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Earth Day 2018 -- Pittsburgh and environs

Westbound Norfolk Southern freight on the OC Bridge, Pittsburgh

Sunday in the Car with George

In April 2018, my friend George Hiotis and I made a 14-day, 2300-mile journey from my home in Bloomsburg, Pa., to Chicago and back.  We had a GREAT time.


Ostensibly, we made the trip for the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's annual conference, but we spent most of a week before and all of a week afterwards on the road.  I came back with 4200 pictures -- crazy, right? -- and George brought home more than 5000; we photographed at something like 75 locations, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia, from before dawn until long after dark on most days. We stumbled on some astonishing places and buildings in addition to the dozens that George had put on the initial itinerary, developed through scads of research in the months before the trip.  We also met some very memorable people, a few of whom I photographed; I had set out on this trip determined to overcome my self-consciousness about photographing strangers, and it took a few days, but you will see some of the results here.

George, who lives in New Jersey, and I had made similar trips to CRPA in 2016 and 2017, but this year for the first time he presented at the conference; George has just started to get his due as one of the great American railroad photographers.  For the conference, George put together a narrated slide show of his work documenting what he calls "The Last Outposts", manned interlocking towers, primarily on the former Baltimore & Ohio main line along the Potomac and crossing the Alleghenies in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  Before these examples of 19th- and 20th-century technology disappeared, George made 21 trips totaling 86 days in the 1990s and early 2000s, to Hancock and Miller and SA and the others, getting to know the operators and getting access to their sanctums.  Three days before presenting at CRPA, George did a practice run of the show at the monthly meeting of the 20th Century Railroad Club in Chicago, in the Founder's Room at Union Station, just off the main waiting room (after Grand Central in New York, one of the grandest railroad spaces in America); George also showed his legendary multi-media show "Suburban Symphony" and a selection of his other images, including of the Rio Grande Zephyr and steam in South Africa and GG1s on the Northeast Corridor; you can see a tiny slice of George's lifetime's work at

For the last two days on the road, we concentrated on Pittsburgh -- a city where we could easily photograph for weeks and months; we had spent a day there at the tail end of each of the previous CRPA odysseys, and we wanted to go back to some of the places we had visited before and also some new ones (and of course we stumbled on yet more things as well).  The story of our last morning there in 2018 actually started two years earlier, when we went high up into the Sheraden neighborhood, west of the Ohio River, looking for a view down to the Ohio Connecting Bridge.  The Pennsylvania Railroad built the double-track, many-many-many-span bridge in 1915 (actually constructed around the 1890 single-track bridge while it remained in service); it crosses over Brunot Island in the middle of the river, with a 406-foot through-truss span over the western channel, a 508-foot through-truss span over the eastern channel, and shorter deck trusses the rest of its 1.3-mile length, including approaches.


On an April evening in 2016, we had photographed the bridge from track level from its western end after clambering up a steep hillside and doing some bushwhacking.  Looking up from there, we could see houses on the ridge, and a glance at the street map revealed that from some backyard or other we should have a panoramic view of the bridge.  The next morning, bright and early, we took George's Subaru straight up the side of a mountain, or so it felt, and came out at the top of a street which sloped down to the north like a ski jump.  After parking the car -- with the wheels turned as hard as possible to the curb, and hoping that the electric parking brake would hold -- we walked up and down the sidewalk (complete with flights of stairs, on account of the slope), peering between the houses, trying to decide which one whose door we should knock on.  A man driving a van stopped and addressed us -- as one would expect a neighborhood resident to do -- asking what we needed.  George explained, and the man said "I own these three houses; come have a look in the backyard."  Eureka:

Norfolk Southern eastbound crossing the OC Bridge, Pittsburgh

In 2017, we returned to the same backyard, and I brought a large print of the photo above for Ron, the owner.  In 2018, we went back yet again, and Ron again graciously welcomed us, standing and talking with us on the Saturday morning for a couple of hours while we waited for trains.  Without the aggressive tree- and brush-cutting that Ron has done where his backyard drops off the edge, we would have no view at all here, and we appreciate his industriousness.


While we talked, Ron pointed to the north, downriver (to the left in the photo), to another prominence.  "You should try in that new development up there; you'll get a good view from there too."  So later that day, under a solid overcast and after a stop at St. Mary's Cemetery in McKees Rocks (from which we got a decent view, and where we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch), we made our way to where Ron had pointed.  The houses did indeed look new and more or less pleasant on Pleasant Ridge Road, but they had already started to fade, and the people sitting on the porches did not look friendly.  At the south edge of the development, something approximating a park lay on the other side of a fence with a locked gate, but the trees beyond it obscured the view to the O.C. Bridge and downtown Pittsburgh beyond.  We started back down the hill, but I suggested we look at the streets on the west side of the main road; you never know, right?


