Category: Commentary/Editorial, So-Called Radio Humor || By Jason Togyer
As some of you probably read in the Post-Gazette on Saturday, Verizon is discontinuing its free telephone weather forecasts.
The weather hotline --- available at (412) 936-1212 --- has been available since at least the 1960s (the number was originally "WEather 6-1212"). Bell System was originally mandated to provide the weather forecasts as a public service; although that regulation has since been dropped, Verizon has offered it as a courtesy ever since.
A phone company spokesman told Gary Rotstein of the P-G that the widespread availability of the Weather Channel and weather forecasts on the Internet have made the hotline obsolete.
Still, 936-1212 was heavily used by elderly people without computers and lazy radio disc jockeys all over Pittsburgh.
Last weekend, on my lousy radio show, I decided to interview one of the people who has done the weather forecasts at 936-1212 for many years:
Those numbers will give you wind speed and direction and tell you if it's raining, snowing, cloudy or foggy, but they don't give forecasts.
Of course, Duquesne Light still provides a time and temperature hotline at (412) 391-9500. Down in Uniontown, Fayette Bank and Trust used to have its own time-and-temperature line, but I don't remember the number, and I don't know if it still works.
If anyone from the Fay-West area remembers the number, can you try it out, and post it in the comments if it works?
. . .
Finally --- and this is no laughing matter --- the P-G and Trib offer a reminder that things that seem "cool" when TV detectives do them don't work in real life.
I don't know the officer accused, and I certainly don't know if he's guilty. (He's got a hearing scheduled for Monday.) But there's a lot of mistrust of police officers, and incidents like these don't help make their jobs any easier.
City and county officials joined leaders of the Allegheny Trail Alliance and executives from U.S. Steel on Thursday to celebrate the addition of the former McKeesport Connecting Railroad bridge to the rail-trail network linking Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md., and Washington, D.C.
The bridge across the Monongahela between the city's Riverton neighborhood and South Duquesne will help close a major gap that forces bicyclists, hikers and joggers to use busy surface streets after leaving the trail at the McKees Point Marina.
U.S. Steel Chairman and CEO John P. Surma, left, presents a ceremonial deed to Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and McKeesport Mayor James Brewster.
Built in 1890, the bridge originally served as the Pennsylvania Railroad's only entry into the city of McKeesport. Later owned by the Union Railroad, a U.S. Steel subsidiary, it was heavily used as a connection between the company's blast furnaces in Duquesne and its pipe mills in McKeesport.
Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Regional Trail Corporation, speaks Thursday with the bridge in the background.
In celebration of Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary and to mark the connection of the bridge to the trail network, a 24-hour relay race will be held this weekend. Eighteen teams of six cyclists each will depart Washington, D.C., on Friday carrying a proclamation from the U.S. Congress and deliver it to Pittsburgh --- 335 miles away --- the following day.
The racers are scheduled to pass through the city on Saturday morning.
All bicyclers are invited to join a final "community ride" from McKeesport to Point State Park on Oct. 4. Visit bike250.org for more information.
"Woodsmock," the second-annual benefit for Fay-West based "Unity: A Journey of Hope," gets underway at 2 p.m. today at the Smock Volunteer Fire Department in Smock, Fayette County.
The all-day rock, country and blues music festival includes The Klick; a Grateful Dead-tribune band, Fungus; the Bill Ali Band; Blind Date; Blacklist; Steeltown; and Brynn Marie.
Unity is an all-volunteer, tax-deductible organization that grants wishes to people with terminal illnesses.
The fire hall is located on 125 Shaffer Ave. in Smock, just off Route 51 south of Route 201. Call (724) 677-4789 for more information.
. . .
Pittsburgh Area Jitterbug Club hosts a dance at the Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, with music from D.J. "Bugger" at 9 p.m. tonight. Call (412) 366-2138 ... Dave Iglar Band plays at 10 p.m. tonight at Harvey Wilner's Village Tavern, 1620 Pennsylvania Ave., West Mifflin. Call (412) 466-1331 ... Buena Vista Volunteer Fire Department hosts its fourth-annual car, motorcycle and truck show from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at the fire hall in Elizabeth Township. Food and beverages will be on sale and no registration fee is required.
(Disclaimer: I have friends and family who work for UPMC Health System, but so do most residents of Allegheny County at this point. Nevertheless, opinions expressed in today's Almanac are mine alone, and do not reflect the opinions of any other person or organization.)
In the wake of the resignation of the president of UPMC McKeesport hospital, several people have emailed the Almanac to express their fears about the facility's future.
A statement put out by UPMC's executive office and forwarded to the Almanac says Ronald Ott resigned to "pursue other professional interests."
Here's the memo (PDF) that was distributed to employees (a tip of the Tube City hard hat to our alert Almanac readers); these are the relevant details for Our Fair City:
With Ron's departure, UPMC will merge the administrative structures of UPMC McKeesport and UPMC Braddock. Current UPMC Braddock President Cindy Dorundo will assume the role of President of both hospitals and maintain administrative offices at both facilities. Each hospital, however, will retain its separate Board of Directors and medical staff.
Cindy joined UPMC in 1995 and has been President of UPMC Braddock since 2007. She brings vast amounts of experience and strategic vision to her expanded role and has successfully worked with UPMC Braddock's Board, medical staff, employees and community leaders to further develop the offering of quality and specialized care within the region. UPMC remains committed to delivering the highest-quality, most cost-effective, patient-focused health care available to the residents of the McKeesport and Braddock communities.
(I don't know what "resigned to pursue other interests" means in the health care world, but in media, when someone "resigned to pursue other interests," it means they were told to scram.)
Ott's departure is jarring because he's one of the last high-ranking executives from the independent McKeesport Hospital, which was merged into UPMC in 1998. He was named president and chief executive officer back in 1992.
