a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, July 31, 2009

AMANDA’S MUSINGS: The presumption of popularity

Amanda's rockin' nephew, Nicholas, prepares to bomb her with a water balloon. Photo by Amandablu

By Amanda Gillooly

Drawn to the 75-percent off rack at a local department store, I flitted through the various boys clothing and didn’t see much that called out to me. Then I saw it: A small red T-shirt with an awesome, not-too-menacing image of a dragon breathing fire.

It was my nephew’s size, and it was definitely his style. And the price of $2.98 sealed the deal.

Nicholas, who will start kindergarten this fall at Wilson Elementary School in the West Allegheny School District, was enamored with it immediately. While his beaming smile and sunshiny aura made me feel like a cloudless day, his vocal response first struck me funny, then tragic.

“Hey, Bub, do you like this?” I asked him, making him turn his back to me so I could eyeball the shirt to make sure it would fit him.

“Oh, yeah, Aunt Mandy. That dragon is cool. And it might help me be popular,” he responded

There, in the middle of the store, I imagined somewhere a turntable was screeching to a dead silence. Crickets stopped crooning in grasses across the Commonwealth.

“That dragon is cool,” I expected him to say. He’s 5 years old. I didn’t know he even knew what “popular” meant.

And it made me sad.

Nicholas is a free sprit, a free thinker who asks questions like a seasoned reporter with the type of insight you might expect from the book “Tuesday’s with Maury.”

On a drive home he once shared with me: “Aunt Mandy, I don’t know why people like to be grumpy. I like to laugh. Laughing is fun.”

It ain’t Socrates, but I like his style.

OK. I know. Everyone thinks their son/daughter/niece/nephew/granddaughter/grandson is totally uber awesome. But while others in my family recognize Nicholas for his model behavior or verbal skills, I like to focus on the stuff you can't teach -- the most important of which is his ability to see humor even in the most dry situations.

Nicholas is a silly boy. He is the first to joke or tease. He understands sight gags and simple irony. And I guess when he mentioned the P word I thought of my own primary and middle-school experiences, which were punctuated with self-doubt and a longing to emulate the “popular” kids in school.

I never understood how one became “popular.” Some of the popular kids were kind to everyone. Some were jerks. But there was no common denominator. While we all deny it, I think there is a little piece of all of our hearts that wanted, at least for a few fleeting moments, to know what it was like to simply be awed and revered for no other reason than your having had the cool clothes and sat at The Popular Table.

I thought about No Child Left Behind and the emphasis it places on math and reading skills and not necessarily on character or the arts or social sciences. I thought about how it must be even more difficult for a free spirit to retain his splendor in a society that has always unconsciously judged them on his looks, wealth or family reputation. Now the public education system, thanks to that federally unfunded-mandate, further restricts the worth of a student.

Now it depends largely on how well he can retain information and then regergitate it on a standardized test.

While I wish I could say I got over the idea of cliques and discovered the concept of an “over soul” that connects us all with the human experience of high school, I would be lying.

It was actually in college, when I became friends with myriad characters -- grungy, preppy, nerdy, gay, rich or poor. None of that really mattered. The saddest part is that we would often say to each other, laughing: "You know, I don't think we would have been friends in high school."

When you get to know a Candy or an Ean or a Louis Philbert -- when you grow to love anyone (or anything, really), it doesn't occur to you what particular adjective group-think would attach to it.

Popularity, or at least the importance of it, is at last as fleeting as high school itself.

At the end of this brief reflection, I laughed at my nephew and told him simply:

“Nicholas, you don’t need a T-shirt to make you popular. Just be yourself - you are naturally awesome.”

He didn’t look at me when he spoke next. His eyes were transfixed on the dragon’s scales and breath of bright orange fire.

I know,” he said with a little audible sigh -- the kind that clearly meant “Duh!”

Then it was time to laugh at myself. I had no reason to worry about him after all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The husband-calling contest

Some small-town festivals have pig-calling contests, while others celebrate them with watermelon-eating face-offs.