In a much older neighborhood, with some faux-Tudor houses that looked like they dated to the 1930s, we went up a dead-end street; its far end would have the view -- except for the trees.  So we tried the next street.  A permanent white wooden barricade marked its end, with a patch of mowed grass beyond that, and then some low brush -- but no trees: We did not even have to get out of the car to realize we had hit another jackpot.  The view encompassed a vast area, from Brighton Heights on the far side of the river, to our left, to the hills by Greentree to the right, with the whole borough of McKees Rocks on the flats below in the foreground and downtown Pittsburgh straight ahead in the background.  The O.C. Bridge lay in the middle, its western end silhouetted against a short stretch of the Ohio.  More than five miles separated us from the tallest buildings downtown.


"We'll get an even better view from up on that porch," I said to George, and I walked up the driveway of the house on the west side of the street, approaching a young woman standing next to a car.  I explained our quest; she smiled and said that the house did not belong to her but to her in-laws and I should go up and knock on the porch door.  So I did.  A dog inside commenced barking and did not stop when another young woman came to the door.  She stepped out onto the porch and I explained again.  "It's my father's house," she said, "and he won't mind.  You can talk to him there --" pointing to the front yard, where an elderly man had appeared, puttering about an unfinished masonry wall.  George called to the old man from the sidewalk, and he allowed that we could come use the porch the next morning, anytime after 8 o'clock.  We thanked him cordially and drove away, happy to have our next morning's location sewn up.  (Under the clouds, photos right then would not have amounted to much)


On Sunday morning as we left our motel in the indigo pre-dawn, the sky above still showed a few stars and not a single cloud.  As we drove through McKees Rocks, though, the sky to the west revealed a solid front headed our way, and by the time we parked on the dead-end street at a few minutes before 6:00 we seemed to have only a few minutes remaining before the whole sky went dark again:

Pre-dawn Pittsbrgh as seen from McKees Rocks, Pa.

Respecting the hour, we did not go up on the porch and wake the dog (and by extension the rest of the household), so we set up our tripods on the patch of grass at the end of the street; not such a bad view from there either.  The clouds made us somewhat unhappy, even as they turned pink with the rising sun touching their undersides, but overall we felt quite calm and content; a few birds sang, and we even saw a deer walk across the street.  (I did manage to set off the car alarm in the Subaru by hitting the panic button instead of the unlock button when I went to get something out of my camera bag, but no lights came on in the nearby houses, and I did not hear any dogs start to bark.)

Downtown Pittsburgh from McKees Rocks, 6:24 a.m.

Some time passed before the trains started to run; I first saw a headlight coming around the curve south and west of the OC Bridge at twenty minutes before 7:00.

Westbond Norfolk Southern freight approaches the OC Bridge, Pittsburgh, 6:41 a.m.

Two Norfolk Southern diesels, a GE and an EMD running elephant-style, led the mixed freight onto the O.C. Bridge, more than two miles away.

Westbound Norfolk Southern freight on the O.C. Bridge, Pittsburgh

​In the next two hours we saw another half-dozen trains, eastbounds as well as westbounds.  But best of all we got to change our vantage point to one just slightly better -- and not on the porch I'd scoped out the day before.  Around 7 a.m. a woman came out of the house across the street from that one, saw us standing in the grass, and came over.  We explained our goals and methods, and she said "You should try the view from my deck."

Panorama overlooking McKees Rocks, Pa., with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Our host has lived here for many years and plainly appreciated that view.  We felt quite grateful that she chose to share it with us.  We talked for a while, about our origins and careers, and then she went inside; when she came back, she brought a tray with a French-press coffee pot and china cups, as well as cream and sugar -- and George and I felt like utter ingrates and cads when we had to tell her that we don't drink the stuff.  But I did get her to pose for a picture, with that view behind her.  (Respecting her wish for privacy, I cannot share that photo here, but I hope you take my word for it that it captures her generous spirit.  A friend who did see it said "She looks like somebody who would be fun to talk with.  The warm colors in her face and in her red shirt contrast nicely with the blues of the out-of-focus cityscape behind her.")