Here are the fears that have been expressed over the last 24 hours by residents and UPMC McKeesport employees:
UPMC McKeesport is going to be downsized, and Ott refused to go along;
UPMC McKeesport is going to move out of the city;
UPMC McKeesport is going to change its name, because UPMC thinks the name "McKeesport" carries a stigma; and
UPMC McKeesport's doctors and services are going to move to UPMC's new Monroeville facility.
The official word from UPMC is that only the administrative staffs of Braddock and McKeesport are merging, and that both facilities are safe.
A confidential source told the Almanac that any other rumors are false: "McKeesport is one of our most important community hospitals. We're very high on keeping it viable."
Indeed, UPMC McKeesport is one of the busiest hospitals in Allegheny County, according to state Department of Health statistics. The 200-bed facility had an 80.1 percent occupancy rate in 2006-07. Only the combined 1,572 beds at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside had a higher occupancy rate (84.2 percent).
That's better than hospitals in comparable cities like Beaver, Latrobe, Jeannette, Washington, Uniontown and Greensburg.
While not the busiest emergency room in Allegheny County, UPMC McKeesport does handle more emergency cases than West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, UPMC Braddock, Ohio Valley General in Kennedy Township, and Magee-Womens Hospital --- about 32,000 cases in 2006-07.
Still, people cited several different reasons for why they have these fears. Some claim that housekeeping and other support services have already been cut back at the hospital.
Others pointed out that only four facilities in the UPMC system have unionized nurses: McKeesport, Braddock, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and Sherwood Oaks in Cranberry Township. Shutting down Braddock and McKeesport, these folks say, would allow UPMC to lay off those nurses and hire non-union nurses in Monroeville at lower wages and with no seniority rules.
Their fears are not completely unfounded; hospitals in Brownsville and Aliquippa have struggled to remain open, though they aren't nearly as well-used as UPMC McKeesport.
UPMC McKeesport is the city's largest employer and a crucial provider of services to the Mon-Yough area.
Nobody asked me, but it would be a nice gesture if the new president of UPMC McKeesport would reassure everyone that the facility has a long-term future in the city as a full-service community hospital.
The people who have supported and come to rely upon UPMC McKeesport, and its employees, deserve that much.
If you've ridden Amtrak lately, you know that the "clickety-clack" sound is almost gone from the railroads. That's because the old splices (railroads call them "fishplates") between pieces of rail have been largely eliminated on mainline tracks. Instead, rails are welded together into long continuous steel ribbons.
You may think that railroad rails are one-size-fits all, but that's not exactly so. Different size rails are used for different applications. Generally speaking, the heavier the trains, the heavier the rails used to carry them.
Tracks that don't see many trains, or where the trains generally operate with lighter loads and slower speeds, get lighter rail.
The type of rail and manufacturer's name is embossed right into the side of each rail, along with the date of manufacture, so that if a rail breaks, the railroad can identify the company that supplied the faulty product.
The rail at the top of this page, for instance, says "14031 PS CC CARNEGIE USA 1949 ///"
Take "14031 PS." That means that one yard of this rail weighs 140 pounds; "PS" indicates that it's made to a specification published by the Pennsylvania Railroad ("Pennsylvania Special") in 1931. (Not sure what the "CC" means, and searching the Interwebs was no help.)
"CARNEGIE" signifies that the rail was rolled by the Carnegie-Illinois division of U.S. Steel; and according to this webpage, the three "hash marks" mean it was rolled in the third month --- March --- of 1949.
The rail pictured above says "14031 RE USS ILLINOIS 1959 ////////////." It's also 140 pounds per yard, but it follows a specification set by the American Railway Engineering Association and was rolled by U.S. Steel at one of its Carnegie-Illinois plants in December 1959.
I'm not sure why one rail says "Carnegie" and the other "Illinois," but I'm going to guess that the Carnegie rail was rolled in one of the old Carnegie Steel plants --- possibly Braddock or Duquesne? --- while the other was rolled in an old Illinois Steel plant, probably U.S. Steel's South Works in Chicago. (Corrections are welcome.)
Naturally, I wanted to see where the new rail came from.
Ah, Nippon. That's somewhere near Donora, isn't it? No?
As it turns out, there are only two U.S. plants making rails. One, in Oregon, is owned by a Russian company; the other, a former Bethlehem Steel plant in Steelton, is owned by Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal (which also owns the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh coke plant in Monessen).
Most of the rest of our rail now comes from overseas; in this case, from Japan's Nippon Steel.
Foreign-made steel is nothing new, nor should it surprise anyone that there are so few American steel plants left that most of our rail comes from overseas. If the railroad needs rail, I don't blame them for getting it wherever they can.
But it's amazing that it's cheaper to haul tons of steel across the ocean than to manufacture it right here. And that a product as vital to our economy as rails has to be imported.
And it's worth mentioning that this rail line runs between Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museums. Considering that Andrew Carnegie's first adult job was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, I think the old Scot would be pretty appalled.
On the other hand, he'd probably be proud that his mills turned out rails that were so well-made they remained in service more than a half-century later.
Category: History, Mon Valley Miscellany, Sarcastic? Moi? || By Jason Togyer
For years, the McKeesport suburb of Liberty Borough has used Philadelphia's Liberty Bell as its emblem, and many people assume that Liberty (motto: "Like Glassport, but with more Republicans") was named in patriotic commemoration of the values that made this country great.
As John Kerry might say, "Au contraire." In fact, the founding of Liberty Borough provides one of the Mon Valley's many abject lessons in inter-governmental non-cooperation.
In other words, Liberty Borough was named in patriotic commemoration of the values that made Pennsylvania a stagnant backwater, and have left Allegheny County with 130 separate municipalities.
Liberty was originally part of Elizabeth Township. In 1869, property owners seceded from Elizabeth to create Lincoln Township.
Less than 30 years later, another group of property owners broke away to form Port Vue Borough --- so named "due to the beautiful view of the port that the Borough of McKeesport had on the Youghiogheny River between First Street and Seventh Street."
Then in the early 1900s, Port Vue Borough council raised real estate taxes to fund new water lines, but wouldn't extend the lines to about 100 people who lived on farms above the McKeesport Tin Plate Co.
