The Fourth River

Dirty Beauty

By on February 17, 2016

By Mary E. Nolte, assistant editor, The Fourth River



Coke (fuel): The solid carbonaceous material derived from destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. Used as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in a blast furnace (Wikipedia)


On my way home from anywhere in downtown Pittsburgh, I have always driven by the Neville Island Industrial Park and Shenango Coke Works. I can see the flames and the puffy white clouds billowing out from its chimneys all the way from the McKees Rocks Bridge. Despite myself, I have always found it beautiful. Something about the clouds and fire and lights all illuminated against a starry, dark blue sky always speaks to me, beckons me back home. When I was a child, we would pass it on the way back from my grandparent’s house and I would yell, “Dad, that building is on fire!” and he would tell me all about his job at a coke plant across town. About shoveling all day, filling barges, filling train cars, and coming home covered in black dust. All of that work so that I could drive by here and revel in my own little Christmas lights show 365 days of the year.

Of course, I know that there are terrible things about coke plants like the one on Neville Island. I know that they pollute our air and water  and I know about the back-breaking and dangerous work that those who work there do. In fact, the job is so “dirty” that Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island was featured on an episode of “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe in 2006. But still, when I heard the news that Shenango was closing in mid-January, I found myself upset. I was upset for the 173 people that would lose their jobs, but I was also sad for myself. One day I drove by and the plant was lit up like a lights display, the next time, there was only one smoke stack spitting clouds into the sky.

The beauty of Shenango to me isn’t all about the clouds and the fire and the black dust, though. When I drove by it I was reminded of all the hard manual labor that went into making Pittsburgh what it is today. This is a town built on industry from the very beginning. The moniker “Steel City” was hard earned by workers like my father and those at Shenango and all that came before them. Pittsburgh was built on their backs and every time I drove by the coke plant on Neville Island I remembered that.

As I watch the makeup of Pittsburgh change, I have mixed feelings. As a lover of art and music and literature, I am excited to see how our city is growing into something completely new. But I also worry that as coke plants and steel mills and industries close here, we will forget where we came from. We will become cultured, but will we lose the heart of this city – those steel workers and working class people who built it from the ground up?

It is my hope – and my optimism – that we will never forget this part of who we are. That in the art and music and literature that we create there will always be a taste of that coke dust, of the industries that built us, of the hard work that made this city what it is today. I know that it will always be in mine.



Mary E. Nolte was born and raised in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. She studies fiction in Chatham University’s MFA program. She is a lover of literature, language, animal welfare, and travel.