Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ambridge Today: The American Bridge office is coming down, Part 1

American Bridge office building,
 uncredited photo,
1924 Centennial Souvenir Program
No one told me. Even though my family and friends who still live in the Ambridge area knew, no one thought to tell me that the American Bridge Company office building, abandoned and allowed to deteriorate since the mill closed in the early 1980s, was in the process of being demolished.

So I was shocked when, at the end of a mid-November visit to Ambridge, I drove down 4th Street, turned onto Park Road, and saw signs that demolition was in progress.

The first thing I couldn't help but notice was the bright yellow excavator in front of a gaping hole in the 4th Street wing with rubble at its base. "Oh my god! They're tearing down the office!"

American Bridge office building,
4th Street wing,
 Park Road side,
excavator, hole, and rubble,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

I parked the car and hopped out with my camera. Realizing that that afternoon might be the last time I'd ever see the sadly neglected building, which now had "Demo" spray-painted on its exterior walls, I took a series of photographs; the photos in this post are a sampling of those I took that day. I plan to post more later.

American Bridge office building,
central section,
Park Road side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

Since the office was simply part of the fabric of daily life in Ambridge when I was growing up there, I'd never given much thought to the building's history, except I'd guessed that it was old, older than most the the buildings in town, but not as old as the Harmony Society's buildings in and near Old Economy. Since the mill was built in the early 1900s, I'm assuming the office was also built about that time. [Update 12/02/13: reader Richard Rotondo alerted me that the journal The Iron Age, Vol. LXXIV, August 4, 1904, issue, has a history of the construction of the American Bridge Ambridge plant and states that the "handsome office building" was started in March, 1903, and occupied by the time the article was written in 1904.]

The office was never an elegant building. It was, as one of my friends said, "utilitarian." The large, three-story, H-shaped, red brick office housed the clerks, engineers, draftsmen, and other white collar and professional staff needed to keep the massive mill for which the town was named, and once the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world, humming.

Although not architecturally showy, the building was "Ambridge." Like the men and women who worked in the Ambridge mills, it wasn't fancy; it was sturdy, practical, and unpretentious. And it was the first building people saw when they turned into town at the "Welcome to Ambridge" billboard at the intersection of Ohio River Boulevard and 4th Street.

I had no real connection with the office except that my dad worked in the American Bridge mill. But I had an emotional connection to it.

American Bridge office building,
Park Road entrance,
trash and debris on steps,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

To witness signs of the building's neglect and abuse for 30 years, and now, the beginning of its undignified demise, made me sad.

American Bridge office building,
deterioration of roof-line,
south side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

American Bridge office building,
rusted fire escape,
Ohio River Boulevard side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

American Bridge office building,
vine-covered exterior corner of central section and 4th St. wings,
Ohio River Boulevard side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

American Bridge office building,
mattress at bottom of steps,
Ohio River Boulevard side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

American Bridge office building,
Ohio River Boulevard side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

American Bridge office building,
left post and spherical cap,
bottom of steps to entrance,
Ohio River Boulevard side,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ambridge Today: American Bridge, train tracks, and football

Ambridge Football sign along Ohio River Blvd.
in front on the former American Bridge mill,
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley
Quintessentially "Ambridge": the former American Bridge mill, railroad tracks, and Ambridge High School football.

Turkey Time

Microsoft Word Illustration
by Robert Giles

Thanks to YouTube, everyone can enjoy the cluck and cackle (and gobble) of our favorite bird, the turkey. Listen to the haunting sounds of the woodlands - Turkey Sounds.

A long time ago, we were playing basketball on the court in Byers’ Field when our attention was arrested by a short, high squawk, or “putt”.

“That sounds like a turkey,” my brother said in hushed tones. We stopped dribbling and passing and shooting and listened. Sure enough, there it was again. “Putt.”

It came from the north towards Logan’s Lane. In those days, Logan’s Lane was just a narrow unpaved road that led from Duss Avenue down past Hill Cemetery* to the tracks of the Pennsy. It came to a dead end at the railroad tracks. Route 65 had not yet been cut through.

I’m not sure why Logan’s Lane was there. I suspect it provided access to a passenger depot on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Line. There is a "Logan Station" in the right spot on an 1877 map of the Ohio Valley.

