Rivers of Steel gets fired up for the Festival of Combustion at Carrie Blast Furnaces | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rivers of Steel gets fired up for the Festival of Combustion at Carrie Blast Furnaces

click to enlarge A band plays to a crowd at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.
Photo: Courtesy of Rivers of Steel
Festival of Combustion at Carrie Blast Furnaces
The Carrie Blast Furnaces, a former iron-making facility in Rankin, now serves as a site for everything from music festivals to live theater shows to cultural celebrations. But only one event comes courtesy of Rivers of Steel, the nonprofit dedicated to preserving the furnaces and their industrial legacy.

Now, the upcoming Festival of Combustion returns after a two-year, pandemic-related hiatus.

"This is our flagship event for the year," says Chris McGinnis, director and chief curator for Rivers of Steel Arts, which organizes programming at Carrie Furnaces. During a phone interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, McGinnis says most events that happen at the Carrie Blast Furnaces are organized by outside groups, not Rivers of Steel.

"[The Festival of Combustion] is really the only event that we fully get behind as an organization that focuses on telling our story and, you know, why the site and the types of things we do as a program are important to the region and to the heritage of the area," he says.

McGinnis says this year's festival, taking place Sat., Oct. 8, will feature "a bunch of new things." He points to the new Heritage Craft Tent sponsored by Knob Creek whiskey.

"It kind of connects with the history of rye whiskey-making traditions in southwestern Pennsylvania, and as kind of a relationship to the larger festival purpose, which is focused on industrial arts and American craft," McGinnis explains, adding that crowds can expect whiskey tastings, Appalachian music, and other activities that tie in with the theme. "So people can come and learn about bourbon and rye whiskey and some of the history and process behind it, and also get a drink."

The Heritage Craft Tent, described as a mini-festival within a festival, also boasts blacksmith demonstrations that recall the Furnaces' fiery, molten past. Besides the searing blacksmithing forge, the event will showcase other heat-based activities like welding, iron-casting, and encaustic art-making, as well as flame performances and a fireworks finale.
click to enlarge A small crowd looks on as iron-makers perform a demonstration at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.
Photo: Courtesy of Rivers of Steel
Festival of Combustion at Carrie Blast Furnaces
Weather permitting, guests can also enjoy tethered hot air balloon rides one of the few Festival of Combustion activities that cost extra and hands-on workshops, hosted by local partner organizations like Contemporary Craft, Assemble Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and others.

McGinnis says this year marks the sixth iteration of the festival, calling its return a "big deal" for Rivers of Steel. He adds that being on hiatus since the last festival in 2019, Rivers of Steel had "a lot of time to think about how we wanted to bring the festival back and things we wanted to change."

"So in some respects, it was good, because we had a chance to really take a deep dive into what's been successful and what hasn't been," he adds. "So we feel very good about the event this year in that regard."

Visitors to previous Festival of Combustion events will notice the return of the scratch molds, where guests can create their own original works and have them cast in iron, and the chance to create mosaic art out of broken colorful Fiestaware plates.

McGinnis emphasizes that no matter what, Rivers of Steels wants to ensure that the community can easily access the festival. He points to the litany activities included in the  ticket price (advance tickets cost $20), from site tours to live music performances and adds that guests under the age of 18 get in for free. 

"It's really pretty stellar deal in our opinion," says McGinnis.
Festival of Combustion. 1-9 p.m. Sat., Oct. 8. Carrie Blast Furnaces. 801 Carrie Furnace Blvd., Rankin. $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Free for guests under 18. All ages. riversofsteel.com