Looking down Benwood Avenue, McKees Rocks, Pa., OC Bridge in the distance

As the sun got higher, the clouds thinned, but the air got soupier, and by 9 o'clock our long lenses had done about all they could for us.  We would very much like to come back here, at other times of year and with the sun at other angles, because this prospect has such promise; even without a train, the view across McKees Rocks' rows of tightly-packed houses fascinates.  The American flag in the photo at left caught the sunlight beautifully, although the overall scene, looking down Benwood Avenue, works better here in black & white.

We watched one last train go west --

Westbound Norfolk Southern freight crossing the OC Bridge, Pittsburgh

-- and then bid our host adieu, her e-mail address in my notebook so I could send her copies of the pictures.  Driving away, we saw a small girl sitting on her front walk's steps, watching a radio-controlled toy car zipping around in the street near the curb; I did not see anyone with the controller, and I drove carefully to make sure I would not squash the model.



We crossed the Ohio on the McKees Rocks Bridge and the Allegheny on I-279, passed the Point and the Strip District, and then made our way up into Polish Hill, a neighborhood east of downtown; we had visited it the previous day too, but in poor light, and we wanted to try again to photograph an ancient "ghost sign" that George had found in his research on the 'net.  We had looked at a few other signs like this earlier on the trip, including one for a Packard dealership in Cleveland (Packard stopped making cars in 1956), but none so large: This one, for Mother's Bread, covers the entire side of a triple-decker apartment house:

Mother's Bread ghost sign, Dobson Street, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

According to a local TV news story from 2014, a building had stood next to it until a fire in 2008, and I wonder: When did the sign originally get painted, and for how long would anyone have seen it before that next building went up?

Dobson Street,Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

Polish Hill has plainly become a hip place to live: On the corner of Hancock Street (far left in the photo above), a little coffee shop has gone in, and on the tiny patio outside, the two tables for two had heavily-tattooed-and-gauged young people sitting at them; a "Black Lives Matter" sign hung in the window, and right next door, a single doorway served Cruel Noise Records and the Copacetic Comics Company.  We had seen almost no one on the sidewalks while we photographed the sign, just one old man shuffling up the hill; perhaps he had gone to Mass?  The immense yellow-brick church with its copper domes drew us like moths to a flame, although we kept our eyes open on the way; lots to see here:

Dobson Street, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh
Dobson Street skyline, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

And the church from up close certainly did not disappoint:

Immaculate Heart of Mary Roma Catholic Church, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

We had arrived at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic church just as the English-language mass started; two hours earlier, we could have heard one in Polish.  I don't know how many people still come for Mass in Polish, but we sure did not find an overabundance at the English one.  To keep out of the way, we climbed up into the balcony at the back of the sanctuary, and from there we could count the parishioners by the few dozen:

Immaculate Heart of Mary Roma Catholic Church, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh
Immaculate Heart of Mary Roma Catholic Church, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh
Immaculate Heart of Mary Roma Catholic Church, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

Quite a spectacular space, with the light pouring in from the dome above.

The organist sat with his back to the balcony railing, facing the choir -- a quartet of people in their 60s and 70s, I would guess.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Roma Catholic Church, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

Although I felt quite self-conscious intruding on their worship, George had no such compunction, and he quickly gravitated to the organist, photographing him from right up close with that awesome view behind him.  Far from put out, at the first opportunity the man at the keyboard asked to look at the pictures George had made (ah, the advantages of a digital camera), and he liked what he saw: He gave George his business card and asked to have copies sent his way.  Before going back to work (he led some of the singing as well as playing the organ), the organist also gave us a brief history of the church and its designer, a very prolific architect named William Ginther.  The organ, by the way, dates from 1970, a replacement for the original (the building opened in 1906), and although the pictures don't show it, the balcony has become a storage space for the church, with most of the pews filled with large cardboard boxes, interspersed with wreaths and fake Christmas trees; even the stairways leading up here had gotten stuffed with boxes.


Before coming inside the church, I had not paid attention to the remaining memory-card capacity in my camera, and I ran out up in the balcony.  I told George I needed to go back to the car and left him there, still happily engaged.  As soon as I stepped outside, I regretted again having run out of memory, because I could not photograph the people coming towards me on the sidewalk, two hipster men in shorts and t-shirts, almost every inch of exposed skin tattooed -- and the one had a baby in a Snugli on his chest, while the other pushed an older child in a stroller.  Down the block, I passed a door, ajar, that had two orange cats sitting just within, watching the world go by, and also from within came the smells of a homemade brunch -- bacon and, perhaps, biscuits.