We liked to pick the blackberries that grew on either side of the lane and on the grounds of Hill Cemetery, which for decades until the 70s was neglected and covered with high grass and brush. Local legend had it that the canes were fertilized by the graves of the dead. To our unsophisticated minds, that accounted for the lushness of the berries.

The lane and cemetery were also great places to pick elderberries.

So you get the picture. Byers’ Field over to Logan’s Lane and beyond was a lot wilder then than it is today. It even harbored a few turkeys.

My friend had a Russian grandfather that he called “Deedee”. (When she was alive, he called his Russian grandmother “Baba”.)

Deedee foraged all over Legionville Hollow and Byers’ Field for mushrooms (he had learned in his native Carpathia to distinguish the safe ones from the poisonous - we cautious eaters contented ourselves with the canned variety).

One day Deedee brought home something marvelous. It was a large box trap made of wood painted forest green. On the trap was a metal plate engraved with the words “Property of State Game Commission, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania”.

Of course, Deedee couldn’t read English (and maybe not Russian either), so he didn’t know he was stealing from the state. I presume he did know he was taking someone's property. I’m not sure what he wanted to do with the trap.

So what was the box trap doing out there by Logan’s Lane? Evidently, the State Game Commission had released a turkey or pheasant and had forgotten the trap (another shocking instance of government malfeasance).

We boys went in search of the turkey that had interrupted our basketball game but couldn’t spot it. Turkeys are wary of basketball players on the hunt and smart enough to elude them.

What is the point I am trying to make? Readers of my post “Small Game” were disbelieving that people actually hunted in Byers’ Field. After all, within gunshot range was a busy highway (old Route 88) and a populated village.

To those doubters, I say that not only did people hunt there; the State Game Commission stocked it for hunting. 

We heard but never saw turkeys. Pheasants we saw quite a bit. Once in a while we would flush one as we walked through high cover from the softball field up to Duss Avenue. It is astounding to see a ringneck go vertical in the air right in front of you. It has all the color and music of a rocket launch.

After a fire, we would sometimes spot the remains of a nest in the charred stubble of the field (anyone for a cooked pheasant egg?).

There were plenty of rabbits – it would have been superfluous for the Game Commission to stock rabbits. 

Every fall we could sit on our back porch and see hunters and hear the sound of gunfire from Byers’ Field. I hoped they didn’t get our turkey.

*Go to Hill Cemetery for a fascinating account of the Legionville encampment, tippling Legionnaires, and General Wayne’s bombardment of Crow’s Island.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Strangers in Their Midst

by Robert  Giles

On the edge of Byers’ Field, 50 yards west of the Byersdale Isaly store, there was a basketball court. How it got there I can’t say. It was “always” there. I hope neighborhood kids are driving in for layups and sinking baskets there today.

The court was once covered with the heavy limestone slag that paved the roads in Byers’ Field. Someone had removed the heavy stones and replaced them with a much finer grade of slag, smooth enough for dribbling a ball. A pole, about 18 inches in circumference and about 12 feet high, had been erected on the north end of the court. A sheet of ¾ inch plywood had been bolted to the pole to serve as a backboard.

All in all, it was a pretty good basketball court, not as nice as the one at the playground on top of the hill in Byersdale, which had hoops on both ends. But the township had built that one with the help of contractors.

Our “bottom of the hill” basketball court didn’t require a long steep climb up Dearborn Street and it wasn’t a mud hole after a rain, even if we did have to play "half-court".

The site came ready-made for those who erected the pole. The government had bulldozed and “paved” the court and encircled it with trailers to create instant housing during World War II. There were more than a dozen such courts in Byers’ Field. During the war, men came to Byersdale from far and wide to work at jobs in the A.M. Byers plant, then the "world's largest" manufacturer of wrought iron.

The courts were laid out like suburban cul-de-sacs, minus the green lawns, concrete pavement, and split-level houses.

I don’t remember seeing trailers there when I was a boy. By then the housing and the people who lived there were long gone. There were just empty courts and empty streets.

Byers’ Field sure looked like an abandoned neighborhood. I asked what all the roads were for. People didn’t have a lot to say.