That cinched it; in 1912, those 100 people petitioned Allegheny County to allow them to secede, too, and they did, calling the new borough "Liberty" because they had been "liberated" from Port Vue's tyranny.
(It was a bloodless revolution, and luckily no Port Vue councilmen were guillotined on Romine Avenue.)
. . .
I was thinking about this while reading the recent coverage in the Daily News of objections by residents of Versailles (itself the product of a secession from old Versailles Township) to eliminating their local police force in favor of contracted services from McKeesport or White Oak.
Versailles has a population of 1,700 people, and spends about a third of its annual budget on police service. Most of its police officers are part-timers; it rarely, if ever, has more than one police officer on duty at a time, and already relies on the larger neighboring departments for backup.
All things considered, eliminating Versailles' hardworking but outmatched police department would likely save the borough's taxpayers a lot of money and give them better service.
It's a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. Judging by the comments made by some Versailles residents, you would have thought that borough council had proposed hosting a NAMBLA convention or an al Qaeda training camp.
We couldn't get Port Vue and Liberty to cooperate in 1908, and we can't get Versailles and McKeesport or White Oak to cooperate in 2008.
It's nice to see that in 100 years, we haven't learned a thing.
. . .
Anyway, as a patriotic son of Liberty myself, I was delighted recently to find a copy of the official souvenir program from the borough's 50th anniversary celebration in 1962.
The 100th anniversary of Liberty Borough is four years away, and yet it seems like only yesterday that I was standing on Liberty Way, watching the parade for the 75th anniversary.
I was in seventh grade that year, which makes me officially an Adult, I guess, as if my rapidly receding hairline wasn't enough evidence. (Some people say I've grown old, but I haven't grown up.)
As a public service to all of the other former and present Liberty Borough residents, as well as people who grew up in less fortunate places like Port Vue (ptui!), Glassport and Lincoln, Tube City Online is pleased to present the entire text of that 1962 souvenir book.
Health Department, Elizabeth Twp. Reach Agreement: The Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority will pay $20,000 in fines to the Allegheny County Health Department for dumping raw sewage into the Youghiogheny River.
In addition, according to the health department, Elizabeth Township will connect its system to the Municipal Authority of McKeesport's wastewater plant in the city's 10th Ward once upgrades are made to that facility.
On numerous occasions, county and state officials say, the township's sewage treatment plant has dumped millions of gallons of untreated water into the river since August 2007.
The first phase of the consent order requires the township to map and monitor its sewer lines; inspect and repair leaks; and identify and remove connections between the sanitary sewer lines and storm drains, which allows rain water to enter the system and causes some of the overflows. That work must be complete by October 2010.
The second phase will require Elizabeth Township to connect to the city's plant. The township sanitary authority will be penalized $100 to $500 per day if it fails to comply with the terms.
(Tube City hard-hat tip: Alert Reader Jeff.)
. . .
WM Vets Get High Marks for Website: A website maintained by West Mifflin's Veterans of Foreign Wars "Intrepid" Post 914 has won second prize among all VFW posts in the United States.
"The members of the post couldn't be more pleased," said Mike Mauer, post quartermaster and website contributor. "For years we've made a deliberate effort to reach out to younger service personnel. This award shows that we're heading in the right direction."
Features of the Post 914 website include a slide show that highlights its activities and information about local soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The site was created by members of the post and designed by Jim Hartman, creator of the www.15122.com website that spotlights activities in and around West Mifflin.
"Through his work with the Lions and other community non-profit organizations, Jim has shown himself to be a vital asset to West Mifflin and the entire Mon Valley," Mauer said. "We couldn't have been able to get this award without him."
According to the VFW, 70 websites were entered in this year's competition. Entries were judged on the quality of their design and content, their navigation elements and the speed with which the pages load.
. . .
'Jazz' Fundraiser Benefits Local Campus: Vocalist Lynn Roberts will headline the fifth-annual "All That's Jazz" concert to benefit scholarships at Penn State's Greater Allegheny Campus in the city.
Roberts began her long career as a young "girl singer" with the Charlie Spivak Orchestra at the end of the Big Band era and before her 18th birthday, she'd shared a stage with Frank Sinatra. She later performed with both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James and Benny Goodman.
The concert, dinner and charity auction begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in the campus' Student Community Center, just off University Drive near Renzie Park. Tickets are $75 each or 10 for $600, and all proceeds benefit the Penn State Greater Allegheny Scholarship Fund.
"Scholarship funds have become increasingly important to our students and their families," Chancellor Curtiss E. Porter said in a prepared statement. "With 85 percent of college students depending upon some form of financial aid, these funds can make the difference between students staying in college or having to make some hard decisions about their futures."
Since 2004, "All That's Jazz" has raised $158,000 for the Penn State Greater Allegheny Scholarship Fund, according to a campus spokeswoman. Last year, proceeds from the concerts supported 34 students with nearly $51,000 in aid.
To reserve tickets, call (412) 675-9048.
. . .
PSGA Focuses on Latin America, Caribbean: A lecture by the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh will kick off this year's international programs at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
PSGA's international teaching program began in 2004 and is designed to expose students to intercultural and international issues.
This year, the McKeesport-based campus will focus on the culture and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, a spokeswoman said.
Events begin with a lecture at 12 noon on Sept. 30 by Kathleen de Walt, a professor of anthropology at Pitt, on global food prices and their effect on "food security" in Latin America.
The lecture, to be held in the Ostermayer Room at the Student Community Center, is free and open to the public.
On display now through April in the J. Clarence Kelly Library are 32 works of art on loan from the Friends of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti.
Friends of HAS is a Pittsburgh-based organization which supports the operation of the rural Haitian hospital through the sale of Haitian artwork.
Artwork on display right now at Kelly Library includes a variety of styles depicting Haitian scenes and ceremonies.
Other upcoming events include a "Tango Night" on Nov. 11 and several performances for children in December.
