Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Beautiful River

Dredge and Barges in Ohio River, Beaver PA (Google Earth)

by Robert Giles

Sunova Beach

The big sign in the sand at Crows Island was perhaps the first thing we looked for when church let out. From where my Dad parked up on Dippold we could see it clearly – “Sunova Beach”.

Crows Island was opposite Baden near the Aliquippa shore. The channel on the Aliquippa side was narrow – maybe sixty feet wide. About 1964 or 1965, the LTV Steel Company filled in the channel and raised the height of the island about ten feet. That was the end of Crows Island. LTV built a new steel mill on top of it.

Before that, it was just a long, flat sandy dune. I don’t remember there being any trees – maybe a few scrubby ones. There was some Joe-Pye weed, sumac, and cattail. The island was uninhabited. There was a makeshift shed on “Sunova Beach” that served as a dressing room for bathers.

From the Methodist Church, the beach beckoned. There was about forty feet of clean white sand down to river’s edge. The beach was maybe fifty yards long. Frequently we would see one or two motor boats anchored and sun worshipers on towels or chaise lounges.

I don’t remember when we hatched our plan but it might have been during a ride home from church.

My brother Chuck and his friend Larry found an article in a magazine showing how to make a raft with lumber and Clorox bottles. The “bottles” were actually plastic gallon jugs.  The idea was to make a deck from light lumber and then string the Clorox bottles beneath and along the sides. The bottles would provide enough buoyancy to float the deck and two passengers.

We calculated we would need about thirty Clorox bottles with caps. The guy who wrote the magazine article must have done a lot of laundry.

Not just any empty bottle would do – we had to have the caps too. Even if we got the whole neighborhood involved, it would take all summer to collect enough. After some deliberation, we decided to relax our standards. Any large plastic jug would do even if it didn’t bear the Clorox logo.

I think it was about then that soda pop started coming out in liter jugs. We knew that a liter was smaller than a gallon, but OK, what the hey – 2 soda pop bottles were roughly equal to a Clorox jug.

By late July we had collected the required flotation devices – what would we do for lumber?

There was a truck park on Duss Avenue next to Jan’s Bar. There were wooden skids lying about. No one would miss one.

“This is awfully heavy. It’s water-logged from being out in the rain. Weren't we supposed to use light lumber?”

Free lumber was too good to pass up. Besides it was already nailed together into a deck of sorts.

Hauling the heavy skid with bottles attached all the way to the river was impossible.  We decided to take the component parts there separately and construct the raft on the river bank.

We took turns carrying the skid across Byers’ Field and down over Route 65 and across the Pennsy tracks. Additional hands were needed to drag the bottles. Trailing clouds of Clorox jugs, we must have made quite an impression on passing motorists. Some demonstrated their appreciation by honking their horns.

There were seven of us. The raft was designed for two. Our friend Alex contributed two truck tire inner tubes. Another kid had a life preserver from his uncle’s rowboat. We all planned to sail.

Finally we were at the launch point – the mouth of Legionville Run. We attached the large bottles to the bottom of the skid and tied the liter bottles around the rim, all according to specification. Everything was secured with plastic clothes line.

We were ready to launch. Chuck and Larry stepped onto the raft. They were in about three feet of water. Almost immediately, the raft began to sink, not all the way to the bottom, but below the surface.

Maybe the lumber was just too water-logged from lying out in the truck park.

We could see that our vessel was not sea-worthy. What to do? We still wanted to get to Sunova Beach.

My brother, as usual, had a plan. Why don’t we just tie the Clorox bottles around our chests and float over that way. Who needs a raft?

“You guys who were going to share a truck tube can use bottles too. That way we’ll all have our own individual floats.”

Chuck tested his Clorox bottle “vest” in the shallow water at the mouth of the run.  It worked.  Decked out in Clorox bottles and perched grandly atop truck tubes, we kicked and floated all the way to Crows Island, about a half mile down river.

Behind us, the abandoned skid bobbed ignominiously in the waters off Legionville Run.

We sailed all the way down the back channel and around the north end of the island and back upriver to Sunova Beach.

Sunova Beach looked a heck of a lot better from the Methodist Church than it did close up.

We landed briefly, but by then we were so tired and dirty and sunburned that we just wanted to go home. We headed straight across to Baden and walked the railroad tracks back to Byersdale, minus the bottles. We left them tied to the base of a willow tree.

Who knows -- the evidence of our grand voyage may still be there today on the Baden shore.  Islands and steel mills may come and go but Clorox bottles are forever. 

It makes me want to holler "Sunova Bleach!"

The Swimmer

It was a regular thing for the old guy to pull over by the railroad tracks and come down to the river to swim.

Sometimes we wouldn’t see him dive in - we would just hear his body hit the water. Other times we would see him pause atop the flight of concrete steps that led up to the ruins of the old lockmaster’s quarters, surveying the river as though looking for approaching traffic. Or we would see him down on the lock wall, taking off his clothes.