I came to understand that migrants, mostly "foreigners", lived there during the war. After the war, they had gone back home. End of story.

It seemed like everyone must have been working and playing so hard that they scarcely noticed the strangers in their midst.

I wonder what those strangers did in the evenings and weekends. Did they attend church, send and receive mail, patronize the stores, drink with their friends in local bars, dance, sing, have a life outside of Byers' Field?

Did some of the men bring or send for their wives and children?

Perhaps it was a group of those iron makers who erected our basketball court. They may have enjoyed a game of hoops in the evenings.

Some time ago I chanced across A History of A.M. Byers Company by a fellow former Byersdale resident, Wm. J. Bowan --

“The A.M. Byers Company owned extensive vacant acreage east and north of its plant. The company leased the north plot to the U.S. Government who then placed 450 trailer homes on wheels on this site to accommodate shortages of living space for the area's defense workers. The quarters were equipped with running water, electric power, butane tanks and underground sewage piping.

Most of these defense workers (migrants) were brought in from Mexico, Portugal, Cuba and American Appalachia. Immediately after the end of the war, these workers were laid off. They returned to their homelands loaded with American War Bonds and cash. It can well be assumed that a low, unknown, percentage stayed on in this area. They scattered here and there blending in to various communities.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ambridge today: the pool bathhouse once stood here

The entrance to the Ambridge pool bathhouse
once stood about here.
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

The girls' dressing room side would have been about

November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley
I took these photos of the former location of the now demolished Ambridge swimming pool bathhouse on November 20, 2013.

The bathhouse site is now a vacant, weedy lot.

The boys' dressing room side would have been about

November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

Ambridge pool bathhouse, year unknown.
Photo courtesy of Alvin Rotolo.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ambridge today: Pool steps

Ambridge pool steps from the bottom
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley
I took these photos of what the Ambridge pool steps now look like during my last visit to Ambridge, November 20, 2013.

The bottom few steps just above the alley behind the houses on the 2100 block of Beaver Road are fairly well deteriorated.

For those not familiar with the steps, or have forgotten, the red wall at the top of the steps in this photo is not actually the top of the steps. The steps split at the wall, and there are 14 more steps to go when you reach the split.

Ambridge pool steps, top
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley
The photo from the top shows the first 14 steps curving down to the bottom of the wall where the steps split. I have no idea why the steps were built that way. To keep climbers from feeling too daunted when they looked up from the bottom? To keep kids too tired from swimming all day from tumbling straight down from the top? Esthetics?

The wall, steps, and railing here are in good condition.

The top of the wall is an observation point. There is a bench there looking towards the empty, weedy lot where the bathhouse once stood.

Ambridge pool steps looking down
November 20, 2013
copyright Nancy Knisley

And, finally, the view from the top of the wall, looking down. The section of the steps from the wall to the bottom of the railing looked to be in fairly good condition, although I did not walk down--or up--them to confirm that observation.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Turkey Bowl Weapon

Microsoft Word Illustration
by Robert Giles

I remember the day Roy Schwartz moved into our neighborhood. He smiled at us from the back window of his dad’s car, his nose pressed against the glass. His face was red and freckled.

That first afternoon, we invited Roy to play German ball. We gave him the honor of the first at bat. Roy hit a wicked liner so hard it knocked down one of the overhead wires that crossed the street. We scattered in all directions but in fact, there was no danger of electrocution. It was a telephone wire.

Mrs. Sedakis borrowed her neighbor's phone to call the police. A patrolman arrived and put up a road block. In the meantime, someone with more sense called Bell Telephone. A truck arrived and a lineman reattached the wire to the house where it had been knocked loose.

Mrs. Sedakis wanted to put us in Allencrest for knocking her phone out of service, but the police chief ruled it an accident and assured her that she wouldn't get a bill. The lineman concurred. I guess Bell Telephone had so much money it couldn't be bothered.

We reconvened in the Schwartz’s backyard. Roy's mom made us a pitcher of Kool-Aid. We raised a cup to our new friend.

