When people think of steel, they often think of Pittsburgh and the enormous foundries and plants that produce the foundational metal of western civilization. And if you are like me, you are probably wondering: do they still make steel in Pittsburgh?
While Pittsburgh was once the center of the steel industry, there are no active steel mills within the Pittsburgh city limits. There are, however, several steel mills in the Pittsburgh metro area. The steel industry in Pittsburgh still exists, although it is no longer central to the city’s economy.
So why was Pittsburgh the center of the steel industry? What happened to the Pittsburgh steel industry? Who owned the big steel companies? Read on to discover the answers to these steel questions and more.
Pittsburgh: Steel City, USA
When we think of Pittsburgh, we often think of the towering smokestacks, geometric industrial structures, and white-hot liquid steel being poured into molds. And indeed, for decades upon decades, Pittsburgh was a center of steel production.
While U.S. Steel and other companies still operate facilities in the area, there are no active steel mills within the Pittsburgh city limits. As the economic conditions have shifted over the decades, Pittsburgh has experienced hard times.
Today, however, Pittsburgh is a different city. Instead of steel mills and heavy industry, the city is a center of modern commerce. Companies in Pittsburgh are developing the latest A.I. and robotics technology, innovating in the health sciences, and engaging in modern manufacturing.
Pittsburgh is embracing the future, but it has not forgotten its heritage as Steel City. There are still many active steel mills in the area around Pittsburgh, and industrial titans like U.S. Steel still call the city home. Across Pennsylvania, steel remains a critical industry that adds almost $3 billion in value to the state’s economy.
The Golden Age of Steel Production was, arguably, the years 1910 to 1945. By 1910, the steel industry in Pittsburgh was well developed and thriving, producing more than 25 million tons of steel a year – more than 60% of the total steel made in America!
During the wartime years, Pittsburgh’s steel mills worked overtime, producing more than 95 million tons of steel to manufacture tanks, naval vessels, and other military hardware.
In the 1930s, steelworkers began to unionize. Before unionization, workers had to endure grueling conditions.
Steelworkers would work 12-hour days, six to seven days a week, with little to no safety equipment and massive production quotas. Fatal accidents and mutilations were not uncommon. The union made steelworking a more viable profession and kept workers safer.
As steelworker unions and management clashed over working conditions and staffing levels in the late 1950s, many businesses began importing foreign steel, which was less expensive than American steel.
The free market being what it is, lower-priced steel outcompeted American steel, and the American steel industry entered a long and complicated decline. Today, the steel mills of the Pittsburgh metro area produce about 5 million tons of steel a year. This steel is used to make everything from appliances to automobiles, bridges, soup cans, and tanks.
Keystone Answers Fun Fact: Steel is 1,000 times stronger than iron and is easily recycled without losing strength. In fact, about 80 million tons of steel are recycled every year in North America alone!
Even with all of our advances in modern technology, steelmaking remains a hazardous occupation. Steelworkers handle massive quantities of molten metal and cross paths with industrial chemicals, heavy machinery, and fumes all day long.
We may have moved on from the heyday of steel manufacturing, but the steelworkers of today still deserve our recognition and respect for the hard work they do to provide us with this essential material.
Why was Pittsburgh the Center of the Steel Industry?
Pittsburgh became the center of the steel industry because it happens to be ideally situated for steel production.
Geologically, the area around Pittsburgh is rich in iron ore, one of the key ingredients for steel production. Pittsburgh is also close to ample deposits of coal, which was needed to fuel the foundries.
Plenty of places have iron ore and coal, but the coal available to foundries in Pittsburgh was highly superior. Much of it came from the Connellsville coal seam, a 6-mile seam of coal located just southwest of the city. The coal from this seam was perfect for steel production: it was very stable in the furnace and produced excellent coke.
The discovery and exploitation of this seam coincided with the development of something called the Bessemer Process, which allowed the production of high-quality steel in less time and with fewer resources than other products. Essentially, workers would pour molten pig iron into the oven and then blast super-hot air through it to burn off impurities in the iron before adding alloys to create different types of steel. The molten steel could then be poured into molds and worked for a variety of applications.