As I got to the car, George phoned me; he had done what he could in the church and would come to meet me. (He really wanted to set his camera on the floor directly under the dome, using the hyperwide lens, but he figured that during Mass this might come across as rude.)  Before getting back on the road, we made a photo of ourselves in front of the ghost sign -- the "official portrait" of the two photographers on this trip -- George on the left and me on the right:

George Hiotis and Oren B. Helbok on Dobson Street, Pittsburgh

Before leaving Polish Hill, George and I did some exploring above the church, looking down the streets and alleys for vantage points.  Phelan Way, which runs behind the church and climbs like crazy at its eastern end, up to Herron Avenue, offered a good example of the neighborhood's flavor:

Looking west on Phelan Way, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh
Looking east on Phelan Way, Polish Hill, Pittsburgh

George found the narrow passage between two buildings attractive, and he had me walk past it a number of times on the next street down, Brereton, so he could capture me in mid-stride in the gap.  The large and indolent husky who lived there watched me over the gate with some interest but expended no energy in telling me so.



By shortly after noon we had reached Homestead, about seven miles up the Monongahela River from the Point.  We had visited here too the previous year, and we wanted to try making photos again at a good location that we had found, but first George wanted to pay homage to the last remains of the United States Steel Homestead Works, which employed 15,000 people during World War II and on whose site a mall now stands, with an Ulta Beauty and a Victoria's Secret and a Barnes & Noble and a Panera and a Starbucks and a 22-screen movie theater -- and a dozen hundred-foot-high brick smokestacks on a little swath of grass at the far side of the parking lot, close to the train tracks.  I looked in vain for a historical marker or anything at all that could explain these forlorn monuments.  None of the steady stream of cars coming in parked anywhere near us, and I cannot imagine that anyone in them even noticed the stacks, or us.  Surrounding the stacks, huge floodlights aimed upwards, their spherical housings amply dented and bearing scuff marks that George realized came from the riding mowers used to cut the grass.  I made our PB&J sandwiches for lunch and called my parents back in New York while George walked up and down the row of smokestacks, making photographs here and there.


Around 1 o'clock we found our way out of the vast parking lot (curiously devoid of directional signage) and back up to the Homestead Grays Bridge, on which we had crossed the river and that now took us into town.  We turned right onto 8th Avenue and a quarter of a mile along we parked on the side of the street; plenty of traffic passed us, including Port Authority transit buses, but in the next hour and a half I don't think we saw more than two pedestrians.  The stacks still have a strong presence, if one bothers to look:

U.S. Steel Homestead Works smokestacks, looking down Howard Street, Homestead

Two double-track railroads separate downtown Homestead from the former mill site, Norfolk Southern's former Pennsy Mon Line and CSX's former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie.  In our brief visit, we saw a few trains on each, including an eastbound stack train on NS, seen here looking down Howard Street -- officially closed, with a "Do Not Enter" sign at each end but no barricade.

Eastbound Norfolk Southern stck train passing Homestead Works smokestacks and Howard Street, Homestead, Pa.

With the street out of service and no traffic lights to control, the Electro-Matic sensing device (made by the Automatic Signal Division of Eastern Industries Inc. in Norwalk, Connecticut) no longer functions, but its cast-iron and rubber surfaces make an interesting contrast to the brick street which George surveyed:

George Hiotis on Howard Street, Homestead, Pa.

The fire escapes on the sides of the buildings facing Howard Street cast fascinating shadows:

Fire escapes and shadows on Howard Street, Homestead, Pa.

On the other side of the building in the photo above, an empty lot gave us another vantage to look at the rails and stacks; for this view we stood right on the 8th Avenue sidewalk.  George especially liked the red house, but the narrow field of view and all of the traffic noise behind us did not allow for a lot of warning of a train's arrival, so I did not get a good picture of the head end of this westbound; nonetheless, the orange coil cars work well with the brick smokestacks and the red house:

Westbound Norfolk Southern freight passing Homestead Works smokestacks, Homestead, Pa.

With only a few hours before we needed to get on the road for home (I had to go to work the next morning), we packed up in Homestead and headed to Braddock, a couple of miles up the Monongahela and our last stop on 2017's trip as well.  Along the way we drove the length of Homestead's business district on the main drag, 8th Avenue, also Pa. Route 837.  It has a lot of missing teeth (spaces where buildings used to stand, some of them now parking lots) and empty buildings (the Monongahela Trust building at the corner of Amity Street stands out as a classic needing protection and repurposing), but overall it looks livelier than one would expect of a town whose main industry evaporated a generation ago and whose population has dropped by almost 85% since its peak in the 1920s.  From more than 20,000 in 1930, the population had halved as early as 1950, and it dropped steadily and precipitously until 2010; since then, the fall seems to have arrested, and some of the two- and three-story late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings on 8th Avenue have new businesses in them, including Honest John's Bar & Restaurant and Blemah Doo's African Market.