Roy Schwartz was a large boy for his age. He was not only big; he was mature in other ways too. Roy started shaving when he was thirteen and began to develop male pattern baldness at sixteen. I wish I could say that he was a well-rounded person, but Roy had difficulty in school.

What an addition to the neighborhood he was - someone big and strong, yet pliant and eager to please.

We realized right away that Roy gave us a powerful weapon against the “top of the hill” in the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl.

Roy had inherited one of those old-fashioned leather football helmets that fit snug to the head. Unlike the fiberglass ones that made heads appear larger, it seemed to make Roy's head shrink.
Still, Roy cut an impressive figure on the gridiron - heavy shoes, cotton pants, and sleeveless shirt, a giant's body and a small head. 

He reminded us of those rams the medieval armies employed to batter down the castle gates.

Roy was not a fast runner but once he got going, he was relentless. The only way our opponents could stop him was to gang tackle him at the line of scrimmage.

That first year we trounced the “top of the hill” team so badly that the next year they recruited a quarterback from the second-team at Geneva College. The outcome of that game is still under protest.

We weren't creative enough to nickname Roy “The Bus”. We settled on “The Horse”.

He tolerated the nickname as long as it was pronounced with the right inflection. If he detected so much as a hint of ridicule, you were “in for it”. One day Roy grabbed a baseball bat and chased Jimmy Dinnerlein all over Byers' Field. It was a good thing for Jimmy that he was fleet-footed. He could never manage to convey the proper respect when he addressed Roy as “Horse”.

One day Roy bet my brother that he could drink two gallons of water in one sitting. 

Later we found out that drinking too much water too quickly can upset the body’s electrolyte balance and lead to death. We had no knowledge of this when Roy offered his wager. We thought the worst that could happen was that Roy would get a stomach ache and possibly throw up. 

We had two one-gallon jugs from Isaly’s. We kept one in reserve until Roy drained the first, then we handed him the second one.

Roy swallowed the second gallon and won the bet. Roy didn’t get sick or throw up or go into a coma and die. He belched loudly once and had to make a lengthy visit to the bathroom.

Another time we went over to Roy’s house after school to watch television. Roy reached in his pants pocket and couldn’t find his key. His mom was visiting out-of-town. Roy’s dad worked at Westinghouse and didn’t get home until later.

We were locked out. What to do? Roy had a good idea. Why not break in?

Roy pointed to his bedroom window. He could pry it open with his pocket knife, but first we had to boost him onto one of the shutters alongside the lower level window. From there he could clamber onto the roof and jimmy the window. Once he got the window open, it would be a simple matter to climb inside and unlock the door.

We boosted with all our might. Roy was a heavy lift. Finally, he gained a toehold on top of the shutter and grasped the rain gutter for support.

Roy straightened up and put his full weight on the shutter. He reached toward the roof, pocket knife in hand. Suddenly the shutter pulled away beneath him. He grabbed the gutter with his free hand but that gave way too.

Everything crashed onto the porch, the shutter, Roy, the rain gutter, and the break-in tool. All in that order.

The front door of the Schwartz house swung wide. Minutes before, Mr. Schwartz had pulled into the back drive, entered through the garage door, and hurried to investigate the commotion on the front porch. 

Roy’s dad looked like one of those Viking warriors who go berserk. He took Roy by the ear and pulled him into the house. We decided to quietly leave.

For a couple of days, we didn’t see Roy at all. Then we learned through the grapevine that he wasn't allowed to pal with us any more. We were “bad influences”.

Wasn't it Roy's idea to break into the house? Why couldn't Mr. Schwartz use the front door instead of sneaking through the back? Why did they put the blame on us?

It was a good thing that parents never remember anything for longer than a week.Time would heal this breach. 

We laid low. On the eighth day, the heat was off. Roy “The Horse” Schwartz was loose again. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Steelworker Picnic - Part 3

Courtesy, the Author
by Robert Giles

What a curious thing memory is. All those steelworker picnics and I remember four things. We've covered three of them - Dad making a "Huey" on the turnpike, urban blight in the sticks, and the Wildcat. What is the fourth?

Let's go back to that residential street that led us into Idora Park.

“Dad, stop the car. Are those apples under that tree?”

If they were apples, they were the biggest, yellowest apples I had ever seen. Maybe they were grapefruit. My brother got out of the car and fielded a couple.