It's no baloney --- one of the city's best-known businesses is adding a new location.
Rich and Jan Kugler, owners of Lampert's Market on Grandview Avenue, have purchased the former Renzie Mini Mart on Eden Park Boulevard near Penn State Greater Allegheny and will reopen it as a convenience store and deli.
The new store is expected to open early in 2009. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
Catering to customers from the city's southern neighborhoods, White Oak, Versailles and surrounding communities, the store will keep later hours than the Grandview location, provide off-street parking, and offer a variety of "meals on the go."
"I want to do hot foods, deli items, pizza and hoagies," says Rich Kugler, 52, a graduate of McKeesport Senior High School and the University of Pittsburgh and a butcher for 30 years. "Casseroles, lasagna, stuffed chicken breast --- we can do all that, no problem, and we'll probably offer a couple of soups a day."
However, a big attraction is likely to be Lampert's renowned selection of ethnic, prepared meats --- like kolbassi, hot sausage, sweet sausage, hurka and Hungarian "slab bacon" --- and its salads.
Customers who want a taste of the old country "literally come in from everywhere, and it goes everywhere," Kugler says. On Thursday, for instance, Lampert's overnighted a shipment of kolbassi to a customer in North Carolina.
"I don't like to do it, and I tell people 'You don't want to do it,' because it's so expensive," Kugler says. "But they want it anyway. I've got one guy who's originally from McKeesport, who's now a car dealer in Wyoming. Whenever he's having a party, he calls and says 'I want 20 pounds of kolbassi --- you can charge it to my UPS account.' They come and pick it up, and he doesn't care how much it costs."
Kugler employs another full-time meat cutter, Scott Zweibel, a Lampert's employee for 17 years. He admits he couldn't survive on business from the city alone; regular customers who want freshly butchered, prime meats drive to Lampert's from Homestead, Munhall, West Elizabeth and West Mifflin.
All butchering at Lampert's is "done on demand," Kugler says. "A guy called yesterday from Elizabeth --- Jan took the call --- he said he wanted five pounds of ground chuck, and he was on his way."
Although Lampert's carries bread, milk, canned goods, pasta and other items, about 90 percent of its sales are in meat, Kugler says.
The market has been in the same location on Grandview, about six blocks south of Versailles Avenue, for at least 80 years. Kugler's parents, Clarence and Betty Kugler, purchased the store in 1982.
The elder Kugler had been a meat department manager for A&P before that chain closed its Pittsburgh area stores, and trained his son in the business. "He taught me well," Rich Kugler says.
Clarence Kugler died in January 2005, and Betty Kugler is now retired.
The Eden Park location will have a limited selection of fresh meat --- "stuff that doesn't need to be cut on-site" --- along with snacks, lottery tickets, cigarettes, and other standard convenience store items.
"We've got a lot of work to do yet," Kugler says. The building is a former Amoco and Exxon gas station, and the fuel tanks still must be removed; the interior also needs to be remodeled.
The Kuglers and the other employees of Lampert's Market also will have to cope with the holiday rush. Hams, roasts and kolbassi from Lampert's are staples on many Mon Valley dinner tables at Christmas and New Year's, and orders will start rolling in by mid-November.
"Easter's big, but nothing's as big as Christmas," Kugler says. "They really go all out."
Lampert's Market is located at 1902 Grandview Ave. Hours are daily 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays until 4 p.m. Call (412) 664-7371.
This lovely late summer weather that we're having seems like a perfect reason to bust out this 1958-vintage postcard of the corner of Fifth and Walnut, Downtown.
Today, the Peoples' Union Bank building is all but vacant. (I notice that a sign is now billing it as the "Lum Tech Center.") The store next door, which I still think of as "White Cross" or "Revco," is now a CVS Pharmacy. The old G.C. Murphy Co. store is now a plasma center.
Just above the awning of the J.C. Penney Co. store, you can see a yellow and red blur. That's the sign pointing the way to the restaurant above Murphy's.
To the right of Penney's is a Rexall Drug store, Hirshberg's Department Store, and R.E. Kaplan Furniture.
Across the street, you can just make out the signs reading "Richard's Shoes" (look just below the "Florsheim" logo) and "DeRoy's." DeRoy's was a Pittsburgh-area chain of jewelry shops, while Richard's Shoes became Rubenstein's.
The orange sign with the jagged edge marks the location of Cox's children's shop --- before 1972, the big store at the corner of Fifth and Walnut was a lot smaller, and mainly housed the ladies' departments. Cox's men's wear department was in the next block of Fifth Avenue, across the street from the present location of First Commonwealth Bank.
In the far distance, you can barely make out the top of the G.C. Murphy Co. home office and Goodman's Jewelry. Those buildings are still there.
But everything else in this photo --- Penney's, Kaplan's, Cox's, the train tracks --- is gone.
Would I like a time machine for just one afternoon to go back and stand on that corner?
Oh, hell yes.
Do I wish we still had a bustling Downtown shopping district? Hell yes, again. But name one town in Western Pennsylvania that has a bustling central business district. Most of them look pretty much like Downtown McKeesport: Dollar stores, a few bank branches, and government and social-service agencies.
Of course, with the exception of the Peoples' Bank Building and --- arguably --- Cox's, none of these buildings were anything special. They were the strip mall buildings of their era, they weren't particularly attractive or exciting, and their loss isn't anything to get that upset about.
What made the city vital was the people. The buildings are gone, but a lot of good people are still here.
So appreciate the people we have now, and try to make your own neighborhood a little better. If that means calling city hall or your borough building and raising hell about potholes, crime, or abandoned buildings, then do it.
Spend money at businesses in the Mon Valley. Find a church or social group and consider volunteering. If you find ones you like, recommend them to other people. If you've moved away, think about moving back.
Maybe I'm naive, but I think each of us can make a small difference. A bunch of small differences can have a big impact.
And no matter what, for the next couple of days, enjoy the nice weather. In a couple of months, we'll be begging for weather like this.
