Friday, December 28, 2007
Welcome to nowhere, chapter 11
By Scott Beveridge
The elementary school essay assignment sounded easy to some of my classmates who lived in neighborhoods with tidy lawns. Our schoolteacher instructed us to go into our yard, find something interesting growing there and write a short report on the plant. Surely, though, our teacher at Lebanon Elementary School in the village of Fellsburg, Pa., knew that the kids like me who hailed from over the hill in Webster during the mid 1960s didn’t live among rhododendrons, flowering dogwoods and azaleas. Looking back, she must have been playing a cruel joke on the handful of kids in the classroom from our poor village.
Practically everything in our town was coated with a black sheen, as it sat immediately downwind of the smokestacks at a sprawling American Steel and Wire mill in Donora. The coal furnaces that heated our houses left our porches, yards and family cars covered each cold morning with a layer of tiny black soot balls. The pollution, no doubt, had created enough sour air to suck the paint off houses and kill just about every blade of grass, ornamental bush and tree during the decades before my family arrived in the fall of 1960.
I can’t remember the name of the teacher responsible for the botany assignment at the country school, where farm kids received the foundations of math, English and brushed-over history beside those whose fathers were steelworkers. All the teachers seemed to form the same character of a stern woman wearing a proper cotton suit who was bored of reciting the same lesson plans year after year while pacing floors covered with a chessboard of green-and-tan asbestos tiles.
The teachers wouldn’t dare let you use the restroom until you peed your pants and then had to stand naked in a bathroom stall until your clothes dried on the steam radiator. They reddened your knuckles with wooden rulers if you giggled in class and sent you home with more respect for the classroom and better control of your bladder.
So off I went through our back door in search of a plant one spring Saturday afternoon, only to be reminded that there was little more growing from the ground around our house than a few clumps of crabgrass. Mom had managed to keep alive a red rose bush with yearly applications of store-bought peat moss. By then, the mills had been idled for nearly five years and the ground was beginning to turn green again. Honeysuckle vines sprouted from the parched earth along the front porch but I wasn’t about to turn in a report on flowers and looked to the ugly mountain behind our house for something green to study.
The first ledge rose nearly 50 feet straight up and was reachable from a dusty path around outcroppings of large, blackened boulders. A field of waist-high buffalo grass spread across what was once a farm with fertile soil. I doubted the teacher would believe such a thing grew in anyone’s back yard and continued, alone, toward a sparce forest of trees nearly 100 yards in the distance. It was a sickly group of sumacs and sycamores that kids once tried to climb but the branches were too frail to support their weight.
Ahead lay a ravine at least 30 feet deep and with a trail that cut diagonally to its base, one where you had to dig your heels deep into the ground to slow your slide through shale to the bottom. It took the strength of Hercules to make the climb out of the gully. This was a landscape that was avoided, even by the birds and whitetail deer.
There, above the rise, was a hillside of ducky stones covered with green moss tinged with orange, white and yellow that looked like miniature mushrooms from Mars. Later, a trip to the public library and an Encyclopedia Britannica would identify this plant as lichen.
Like it or not, my teacher was getting a report about this fungus that was taking over my “back yard.”
(Caption: That's me in the top photo, standing in the middle of the third row and wearing glasses like those worn by President Lyndon Baines Johnson)
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
It’s time for a little makeover under in the rotunda of the courthouse in Washington County, Pa. For starters, the place would be less scary without the big dead black bird that is preserved under glass at the base of the grand marble staircase leading to the main courtrooms.
No one knows how the ugly bird got there in the first place, let alone its significance to jurisprudence. The thing sort of looks like a prop from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller, “The Birds.” The county bosses should instruct the custodians of history to move it to the attic of the local historical society to make the historic courthouse a friendlier place for prosecutors and criminals before they get to a judge.
The 107-year-old courthouse is a fine example of Beaux Arts construction, so much so that it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building and its ornate stained glass dome should also be on the list of places to stop for any tourist who is taking in the sites along the National Road through Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Isn’t their something better to greet these guests than a freaky so-called eagle after the visitors empty their pockets of metal at the security gate?
Monday, December 17, 2007
Nutcrackers are the scariest part of the holidays.
This one that was found in one of those stores where everything costs a buck is particularly frightening.
The 8-inch monster was made in China and comes with a warning label under the base that states its paint may poison food.
Run for your life.........
Friday, December 14, 2007
Welcome to nowhere, chapter 10
By Scott Beveridge
We were too busy being kids to notice that Donora’s economy was crumbling during the summer of 1962 under the weight of its vanishing steel industry. My playmates across the Monongahela River in the village of Webster, Pa., were more interested in the great adventure that the barren hillsides offered our imaginations than whether our fathers would have jobs tomorrow.