He passed them around. They were heavy and solid. Their skins were folded and bumpy like the hide on an elephant’s elbow.

We had never seen anything remotely like them.

“Those are Osage oranges”, Dad said authoritatively. “They’re not really oranges. You can’t eat them.”

“What are they good for?”

“Put one under your bed and it’ll keep away bugs. Grandma used to think so anyway. The tree has to be very strong and flexible to bear all that heavy fruit. That's why Indians made their bows from the wood.”

Dad isn’t around anymore to tell us more. We'll have to make do with a link to Wikipedia - maclura pomifera.


Besides the one in Youngstown, the only other Osage orange tree I have ever seen stands on the edge of the Delaware Bay in Battery Park, New Castle DE.  I took the photograph at the top of this article at Battery Park. Some day I hope to see a tree in its natural habitat - the Red River Valley.
Courtesy, the Author

Before then I will have to be content with chucking an "orange" into the Delaware Bay when I visit New Castle DE (pictured on left).


I moved my family to New Castle PA (that's Pennsylvania, not Delaware) in 1978 and lived there for ten years. 

My wife and I went scouting before the move. We drove north on Route 18. The same decrepit building I first met in 1956 - 1957 greeted us near Wampum. A light bulb still gleamed in a window.

In the 80s Lawrence County began selling itself as a good location for new business. Corporate representatives visited to weigh the pros and cons of locating there. Naturally, when they saw the Wampum area they were taken aback. 

The crumbling apartments along Route 18 were certainly not representative of the entire county, but what did they say about the effectiveness of county, borough, and township governance?

The at-grade railroad crossing further up the road at Mahoningtown didn't help. Railway crossings may be picturesque, but they are outmoded and accidents do happen. 

Route 18 was then the county's southern link to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Not exactly modern, is it? This town is a bit of a backwater, don't you think? How about a game of checkers while we wait on the train?

In the early to mid '80s, the "eyesore" at Wampum was finally torn down because it was bad for business.

It had been unfit for human habitation for a very long time before that, as even a child could see.

Take a look for yourself at Lawrence County Memoirs.*

*Jeff Bales, Jr., site creator and author.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ambridge loved parades! Veterans Day, 1958, was a huge one

Three photos of the Ambridge Veterans Day parade, Beaver Valley Times, November 12, 1958

The caption under the photos reads:
VETERANS DAY PARADE IN AMBRIDGE - Approximately 10,000 persons witnessed American Legion Committee's Veterans Day Parade in Ambridge Tuesday night. Another 3,000 persons participated in the parade to climax a five-day celebration which also included a past-commanders banquet, 40 and 8 parade, memorial services and a Gold Star Mothers banquet. Catholic Daughters of America Drum and Bugle Corps can be seen in the picture on the left and the Baden American Legion Drill Team is in action in the center. The photo on the right shows five youngsters enjoying the proceedings. 
The Ambridge of the past loved parades and had several every year.

In the '50s and '60s, Ambridge had annual parades on Christmas, Flag Day, Labor Day, Loyalty Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day.

Ambridge had a parade to celebrate its Golden Jubilee on July 2, 1955. An October 2, 1963, torchlight parade featuring KDKA-TV celebrities Josie Carey and John Reed King promoted the United Fund. To promote savings bonds, a Star Spangled Banner Savings Month parade was held in May of '65 and '66.

Nationality Days opened with a parade. There were Soap Box Derby parades and parades to celebrate the state championships of the Ambridge Junior Legion baseball team on August 22, 1961, and the Ambridge Area High School basketball team on March 20, 1967.

The 1958 Veterans Day parade, on the evening of November 11, was a big one, perhaps Ambridge's largest ever, with approximately 3,000 marchers. The staging area began in Fair Oaks at First Street and Beaver Road, continued into Ambridge at Merchant Street, went down Marshall Alley, then Maplewood Avenue, Second Street, Third Street, and Park Road.

The Beaver Valley Times' list of units in the parade is extensive and included a large number of bands, a sizable contingent of veterans groups, Gold Star Mothers, military units, girls and boy scout troops, fraternal organizations, and police and fire companies.