Because you know what the Mon Valley looks like under a foot of dirty slush, and it ain't a pretty picture.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for Sept. 25 to mark the addition of the old Union Railroad Bridge between the city and Duquesne to the county's network of hiking-biking trails.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and U.S. Steel President and CEO John Surma are expected to attend the ceremony, along with state and local officials and other dignitaries.
The bridge and a section of trail through the former U.S. Steel National Works and Duquesne Works are among the last missing links in the 150-mile trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., known as the "Great Allegheny Passage."
U.S. Steel donated about two miles of right-of-way for use by the trail, while the Union Railroad and Norfolk Southern agreed to abandon the bridge.
The bridge, just upstream from the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge that connects East Fifth Avenue with Route 837, once served as the Pennsylvania Railroad's only link to McKeesport; the city was otherwise dominated by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, now both part of CSX Transportation. According to Bruce Cridlebaugh's PghBridges.com database, the 324-foot-long, through-truss type bridge was built in 1890.
It's sometimes called the "Riverton Bridge," in honor of the neighborhood that once sat at its south end, or the "McKeesport Connecting Bridge," after a Union Railroad subsidiary.
Rail customers in the RIDC Industrial Park on the old National Works property --- primarily Camp-Hill Corp., which operates National Works' former electric-resistance weld mill --- are now being served by CSX trains.
It's not the only news along the trail through McKeesport. At this month's city council meeting, Linda Brewster of the McKeesport Trail Commission reported that the old MYREC concession stand at Gergely Riverfront Park on Water Street is being converted into a shelter/stop for trail visitors.
About 15 banners created by artist Ann Rosenthal for use along the trail route are being hung by city electrician Tom Rosso, Brewster said.
. . .
In other business from this month's council meeting ...
. . .
Old Municipal Building: The city's former municipal building on Lysle Boulevard is being renovated this month in preparation for leasing space to new tenants.
City crews will be handling the cleanup and repairs, Public Works Director Nick Shermenti told council.
Most city offices have moved to the former National Bank of McKeesport Building at the intersection of Fifth and Sinclair streets, but the municipal building at Lysle and Market, constructed in 1959, still houses the police and fire departments.
Several agencies and elected officials have expressed an interest in the building, but roof leaks prevented them from signing leases. The roof was replaced by a contractor in June.
. . .
Ready for Winter: It's not too soon to be thinking about winter, especially if you're the one who has to put rock salt on local streets to melt snow and ice.
Shermenti told council that the city's salt bin is full, and that he doesn't expect to buy any more salt in 2008.
Prices have nearly doubled since last year, he noted. Although the city is locked into a price of $54 per ton through a joint-purchasing agreement with South Hills Area Council of Governments, the open rate is now $106 per ton through local vendors.
. . .
Retirement: City police Chief Joe Pero reported that Lt. Bill Matuch has retired after 20 years' service on the force. He will be honored at an upcoming council meeting, city officials said.
. . .
Cell Tower Plan Shelved: Plans to put a cellular phone tower on the old city reservoir in the Seventh Ward have been placed on hold indefinitely.
On a motion by Councilman Darryl Segina and seconded by Councilwoman Loretta Diggs, an application for a zoning variance to erect the tower on the corner of Beaver and Union avenues was removed from council's agenda.
The city expected to receive about $150,000 in revenue from the tower company, but council delayed a final vote on the application after residents complained about the possible health effects of increased RF radiation.
Officials have promised to meet with residents before any further action is taken on the proposal. Removing the plan from the agenda doesn't prevent council from reintroducing the proposal at a later date.
Does this sound familiar? The American economy is sound, and has been for the last eight years, says a Republican senator defending the incumbent president:
Yeah, that worked out really well. As James Lileks has noted, studying the 1930s is interesting, but I'm not sure I want to do it first-hand.
So, anyone want to go halfsies with me on a stand selling pencils and apples?
. . .
Meanwhile, go watch this ... it's Craig Ferguson of CBS-TV's "Late, Late Show" excoriating the media for the way they're covering the elections, and viewers who don't vote.
A few choice excerpts:
The point I'm trying to get is: this is a very important election this one, but you would never know it from the way it's being reported. On the Today Show this morning: "Which candidate would you rather have dinner with?"
Here's an easy answer: None. They're politicians. I don't want dinner with you and I don't want your friendship. Here is what I want to know, what are you going to do for the country, pal? What are you going to do?
Here is what I am saying to you: If you don't vote, you're a moron. "Not voting is a vote" --- no it isn't! Not voting is just being stupid. Voting is not sexy. Voting is not hip. It is not fashionable. It is not a movie. It is not a videogame. Frankly, voting is a pain in the ass. But here is a word, look it up, it's your duty to vote!
Listen. I am an American. This country is at war right now! Americans in foreign lands wearing uniform representing this country are losing their lives. Americans here in this country are losing their homes.
We have two patriotic candidates. Both love this country, but have different ideas what to do with it. Learn about them. Read about them. Question them. Listen to them. Then on Election Day, exercise your sacred right as an American.
I've been a little bit busy, but I wanted to share something for no reason other than it makes me laugh.
I'm a big fan of British comedy (yes, I am a pompous git ... er, twit), and I've been working my way through the BBC's list of the Top 100 Sitcoms. A few of them have shown up on public television in the U.S.; most of them haven't.
One show that never made it to the United States was "Dad's Army," which may be to British television what "M*A*S*H" is to American TV ... a ubiquitous sitcom whose early seasons are almost universally hailed as classics.
"Dad's Army," which was launched in 1968, is the story of Britain's "Home Guard" --- a corps of volunteers who were enlisted during World War II to help defend the U.K. from attack or invasion. Unfortunately, the able-bodied had all gone into the regular service, which left the elderly, the young and the infirm behind.
Many of the Home Guard members had previously served in World War I or other campaigns, and had children who'd been drafted --- hence the name, "Dad's Army."