He wasn’t old “old”. He might have been in his fifties. His crew cut was thin and white around the ears. The hair on his chest and legs was also white. Over all, he was red and brown, with tinges of white.  He wasn’t what I would call overweight. He might have played football in high school.

If he worked in a mill, I would guess foreman. If he ever hung out in a bar, it was because he owned it.

He was always fifty yards away. He never came down to say hello or ask how the fishing was. Sometimes he would nod in our direction if we waved.

He always came to the surface about thirty yards from the river wall, facing backwards toward shore, treading water smoothly, showing only his head. He swam like a seal or other sea creature, effortlessly. When he finished his backstroke, he went into a breaststroke that was just as slow and regular. His arms and legs never cut the water. We just saw the back of his head, moving slowly away. He swam so noiselessly there were probably times when he came and went and we didn’t even notice he was there.

If a tug came along, he would bide his time until boat and barges passed, bobbing in their wake when his route was clear. For a second he would disappear entirely behind a wave, then reappear and disappear at regular intervals until the river calmed.

Calm – that’s the word I would use to describe the swimmer.  It might take him twenty minutes to get to his destination and twenty minutes to get back to shore. No wasted energy.

I don’t think I ever saw him swim all the way over to the western shore – he just went three-quarters of the way over and back. Forty minutes – I guess that was the goal he had set for himself.

On a really hot day when the fish weren’t biting we would be tempted to jump in ourselves. But the water was oily. There was always something scuzzy floating on it. Besides, it was over our heads. What if we swam out too far and couldn’t get back?

I liked to swim but I was a noisy, nervous, splashy swimmer. I couldn’t go the distance. I was almost in high school before I swam all the way out to the diving platform at Brady’s Run Lake or tubed over to Crows Island.

I still think of the old guy. He knew what he wanted to do and did it, patiently and masterfully. He didn’t seem to need people – at least he didn’t go out of his way to be social. He didn’t mind solitude. He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking - he just went in head first. Once he was in the water, he didn’t waste any motion.

Incredibly, he always seemed to climb out of the water as clean as when he went in – but who could be sure? He was always fifty yards away. 

Out on Teeter-Totter

The first time I went down to the old lock wall I was seven or eight. My oldest brother Jim took me. He showed me where the high school boys had carved their names into the stone.

The wall stretched from a point close to the mouth of Legionville Run all the way to Teeter-Totter, a distance of about 200 yards. The wall was partly submerged, even in those days. The north end near Legionville Run was under water. If you took off your shoes and socks and rolled up your pants you could walk the wall, even though it was under water. It was a foot or two beneath the surface. You had to walk a straight line or you might step into deep water.

The wall emerged about 30 yards before you got to the first “lock”.

There were two “locks” along the wall. The first “lock” was the more northerly of the two. We called them “locks” but now I’m pretty sure that is incorrect – thus the quotation marks. There were perhaps two locks around the dam that crossed the Ohio until 1924, but they were on opposite sides of the river, one for northbound vessels and one for southbound.

Our two “locks” on the Legionville side were actually mechanical gates that controlled the water level in the one lock on our side of the river. Remnants of metal plate were all that remained of the gates.

A person looking across the Ohio could see on the Aliquippa shore the twin of the wall on the Legionville side. The two walls were all that were left of the dam that once spanned the river.

Why was the dam destroyed and replaced by a new one at Emsworth (Dasheilds Dam)?

The dam at Legionville stood at one of the busiest stretches of the river, athwart the miles-long J&L steel works.

A fleet of barges and tugs hauled minerals from one end of the steel works to the other. Every relatively short trip back and forth required a passage through the locks. The consensus was that this was too costly. Time is money.

The US Army Corps of Engineers was nothing if not accommodating. They fixed J&L’s problem and left behind an interesting ruin for our fun and wonderment.

The two sites on the Legionville side that we referred to as “locks” were good places to fish. Some boys liked to swim there. Once in a while someone drowned.

What I wanted to describe to you before I got sidetracked into all this lock business was the southerly portion of the wall (the Ambridge end). Just south of what we erroneously referred to as “the second lock” was the area we called “Teeter-Totter”.

Teeter-Totter referred to the southern-most tip of the wall. There was water on three sides of Teeter-Totter. Think of it as a man-made peninsula of crumbling concrete.

My brother helped me navigate out to Teeter-Totter on that first visit. Right off the bat I could see that the path was blocked by a small willow tree. Jim showed me how to grab a bunch of willow and lean out over the river while sidestepping along the first few feet of wall. Once past the willow, I could see that the wall was overgrown with poison ivy. Fortunately the ivy and the earthen bank on the left side quickly gave way to a back-water. There was water on both sides of the wall from there on out. On the right was the deep water of the river, on the left was the muddy shallow water of the inlet.