For the past four years, Waynesburg, Pa.'s, venerable Rain Day festival has thrown a husband-calling contest where the winner is judged for being the most obnoxious contestant.

"The highest scorer is the last woman I'd want to have as a wife calling me," the borough's police chief, Tim Hawfield, told the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa. He thought up the silly affair and serves as one of its judges.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A big honor for a scrappy street

By Scott Beveridge,

WEBSTER, Pa. – At one end of a short street in the heart of my hometown sits the rusting and sagging Donora-Webster Bridge that has been closed to traffic for two weeks over safety concerns.

At other end of this tiny road in Webster, Pa., there are crooked stone stairs leading to an abandoned house that is collapsing at a slow rate of speed.

Yet this road that is the length of two mini-blocks has just been given quite a noble feature and it doesn’t involve the one building sharing its address.

Commissioners in Rostraver Township have renamed the street to honor the late Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Ernest P. Kline who grew up in the village before entering state politics in Beaver County.

It’s a fitting place to call Kline Street because his mother was part of a protest there in the 1970s that local women organized to force state transportation officials to install traffic lights at the intersection. The same confusing signals are still there, even though the traffic has all but disappeared since the bridge closed.

It will surely become more confusing for such people as utility workers and delivery drivers as their likes had trouble finding Webster residences even when the bridge was open.

They had a good excuse.

Kline Street used to be Anderson Street, but that was anyone’s guess because there were no road signs marking the drag until last week. Then Westmoreland County 911 renamed Anderson, deeming it Thomas Street a two years ago when houses here were finally given street numbers. This move was supposed to make it easier and quicker for ambulances to get to emergencies in the village.

A friend tried to get here a few weeks ago for a party and the global positioning system in her van took her to Webster, across the bridge and onto what the GPS gods know as Tenth Street. The same GPS navigators take people to Donora when they try to find my house.

The Kline family must be chuckling at the honor, albeit small, our village has bestowed upon the legacy of Ernie Kline. At least most of its members know how to get here to see their name on three new large street signs in town

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Amanda's musings: A Brooke Shields lashing

Brooke Shields Doll, originally uploaded by Barbie Creations.

Dear Brooke Shields,

It was a little shocking when I was abruptly asked: “Are they real?”

While I was blessed with an ample bosom, another guest at the wedding I was attenting wasn’t asking about any augmentation there. She was inquiring about my eyelashes, which had been primped excessively for my cousin Curt’s marriage ceremony. I blushed uncharacteristically, and told her about my painstaking process to lush, ample eyelashes.

After applying two shades of translucent silver shadow, I rimmed the upper lid with a waterproof black liquid liner and completed the look with several coats of black mascara, I told her. What I kept to myself was the exact number of mascara coats (and the fact that while I typically use two types of lash lacquer this occasion required a third).

Brooke, I wanted to share this story with you because it is possible to get your beauty on without prostituting yourself to the folks at Latisse, a prescription eye solution for the treatment of hypotrichosis (which means “not enough lashes”). I think you should know this because you’ve been shaking it on so many commercials that casual observers may get the idea your royalties for the “The Blue Lagoon” have finally sputtered and died.

I understand a woman has to feed her family, but I think all the Crest toothpaste you’ve peddled would have paid for the foodstuffs necessary to sustain you guys. But Brooke, oral health is one thing (plaque is a terrible thing – and a real threat) but to lend your face to a prescription for sparse lashes?

For shame!

Particularly ridiculous is your expanded testimonial at www.latisse.com – where you tell the world about your “personal journey.” Wanting to improve lashes for a medical condition is one thing. “Ripping” your lashes out because of all the theater roles was just silly. You poor thing!

I know you have some personal assistant to help paste falsies up on your peepers – and I am sure you can afford better mascara than the Wet and Wild variety. I wanted to write and tell you that you should be ashamed of yourself because of the gargantuan check you received for singing Latisse’s praises. It only helps to feed into a culture where legitimate drugs are overpriced under the guise of “research and development costs.”

Public watchdog groups have been keeping tabs on just these types of expenditures. I did a story on direct-to-consumer advertisements for prescription meds a few years back and I can tell you that many of the nation’s top drug manufacturers spent more money on their marketing campaigns than those so-called research and development costs.