The show ran for 10 seasons --- unusually long for a British sitcom --- and features a fictional seaside resort town, whose particularly hapless brigade is led by the local bank manager, George Mainwaring. (He pronounces it "Mannering.")
A vain and pompous man who's also decent at his core, Mainwaring appoints himself "captain" in the first episode, and refuses to surrender the rank, even when told to do so by the Ministry of War.
His sergeant is also his long-suffering second-in-command at the bank, Arthur Wilson, who's bullied into joining the Home Guard. Other members of the platoon include the town butcher, the undertaker, and Wilson's "nephew" (who may or may not be his illegitimate son).
As with a lot of British comedy, some of the humor comes from class distinctions --- Mainwaring came from a working-class household, and is trying to move up; he resents Wilson, who came from an upperclass background. If you find British humor a bit too "twee" or "precious," well, you're not going to like "Dad's Army." (In fairness, some Brits don't like it, either.)
Of course, unless you have a DVD player that can handle European discs, you're probably not going to get to see "Dad's Army." There is a "best of" set of three discs available from Amazon and other vendors, but it's fairly expensive.
On the other hand, if you like British humor, and you're enough of a technological geek (like me) that you don't mind messing with out-of-region DVDs, "Dad's Army" is worth seeking out.
Here's a clip that's from the third season ... at least I think so. Private Frazer (John Laurie), the local undertaker, is perpetually trying to impress the rest of the volunteers with his worldly experience as a sailor in the Royal Navy:
P.S. As with many other British sitcoms, American TV tried to adapt "Dad's Army" for U.S. audiences.
Unfortunately, "Dad's Army" got some of its humor from the fact that England really did face possible invasion during World War II, which gave the series a certain comedic tension. The mainland United States didn't face the same threat, so the U.S. version (called "The Rear Guard") lacked that spark.
As I've mentioned before, I could spend the rest of my life at the library, looking at microfilm, and not get bored.
Especially when I keep turning up items like this one:
That's right: Tailgunner Joe came to town in 1951 to make a speech at Tech High stadium. Tech High, for you young'uns, is what they used to call Cornell Intermediate School.
The stadium was next door along Spring Street; the bleachers were torn down years ago. (MHS alums of the '50s and '60s can probably remember when football games against local rivals like Glassport, Duquesne and Homestead high schools generated brawls among spectators that spilled out onto Spring Street and into surrounding neighborhoods. Ah, the "good" old days.)
We should erect some sort of monument to McCarthy befitting his personality. Maybe an upended whiskey bottle surrounded by blank sheets of paper --- like the ones he used to claim listed the names of "card-carrying Communists."
I sent that clipping to a friend with a historical bent, who asks:
Over the years, I often wondered what happened to the Junto, which I understood to be a group of people who enjoyed discussions about issues of importance. I know there was (and still is) a Junto Pavilion in Renzie Park, but little else about what happened to the organization.
Wikipedia says that the first "Junto" was founded in 1726 by Benjamin Franklin:
The group, initially composed of twelve members, called itself the Junto (the word is a mistaken use of the masculine singular Spanish adjective "joined", mistaken for the feminine singular noun "junta", "a meeting" ... The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Among the original members were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a cobbler, a clerk, and a merchant. Although most of the members were older than Franklin, he was clearly their leader.
Are there any ex-members of the McKeesport Junto around? I'd be interested to hear whatever became of the group. I think they lasted at least until the 1960s. The McKeesport Junto is also the organization that sponsored the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1947, as some of you know.
Like so many of these civic groups, I suspect they had a hard time getting people to join. Americans used to love to join bowling leagues, civic organizations, lodges, volunteer fire departments, clubs and fraternities; it's been well documented that all of those groups are in severe decline.
As a member of a couple of volunteer groups, including the model railroad club in Christy Park, I can tell you that plenty of people express interest, but when you actually ask them to commit to donating some time, they mumble and look at the floor. In the city, the Elks, Eagles and Moose have all faded, and I'm sure that the Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs are suffering, too. (Do we still have the Jaycees?)
It's doubly hard in McKeesport; these things used to be run by local business owners, and we have very few of those any more. They're also primarily geared for young professionals, and we don't have enough of those, either.
I suspect, however, that one thing would feed the other. If we had some organizations in the Mon Valley that were dedicated to young professionals, maybe they would attract other young professionals into the area.
By now, you've heard the news (broken by former Daily News sports editor "Stormin'" Norman Vargo) that North Huntingdon Township's zoning board has caught a sex club ... oops, sorry, a church ... operating in Guffey Hollow.
The founders --- "Rev." John Ondrik and his wife, Kim --- claim their "Church of Spiritual Humanities" on Turner Valley Road should be allowed an exception from township zoning regulations because it's just a peaceful, friendly, neighborhood non-denominational gathering of like-minded believers.
The neighbors claim the Ondriks are running ads on the Internet that label the place "Swinger's Palace" (no, I'm not linking to the website) and that they're running a prohibited business in a residential area.
They object to the principle of the thing, you see, not the fact that folks are running around half-naked with their participles dangling.
As many of you know, North Huntingdon is basically McKeesport East (as opposed to East McKeesport), because a lot of residents of Our Fair City fled across the Westmoreland County border in the 1970s and '80s to the friendly confines of the Norwin School District.
I like North Huntingdon, and I've always enjoyed writing about it. Some of the stories I've most enjoyed writing over the years were reported from the Norwin area.
Still, I always viewed NHT as kind of a white-bread suburban community. Now we know the truth: It's actually a white-bread suburban community with some seriously kinky people.
Given that my love life currently looks like this, I'm wondering now if I should start cruising Norwin Towne Square, or maybe hanging out in the parking lot of the Subway on Jacktown Hill.
I'll have to work on some pickup lines:
"Hey, baby, if you went to Norwin High School, then you know once a knight isn't enough."
"What do you say to dinner at Teddy's, and breakfast at your place?"
"Of course I'm a real preacher. Wanna come back to my church and see my steeple?"
OK, those may need some more work.
