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A sampling of folklife and cultural tourism projects in the U.S.

Case Study: Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area

Steel Industry Heritage Corporation
Seven Counties in the Pittsburgh region
1996-Present (initial planning began in 1988)
The Rivers of Steel brochure displays the project's goal prominently on the front cover:

By helping communities conserve their own heritage and ways of life, Rivers of Steel celebrates a history that speaks profoundly of human endeavor—a powerful legacy that continues to shape and animate the future.

Doris J. Dyen is Director of Cultural Conservation for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area at the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, located in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Pittsburgh. Homestead has figured prominently in the history of the steel industry and accompanying labor struggles so common to this region. Since the beginning of the project, local community involvement has been the cornerstone of the project. Four unions are represented on the organization's board, and at the beginning of the project in 1996, when the management plan was adopted, a regional steering committee was established which involved individuals from around the region and representing various interests (local government, tourism, labor, etc.).

Dyen and her colleagues have also worked closely with a wide variety of local organizations, helping them plan events and tours, which present local cultural traditions inviting individuals from these organizations to speak during segments of Rivers of Steel tours. The Corporation also has strong ties to the local tourist industry. They have a good working relationship with the new Pittsburgh Office of Tourism, and they are members of the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau and Destination Pittsburgh, another local tourism organization.

Dyen states that "Almost all the programs we do are primarily in response to community requests in one way or another." The conservation program's focus on guided tours developed out of numerous requests from a wide variety of groups—from planning groups to Slovak steel workers to Japanese businessmen. Fortunately, the local interest in guided tours dovetailed with the state's interest in increasing tourism statewide.

Rivers of Steel has a mandate to help with job creation in the seven-county Heritage Area. Toward this end, the tour guides are paid. All are local, and many were not previously trained as tour guides. Several of those now employed are former steelworkers and the rest are able to relate local stories from their own or their family's experience. (While the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation has not made this a formal condition of employment, they have given those with local backgrounds preference in hiring and recruiting.) Tour guides have been recruited through newspapers, word of mouth, and retiree and union organizations for steelworkers and other workers.

When the project began, all involved wanted to develop riverboat tours, particularly because the focus of the first or "core" area was to be the industrial towns along the Monongahela River. They quickly realized, however, that the logistics at the time made boat tours untenable, and so decided to first develop bus tours instead. They plan five "journeys," or regional program areas, for the seven-county region. These journeys of the mind are thematic concepts referring to specific characteristics of the regional program areas and tying together Journey programs, which include tours, folklife education programs, and the preservation of historic structures.

The first Journey, seen as the "core Journey" for designing model tour programs, is "Big Steel." The second, up the Allegheny River, was titled "Mosaic of Industry." Another Journey is "Thunder of Protest," which focuses on the Ohio/Beaver River area where collective bargaining was established during a labor struggle in the 1930s. The "Big Steel" bus tours, Dyen notes, "make it possible for communities in Journey areas to explain themselves to outsiders. The tours bring visitors and money in, and let outsiders see and experience the fact that these communities are not dead."

By working on only one tour within one Journey area at first and then moving on to the next, instead of trying to launch tours in all five journeys at the same time, the Corporation staff and communities have been able to apply lessons learned as they go along. The most important thing they learned from the process of developing the "Big Steel" bus tour was that the development of tours and the training of guides in tour technique should not take place at the same time.

The Corporation staff had not anticipated how much more "chaotic," difficult and time-consuming it would be to do both at once, especially since the tour guides did not have prior experience as tour guides but instead were individuals with ties to these communities. Because of the time factor, they had a high rate of attrition—many of those who began the training that first year got other jobs because they were not able to stick around until the tours were up and running. (Recruits are paid to train, and then, pay doubles when they begin leading tours on their own. In 1998, the first year, there were 15 recruits, of whom three stuck it out. A fourth was added. These four are the current core group. They are now training eight new recruits.)

The Corporation put these lessons learned to good use this year in developing its first boat tour for the Big Steel Journey and then training the guides. (In just the past year, a new boat company has moved to their area, which is a good fit for their needs.) They began by first working with four of their existing and best-trained tour guides to develop the tour, and they also enlisted the help of a former river captain, licensed pilot and seaman. In this manner they were able to develop the tour in half the time, beginning in mid-February and launching the tours the first weekend of May. Developing the tour involved brainstorming topics and themes, timing the narrative to flow with the boat trip route, developing hand-outs and visual aids, and figuring out how to deal with "dead" spaces (just trees) on the route (a tape of local music plays at these points).

Along with the new boat tours, the Corporation is still doing bus tours each Saturday. Because of the statistically high number of older adults living in the region, the Corporation and another local heritage group are developing local tours for senior citizens, such as a walking tour of Homestead. They are also developing bus tours for kids, beginning with high-school-age tours. The high school tours, which will have a pre- and post-tour curriculum component, will be piloted in the fall. They found that the adult bus tours just do not work for children and consulted a curriculum specialist to help develop age-appropriate materials. Dyen notes that while the content is the same, the high school tour is "almost becoming a different tour" in terms of structure and technique. Former teachers have been recruited to lead this tour.

Dyen finds that in the process of doing the tours there is a "constant flow back and forth" between the community, the Corporation and audiences. On the tours, stops include community organizations such as the Braddock Library and the Bulgarian Center in West Homestead. Staff members from these organizations lead that part of the tour. For the first few years of public programs, attendance on the tours have been 50-75% local, but with the addition of the boat tours and some programs they have recently conducted for Elderhostel of Pittsburgh, the organization has been increasing the percentage of out-of-staters they serve in recent months. Because the audience has been so local, tour evaluation has gone hand-in-hand with continuing the involvement of local people. Dyen has found, "if local people are asked to critique the tours, then that brings a sense of ownership and on-going involvement."

After the initial planning phase in which the five "journeys" were identified, the idea was to develop individual committees from within the Steering committee to be involved with developing the tour in each Journey. Because the Corporation was located in the core Big Steel Journey area, the first tours have been developed in a less formal way. However, there are plans to revive this local committee structure to aid in planning with subsequent tours as they are developed within the other four Journey areas.

Dyen does not believe there are any hard statistics yet indicating the numbers of tourists these tours and other programs are bringing from outside the region. The Corporation has a full-time marketing and public relations staff person who oversees the registration process, markets tours to charter groups and individuals, and coordinates public relations for the whole organization. Dyen suggests that organizations considering similar projects should budget for a separate staff person to handle public relations and marketing.


Folklife Sampling Home
Report and Methods

Case Studies

A1. Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area
A3. South Bronx Latin Music Tour

B1. Washington Heritage Tours
B2. Sanpete County, Utah Audio Tour and Booklet

C1. Tennessee Overhill Heritage Project
C2. Kentucky Route 23 Heritage Corridor Project
C3. Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative
C4. "Come See What's Cooking in Hancock County"

D1. Cowboy Poetry Gathering
D2. Louisiana Folklife Festival

E1. The Portland Oregon Visitors Association
E2. "Tours and Detours"

F1. The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina Guidebook
F2. Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance Gathering/Wabanaki Cultural Guide

G1. South Carolina Heritage Corridor Tourism Projects
G2. Delmarva Folklife Initiative