So, when you see commercials about octogenarians cutting their blood pressure drugs in thirds because they can’t afford the exorbitant monthly cost, please know you could have played a small role in their ensuing heart attacks.

To me, that’s almost as disturbing as “The Blue Lagoon.”

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “one of my prescriptions costs $321 a month” Gillooly

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A unique sink

By Scott Beveridge

Lanny Bradley has incredibly gifted eyes that can see a kitchen towel rack in Canadian caribou antlers or a decorative table covering in a grouping of pheasant feathers.

And the Rostraver Township, Pa., man has the hands of a fine artisan that can craft these creations that adorn his rustic home. Yet he’s never spent an hour in any fine arts program. His is raw talent.

My favorite project of his to date is the bathroom sink in the new powder room he is building in his house. It’s made from a flea market find; an old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad copper basin that might have been used to wash up in a caboose or collect coal ash in a locomotive.

Bradley used copper pipes to secure the basin to the floor and general plumping supplies to give it a water source. I can’t wait to see this sink after it takes on a patina, and what this genius dreams up next.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hot for soft-served custard stand

CANONSBURG, Pa. – Three Pennsylvania boys have found a creative way to spend part of their summer vacation and also attempt to impress the girls who work at an unusual ice cream stand.

The guys accomplished that by producing the cute video, above, of the Turtle Twist, a quirky roadside attraction along Route 980 in Canonsburg, Pa. The owners found the Fiberglass building in the shape of a giant ice cream cone in more than 20 pieces on eBay, and had it reassembled five years ago for their start-up family business.

The actors in the video are Alex Chips, Corey Draganovsky and Nick Carper in a desperate trip to see ice cream girls Victoria Bernardi and Breanna Bakaitis. OK, I admit the video made me chuckle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The heart of a closed bridge still beats in the night

My niece Casey Beveridge near the Donora-Webster Bridge during the summer of 2008 when traffic started to come to a crawl on the old span.

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – Tonight I walk to the middle of the closed steel truss bridge near my home, stand completely still and feel the old span move under my feet.

The historic Donora-Webster Bridge, absent of traffic, has a steady bounce almost like a beating heart suspended over the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania.

For a moment, the creepy pulse seems to be a metaphor for the livelihoods the span has supported over the past 101 years by offering people mindless shortcuts to work or visit friends and relatives.

The beat, though, began to slow a year ago.

Looking out the windows of my house in Webster, I noticed a stark decline in the amount of traffic coming off the bridge immediately after gasoline prices spiked out of control in the summer of 2008. The smaller number of cars remained steady after gas prices began to drop a few months later. The parade of vehicles seemed to decline even further after the stock market crashed last fall, retail sales tanked and unemployment rates began to soar.

When the economy suffers in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, it often becomes more difficult for the folks to make ends meet in a struggling, former steel town such as Donora south of Pittsburgh. The downtown storefronts there just continue to rot under the depressed weight of leaking roofs, awaiting investors who never come along.

Now, the bridge is dying, too. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation closed it last week one month after a routine inspection revealed badly rusted support beams under two decks. So we await a determination on whether the span can be repaired, while preservationists line up to fight for a restoration plan because this bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The bridge earned the designation because it was fastened together with pins in an engineering style borrowed from the Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure it could support the weight of locomotives.

And while PennDOT engineers determine the bridge’s fate, traffic has come to a near-dead stop on the adjoining roads in the now-isolated village of Webster.

The quiet is almost as eerie as the bridge that sways while no one else is feeling its vibration.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Amanda’s Musings: A conversational generation gap

CI-Live-Oak, originally uploaded by daverice.

By Amanda Gillooly,

Scooter came back from the press conference with shocking news: One of Washington County’s It-boys was going to be a baby-daddy.

My response: "Uh oh."

I thought it might be the biggest scoop I’d heard in a while. Young, powerful, good looking and sporting a band on his left-hand ring finger, the news that this politician had gotten someone other than his dear wife in the family way was pretty juicy.