The parade route, past an estimated 10,000 viewers, went up Merchant Street to 14th Street, made a right turn on 14th Street to Duss Avenue, and then another right to end at the high school in the 800 block of Duss.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Steelworker Picnic - Part 2

Microsoft Word Illustration
by Robert Giles

The sign said Wampum PA – one mile. We were still on Route 18 north. We had crossed into Lawrence County.

“Holy moley." I pointed to a ruin of a building set back about 50 yards from the road at the base of a hill. “That looks like one of those buildings in Europe that were bombed during World War II.”

Perhaps a Panzer Division had come south on Route 18 and annihilated the inhabitants. No, there was evidence of life - washing on a clothes line, a lone bulb lighting an apartment window, smoke drifting from a chimney pipe. There were even children playing baseball in a field.

"There can't be people living there, there just can't be."

“Bobby, people have been living there since I was your age. The building has always been kind of seedy, I guess "dilapidated" is the word for it today. It used to be housing for the cement company up ahead. I don't know who the devil owns it now.”

“What do they do when it rains?”

We came to one of those enclosed conveyor systems that carried stone down from the ridge on the east. It looked like a small covered bridge on stilts - a crazy snaking one built over dry land. It went all the way up into the hills toward Ellwood City.

“Out of sight on that hilltop there’s a limestone quarry and a big steam shovel. The limestone is pulverized before it comes down to the plant on that conveyor."

My mood brightened. The thought of riding a conveyor down the hillside reminded me that we were going to Idora Park. 

Soon we were sitting in Mahoningtown waiting for the train to clear at the railroad crossing. I read the names on the boxcars - Erie Lackawanna, Santa Fe, Burlington Route, Ashtabulah.

“Stop bouncing, Bobby, you’re squashing my knee”, my sister gave me a pinch.

We finally arrived in Youngstown. At the end of a residential street was the amusement park. Idora was then or became known for its horticulture, its antique carousel, and its wooden roller coaster, the Wildcat.

It’s the Wildcat I remember best. I was probably too small to pass the height requirement on that first visit. My first ride on the Wildcat happened a few years later.

There was a long wait in line on picnic days. When we got to the ramp, we had to wait another ten minutes to get on the platform. Then we had to stand until the seats emptied for the next ride. If we were very lucky, we got a seat in the first car with nothing in front but the wind.

Finally it was time to ride. We fastened a lap belt across the width of the car. Then we pulled a metal bar down that held us tight against the seat back. A worker checked each seat to make sure we were ready for takeoff.

Right off the bat we went down a hill, a small one I grant you. But how many roller coasters start with a descent? 

"Duck, Bobby, that overhang will take your head off."

Into a tunnel we went. We might see a thin beam of light through a pinhole or two, but otherwise it was complete darkness. 

From blackness we emerged into bright sunlight. That put a strain on the old eyes, didn't it? 

Before us was an impossible hill. There was a clank as a chain gear engaged. The chain pulled the coaster a foot at a time to the top. It seemed to take forever. At the crest of the hill, time stopped entirely as you stole a glance at the abyss. Down, down, down.

That always gave me the willies.

From the top of the first hill, you were the plaything of Newton's Laws, a marble dropped on a set of rails. The hill gave you enough momentum to take you through the rest of the ride and out onto the platform with a whoosh.

Don't ride a wooden coaster if you're not willing to be jerked around. The Wildcat had four hills, each with steep descents. There was a hairpin turn at the start of the final stretch. The abrupt deceleration when you sailed onto the platform at ride's end gave you a whiplash.

A sign cautioned those with medical conditions not to ride the Wildcat. It was good advice. 

For some people the sound of a a roller coaster is screaming voices and the clatter of wheels. For me it is the clank of the chain engaging on that first steep hill. 

If you want a happy, unguarded expression for a photograph, stand with your camera and wait for your subject to come down from the Wildcat. All shields are down. The danger is over. They're glad to be alive.

