Guerilla Tourism In Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Guerilla Tourism In Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

First time visitors to Pittsburgh are quick to comment that the smoke-covered, steel-making capital of the world shown in history textbook pictures has done a nice job of cleaning itself up.

That’s a good thing as Pittsburgh, with its steep hills and sweeping views, is now often favorably compared to San Francisco. But it’s also a bad thing: the Steel City, without its namesake industry, means massive population declines. Since 1960, Pittsburgh has lost half of its people, and Allegheny County, of which Pittsburgh is the seat, now has the oldest population in the United States after Dade County, Fla.

Think about it – a city where one in two people has either left or died in a little over a single generation.

That shouldn’t of course, deter you from visiting. With 90,000 college students, ample outdoor recreation opportunities and one of the nation’s better local music scenes, according to Esquire magazine, Pittsburgh is hip – or at least it’s hipper than rival Cleveland, locals like to quickly note.

And all those missing people mean lots of abandoned buildings and lots of opportunities for guerilla tourism.

Cool, old, abandoned buildings, you say? What’s this about guerilla tourism?

First, a disclaimer: visiting old abandoned buildings – be it an empty insane asylum or the remnants of a hulking steel mill – is a potentially dangerous activity. And, without the proper permission from the property owners, it’s trespassing, which is a crime in Pennsylvania and most other states.

A second disclaimer: Both of the properties covered in this article are constantly talked about as potential demolition targets, so time is running out if you want to visit them.

A mental hospital’s breakdown

From 1862 to 1984, Dixmont Insane Asylum, just outside of Pittsburgh city limits in Kilbuck Township, was home to 1,500 patients at any given time. It was self-sufficient, with its own morgue, power plant, butcher shop and farm.

From 1984 to present, Dixmont has been the home away from home for amateur movie makers, vandals, teenagers looking for a place to drink and – my personal favorite – ghost hunters. In addition to massive, decaying buildings and hundreds of yards of underground tunnels, visitors may get a glimpse of a naked woman or two (Dixmont is a favorite setting for local photographers who ask their barefoot and bare-bottomed models to step over rusty bed springs and asbestos-laden chunks of wall).

To visit legally, it’s best to stop at the house on the edge of the property where a security guard will let you sign a waiver if you ask nicely enough (a 30-pack of Coors Light will increase your chances of catching him in a good mood, we’re told). You’ll want to bring a flashlight – even if you visit during the day – a camera, long pants and long-sleeved shirt and, if you’re being extra cautious, a mask to filter out some of the particles you’ll kick up.

Named for social and mental health reformer Dorthea Dix, Dixmont opened in 1862, smack in the middle of the period spanning 1840 to 1890, when the population of institutionalized people grew from 2,561 to more than 74,000 patients in the United States. In those days, alcoholism, masturbation and plain-old old age senility were enough of a reason to be sent to a place like Dixmont.

But if the business of mental health was booming in the 1880s, it was floundering by the 1980s. State budget cuts, along with a controversial program of moving patients back into communities, closed dozens of institutions like Dixmont in Pennsylvania and other states.

The decaying, main building is the top draw for visitors these days. The long halls, regardless of which floor or wing you are on, start to look alike with their rows of patient rooms and broken glass. Watch your step on the upper floors especially – a fire and exposure have weakened the structure in certain spots, and if it looks unsafe to continue down a certain route, it probably isn’t a wise idea to move on.

Graffiti – be it hospital-sanctioned murals left over from the days when patients still lived here to the more recent work of vandals – is worth checking out, as is a massive ballroom in the building behind the main building. You’ll see a lot of references – mostly derisive – to Wal-Mart; the retail giant is currently working on getting the final permits to tear down Dixmont and build a new super center.

The truly courageous will want to check out the hundreds upon hundreds of yards of underground tunnels that span the property and at one time connected all of Dixmont’s buildings. Dixmont overlooks the Ohio River – 19th century mental advocates believed the fresh air and sweeping views was beneficial to patients – and the tunnels extend all the way to the river and were once used to move everything from supplies to laundry.

A side trip to the H. John Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District offers the truly curious old photos of Dixmont when it was still active, as well as oral histories from patients, administrators and healthcare professionals who spent time at the asylum in one capacity or another.

But is Dixmont haunted?

The owners (not to mention cynical travel writers) insist that it’s not – it’s just a cool old collection of buildings worth visiting. But others – including a professional ghost hunter that asked me to give her a tour of Dixmont in 2003 – claim there’s more to the crumbling walls and litter-strewn halls than meets the eye.

“It’s good to be skeptical in this line of work,” Kris Stephens told me. “I’m a huge skeptic.”

“This line of work” is ghost hunting. Stephens, 35, of New Orleans, scouts out potential locations for “Fear,” an MTV “reality” show that plunks a bunch of 20-somethings in creepy, abandoned buildings and tapes every fright-filled action. She said she grew up in a haunted house and has been chasing ghosts her whole life.