So I asked the natural follow-up question: “Oh my God. Who is the baby-mamma?”

That’s when Scooter, my 52-year-old friend and fellow newspaper geek, looked at me with quizzically.

“Come on Amanda, who do you think? His wife.”

These kinds of misunderstandings happen when you try to use vernacular you don’t really get.

While Scooter was merely trying to let me know Mr. and Mrs. Washington County were expecting their first child, he made the mistake of referring to the dude as a baby-daddy, which is a blatant misuse of the term.

The Associated Press Stylebook doesn’t address the subject, and neither does Webster's, but Maury and Jerry have. And from my experiences with on-screen and real-life baby-daddies I know this is a suitable definition:

Baby daddy - n. Referring to a man who has impregnating a woman who is not his wife. The man could be married or single.

For Scooter, what followed was a 10-minute Ghetto Gal lecture about the proper use of the term. I used baby daddy in a sentence and cited several examples in popular culture.

But at 28, my smaller range of reference has made me look like quite a fool, too. I know this because Scooter made fun of me for my less-worldly vocabulary. Once he asked me a question about a live oak tree for a travel story he was writing. I gave him fodder for weeks when I arrogantly smirked, “Are there any other kinds, as opposed to dead oaks? God.”

That’s when this Yankee learned about those eerie-looking southern trees.

Such is life, I suppose. And for the record: That’s the beauty of May-December BFFFships. They might make a complete (bleep) of you for a verbal snafu, but they help you get your learn on.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Her papa's dandelion blossom wine

A sample of pages in a recipe book published by graduates of the old Point Marion High School in Pennsylvania.

By Scott Beveridge

POINT MARION, Pa. – If you’re looking for a nip of homemade dandelion blossom wine, a graduate of the old Point Marion High School is handing down a recipe to follow to make the beverage.

Mary Jo Uphold has published the ingredients for her papa’s best use of the common lawn weed in a new recipe book listing the favorite dishes of the alumni of all classes that attended the school in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This book is special because its recipes are hand written in the penmanship of the rural people who supplied them for a fundraiser to benefit the Point Marion Public Library. Attached to each page is a high school photo of the contributor, making this a great way to immortalize Point Marion grads who like their food and want to help the local library.

They are proud of their library because it was one of the first in Pennsylvania to be part of a high school. It’s still in the same building, even though the school has been converted into assisted living apartments.

The folks who put together the recipe book remain fond, too, of their alma mater.

For instance, Helen McCluskey Vereen’s fixings for chilled asparagus with mustard dressing appears in the cookbook beside photos of the Point Marion High School brass band and the school’s majorettes. Dolores Mocniak Walcek’s recipe for beef with gravy appears with class photos of meat-and-potato boys who played football in 1958 and their game schedule when it cost students 35 cents to enter the gates.

And who wouldn’t want to know how Beverly Bowers Ritchie, the 1962 homecoming queen, tosses together her potato salad with bacon and barbecue sauce?

You’ll just have to inquire about purchasing the $15 book to find out how she makes magic with potatoes, and hope there are still some available. The first printing sold out quickly and a second is on order.

But so you know, here is how Uphold’s father matured his wine:

To each gallon of cleaned dandelion blossoms, add 1 gallon boiling water. Use as may gallons as your stone crock allows, filling it to within 1” of the top. Let stand 24 hours, then strain. Return juice to crock, adding 3 pounds sugar and juice of three lemons for each gallons of blossom juice. Allow to ferment at least 4 to 5 days, covering with cloth to keep out insects. Skim and bottle, corking lightly so corks will not pop out or leave uncorked if you wish, so any scum can still rise and be poured off. Cork tightly then; wine will be ready in about three months.

For more information, contact:

Point Marion Public Library
399 Ontario St
Point Marion, PA 15474
(724) 725-9553

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drained lock exposes Ohio River bed

Work continues on repairing an aging lock along the Ohio River, the bottom of which has been exposed during the project. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh

By Scott Beveridge

EMSWORTH, Pa. – Emergency repairs to an aging lock chamber are providing a rare glimpse of the bottom of the Ohio River.