We saw a few ghost signs, including one for Levine Brothers Hardware, and Lloyd Insurance has a well-done and freshly-painted sign on the side of the 1909 brick building at 434 West 8th; that sign overlooks a fenced grassy area that holds play equipment for the daycare center at 434 -- not really an empty lot, because it does get used, and for a good purpose.  A few blocks farther on, an older painted sign for Commercial Textiles, on the west side of a building that now houses the office of the local district justice, faces across a parking lot a similar newer sign for Conrad Catering & Delicatessen, still open for business.


A few blocks farther, we crossed into Munhall, and the character of the street changed, with light-industrial uses on the south side of the street (including The Battlegrounds, "Pittsburgh's Indoor Airsoft Arena") and a lot of empty space to the north, between the road and the river, where some sprawling pre-fab metal industrial buildings have taken the place of the old mills.  The largest of these, Marcegaglia USA, does steel fabrication, but nothing visible outdoors gave any indication of what sort.  Across the river, at the Carrie Furnaces, two blast furnaces still stand, among a few ancillary buildings and acres and acres of empty fields -- the ONLY preserved blast furnaces in the Pittsburgh District.  From 1907 until 1978, they made steel for the Homestead Works -- as much as 1250 tons per day at their most productive.  The river valley narrows here, at least on the south side, with room for only the former Pennsy Mon Line and a parallel branch of the Union Railroad at river level.  (The former P. & L.E. had crossed the river west of Carrie Furnace.)  Route 837, now River Road, climbs up the edge of the bluff, passing the abandoned railroad bridge that once carried the hot steel from Carrie to Homestead.  At the top, we reached the intersection with the Rankin Bridge, the multi-span four-lane deck truss that we now took to cross the river into Braddock.


We had explored Braddock for part of a cloudy day the previous year, with the tour of the Carnegie Library with the children's librarian the highlight.  Now on a sunny day, the town looked a little better, but not much: It has lost 90% of its population since the peak (coincident with Homestead's, in roughly 1920), and now only about 2100 people call the borough home.  Down the whole length of Braddock Avenue, the main street, which runs for a mile between the Rankin Bridge and the Edgar Thompson Works (the very last blast furnace in Pennsylvania), we could count the occupied buildings on four hands -- a screen printer, a small independent auto-parts store, a medical clinic, a state representative's office in a new but still-largely-empty office building, a new Family Dollar (of course), a couple of small independent markets, a "thrift shop" (junk store, gated and locked on Sunday, but we had seen it open on a Saturday a year earlier), a couple of storefront churches, an optician, two beauty salons (one showing signs of activity, the other with a metal gate pulled across it, conceivably still in business), an employment training center, the Catholic parish hall, the post office, a union hall, and the utterly unexpected Brew Gentlemen Beer Company.  In between these, rather than missing teeth, Braddock's "business district" features yawning voids, whole empty blocks.  The mayor for the past thirteen years, John Fetterman, won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor a month after our visit; I cannot say what he has accomplished in his time as mayor, but he stuck it out and raised a family in town, so he gets my vote for sheer cussedness.

George and I had come back here to look for places where we could photograph the relationship of the town and the steel mill, so we headed for higher ground, first where Frazier Street hits the Pennsy main line --

View from Frazier Street, Braddock, Pa.

-- and then on the uphill side of the Pennsy.  It turned out that we had crossed into North Braddock, which we later learned has not suffered as much as its immediate neighbor (only a 70% decline in population), although on the streets paralleling Braddock Avenue a quarter-mile below one would never have guessed that: Along with many empty lots, we saw any number of abandoned houses -- a few burned out, many simply falling in on themselves, vegetation taking them over -- and bits of trash almost everywhere.  (The amount of windblown trash we saw on this trip in almost every town that we passed through shocked and saddened us.) Some houses did have new siding, new shingles, and mowed grass (and of course satellite TV dishes) --

View of U.S. Steel mill from Kirkpatrick Street, North Braddock, Pa.

-- but the borough plainly did not have a lot of extra money to spend on tearing up and repaving streets, as here at the top of 13th (where, to my amazement, Google's StreetView camera had already gone ahead of us):

View of U.S. Steel mill from 13th Street, North Braddock, Pa.

