterating the playing field. This usually happened when the wind blew from the river up the hollow across the dump and baseball diamond.  Since those days long ago Swissvale has completely revamped the ball fields and renamed it Les Getz Memorial Field. A beautiful monument is evident honoring his contributions in shaping the lives of many young boys in the early fifties. Just reading the engraving on the marker brings back memories not often thought of but never forgotten. He was an amazing individual. I feel honored to have shared in the experience.

We used to ride our bicycles everywhere, often places that should have been off limits for pre teenagers. Everywhere from Swissvale to Braddock, across the Rankin bridge looking down on all of the Carrie Furnace activity. Along 8th Ave through Homestead, even all the way to the County Airport to catch a glimpse of any airplane landing or taking off. I remember that most evenings, during the summer months, all of us guys would take off on our bikes and climb the hill to the Braddock Cemetery just so we had a great coasting ride back down the hill through the cemetery to Swissvale.

Extra spending money seemed scarce so delivering papers seemed like a good option to make a few dollars. I delivered the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, a morning paper that I always delivered at 8 PM in the evening, of course all while riding my bicycle. My bike was very special. All hand me downs and junk parts people were throwing away. I managed to put together a pretty neat bike and of course it had to be hand painted a royal blue. The money earned from delivering papers was more than sufficient for a young boy in the 50’s. I always had enough money for Mission Orange Soda and Wise Potato Chips.

Always as a backdrop was the sound of the steel making process and of course the sounds of all the trains moving everything imaginable. You could hear all of the switch engines used at the steel mills, the freights and passengers trains and everything on the Pennsy main line that ran through the middle of Swissvale. My fascination with trains began early in my life and included both the real thing and of course my very own Lionel Train Set bought at a local hardware store with dollars saved from delivering newspapers. I still play with trains today. A hobby that has defined who I am for many many years. As I grew older and began high school I attended Central Catholic in Oakland. This was my first introduction to commuting. All of us high school students would line up for the #67 trolley car that took us from Swissvale to Oakland every day. Of course the last stop in Pittsburgh before Swissvale was about ¾ of a mile from our house and if one wanted to use the 1st stop in Swissvale it cost an extra 5 cents, a lot of money then, so we all got plenty of exercise each day both coming and going to the trolley stop. I outgrew my paper route, not enough money, so like everyone else I began “Setting Pins” at the local bowling alley at least three times a week from 6 PM to 11PM. I learned to handle two alleys at once jumping between and trying not to get hit by flying pins. Most times bowlers favored the rubber band duckpins and every now and then the big ten pins. I remember taking my schoolbooks and studying while setting pins for 3-4 hours. It must have worked; I actually made the honor roll during the years at the bowling alley.

Time does not stand still. Being new to high school turned into my Junior and Senior year and school dances and girls. Bicycles and Trains were left behind and a whole new wonderful world lay ahead. I will always remember my driver training. Our hands on experience included a car full of students and the instructor driving home from Central Catholic in Oakland and going from one students home to the next. I always seemed to have my turn on 2nd Ave alongside the mills in Hazelwood/Glenwood. The streets had two sets of trolley tracks and of course cars parked on either side. A daunting task for any novice driver. I forgot to add our driver training car was a 56 Ford sedan was a 3 speed stick shift, whew! As my high school days drew to an end I asked my Dad if it would be possible to take my senior class on a field trip through Carrie Furnace. Somehow he made it happens and I remember my entire class being escorted through every step of the iron making process including being inside the cast house of the Blast Furnace, during a pour. Needless to say there were a lot of BIG eyes in evidence everywhere, very impressive, and it was 1958. Even today during class reunions I’m told that the trip was a big influence and motivator in seeking a career other than steel making. Our first car was a 57 Plymouth with huge fins and a push button automatic gearshift selector. Since I was now an “accomplished driver” my Dad allowed me to venture out every now and then and cruise Swissvale and the surrounding areas. Dad gave up walking to work and instead drove his shiny new Plymouth; I think he had a parking place at the mill. On several occasions when I could talk him into letting me “borrow” the car for the evening. I always ended at the Steel Mill gate picking him up when his shift was over. The nemesis of any clean polished car of course was the Steel Mill Blast Furnace, especially when it “Slipped”. A fine black granular coating covered everything and of course the Blast Furnace knew exactly when I washed and polished the 57 Plymouth and after high school my 54 Ford Coupe. All a part of growing up and living in Swissvale.

After high school I worked at then Carnegie Tech in the chemistry dept. We supported all of the Chemistry classes providing everything the students needed. A side benefit was attending classes myself at Carnegie Tech. Several years passed and the military draft was staring me in the face. I ended up joining the Air Force in 1960 and leaving Swissvale never to actually live there again. I remember in 1960 the Pirates were at the top of their game and won the World Series against the Yankees. I got to watch it on TV from San Antonio Texas while attending electronics school for the Air Force. Football usually meant the Pitt Panthers not the Steelers since the late 50;s and early 60’s preceded the popularity of the both the Steelers and the NFL in general. Amazingly enough I never became a Steelers fan.

I still return to Swissvale several times a year to visit relatives and reminisce about growing up in the old neighborhood. Nothing much has physically changed, but new faces have replaced most old neighbors. I did notice the only background noise still evident is the sound of numerous trains up and down both sides of the Monongahela. I wonder if anyone in Swissvale even hears them or are they ignored the same as they were 50 + years ago?


The 45-Inch Mill

The 45-Inch Mill
Constructed in 1942 as part of Homestead's World War II expansion, the 45-inch mill was in operation until the early 1980s.