While it has since been replaced with more precise techniques, the Bessemer Process made steel an affordable material.
The advent of affordable steel coincided with a surge in demand as America’s developing rail system began to take shape. The famed American businessman Andrew Carnegie jumped on this opportunity and began constructing enormous steel plants that produced essentials such as rails, bridge components, and train parts. Other industrialists soon started finding uses for steel, and the Golden Age of Pittsburgh Steel was born.
Steel played a vital role in the history of Pennsylvania. In addition to the steel plants in Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, PA, was home to another steel giant, Bethlehem Steel.
What Happened to the Steel Industry in Pittsburgh?
The Pittsburgh of the Golden Age is no more. Today, Pittsburgh is a very different city, with an economy primarily based on tourism instead of heavy industry. So what happened to the steel industry in Pittsburgh?
In the aftermath of World War II, Pittsburgh had become a massive industrial powerhouse driven by steel. But unfortunately, making steel requires the burning of vast quantities of coal: to produce one ton of steel using modern methods today requires about 1,700 pounds of coal.
During World War II, Pittsburgh’s steel mills produced more than 95 million tons of steel, which required burning somewhere around 83 million tons of coal. That, plus the fact that most homes in Pittsburgh were heated by coal, led to a rather bleak atmosphere in the city: the skies were often blacked out by enormous clouds of exhaust by 9 in the morning, and the rivers were sludgy and polluted with various industrial wastes.
After the war ended, Pittsburgh’s mayor – a man named David L. Lawrence – embarked on what would be called the Pittsburgh Renaissance. He introduced emissions controls to the steel mills, cleared up and rebuilt many of the hastily built industrial facilities in the city, and approved the building of new office buildings. As a result, the city began to transform.
In 1959, steelworkers in Pittsburgh embarked on a 119-day-long strike in response to steel companies’ efforts to reduce staffing and introduce new practices that would reduce the number of steelworkers needed for tasks. However, demand for steel continued unabated as the workers struck, and customers began importing cheap foreign steel instead of buying more expensive American steel.
While that was going on, the economy was changing in more significant ways. The oil crisis of the 1970s and global political instability affected demand for steel, and steel mills that had been built to produce huge quantities of steel for customers, such as the railroad, became unprofitable to operate.
The government failed to offer any meaningful support to the steel industry, which subsequently collapsed due to market forces. It was simply not possible for dated American steel plants to compete with cheaper foreign competitors without a major overhaul of their plants and equipment, and since nobody wanted to fund the conversion of the steel industry, it languished.
Who Owned the Largest Pittsburgh Steel Company?
The largest steel company in Pittsburgh was (and is) U.S. Steel. In 1901, the wealthy banking magnate J.P. Morgan financed the merger of the Carnegie Steel Company (owned by Andrew Carnegie), the Federal Steel Company, and National Steel Company. While U.S. Steel is publicly traded and therefore is owned by shareholders, the company’s original ownership included J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Elbert H. Gary, and William Henry Moore.
Today, U.S. Steel is still producing steel, and while there are mills in the greater Pittsburgh area, there are no active steel mills within the city of Pittsburgh. In 1991, U.S. Steel was removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average; in 2014, it was delisted from the S&P 500. The company faces a challenging economic landscape and stiff competition from foreign competitors.
The Changing Face of Pittsburgh
Before the Industrial Revolution, Pittsburgh was a quiet, pastoral place that sat at the intersection of two rivers. The discovery of high-quality coal, the invention of modern steelmaking, and the rail industry’s needs combined to bring Pittsburgh through a Golden Age of steel manufacturing.
As the landscape shifted in the postwar era, Pittsburgh experienced a time of decline – but the city has refused to give up. Pittsburgh is reinventing itself. Today, the city is a rising star, thanks to the low cost of living and attractive amenities offered by the city. The steel mills may be silent and cool, but Pittsburgh remains vital and strong. There’s more yet to come out of Steel City.