So we did find a couple of places to photograph the mill through the houses, but not with the drama that we had hoped for.  At the corner of Bell Avenue and Verona Street, in a much more prosperous-looking neighborhood, we parked so George could look at a view that included the girder bridge on which the Pennsy's main line crossed over Verona.  A middle-aged couple sitting on their porch hailed us; they thought we might have had something to do with the history trail through the neighborhood that marks General Braddock's defeat here by the combined French and Indian forces in 1755.  (Interesting and somehow ironic that these towns bear the name of an Englishman who suffered mortal wounds in a battle "characterized as one of the most disastrous in British colonial history" [Wikipedia] only a few years before we fought to get the English out of America entirely.)  John and Becky (much more John -- Becky mostly smoked and sipped something clear from a wine glass) gave us a brief rundown of the local affairs: North Braddock has always had a more residential aspect than commercial Braddock, even though it turns out that most of the steel mill sits in North Braddock, and only a little in Braddock (with the rest in East Pittsburgh), and they seemed generally upbeat about their borough's prospects.  Their dog, Arrow, a mixed-breed rescue, displayed only passing interest in us; George photographed John and the dog, Becky preferring not to have her picture take.


From there we went east, out Bell Avenue, past the dead carwash in the no-man's-land between North Braddock and East Pittsburgh, and into the latter borough, passing more tired -- but lived-in -- houses.  At the T intersection with U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway, a sign indicated that due to construction we could not turn left to go west, but we could go east, which we did, almost immediately driving onto the George Westinghouse Bridge, a landmark multi-span concrete-arch masterpiece dating from 1931-32.  On the way east we did not stop -- we would come back later -- because we wanted to find the spot in North Versailles from which an earlier photographer had made a picture that George really liked of the bridge and East Pittsburgh.  Between the old-fashioned AAA paper map that George had and the GPS-directed map on the dashboard, we found our way to the right neighborhood, and we slowly cruised the street on the edge of the ridge, looking for an opening between the trees.  The houses varied between well kept and unkempt, and while we did not see a lot of household trash blowing in the grass we did see plenty of dead cars and scrap tires on gravel driveways.


A ways along, we stopped alongside a white-haired woman getting into her car; we showed her the picture that George had copied onto his tablet and asked if she knew where we might go to find that point of view.  The longer she talked, the more apparent it became that she did not -- for although surely she stood not more than a couple of hundred yards from the photographer's vantage, she directed us all around Robin Hood's barn to some overlook or other in the next township, or so it seemed.  We thanked her, sighed, and drove on.


The street started to descend, plainly away from whatever possible prospect we might find, so I turned the car around -- and right there, at the last house on that side of the street, caught a glimpse of the roofs of East Pittsburgh, half a mile away.  The backyard looked clear of trees, and the house looked well-taken-care-of, with a new addition going up, and a handful of evidently operational vehicles stood in the driveway, so it seemed likely that we would find someone at home.  On the front porch, a pail full of cigarette butts gave off a nasty aroma.  The man who answered my knock, perhaps 45, wore a sleeveless t-shirt and a lot of tattoos and not a smile, but he said that we could go into the backyard.  "Just be careful, I just had some fill put in, it's gonna be soft."  He had not used the cleanest fill -- down over the edge we could see a minor junkyard poking out from the dirt -- but it did give us a view:

East Pittsburgh, Pa., as seen from North Versailles

Too many trees blocked the bridge, just to the right and out of the frame (you can see the ramp curving up to it at the edge of the photo).  The bland hillside between the houses and the railroads below, plus the modern four-lane slicing through it (cropped out of the picture), made for a disappointing location; perhaps we had missed the spot where we could see the bridge better?  We drove back up the road, peering between the houses; one gap showed at least an absence of trees, so we again parked and I knocked on another front door.  A teenaged boy answered it; in the background, I could hear sports announcers on TV.  His mother came to the door, wearing a shirt that said something like "You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl."  "I grew up in New York City," I told her, after explaining again that we would like to traipse through her backyard.  "Syracuse," she said to me in reply -- but she told her son to take us around back.  A narrow concrete sidewalk led down into the backyard, and while we could see the bridge, a thicket of trees and brush obscured it: no luck here either.  We thanked the boy, and I asked after the game; ice hockey, it turned out, and his team, the Penguins, led Philadelphia by a couple of goals, and he seemed confident.  (The Pens would indeed go on to win that game and thus take the series, although they would not make it to the Stanley Cup finals).