Webster was known as the place where nothing grew on the ground that had been scorched for six decades by pollution from the upwind U.S. Steel mill.
But our dusty brown gullies became Army trenches for boys pretending to do battle with Nazis during World War II. Some days we were cowboys scouting a new trail to the West and dodging pretend arrows from Indians on the warpath. In short order, the war game would turn to real fighting between the kid who wanted to play John Wayne and those who were assigned to be the enemy. The Hollywood movies we watched had already told us who was going to lose the pretend battle. The losers quit and went home while the brave went on to explore the dusty mountain that lay ahead.
When storm clouds approached, it was time to run home. Heavy rain always caused flash floods that deepened the gullies because there wasn’t any topsoil for miles to absorb the water. Anyone was a sitting target for a bolt of lightening. And, to frighten us home, our parents had often told us a story about a kid who barely survived after being swept to the river one summer day by the runoff water that flowed like brown-water rapids. To scare us even more, the adults were always warning about a girl who forever went missing after falling into a well next to a house that had been demolished. There were ghosts of many houses on that hill.
The stories we didn’t hear then were being discussed by our parents behind closed doors. They argued about where they would go, or how to pay the bills, because the Donora steel production was being transferred to a $55 million plant under construction in Gary, Ind. Some adults turned to crime. There was a burglary at the Victor Emanuel Beneficial Society in Donora, followed by another at a local Eat ‘n Park. Adults whispered about a young Donora mother who was arrested for abandoning and neglecting her four small children in her cockroach-infested apartment. Proud parents worried about the shame they would face if they joined those who asked welfare that summer for new shoes for 118 children before school resumed in August.
Just about everyone was beginning to lose friends and neighbors as a cloud of depression settled over our valley. My pal, Ralphy, who taught me how to hit the head of a nail with a hammer, went to Fairless Hills, Pa., when his father was transferred to a job in a working steel mill. Kevin, who liked to play marbles with me during first-grade recess, relocated with his family to Chicago. And Lois’ parents took her family to Harrisburg, even though we were engaged by the age of 6. Those of us who stayed behind were going to have to get used to goodbyes. We would even say so long to the abandoned black houses that we used as playhouses. Some were torched while others were torn down by neighbors who were sick of seeing them next door.
(Caption: Relatives pose for a photo behind the Beveridge house in Webster)
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
In light of the decision by the editorial staff of Frommer's to rank the unlikely city of Pittsburgh among the 13 hottest travel destinations for 2008, Travel with a Beveridge has come up with its list of places that make the region special. This list includes 13 offbeat journies rather than focus on such attractions as Fallingwater or the Carnegie Museums that helped to make Pittsburgh one of Frommer's fantastic cities.
In no particular order:
1. No other city in the world has a statue of the godfather of pop music, Stephen Foster, and his slave with a big bronze toe that people rub for good luck. The sculpture can be found on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section, right next door to the Carnegie Music Hall.
2. The Strip District is just a fun experience, even for the person who doesn’t like to go shopping. Here you will find Steelers merchandise galore along with the freshest meats and produce that are sold on the cheap in no frills shops with concrete floors and hand painted signs. If you love a fine cup of Joe, Prestogeorge Fine Foods sells so much Sumatra that the beans are still warm from roasting when you leave the tiny store on Penn Avenue. It’s deli sandwiches are the closest thing in the Burg to those sold in New York.
3. The South Side and its historic buildings along a level main drag known as Carson Street is a hip place to take in the Scottish parade. You will see all sorts of characters, ranging from oddball Goths to a bare-chested guy hanging out at a tattoo parlor.
4. Pittsburgh surely has the most Thai restaurants per capita in the Western world. The Silk Elephant on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill is the best. It’s a cozy little place with great coconut soup and rack of lamb.
5. The region’s rust belt along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers is a great place to take a driving tour through towns with severe blight that civic leaders have referred to as America’s Third World. There are crumbling buildings and decaying industrial sites from Aliquippa to Monessen that will tickle the senses of any photographer who likes to seek out such places.
6. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern – a party house with Polish food just south of The Strip – is dough heaven. You can stuff your belly to a bigger belt size with the best pierogis this side of Poland or select from steeping platters of klushki noodles and cabbage with kielbasa while listening to polka music blaring from the sound system.
7. Take a stroll through the narrow streets of city’s Mexican War Streets, where neighbors go out of their way to gussy up the doors and windows to their row houses. Dating to 1848, the area was initially used for raising horses, pigs, chickens and cows. Today it’s on the National Registry of Historic Districts because of its well-preserved Victorian architecture.