The rocky riverbed has been exposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers while its workers make urgent, critical repairs to the row of emptying valves near the base of the main chamber used to lock boats through the dam at Emsworth, Pa.

Once drained, the workers discovered the valves are in worse condition than they originally thought, requiring the lock closing to be extended through July 26, said Jeff Hawk, a Corps spokesman in Pittsburgh who forwarded along the photo, above, of the work in progress.

It’s interesting to see the many scuff marks left behind on the wall by the many towboats and barges that have navigated through the locks that were built more than 80 years ago.

Hawk says the corps is working 24-hour shifts to complete the repairs and return navigation to normal along Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

Towboat crews have been experiencing 12 hour delays while moving their hauls along the river in the Emsworth area, about 8 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The delays are compounded by similar work downriver on the Ohio at Dashields Locks and Dam.

The navigation industry responded by creating stockpiles of coal and other goods at various sites along the rivers before the repair work began, Hawk said. This is the reason there has been much less barge traffic in recent weeks, he said.

"We realize that this will be an additional inconvenience to river users and we are pulling all available resources to focus on the task of repairing these severely deteriorated valves," said Col. Michael Crall, district engineer.

The corps isn’t experiencing any shortfall in the money it needs to complete this job and several others in the Pittsburgh region that is home to the oldest and most-fatigued locks and dams in the nation. The President Obama Administration is giving the corps $4.6 billion in federal stimulus money to modernize the navigation system.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Raised on the trolley line

Laura Wells is qualifying for certification to operate the lines at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa.

By Scott Beveridge

WASHINGTON, Pa. – Laura Wells is at ease at the controls of an old trolley car, even though she’s just 20 and attending college.

The California University of Pennsylvania student has been hanging around the streetcars at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum before she knew how to walk.

Her parents met there, and her grandfather is among the founders of the Chartiers Township attraction where adults go to play with big toys.

“I’m a third-generation nerd,” said Wells, who must still complete trolley training to become a certified operator, even though she could easily teach new recruits how to maneuver the vehicles.

“The hardest thing is remembering which one you are in because they are all different,” said Wells, of Pittsburgh.

The air brakes in some cars have to be applied slowly while others have self-adjusting braking systems. The brakes also work differently depending on the weather and condition of the rails. When it’s warm and foggy, oil can form on the lines and make them especially slippery.

“You can lock up the brakes and just skid,” said Wells’ grandfather, Art Ellis, who works the ticket booth at the museum entrance.

Wells is among a handful of trolley enthusiasts who signed up for the class in mid-April.

George Hrabchack of Wilmerding, a retired Ringgold High School teacher, is among the students.

“This is the closest I can get to the streetcars that went past my house as a kid,” Hrabchack said.

“There is nothing to be nervous about,” said Walt Pilof, operations manager at the museum.

The museum hosted some 6,000 riders last year, most of whom came aboard during the Washington County Agricultural Fair. Nearly 24,000 visitors stopped by last year from around the globe.

The average age of the volunteer operators is 60. There are two 18-years-olds on the roster, and the oldest operator is Frank Reese, 91, of Erie.

New operators spend three days in training and then must complete 15 full days under the supervision of a senior operator before they can work on their own.

“The cool thing is anybody can do it,” said Lisa Stout-Bassioum, visitor services coordinator. “I’m actually waiting my turn.”

Meanwhile, a new exhibit at the museum begins near a black and white photo of Pittsburgh’s first horsecar that made its debut in 1859.

If visitors stay a while, they can actually board a different vintage trolley for a short ride to the carbarn and touch a similar horse-drawn rail vehicle known as Pittsburgh 101.

“It’s an amazing immersion experience. You don’t get that very often,” said Nancy Cain McCombe, educator at the Chartiers Township museum and another student operator.

“Other museums try to re-create the experience, but it’s not the same,” she said.

The restored Car 101 is the oldest in the museum’s collection of nearly 50 vehicles used in public transportation and in various conditions, ranging from the pristine to an old, rotting wooden car that survived a flood.