Back at the intersection with 30, the sign said "Road Closed", but since we had just crossed coming from the other direction and had seen no actual barriers, I drove us onto the bridge and parked in the right lane; we would not get in anyone's way there.  Taking our cameras, we crossed the active lanes (which did not require dodging much traffic: for minutes at a time, no cars came at all) and hopped over the low concrete wall and onto the sidewalk.  What a view!  The steel mill dominated the scene, silhouetted against the bluff on the far bank of the Monongahela, a tangle of railroads and tracks in the foreground.  I didn't even know which railroads operated all of them: The former Pennsy main line, the Broad Way (now only two tracks), curved against the hillside on the northwest, and the Union Railroad, once owned by U.S. Steel, crossed over the Pennsy almost under the Westinghouse Bridge, its two-track main heading for a bridge across the Monongahela just east of the mill.  But I knew not a thing about the single track on the opposite side of Turtle Creek from the other lines.  (I later learned Norfolk Southern owns it -- originally the Pennsy's Port Perry Branch -- and that it connects the main line just east of here with the Mon Line on the far side of the river.)


That single track brought us our first train, an intermodal with two NS diesels on the head end, slowly moving 200+ feet under us.  The head end of the train had trailers on flat cars -- increasingly rare in this age of containers; I photographed it from a couple of vantage points:

Westbound Norfolk Southern intermodal train on the Port Perry Branch, seen from the George Westinghouse Bridge, U.S. Steel Edgar Thompson Works in background
Westbound Norfolk Southern intermodal train on the Port Perry Branch, seen from the George Westinghouse Bridge

As the train slowed to a crawl and I looked away from the viewfinder, I realized that another train had started coming our way, out of the steel mill yard and up the ramp to the Union main.  And man, what a sight, as three Union switchers shoved two dozen gondolas loaded with steel slabs, a caboose leading the way.  The locomotives roared up the steep grade, throwing up a vast cloud of exhaust smoke that made a mockery of Earth Day.  I hadn't noticed this train until it had gotten halfway up the ramp, and it caught me quite by surprise; I fumbled with compositions and did not even look closely enough at the time to realize a crewman kept an eye on the move from the front platform of the caboose (not that I could have photographed him well from this distance and in this lighting, but I still felt foolish for not even seeing him); in the second photo here the caboose has even started to get obscured by trees.

Northbound Union Railroad slab train seen from George Westinghouse Bridge, U.S. Steel Edgar Thompson Works in background
Northbound Union Railroad slab train seen from George Westinghouse Bridge, U.S. Steel Edgar Thompson Works in background

Just two minutes later, as the Union switchers disappeared under the bridge and out of view, Norfolk Southern sent a train of empty oil cans west, and I could see that their lead units, under their own smoky cloud, would make a fine sight as they hit the reverse curve and aimed towards the sun -- but I only had time to make one exposure, the engines still aimed away from the sun and their visible flanks in shadow: Behind me I heard someone hail us, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a police SUV stopped next to the Subaru.  Decision time: Do I wave him off, shout "Just a minute!", and make my picture, or do I do the right thing?  Discretion won out, and I climbed over the barrier to talk to the officer, from East Pittsburgh, who had gotten out of his vehicle.  "Gentlemen, you can't park here," he said -- entirely courteously, for which I felt instantly grateful.  Okay, I said, I will move the car right away.


"And you really shouldn't photograph from here."  All of my libertarian -- and First Amendment -- bells started going off.  I do not remember how I asked him why, but evidently politely enough that he gave me an answer which had something of an eye-roll to it: "Every time people drive by and see someone standing on the bridge, they call us and say 'He's going to jump!'  We get a lot of jumpers."


Okay, I said, thinking fast, how about if we stay out here a little while longer but make sure we keep moving on the sidewalk?  "I can't tell you not to do that," he said, and he got back in the vehicle and drove off.  So I moved the Subaru off the bridge and parked it at the Sunoco mini-mart right at the end of the ramp, walking back in plenty of time to see the next NS westbound go by, an empty hopper train with two units on the front and another two pushing; the pushers made some good photogenic smoke, but the photo with the lead engines has more of the train in it (and two of the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, exactly nine miles away, peeking over the horizon):

Westbound Norfolk Southern empty hopper train passing the U.S. Steel Edgar Thompson Works, seen from the George Westinghouse Bridge

We had set 7 p.m. as the witching hour, when we would absolutely, positively, have to get out of town, so I started walking towards the west end of the bridge, to photograph some of its wonderful details; on another visit we will have to see what we can do to capture the arches from below, but even the pylons above the deck make for very impressive subjects:

George Westinghouse Bridge, East Pittsburgh, Pa.