According to legend there were “golden” carp that inhabited the inlet. All I could see was refuse of every kind, floating on the slack water. In fact, everything that floated seemed to end up in the inlet – wiffle balls, soccer balls, beach balls, baseballs, softballs, rubber balls, wiffle ball bats, lumber, baby dolls, hula hoops, Christmas ornaments, artificial Christmas trees, plastic bottles, toilet floats, and bars of ivory soap.

The water was oily and shimmered with the rainbow colors you see on asphalt after a rain. The air smelled like heavy machinery.

All we had to do was turn ever so slightly to our right and there it was – the beautiful Ohio. Did you ever see a large body of water in motion that wasn’t beautiful?

The sun was descending and imparted a golden glow. You had to shade your eyes with your palm to look at it. Across the river was the J&L tin mill and seamless tube.

Everything looked fixed and permanent. A locomotive puffed along the track. A coal barge was unloading way up river where you could just make out the Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge.

We stepped a little farther along the wall.

“Careful, Bobby, this is where it gets interesting.”

The concrete under my feet began to shift. Way out there on the point, the wall took a beating. The river was tamed but still had wild moments even the Corps of Engineers couldn’t manage.

The blocks on the surface of Teeter-Totter were slightly askew but still had a solid look. It was the more friable blocks below in the river that were eroded and unstable.

Did you ever walk up a seesaw and get to the tipping point and keep going and let the board pitch you forward to the other side? If you were agile or at least prepared, you could keep your footing. The unsure and unaware landed in the grass. Scaredy-cats backed off to contemplate careers as playground supervisors.

“OK, Bobby, when the wall shifts, just step forward onto the next block. You won’t fall in, I promise.”


  1. I loved this post! You had much better adventures than I had while growing up in Ambridge. But then, I didn't have an older brother full of really good ideas.

    I never had any desire whatsoever to get into the river with its dark, brown, murky waters. And those huge barges churning by, plus the natural and unnatural debris floating downstream, not to mention the pollution.

    It wasn't until very recently that I found out that there were kids like you who voluntarily ventured into the water. And came out of the water with skin still on and apparently no long term health consequences. I continue to be amazed.

  2. I had a similar reaction to these posts, Nancy - except that, since I would never have even considered going down to the river, my reaction was to wonder if Robert's mother knew what her kids were up to!

  3. People were much more connected to the river before access over the railroad rights-of-way became so difficult.The Ohio now is much clearer and cleaner now (although it remains the most polluted river in the US). Boating and fishing are very popular on the Ohio now. More and more the Ohio will be re-integrated with the communities of the valley.
    Did you know that "Baden" is German for "spa".
    After our circumnavigation of Crows Island, we hosed each other off in the back yard before going in the house but Mom did ferret out our secret.She was not amused.
    My parents grew up in the country so that may account for their laissez faire approach to child rearing. We got away with quite a lot.

    1. jd aka john domansky

      1st time i have read this section, its great & wonder why none of the original river rats never added anything here, me being one of the original river rats, from 1937 to the 1950 early, the river at 12th str was home to many ambridgeites, spent many hours and days at the only place we knew that had a diving board & big rocks to sunbathe on, mostly no suits were worn, in fact never saw a siut except once a brave girl came down & wore it. pollution was terrible, north ambridge sewers all dumped at 13th st a big 5ft pipe under tracks to river, some days the foam was bad, everything was there coming into the ohio. only saw a few sport boats in the area, one day a boat came flying down &a guy fell out & they were a ways away b4 he was missed, turned & picked him up. the swim hole was great b4 the pool opened, it was a long walk up from 14th st, but worth it, you could stay as long as you wanted to. the ohio river paddlewheelers were fun, swim & out & ride their wakes, there was a big rock by J&L to swim across & rest on it then swim back, always 4 or 5 guys & one inner tube for safety.
      baden is german for spa, there is a popular west baden in Ind. the postcards bring good money on ebay.
      never saw many people when we went to dive off barge docks in baden or byersdale?? on up river was town of beaver, river that had great bluffs to dive off. do not think mom or pop had a clue where their johnny had been & done. a great kid life & still a love for diving at 80+ 1959 went off a top rock in chicago & banged hand & head on shollow lake michigan at 95 th st coast guard station. 6 stitches & back next week to do it right way.

  4. Love these stories!

  5. Is this the place your talking about down along ft.65 they have barges sitting up on a big block wall right behind it there's old step buried deep under leaves etc also down a little farther there is ruins of a whole bunch of walls

  6. The wide set of concrete steps leading down to the river wall and the parked barges tell me we are talking about the same place, Bobby. It was a lot different 50 years ago though.

    1. Yes and farther down going towards sheetz there all those concrete walls where people boat yes I believe we're talking about the same spot always wondered what it looked like back in the day compared to now