A vision for the future, built on the past
Rivers of Steel’s journey began in the aftermath of the collapsed steel industry. In 1988 a group of citizens got together, united by their concerns that with destruction of the shuttered mills an important part of the region’s culture was in danger of being erased, too.
Four years later, the nonprofit organization that was to become Rivers of Steel was established to carry the torch of “Big Steel” and its related industries – not simply telling the companies’ stories and the products they made, but the stories of the men and women who worked there.
This work helped local communities to transition into a new era. However, to revitalize the communities more work still needed to be done. A vision for the future was necessary, as were economic resources.
The Steel Industry Heritage Corporation—the original name of Rivers of Steel—petitioned state and federal officers to create a Heritage Area, a region recognized for the national importance of its historic landscape. The case was supported by a vision to “weave together the cultural and historical resources in a way that makes our heritage visible, exciting and accessible. Its timely implementation will have a major impact on the regional economy by promoting tourism and economic development.” In 1996, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area was created by an act of Congress and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With that action, a new era began.
In the intervening years, that vision came to pass…a number of industrial sites were saved, and became the heritage attractions that Rivers of Steel manages today. Three would later be designated National Historic Landmarks, including The Bost Building in Homestead, the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop in Rice's Landing, and Carrie Blast Furnaces #6 & #7 in Swissvale and Rankin. Rivers of Steel also stewards the historic Pump House and Water Tower – site of the 1892 Battle of Homestead, located in Munhall.
Through its grant program, Rivers of Steel has funded many projects in partnership with local communities. Brownfields have been redeveloped, main streets revitalized, river landings made accessible, recreational trails created, and much more. This work continues today. Each year Rivers of Steel grants funds to regional nonprofits for projects that sustain a sense of place through the preservation and interpretation of the heritage, cultural and recreational assets of the region.
As an organization, Rivers of Steel is resilient, reflecting the hard-working character of the people of southwestern Pennsylvania. Thirty years on, the prospects for Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania have improved, some areas more so than others. So while there have been many great successes, the work is not yet done.
As Rivers of Steel evolves, so does its methods. Narratives have expanded. The industrial story is included, but so is a post-industrial one. Interpretation through the arts has become an essential way to engage visitors, and in an era when science & technology are, again, driving forces in the region, Rivers of Steel has expanded its educational programs to encompass those subjects – and to place them in a historical context, while pursuing more opportunities to promote heritage tourism via the Explorer riverboat.
Rivers of Steel was founded on the principles of heritage development, community partnership, and a reverence for the region’s natural and shared resources. It continues to strengthen the economic and cultural fabric of western Pennsylvania by fostering dynamic initiatives and transformative experiences, whether it is through its attractions and programs or its work behind-the-scenes as a pivotal partner in economic redevelopment.
Today there are many ways to experience Rivers of Steel. What is common among them is the passion with which each program and project is realized, establishing the region as a thriving destination – to live, work and play.
Last updated: July 6, 2018