The horsecar was part of the old Federal Street & Pleasant Valley Street Railway that ran on the South Side and later ended up on display at South Park and Station Square. It’s similar to those that were used between 1859 and 1923 in Pittsburgh.

“This is a rare bird,” museum executive director Scott R. Becker said.

One of only a half-dozen remaining vehicles of its kind, the car traveled just 4 mph from downtown Pittsburgh to Allegheny Cemetery. Its driver sat in an exposed cab in all types of weather for long shifts with barely a small canopy above his head.

The museum was conceived in the 1940s when streetcars were being replaced by buses and automobiles. By 1946, three cars had been acquired while the group looked for a suitable location to store them.

The museum opened in June 1963 as Arden Trolley Museum, and since has continued to expand.

The museum has received a $271,000 state grant to install solar energy panels on a roof to help power streetcars, signals and lighting before the end of the summer.

“So we’re breaking some new ground by having these old vehicles using modern technology and the sun to power them,” Becker said.

On a recent visit, an older gentleman was in a garage restoring a government surplus front loader that will be used to put down new trolley tracks.

It’s a nice companion piece to a streetcar that was designed to sweep snow off tracks with a roller brush made from rattan. It was painted bright yellow to make it more visible during snowstorms.

Jim Herron of nearby Canonsburg has been putting a new finish on wood trim native to South America that was used to adorn the 1911 Rio De Janeiro No. 1758, an open-air trolley the museum acquired.

“It’ll be a big hit,” Becker said.

Also known as a breezer, the car is similar to the one used as a backdrop in the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland.

The singer and actress popularized “The Trolley Song” in the movie while riding in one of the cars that traditionally was used during the summer months to take people to amusement parks. That’s why it looks as if it belongs in a circus, Becker said.

This one started out as a kit sold by the J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia that included parts cast by the Cambria Iron Works of Johnstown.

Then it was shipped and assembled in Rio and eventually mothballed before being purchased in 1965 by a group of museums in the United States.

The car returned via a coffee freighter to North America, was rebuilt and put in service on a trolley line at the Magee Museum of Transportation in Bloomsburg. Car 1758 was put out of service again after that museum was inundated by floodwater during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. From there, it sat in a Florida warehouse until being purchased by the trolley museum in Chartiers.

When restored, it will be the oldest car in operation at the museum.

(This story originally appeared in Living in Washington County, a publication of the Observer-Reporter. It was reprinted with permission.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cats in practice

The children shown in this video are in day one of rehearsals at a two-week musical theater camp at California University of Pennsylvania where they will perform Disney's "The Aristocats." The show will take the stage at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at Steele Hall. (NOTE: An incorrect date for the show was provided for the video)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Threatened Mon River bridges admirered

A few people who attended the Historic Bridges Conference in Pittsburgh last weekend admire the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge, a closed span that is under threat of demolition. Meanwhile, major improvements to Locks and Dam No. Four continue in the distance.

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. – The aging Donora-Webster Bridge appears to be in better shape than many spans its age in the United States, a group of bridge experts agrees.

“This bridge has a coat of paint on it,” said Luke Gordon, a construction inspector from Michigan who visited the historic span Saturday with other bridge enthusiasts. “It’s 10-times better than most I’ve seen.”

Organizers of the Historic Bridges Conference in Pittsburgh included weekend stops in southwestern Pennsylvania at the Donora-Webster Bridge and the similarly built, nearby 103-year-old Charleroi-Monessen Bridge because both of their futures are uncertain.

Outside of Allegheny County, the bridges are among just four Pennsylvania through-truss, pin connected spans still standing along the Monongahela River. The others are in Point Marion and Brownsville, and all are on the National Register of Historic Places because they were pinned together using technology borrowed from the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But, within a year the Charleroi-Monessen could be demolished. A new bridge would then be built on the same site if the plan clears the scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The Point Marion Bridge will be gone, too, after a new replacement span opens in November.

“Bridge heritage is at risk,” said Eric DeLony of Santa Fe, a retired chief engineer for the National Park Service who also attended the bridge conference.