In the meantime, it's no wonder that I'm poor. I never thought of getting ordained as a mail-order preacher and turning my house into a church.
Still, I don't intend to do it. I can barely pick up my socks and wash the dishes now; I don't intend to have people traipsing through on Sunday morning.
Also, I'm sure not going to open a club for "swingers." I've seen enough of the people who live around here to know that I want them to remain fully-clothed at all times.
But if the North Huntingdon zoning board allows this thing to continue, then the traditional churches in the township had better watch out.
There's no way that the strawberry festival at Circleville United Methodist Church can compete with naked Twister.
Rookie patrolman Jeremy Zuber didn't have self-contained breathing apparatus, a helmet, or flame retardant clothes, just his training --- and his wits.
As the first person to respond to a fire call at Building 520 of the Hi View Gardens apartments on Coursin Street, Zuber sized up the situation and went to work.
It was just about 6:30 a.m. on a Friday morning in July. More than 50 people were asleep inside --- unaware of the fire raging on the third floor.
Zuber forced his way into 520 Coursin and began banging on the first-floor doors to wake up the tenants and get them to safety. Then he tried to make his way upstairs, but thick smoke forced him to retreat.
. . .
City fire crews were now arriving. Fire Captain Ed Drye Sr. brought a ladder and helped Zuber lead a woman and her son, trapped on the second floor, to safety. They were in the clear when the roof collapsed above their apartment.
In another part of the building, police Sgt. Connor Craig and Patrolman James Taylor were pushing their way through the smoke to kick in doors and lead residents to safety.
By now, more firefighters and suburban volunteers were rolling onto the scene. Driver Tom Perciavalle arrived and began rescuing residents trapped upstairs in 520; another driver, Eugene Esken, led city and volunteer crews inside to keep the fire from spreading to the neighboring buildings.
. . .
Trying to buy time so that all of the residents could get to safety, city Firefighter Kevin Kovach pulled a hose into 520 Coursin in an attempt to protect the rescuers. But the blaze was moving too fast; flames were devouring the second- and third-floor hallways, and the choking smoke had reduced visibility to zero.
At the opposite end of the hallway, Craig heard Kovach calling for help. Armed with just his flashlight, Craig directed Kovach to an exit.
Then men then pulled Kovach's firehose out of the building. Burned through in places, it was in tatters.
. . .
Fire Capt. James Shields was supposed to be off duty, but was called in for assistance. He arrived and was met by a woman who frantically told him that her son was trapped inside, and talking to him on her cell phone.
Shields took the phone and began talking to the panicked resident. He pulled enough information out of him to figure out where he was in the building, talked him out of jumping from a window, and directed him to an outside window, where firefighters pulled him to safety.
. . .
These are just a few of the stories recounted Wednesday night, when council and Mayor James Brewster honored six city firefighters and three police officers for bravery in the July 11 conflagration.
In all, 51 people got out of the apartment safely, including 15 people rescued by police and firefighters. Nine people, including two firefighters, suffered minor injuries.
An overflow crowd of family members and friends stood in the aisle of council chambers and lined the second-floor hallway of the old municipal building to see the ceremony.
. . .
Presented with commendations were Drye, Esken, Perciavalle, Kovach, Shields and part-time Firefighter Ed Drye Jr.
Receiving the McKeesport Police Medal of Valor were Craig, Taylor and Zuber, who joined the department as a cadet last year after paying his own way through the Allegheny County Police Academy.
"This was a chaotic event, and nobody had to give anyone any directions," Brewster said. "People wonder, 'Why do you go through all of this training? Why do you negotiate training into the contracts?'
"This is why," he said. "There's an awful lot that we take for granted that goes into the job ... it's routine work for these men and women, but it's not routine for the rest of us."
Brewster and city Police Chief Joe Pero said only a handful --- probably only two or three --- medals of valor have been presented in the last 20 years.
. . .
Fire Chief Kevin Lust thanked the seven suburban fire departments that responded, as well as McKeesport Ambulance Rescue Service.
After seeing the dramatic pictures of the blaze on the Internet and TV, firefighters from around the country called or emailed the department their congratulations, he said.
"I was very proud of these guys and what they did," Lust said. "I can't thank everybody enough --- our mutual aid companies, the police, the ambulance --- they just kept saying, 'Well, we just did our job.'
"It's unbelievable," he said. "They protected everyone's lives up there, and Hi View Gardens only lost three apartments. I'm proud of them, and I think the community should be, too."
. . .
Also honored with commendations were city fire Capt. Gerald Tedesco and Firefighter Jeffery Tomovcsik, who rescued a resident of a second-floor apartment above the Cafe Fifth Ave. restaurant in the East End, which burned on Aug. 2.
That blaze was reported by a city police sergeant on his way home after work, who spotted the flames and called for help.
While other residents were able to escape the fire on their own, one man was trapped by smoke and flames; Tomovcsik and Tedesco put a ladder to the window and brought him down safely.
City officials said MARS personnel were unable to attend Wednesday's meeting; they will receive commendations for their efforts in the July 11 fire at a future council meeting.
They aren't quite the rabbits that city officials said they needed to pull out of their hats to stave off financial calamity.
But a new trash-collection contract and hard negotiations with the region's biggest Blue Cross/Blue Shield provider have apparently saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At last night's meeting, council approved a new garbage hauling contract that will save city taxpayers more than $1 million over the next three years.
In addition, city officials said that a nearly 84 percent increase in health insurance premiums for about 80 city employees has been knocked down to 38 percent.
. . .
Residential trash collection was being done for nearly 10,000 city households by Greenridge Waste Services of Scottdale, Westmoreland County, a subsidiary of Arizona-based Allied Waste Industries, at a cost of about $1.2 million annually.
The contract was set to automatically renew on Sept. 30.
Four companies bid on the collection agreement: Allied, Big's Trucking of Belle Vernon, Texas-based Waste Management Inc., and Nickolich Sanitation of Clairton. County Hauling of Belle Vernon was asked to bid but declined, according to city documents.