I had gone out into the middle of the roadway to photograph the raised-relief sculpture on the northwest pylon when I saw a group of boys coming up the closed lanes, just out for a walk in the now-crystal-clear early evening.  Their long shadows struck me like lightning, and I shouted to George, still a ways out on the span and looking at the scenery, "Look at this!"

East Pittsburgh boys on the George Westinghouse Bridge, early evening, long shadows

When the boys saw me, they all shouted "Hey, man, take my picture!"  They hopped up on the barrier and struck gang poses, complete with hand signs and a handful of cash -- but they kept smiling.

East Pittsburgh boys on the George Westinghouse Bridge, early evening

I handed each of them one of my business cards, telling them that if they wanted copies of the pictures they should e-mail me.  "Sure, thanks, man!" they said and continued on their way, a small happy din wrapped around them as they went.  Road traffic had not increased.

George Westinghouse Bridge, East Pittsburgh, Pa., early evening

Thanks to the 'net, I later learned that sculptor Frank Vittor had studied with Rodin in Paris, came to the U.S. to work for McKim, Mead & White, and settled in Pittsburgh.  Judging by the examples of his work here, he certainly lived up to his reputation for having a "preference for the heroic and colossal" (Wikipedia): These reliefs pretty much define "muscular" in every way.  George and I wonder: Do the sconces hold lights, and if so, what does this look like at night?

Frank Vittor sculpture, George Westinghouse Bridge, East Pittsburgh, Pa., early evening

Before we left the bridge, I made one more portrait of the two photographers:

George Westinghouse Bridge, early evening, long shadows

The sound of airhorns propelled us back out onto the main span one last time, and fittingly for the end of our trip, the last train we saw had a caboose, as a Union Railroad crew headed south.  I'd like to have seen this scene before the four lanes of Braddock Avenue went in; east of here the route becomes the "Tri-Boro Expressway", Pa. 130, and perhaps the builders had in mind thousands of steel workers pouring into East Pittsburgh each morning and out again each afternoon, but really, can more than a few hundred cars use these ramps every day?  How many people really need to get to Braddock quickly anymore, or at all?

Soutbound Union Railroad caboose hop at East PIttsburgh, Pa., seen from the George Westinghouse Bridge

At just a few minutes before 7:00 we got back to the car, where we found four more of the neighborhood kids hanging out, right under the "No Loitering" sign.  George could not forbear giving them a hard time about their illegal encampment, and he asked their names; when he could not figure them out (Janiya at the right, then TT -- "CC?" he said.  "No, TT!"  "GG?") everyone started laughing.

East Pittsburgh kids hanging out at the Sunoco mini-mart
East Pittsburgh kids hanging out at the Sunoco mini-mart

I gave them each my card too, and Janiya e-mailed me the next day; so did Eric, the boy on the far right in the photo of the boys on the bridge, and I sent them their pictures.

It made an entirely satisfying last stop on our photographic odyssey.  Well, third-to-last stop: We did not get on 130 but stuck to the paralleling streets through Turtle Creek and Wilmerding, and I parked briefly alongside the old Westinghouse plant, now a multi-user "industrial mall", so I could photograph one of the street signs; my friend Ross Gochenaur had sent me a picture he made of one of these after he went out to WABCO for air-brake instruction not long ago, and I wanted to send him one in return.

Airbrake Avenue street sign in Wilmerding, Pa.

A few miles later, in Pitcairn (across the creek from Norfolk Southern's intermodal yard of the same name), we stopped at a Sheetz to fill up the car with gas and get some food for ourselves for supper (we had lived by "PB&J once a day" for two weeks).  Darkness did not overtake us until we had crested the Alleghenies almost two hours later near Horseshoe Curve, and at 11:15 I backed the car into the driveway in Bloomsburg -- 262.1 miles behind us on the day and 2264 miles since we had left Bloom 13 days, 16 hours, and 15 minutes earlier.


If I had come home with only that second-to-last picture, of the four kids in East Pittsburgh, I would have had no complaints, because it shows pure happiness, and the human connection that even complete strangers can make in no time at all.  I found the trip overall so satisfying because of the many people whom we met and the memories of whom we will always cherish.


Let's go again, George: Start making plans!


This photo-essay first appeared in two parts on

The Trackside Photographera Web site dedicated

to the railroad landscape.  Find them here and here.

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