8. Tourists from across the nation swing over to the Borough of Canonsburg in Washington County to pay tribute to its native son and crooner Perry Como. There is even a statue of him outside the borough building on Pike Street, where Como songs continuously fill the air. Hey mambo mambo…
9. The Yough River Trail. We’re so lucky to have it in our backyard, even though a freaky semi-nude man is known to jog near an abandoned coal mine in Rostraver Township.
10. Take the four-hour and nearly 50 mile drive on Route 88 south of the city through at least 150 traffic signals to experience the thrill of Ferry Boat Frederick in the village Fredericktown. You can pull your car onto the little barge and ride back and forth across the Monongahela River. For added adventure, you could encounter a mad man who chases speeders on the Fayette County side of the Mon and yells at those drivers while they wait for the boat. They call him the troll of the ferry.
11. Your tour is not complete without a stop at the monumental Joe Montana Bridges along the road to nowhere otherwise known as the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Washington County. The 250-foot span was built a few miles from where the football legend tossed footballs through the ring of a car tire while growing up in Monongahela.
Monday, December 10, 2007
This post card was found among the few belongings of my grandmother, Madge Sine Beveridge, after she died in a nursing home in 1989 at the age of 90. She signed her name on the back but never addressed it to anyone. She never accumulated much, having grown up poor in Mt. Morris in Greene County, Pa., and later moved around often during the Great Depression. She did not live an easy life.
But she left behind this beautiful card to remind us that Santa comes around once a year with lots of toys and games and nuts and candy.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
DONORA, Pa. – Over the years, Donora Mayor John Lignelli would cringe every time a historian, filmmaker or student called him to discuss the borough's infamous killer smog.
"Let it die," Lignelli said, repeating the phrase he used when people asked about the event that killed at least 19 people in October 1948 and became known as the nation's worst air pollution disaster.
But as the smog approaches its 60th anniversary next year, he said, it's time that Donora recognizes the importance of keeping the story alive.
"That is history right now. That's why there is so much interest in it," he said, while discussing plans to mark the anniversary with some kind of ceremony.
The smog was blamed on stagnant air that hovered over the region for several days, trapping U.S. Steel smokestack emissions in the Monongahela River valley.
The smoke grew so thick over that Halloween weekend that hospitals became crowded with the thousands of people who became sick. Others died while gasping for air in what became the impetus for the first national clean air legislation of the 1960s.
Dr. Charles Stacey, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent, said he would like to hold a scientific seminar in Donora to discuss the effects the pollution had on health and the reasons for the smog.
"I think it could be a good thing," Stacey said Wednesday.
About 30 people from Donora and Webster, including Donora Councilman Don Pavelko, met two weeks ago to discuss the anniversary. The organizers were also soliciting interest in creating a clean air museum in Donora, Stacey said.
Stacey said he would like to invite Devra Davis, an author and environmentalist who was raised in Donora, to speak at the seminar. He also wants to videotape oral histories of local residents who survived the smog.
"I think they could do a good thing here if they get it together," Stacey said.
(Caption: The U.S. Steel zinc works in a photo taken in Webster circa 1940)
Monday, December 3, 2007
BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – Nemacolin Castle is a spooky old mansion in southwestern Pennsylvania where upwards of 10 ghosts supposedly roam its halls. It’s no wonder. The 22-room house, most of which dates to the 1850s, has creaky floors, cold drafts and dark furniture befitting of the eccentric Bowman family that lived there for three generations.
While most house museums have to purchase period furnishings unrelated to their occupants, Nemacolin is filled with artifacts that belonged to the Bowmans as far back as 1787 when Jacob Bowman built a trading post on the hill overlooking the Monongahela River in Brownsville.
The rustic trading post still exists, nestled deep among the rest of the rambling house built in the Colonial and Victorian styles of architecture. Tour guides will demonstrate an old iron contraption that puts ruffles into suit collars and a hand cranked vacuum cleaner that touched the hands of the Bowmans or their servants.
When the lights are turned on, you can actually see your aura in a giant diamond backed mirror above a mantle. In a bedroom, the image of the devil appears in the woodgrain on a headboard.
Docents tell ghost stories each Halloween as they lead visitors through the house that is surrounded by a thick stone wall with glass shards embedded the top to ward off visitors. Many children supposedly went home with brush burns and cuts after they ventured over the wall to peek inside the many windows that adorn the brick structure.
Fayette County bought the estate at the west end of Front Street in 1965 after the deaths of the last occupants, Charles and Lelia Bowman, and turned it over the Brownsville Historical Society.
Society members also offer candlelight Christmas tours each December. But, with the lights dimmed low at those times, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the place and all of its splendor.
Before the sun sets, you can see a lot of chipping paint around the windows and shutters that suggests the historical society needs money for restorations. In some ways though, the neglect makes the place seem all that more spooky and weird.
Click here for more information about tours and events.