"So much for inter-governmental cooperation," City Councilman Dale McCall quipped last night.
The $2.8 million, three-year deal offered by Nickolich is $321,000 less than was offered by the next lowest bidder, Big's. The contract was approved by a 6-0 vote; Councilman Paul Shelly was absent.
. . .
Renegotiating the health care agreement was less straightforward, Pittman said. The employees covered are members of Teamsters Local 205, and the city was bound by its collective-bargaining agreement to maintain the same level of coverage, he said.
In the end, only two carriers --- UPMC Health Plan and Highmark, which provides most Blue Cross/Blue Shield services in the Pittsburgh area --- bid on the contract, Pittman said.
City officials carried out negotiations directly with Deborah Rice, Highmark senior vice president of regional accounts.
. . .
The deal was questioned by City Controller Ray Malinchak, who asked why the process was not opened to competitive bidding in the form of legal advertising in local newspapers.
City Solicitor J. Jason Elash said McKeesport's home-rule charter exempts insurance from being advertised for bids, because different plans aren't directly comparable.
"We went with all of the carriers that offered the products that the contract specifies," he said. "Only two companies were acceptable to the union. No one's hiding anything. It was completely transparent."
. . .
According to Brewster, the city is forming a committee to study ways to lower the cost of health insurance for all of its employees. Malinchak and representatives of city labor unions, including Local 205 and Firefighters Local 10, will be asked to participate, the mayor said.
"We want to add anyone we can who's knowledgeable about the issues," Brewster said.
Four city labor contracts are coming up for negotiation in the next 18 months.
"We want to work with council and the unions to find the best opportunities, and get some process in place so that we can stop the bleeding," Brewster said.
City officials have said they may try to roll all employees onto a single health plan, seek joint coverage with neighboring municipalities, or self-insure to lower the cost of premiums.
You can understand why Lou and Kris Rhoades of the city's Well Ministries think that some supernatural force is trying to derail this week's gospel sing at the Renziehausen Park bandshell.
First, someone broke into their home on Versailles Avenue and stole two video cameras, a laptop and a digital music mixer --- plus Kris Rhoades' flute.
Then, the replacement cameras they ordered from California became lost in transit.
Add that to other annoyances --- like the neighbor who kept complaining about The Well Ministries' tour bus --- and you could also understand if the Rhoadeses decided to chuck it all and stay home on weekends.
Instead, Lou and Kris Rhoades and their friends are keeping the faith. In fact, they're "prayer-walking" the hiking/biking trail around Renzie every night this week in preparation for Saturday's all-day gospel music sing.
"We've staked our ground, and we're claiming the ground as holy ground," Rhoades says.
. . .
It's the eighth-annual all-day gospel event that The Well has sponsored at Renzie. Events begin at 12 p.m. and continue until 9 p.m. with a mix of traditional gospel singers, contemporary Christian music, and The Well's unique puppet show.
The festivities will also be webcast live on The Well's website. More than 250 people attended last year's sing, Kris Rhoades says.
The Rhoadeses, who also own and operate Castle Printing, launched their local ministry more than 16 years ago with "Puppets for the King," a lighthearted mix of jokes, songs and inspirational messages aimed at kids and parents. Think a Christian-themed "Sesame Street." Lou Rhoades, a native of McKeesport, provides the voice of the slightly befuddled but sweet "Grandpa."
About eight years ago, the Rhoadeses formed a contemporary Christian singing group, Chalice. Like the puppet show, Chalice performs at churches and schools throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York. The quartet also includes DJ and guitarist Gary Coddington of the city and Keith Szirmae, a guitarist and singer from White Oak.
Chalice is Christian but ecumenical; Coddington is Catholic, Szirmae is Methodist, and Lou and Kris Rhoades are both members of the First Church of the Open Bible. The group has released three self-produced CDs.
In fact, the audio tracks from the third CD, as well as some production work for a fourth CD, were on the laptop computer that was stolen in an Aug. 3 daylight burglary, while the Rhoades family was at an event at a church in New Stanton.
Kris Rhoades' flute --- she's had it for 35 years --- was recovered at a Pittsburgh pawn shop, and the same person who hocked it apparently also tried to sell the digital video cameras. Police are investigating.
"There was a lot of other equipment that they didn't take," Kris Rhoades says. "It's really odd that it was only the stuff we're going to use for the gospel sing."
Darker forces at work, or just plain bad luck? You decide.
. . .
Donations have paid for replacement equipment that's currently stuck somewhere between the West Coast and McKeesport; if it doesn't arrive, she says, they'll borrow cameras to make sure that the show goes on.
The Well has overcome setbacks before. Last year, another ministry donated a tour bus, which was parked alongside the Rhoades home on Versailles Avenue. Since Chalice and Puppets for the King are on the road about three weekends per month, the bus is a huge convenience.
But its arrival instantly unleashed a flurry of complaints from a neighbor who claimed the bus was obstructing traffic.
The complaints tapered off after city police and Mayor Jim Brewster were assured that the bus was inspected, and wasn't blocking a sidewalk or public street.
. . .
Still, some hurt feelings remained until this Thanksgiving, when The Well Ministries was helping distribute complete turkey dinners to needy families. They had a surplus this year, and Lou Rhoades decided to take one of the dinners to the neighbor who had filed the complaints. The neighbor burst into tears at the gesture.
"You really can turn around your enemies with kindness," Kris Rhoades says.
. . .
Admission to Saturday's all-day gospel sing is free. Events begin at 1:15 p.m. with Grant Van Leuven and the River Town Band. Refreshments and activities for kids, including facepainting, also will be available. In case of rain, events will move inside to First Church of the Open Bible, 719 Union Ave. Call (412) 664-WELL for more information or visit the Well's website.
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author produces a Sunday afternoon gospel radio show, "Sharing Pearls," for WKHB (620) radio; its hosts are among the artists who will be performing at Sunday's event. However, no remuneration or consideration was offered in exchange for this story.
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