He was among a dozen such experts attending the conference who toured the 101-year-old Donora-Webster Bridge. Some took photographs, while others said they admired its graceful lines.

The span became the first toll free bridge to open on the Mon, allowing the older community of Webster to share in the new wealth of Donora after a sprawling steel mill opened within its borders. The bridge was originally painted black for the coal in Webster’s hills and gray for the smoke that billowed from the mills.

The bridge also stood alongside the infamous Donora zinc works, which contributed to a 1948 smog that killed at least 20 local residents and became the catalyst for America’s first clean air laws.

“Donora, probably more than any other town, has the history as to why people would want to come see this bridge,” said Todd Wilson, a civil engineering consultant from Pittsburgh who helped to organize the conference. “This bridge was here and it did play its part in that story.”

It appears the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has done a good job maintaining this bridge. It’s guard rails were not attached its main vertical beams to protect the superstructure from damage by vehicle accidents, Gordon said.

However, there is speculation PennDOT will begin scrutinizing this bridge after it completes the historical review process on the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge that has been closed to traffic since February. The closure of that span followed an inspection that discovered a badly deteriorated pin joint supporting a deck.

People in the struggling Mon Valley towns need to band together to save these historic spans if there is any hope for the area to become a historic tourism destination, said Nikki Sheppick, a historian in Charleroi.

“If we don’t keep these assets, we’re dead,” Sheppick said during the conference stop in Charleroi.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Monongahela, Time Was

Several of these photos are included in a slide show at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, 2009, at a National City bank branch, 318 W. Main St., Monongahela, Pa. The event celebrates the 40th birthday of the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium, an unusual park on the banks of the Monongahela River. Admission is $5, with proceeds benefiting the Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce. Reservations are not required.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The straight-laced guitar man

Harold Weaver, a gentleman and musician who taught scores of kids to play guitar in Monongahela, Pa., is shown, seated, second from left, in this photo taken in the 1920s.

By Scott Beveridge

MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Harold Weaver was barely noticed in his hometown of Monongahela for decades, even though he taught more than 18,000 kids how to strum a guitar.

He accomplished that by quietly walking his students through their lessons in the basement of an old apartment building in the southwestern Pennsylvania city’s downtown, almost until the day he died in September 1997.

Occasionally, people would see him nod a smile while he climbed the stairwell from his studio to the sidewalk on Main Street, and dropped out of sight.

“I just wanted to play,’ Weaver stated in an article that appeared in 1996 in the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa. He told its reporter he never smoked or drank alcohol before or after he got his first gig at age 18.

That job didn’t last long because his mother, Susan, sent the police after him to keep him away from musicians who partied too heavily. He immediately obeyed her, borrowed 20 cents and to caught the next streetcar home.

It’s possible Weaver’s tucked-away business and gentlemanly demeanor could explain why this city along the Monongahela River waited until the year before he died at age 92 to recognize him with its lifetime achievement award.

He hasn't been forgotten, though. A photograph of an all-black band in the 1920s with Weaver holding a banjo is part of a slide show that will be featured next month to celebrate another milestone in the historic town. The presentation will highlight Monongahela's best collection of photographs through the ages, including some that date to the Civil War era.

That gathering will mark the 40th birthday of the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium, an unusual park along the banks of the Monongahela River. A number of related events are planned before the arena with seats painted to appear like the American flag undergoes $1.3 million in renovations.

The slide show will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, in a National City Bank branch at 318 W. Main St. Admission will be $5, with proceeds benefiting the Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce. Reservations are not required.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Friday night football in Shovel Row

We lived in 1958-59 in one of the houses to the right along Shovel Row, shown in this photo circa 1895 taken during a flood along the Monongahela River in Charleroi, Pa. Photo courtesy of Charleroi Area Historical Society.

By Scott Beveridge

My earliest memories were born at age 3 on the wrong side of the tracks.

They come from 1958 while our family lived in a four-room, shabby duplex in Charleroi, Pa., beside an alley leading directly to the Monongahela River.