I’m still skeptical, but on the night we visited, Stephens and an amateur, documentary film crew specializing in the supernatural insisted they were detecting presences.

Next time, I’m going with a photographer – there’s something more appealing about naked women.

Avoiding the heat at the furnace

Historic preservationists in southwestern Pennsylvania bemoan how poorly the region has preserved its steelmaking heritage. The only active, integrated steel making facility in the region is U.S. Steel Corp.’s Mon Valley Works, a two-mill facility separated by a few miles on the Monongahela River that is not open to the public. But almost all of the other mills – most of which had gone dormant by the mid-1980s – have been torn down, erasing the painful reminders of a once prosperous region that fell on hard times.

In Germany, the preservationists note, the mills have been given a second life through creative reuse. Coke ovens now serve as a backdrop to skating rinks and massive steel mills house everything from offices to art galleries to upscale restaurants. Pittsburgh, they say, blew it.

At one time, almost all of Pittsburgh’s riverfront areas housed steel mills. Today, however, to get a legal glimpse of what once was there a visitor would have to travel to the Waterfront, a gaudy shopping and entertainment complex crammed full of chain restaurants and shopping mall retail stores built on the site of the former Homestead Steel Works. There, right near the massive movie theater with stadium style seating, a visitor can view the twelve smokestacks that were once connected to the long-gone mill.

Incidentally, the smokestacks were not kept intact for their historic value; developers realized the cost of removing the stacks – which are crammed full of asbestos – would have been cost prohibitive for the multi-million dollar project.

Of course, that’s the limited legal option. For those willing to risk arrest, there is the Carrie Furnace. The former steel mill lies halfway between the Waterfront and the Mon Valley Works in the middle of a massive, open field. Again, no one is telling you to do anything illegal, but, hypothetically speaking, if you wanted to visit, you’d park near the base of the Rankin Bridge just outside of Pittsburgh. You’d walk about a mile down the railroad tracks until you were parallel with the rusting structure. You’d find a hole in the fence and slip through to the edge of the field.

And then you’d run like hell across the field and into the furnace because the furnace property is owned by a corporation, and their security guards don’t drink beer.

Like Dixmont, one of the first things you’d notice is that you’re not the first visitor/trespasser. From the perimeter, you’ll see the usual array of graffiti, broken windows and empty beer cans. But venture to the interior of the towering buildings and dormant steelmaking equipment and you’ll find the site’s highlight – a 45-foot tall deer.

Actually, it’s just a deer’s head spanning 35-feet. And it’s not just any deer’s head, but a deer’s head made completely from the scrap metal and other materials found on the site. Working every Sunday between October 1997 and October 1998, a group of “six to eight” local artists created the so-called Rankin Deer using steel tubing, steel structural materials, copper wire and rubber hose (more information on the deer, including construction photos, can be found here).

The deer’s impressive size accents the mill’s impressive size. Despite the deer head’s massive presence, it is completely unnoticeable from the perimeter of the mill site. Although stairways have been cut and dismantled to discouraging you from doing so, it’s pretty easy to climb up the deserted gangways and ladders that once skirted and surrounded the hulking furnace. But lingering too long on the exposed scaffolding is also a good way of being spotted by the local police and site security guards, so it’s better to snap a quick shot of the skyline and move back into the furnace’s bowels.

Like a lot of mills in Pittsburgh, the 1983 closing at Carrie Furnace was abrupt. As recently as the late 1990s, visitors were able to find coffee cups left where they were when the 700 workers were suddenly laid off. Employees’ possessions – from sweatshirts to an old copy of “Running” magazine are still in the locker room as if their owners intend to one day return and claim them.

The workers are all retired now or, at the very least, working in different professions and, more than likely, different regions. But some still hope that people will come back to the Carrie Furnace before it’s torn down.

“For some reason the leadership thought we needed a new image,” Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation said of the region’s wholesale demolition of its steel mills. “But it doesn’t matter where you live on the planet, if you think of iron and steel, you think of Pittsburgh. If people will go to St. Louis to see an arch, they’d certainly come to Pittsburgh to hear this story.”

Abandoned buildings the law-abiding way

After a day or two of tromping through abandoned buildings and perhaps being chased by security guards hell bent on doing their job, you’ll have worked up an appetite. Perhaps you’ll be eager to see some of that creative reuse Ziegler and others feel the region failed to capitalize on. Or maybe you just want to spend some time in one of Pittsburgh’s architectural treasures without risking arrest.

When a region loses half its population, the region’s churches lose half their parishioners. And that means more abandoned buildings to deal with.

Old churches have been converted into everything from apartments, house and blues bars in Pittsburgh. But perhaps the best example of creative reuse of the secular kind – and one of the better places to get a beer in a city know for its beer-drinking culture – is the Church Brew Works (3525 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, 412-688-8200). The pews have been removed to make way for the tables where diners feast on a gourmet but surprisingly affordable menu, and the altar is now occupied by massive, brass tanks that brew thousands of gallons of the restaurant’s signature beers each year.