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A Desire to Keep The Streetcars Rolling

Originally posted 2015-10-28 14:08:10. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

There are hundreds of places throughout the region with ongoing connections to the past. Chances are you have not gotten around to visiting them. Maybe you just need a scouting report. Here’s one to check out:

All photos by Leon J. Pollom/

Scott Becker hops aboard a 1911 double-end trolley used in Rio DeJaneiro, Brazil.

Scott Becker hops aboard a 1911 double-end trolley used in Rio DeJaneiro, Brazil.

You Can Still Ride Them Here

A streetcar named Washington regularly rolled 25 miles through the woods south of Pittsburgh. Then, one day it stopped.

Weeds rose above the steel tracks and leaned with the winds of change. Suburban buildings, parking lots and other things of the Automobile Age ripped up the tracks.

Surprisingly, that last trolley to run between Pittsburgh and Little Washington, PA, is not history. It still operates near the southern end of its former route. So do many of its relatives.

There you’ll find the final vintage streetcar to roll over a Pittsburgh street (1999). Its folding doors still clap shut. Steel on steel, its wheels still squeak around curves. Up from New Orleans, is a famous cousin. The one named Desire.

More than 50 such conveyances are available to ride, get married in, celebrate birthdays in, get photographed in, or just nostalgically reflect in — all at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

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Originally posted 2016-01-13 11:12:43. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

David Bowie died as an old man earlier this week.  Reports indicate it was because he lived beyond his youth and middle age.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Bowie was 24 when he came to Pittsburgh in 1972.

 . . . And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations. . .

The poster below was taped to shop windows to announce Bowie’s concert.

It goes way back . . . back before cellphones and the Internet, McMansions and SUVs, before the War on Drugs and even before President Ronald Reagan.

It recalls a freer time for Baby Boomers, the ones often described as “disaffected.” According to the Webster-Meriam dictionary, that means they were dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them.

According to me, they aspired to be creative, but not necessarily productive. They saw value in getting wasted.

The pervasiveness of the drug culture is evident in the poster. The main ticket outlets were headshops/record stores.


Ziggy Stardust in the Burgh

Bowie came as Ziggy Stardust. He would remain so only for another year. Bowie retired his Stardust persona to get away from cocaine and —  to extend his life.

The $5 ticket price may seem ridiculously inexpensive, but that was back when performers made their money on record sales not concerts. Concert tours were just a way of selling albums.

That changed in the 1990s as music became downloadable. Bowe’s last concert here in 2004 would have cost you 10 times as much as the first. Tickets prices doubled and tripled again over the next decade.

More interesting is where you took your $5 in 1972 to buy a ticket.

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It Ain’t Easy Saving the Past

Originally posted 2016-05-04 18:39:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

So, you want to preserve an old historic building? Of course not. You want someone else do it.Blockhouse1

Let’s look at two examples where people did come forward.

First we’ll detail the effort, setbacks and determination of a group of women who ensured the Fort Pitt Block House was not broken up and dumped into a hole somewhere. They also kept it from being moved out of context to Schenley Park.

Then, we’ll look at a tavern that served drinks for at least 234 years before anyone outside the West End noticed its age. It was 2011-04-30-west-end-old-stone-tavern-02about to bow before a bulldozer when local preservationists stepped up to the bar.

They want it to be preserved and studied. Maybe for a tourist attraction, maybe for a cool professional office. So far, all that’s been delivered to their table is bulldozer protection. They can take heart in knowing it wasn’t easy for the block house saviors, either.

Rich Women vs. Rich Men

The block house saga was a story of rich women donning their hats (striking by today’s standards), meeting rich and powerful men in their corporate and political domains, and not taking “No” for an answer. Well, sometimes they did. Then, they made the most of it.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

They were actually granddaughters and great-granddaughters of men who fought in the revolution. True, those men helped create a new Democratic nation, but that was not their prime motivation.

They wanted personal wealth.  They got it and gave it to their descendants.

It came from speculating on land, Indian land. There’s a reason why George Washington, a surveyor, died the richest man in the country.

Those who fought in the Revolution, or otherwise advanced the cause, were promised Indian land when it was over.

Land-hungry colonists thought their British overlords were too protective of Indian treaties. The Indians, not surprisingly, didn’t think Britain protected them at all. Americans also did not want to pay taxes to cover the war that had driven the French out of their way in Indian territory.