One involved a band of hobos that squatted on the riverbank, a story that came to mind after being shown last week the photo of Shovel Row, above, in the archives of the Charleroi Area Historical Society.

A few of the kids from the neighborhood sneaked down there one day and spied through the weeds on the homeless tramps gathered around a fire pit and drinking whiskey or moonshine in the mid-afternoon. Some were eating from tin cans while others hunched under lean-tos. The scene quickly scared me back home.

Mom hated that house from day one because it also was parked beside busy railroad tracks and she feared for the safety of her three young boys. Ours was a rental among a row of 10 double houses constructed in the late 19th century for workers of a nearby iron works that fed its shovel factory. Beyond, up the steep hills of the valley, sat the wealthy downtown district and mansions where the local merchants and bankers lived.

The Charleroi High School football field’s north end post was no more than 30 feet from the rear, second-floor bedroom window in our apartment. During each Friday night home game, we gathered at that window to watch the action on the field from what dad thought was the best seat in the stadium, especially because it was free.

Those in the paying seats of better means probably looked at us as white trash.

But it didn’t matter to us, especially one night when Charleroi’s Myron “Mike” Pottios kicked a scoring field goal and the ball bounced over the field’s tall wooden fence into our backyard. For a moment, it was almost as if a million dollars had fallen from the sky into our possession.

Pottios, a native of Van Voorhis, went on to be drafted in 1961 by the Pittsburgh Steelers and 12-year career in Pro Football.

In short order, we moved away from Shovel Row and the pesky, busybody landlady who lived next door in an identical clapperboard house.

Today, just two of them survive covered in vinyl siding, including the one where we lived. The stadium is still there, too, as is the brick shovel factory that became headquarters of the Model Cleaners dry cleaning company.

A business that deals in propane is situated closest to the river on land where the lower row of five worker houses once stood.

Trash is strewn around the path leading to the place where the hobos once sought shelter. The fire pit is still there in the center of a few concrete blocks that double as seats for the loafers who tossed their empty beer cans into the flames.

One two worker houses remain along Shovel Row in July 2009. We lived in the right side of the second duplex from the right.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A notch up from hillbilly grub

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – An unpeeled banana dusted with paprika and melted cheddar isn’t on the menu at Double Wide Grill, a restaurant in an old filling station in Pittsburgh.

But that’s what a server delivers on a recent Sunday afternoon as a joke to the bartender at the kooky 2-year-old business on East Carson Street in the Pittsburgh, Pa.'s, trendy South Side district.

“That’s why I love working here,” said the bartender named Carly, who bears a mild resemblance to Jennifer Aniston, but as a dark brunette. “Your foods up,” she said while passing the silly tapas to me and others while flashing her infections smile.

Of course no one else takes her up on that side dish, but there is plenty of other he-man food being passed around this joint, where auto is king.

The business at Carson and 24th streets will bring a smile to anyone's face. An old green pickup truck strung with Christmas lights is suspended above the bar while recycled chrome step bumpers double as foot rests.

Gas pump nozzles pull double duty as coat racks, and mirrors framed in car tires can be found in the rest rooms. Meanwhile, hubcaps line the ceiling and empty metal gallon-sized oil cans hang over the tables as chandeliers.

The menu is similarly as quirky. The “On TrÃ¥ys” are loaded with beef, pork and chicken, and can be mixed and matched on build-your-own TV dinner-style metal plates. The hubcap potato discs with garlic and herbs would best complete each meal.

There are vegetarian selections, too, including that nothing food known as tofu. The unlikely vegan who might land here could also select a house trailer salad with sweet corn and avocados.

This restaurant in what was once a bland four-bay concrete-block garage is another gift to the city by Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff, owners of the coffeehouse down the street where young bohemians with robins egg blue hair mingle with middle-aged nerds over organic tea.

It’s noisy at the Double Wide, though, and especially so on nice days when the garage doors are up and a fleet of Harley-Davidson motorcycles rumbles away from the neighboring biker bar.

This place and all of its hillbilly charm is a NASCAR fan’s fantasy. The only things missing are shots of moonshine and the smell of high-octane engine fuel.