(For a moment there, I sounded like there was still a Wildcat to ride ... but the famous Wildcat has gone the way of the saber-tooth and the giant ground sloth.)*

*"Heavily damaged by fire on 4/26/1984. What wasn't destroyed by fire was finally demolished on 7/26/2001." - Roller Coaster Database
Idora Park Today - Google Maps

Friday, November 8, 2013

Steelworker Picnic - Part 1

Microsoft Word Illustration
by Robert Giles

My father and mother once did a Tarzan and Jane routine. 

“I Chuck”, my father said. “I Dora”, my mother replied. Then they embraced and Dad gave Mom a kiss.

Maybe that is why Dad would take us to Idora Park for a picnic even though he scorned Kennywood and Westview.

That was about fifty-five years ago. I will tell you the rest of the story, as well as I can remember it.

My first visit to Idora Park dates back to about 1956 or 1957, somewhere about there. My sister’s friend, Janice, had tickets. Her Dad worked at Spangs.

We packed ourselves into my Dad’s station wagon. Janice brought along one or two friends. There were big kids in all three seats. We small-fry had to sit on laps. We didn’t worry about seat belts in those days.

Air conditioning was still not standard equipment either. Too bad, because it was a very hot day.

The car was so heavily loaded that the shock absorbers complained on every curve.

We went out to Warrendale to get on the turnpike. My Dad got confused. He headed east toward Route 8 instead of west toward Route 18.

“Aren’t we going the wrong way, Chuck?”

Dad was feeling the heat. He hated to be caught in a mistake. He would fix things up if he could. What’s that up ahead? Can it be? Yes, it’s a cut-over for the state police. Cops sat in the middle of the cut-over and chased speeders in either direction.

The cut-over was empty. Dad wasn’t about to let an opportunity like that get away. He slipped across the median. We were off and running in the right direction toward Ohio. Dad's destination was the Beaver Falls interchange - the last one before the state line. Dad calculated that he would get more lenient treatment in his home state, if it came to that.

“Chuck, what are you going to tell the man at the toll booth?”

“We’ll find out when we get there. Could you kids pipe down in the back seat!”


“Sir, this is an east-bound ticket. “

“I know, I started out in the wrong direction back at Warrendale. I had to make a “Huey”.

“U-turns are against the law on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

My Dad gave his best “Oh, shucks” grin and pleaded ignorance. It was somewhere near 90 degrees out. Horns began to beep. The tollgate was backing up.

The turnpike guy peered into the back of the station wagon. “How many passengers have you got in there?”

Dad pretended he didn't hear the question. “We’re on our way to Idora Park for the Spangs picnic.”

The man in the car behind us put his head out the window and started to yell.

The turnpike guy didn’t know what to do next –  he let out a long deep sigh like a tire going flat.

“OK, you and your gang just get the hell out of here.”

Maybe he saw that we were turning blue in the car from a lack of oxygen. Maybe he was fond of Idora Park. Maybe he had kids of his own.

Maybe it’s true what they say – the worst scofflaws are always the ones who get off. They’re too hard to deal with, especially when traffic is backing up and it’s 90 degrees.

Anyway, Dad handed him a fiver and hit the gas. We were on our way north on Route 18.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Asian Flu is coming!

In November, 1957, the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Medical Association warned us that the "highly contagious" Asian Flu was coming. But, on the bright side, a vaccine was available for the first time.

Asian Flu message from the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Medical Association, warning about the Asian Flu, published in the Beaver Valley Times, November 15, 1957

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday Dinner

by Robert Giles

To prepare for Sunday dinner, I helped my grandmother peel potatoes. Sunday dinner was a big deal at our house. We were a large family. Mom wanted the fellowship that comes from sitting down to a nice meal. The Sabbath didn't end when church let out - dinner for her family was Mom's personal ministry.

When dinner was over and the dishes were put away, we could go our separate ways.

We ate a lot of potatoes. Besides mashed potatoes, we had Dad's favorite roast and another vegetable. We all appreciated Mom's “Waldorf Salad” made with Jello, apples, and walnut pieces with a little pineapple. For dessert, there was chocolate cake.

Grandma and I soaked the potatoes for a few minutes and scrubbed them lightly with a brush. If a potato was green or soft, we discarded it. The potatoes always had a few “eyes”. Grandma showed me how to dig them out with the tip of my paring knife.