So, the Revolution flared. It created what was considered “old money” by the time the local DAR chapter formed in 1891.

Appreciating their rich roots, members took on a never-ending project: obtain, restore and display the Fort Pitt Block House.

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We’ll Go Under That Bridge When We Get to It

Originally posted 2015-12-30 17:15:18. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Far more people traveled under the Greenfield Bridge before it disappeared Monday than ever traveled over it. That isn’t what was envisioned when it opened 92 years ago.

It was supposed to be part of a landscaped thoroughfare making travel through the city a leisurely experience in the wondrous age of automobiles.  Therein is the story of Beechwood Boulevard, the longest convoluted street in a city of many, and a romantic vision that ultimately made Pittsburgh more livable.

If you drive through Squirrel Hill, you may wonder why the boulevard meanders so much without changing names. It is because a century ago, Beechwood went on a growth spree, trying to sidle up to every recently created park it could reach.

Many cities developed similar park-oriented roads at that time. Some called them, get this . .  parkways. We’ll get back to that.

An art commission reviewed the design for the Beechwood Boulevard bridge at Greenfield.  The commission wanted to ensure it would appeal to what were called Sunday drivers, those out for recreational cruises.

It approved a graceful arching concrete expanse. Drivers would be culturally elevated by beauty, and relieved not to crash into the valley below. That came close to happening.

The wood structure it replaced, sometimes called the Schenley Park Bridge, was falling down, falling down. City Photographer pictures dated  1909 show a major effort underway to jack the bridge up and get its sliding feet firmly replanted on the hillsides.

Photos dated 1921 show a splintered debris field across the valley. A “Closed Bridge Sign” teetering over one edge indicated the span had already been closed when it fell.

Not that it would have hit much.  Down below,  you would not see cars sitting six abreast and motoring impatience rising with the fumes. There was just unpaved Forward Avenue and Four Mile Run lazily tracing the bottom of the ravine.

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Kane Was Able

Originally posted 2016-05-25 12:11:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

As rabid supporters  of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gnash their teeth, it may be time to look at John Kane.

No, not John McCain. John Kane. Is he a candidate? No, he’s dead. Has been since 1934.

Kane was a one-legged, uneducated laborer who picked up a paint brush late in life and did everything “wrong.” 

I bring up the Pittsburgh artist because the most common adjective used on social networks these days is “stupid.”

It may be just as common on television, but I don’t watch that.

“Stupid” describes other political camps in the least forgiving way possible. Although one would think you are born stupid, there is an underlying belief that others make you that way (college, parents, National Rifle Assn., etc.) And, you are just too  . . . too . . ., well, stupid to know any better.

A better word would be “naive.” (I am college-corrupted, so I know.)

The word is far more forgiving, but of course these are not forgiving times.

Naiveté was both celebrated and laughed at in the time of John Kane. In fact, it was his claim to fame.

Moving, Moving on Up

Kane was quite young when his peasant family moved from Ireland to Scotland. His father hoped to find good work to improve their lot. The boy was only 9 when he insisted he be permitted to quit school and go to work in a shale mine. Good thing he did because his father died the following year.

Mrs. Cain (spelling before Ellis Island)) then married a man who soon left for America to seek opportunity . In 1879,  19-year-old John followed and joined his stepfather in Pennsylvania.

“I was always on the lookout for better jobs,” Kane wrote in his autobiography. 

“The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn’t worry me a bit.”

He worked in McKeesport, Connellsville and Braddock, and then went to Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Kane labored for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a tubing factory, a coal mine and a steel mill. He was a construction worker and street paver.

He was powerfully built,  so, if the economy was good, he always got hired. That ended  late one night after he returned to Braddock.

An unlit B&O train surprised Kane and companions as they cut across a rail yard.  He pushed a cousin out of the way, but Kane’s leg got caught and the train severed it five inches below the knee.

Takes Leg Loss in Stride

Recovery took months for the 31-year-old and he came to depend on charities like the Salvation Army.  He became so good at walking on a wooden leg, though, that few ever noticed a limp until his later years.

Still, he had trouble finding work. The B&O Railroad finally gave him a low-paying job as a night watchman.

At 37, Kane married Maggie Halloran. After the births of two daughters, he needed more money. Kane started painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks.

“I . . . became in love with paint,” he wrote.

At noon, while others were eating, Kane painted  pictures on the sides of boxcars. He said the foreman didn’t mind as long he painted over the creations after the lunch break.

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