Grandma liked to listen to a radio station in Butler to get the local news. Often we would listen to the news while we peeled. Butler was about 40 miles away so the broadcast was not always free of static. That irritated Grandma.

We once listened to a report about a herd of dairy cows that had ventured out onto the ice on a farm pond. Several cows crashed through the ice and floundered in freezing water until the intrepid farmer got his tractor and pulled them out. Such was the news from Grandma’s home town.

When I asked  her questions, I took her to a whole new level of irritation.

Why are they called "eyes"?
Did you ever grow potatoes up at Summit?
What was Grandpa like?

Grandma never spoke much. When I was newly enlisted, she would criticize my peeling technique, telling me I was cutting too deeply. "You are throwing out the potato with the peel. Don't cut into the flesh." 

A boy who couldn’t peel a potato correctly wasn’t worth much, by Grandma's estimate. I learned to take my time, focus, and peel potatoes so well she was silenced.

Grandma must have had a lot of stories inside her but I wasn’t brave enough to flush them out. It wasn’t that I lacked curiosity.  I was afraid to upset Grandma.  I sensed that she liked to keep her hurts and secrets to herself.

Grandma had a way of deflating a boy with a short, dismissive “hmmpf”. What were all the questions for? She was "Grandma". That's all I needed to know.

We sat and peeled potatoes for about 30 minutes after washing and prepping them. Then we turned them over to Mom to cook and mash.

Grandma sat bent over on her chair. I usually sat on the floor at her feet, my legs folded “Indian-fashion”. (I wonder now if the Indian was American or if this was a lazy man’s yoga posture.)

Grandma was about 80 years old and wore thick support hose. It looked impenetrable, like armor. Sometimes I was tired and wanted to rest my head on her knee but I knew she wouldn’t care for that.

I liked peeling potatoes with Grandma despite the lack of conversation. Maybe we were able to communicate through extra-sensory perception?

We did this chore on Sunday mornings for a number of years. Then, one by one, my sister and brothers drifted away. College, marriage, jobs, friends all pulled us apart. In autumn, there were neighborhood football games. Why sit around the table with the old folks when we could be out on the field scoring touchdowns?

"If we wait until after dinner it will already be dark out."

One Sunday, I suggested that we order pizza.

By then, it must have seemed like too much trouble to get out the “nice” dishes and silver. Maybe Sunday dinner had gone out of fashion. Mother's lace table cloth was fraying around the edges.

Eventually, the only time we had a “real” Sunday dinner was on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Grandma died a few days after her 90th birthday. She never did answer my question about Grandpa.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Northern Lights Shoppers City opening

Most Ambridge area kids, and maybe even most adults, had no idea that November 1, 1956, would change our lives forever. On November 1, 1956, Northern Lights Shoppers City, billed as the biggest shopping center in Pennsylvania, opened. 

Northern Lights Shoppers City Grand Opening ad,
Beaver Valley Times,
 October 31, 1956

While the huge, weeks' long, grand opening celebration wouldn't be held until June 1957, when more stores would open, the first stores in Northern Lights opened for business on November 1, 1956:

A & P
Allen Shoes

Fintex Clothes (men's)
Freedom National Bank
Jackson's Shoes
Jane Lee Shop (women's and children's clothes)
J.C. Penney
Kinney's Shoes
Kirby Shoes

Murphy's Meats
Northern Lights Laundromat
Northern Lounge
Robinson's (women's and children's clothes)
Schaughency's Home and Auto Supplies
Standard Sportswear
Stone Hardware
Sun Drug

The Farm and Garden Patch (poultry and produce)
W.T. Grant

A total of 65 stores were planned, all open to 9 PM every night, with free parking for 4,000 cars--and you didn't need to parallel park. Plus there was room to expand to add more stores later.

At the time, Merchant Street in Ambridge was a bustling, busy place, with a variety of stores, both chains like Penney's and Sears, and numerous small businesses. The streets in the business area were so crowded, it was often hard to find a place to park, either on Merchant or Maplewood Avenue, both with metered spaces.

Ambridge had groceries and meat markets, pharmacies, clothing and shoe stores, hardware, appliance, and furniture stores, and you could walk to them. Even if you had a car, why would anyone drive five miles to Baden to shop?