Friday, September 5, 2014

The Dead-End Pool

In the summer of 1938, this was the Ambridge swimming pool:

Dead-End Pool
Photographer: Arthur Rothstein *
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
July 1938

Dead-End Pool
Beaver County Times,
June 22, 2011

The Dead-End Pool, reportedly named for the 1937 movie Dead End, was built by the depression era children of the First Street neighborhood by damming the Bank Street Creek, the local name for the section of Big Sewickley Creek that flowed past Bank Street**, and is a testimony to their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and work ethic. My aunt Helen(Sokolosky) Gause, then 11 years-old, says she was one of the neighborhood children who helped fill 100 sandbags with sand to make the pool.

Note the Life Guard Station on the upper left side of the top photo.

But then came those darn grownups and their concerns about things like safety.

A brief mention in The Daily Times of August 1, 1938, said the authorities were testing the pool's water, and the pool's fate rested in the test results.

On August 3, the same paper announced that the test results were in and showed that the pool was "grossly polluted with intestinal bacteria and wholly unfit for bathing purposes." The chemist from the Board of Health was quoted as saying, "It is a public health menace and should be destroyed." And so, the Dead-End Pool was condemned.

However, the children of First Street were determined, tenacious, assertive--and angry. And perhaps they had learned some strategies from the union organizers in the community.

The August 6, 1938, Pittsburgh Press reported that the borough had drained the Dead-End Pool the day before, although it had left the dam walls to provide ice skating in colder weather. The article also reported that the borough boys had circulated petitions demanding a municipal pool and had planned a parade for that afternoon to march to the borough building to demand a pool.

In news that may shock people used to dealing more recently with Ambridge authorities, the August 9 Press reported that "between 50 and 60 Dead-End Kids deprived of their swimming hole in Big Sewickley Creek when it was drained last week, took their complaint before Borough Council last night and came away from the meeting cheering." The Council agreed to put a bond proposal on the November ballot that would pay for the construction of a $110,000 swimming pool. And until a pool was constructed, the fire department would provide sprinklers for the kids to splash in. Wow.

So the end of the Dead-End Pool led to the birth of the borough pool so many of us enjoyed from the 1940s through the early 1990s.

The borough pool was built ***  on top of a steep hill on borough property currently called Walter Panek Park, about as far away from First Street as you could get and still be in Ambridge. But kids didn't seem to care. For generations, kids in Ambridge and beyond made the trek to the pool. It was where many of us spent long summer days providing wonderful memories.

*Arthur Rothstein was an acclaimed American photojournalist. He was one of the photographers employed by the Farm Service Administration to document the hardship of people's lives during the Great Depression. You can learn more about him and his work at the Arthur Rothstein Archive. Rothstein took a series of photographs in the First Street neighborhood that were published in July 1938.

** I'm not sure where Bank Street Creek was/is. I haven't found it yet on a map. I'm going to take a wild guess that it was near Bank Street in southwest Ambridge off First Street. Perhaps it was the name given to Big Sewickley Creek as it flowed through the Bank Street area. I'm not sure what bridge that is painted with the Dead-End Pool sign, but it looks like it may have been the railroad bridge that I'm told was once west of the bridge over Big Sewickley Creek that connects Merchant Street in Beaver County with Beaver Street in Allegheny County. If anyone can provide more information, please leave a comment.

Update: I have been assured by residents of the First Street neighborhood that "Bank Street Creek" was the name that locals gave to the section of Big Sewickley Creek that flowed past Bank Street. And that the bridge shown in the photo is the railroad bridge that once crossed Big Sewickley Creek west of the stone Big Sewickley Creek Bridge.

*** I have been hunting for a long time for information on the construction and opening of the borough pool, but rather than delay the post about the Dead-End Pool further, I've decided I'll post the information on the construction and opening if and when I find it. If you have any information, please leave a comment.

Update: the Ambridge Borough Pool opened on Memorial Day, 1942 and was formally dedicated on July 12, 1942. You can see photos of its construction in the September 15, 2017, Ambridge Memories blog post "Ambridge Borough Swimming Pool construction, 1939--and Ambridge's earlier playground pool." In that post, I discuss the Ambridge playground pool that once was in the 800 block of Duss Ave. and pre-dated the Dead-End pool. I learned about the short-lived playground pool only after I wrote this blog post.


  1. Nancy, I was going to post this exact same picture on the Ambridge Memories Facebook page just a few days ago but needed some more information on it which I see you found and beat me to it ! Bank Street is the street next to Avelli's. Whats left of the railroad bridge can still be seen today. The tracks went into what now is Avelli's (84 Lumber) which I can still remember when they crossed Rt 65. Then crossed over the creek where Pizza Joe's is at and continued on into Leetsdale, perhaps rejoining the mainline tracks I'm not yet sure.

  2. One could only imagine how bad that water must have been.

  3. Great article. Good dective work about finding where swimming came from. bank street creek? I live at the beginning of the LA river. We called it Owensmouth creek, but city council is building a park along the bank so now its 'LA river' Changing names for whose in charge!

  4. john domansky
    i was wrong about where the dead end pool was, i thought at 19th st, more i look at photo, it is the big stone bridge that goes into fair oaks & leetsdale, i remember guys sitting on that wall on the bridge about a 50 ft drop below, what guts to that. early 40s we watched 1st streeters flood rat holes & beat them w/sticks when they came out after their breath gave out, big river rats. guys from 1st were tough guys, when they spotted a catholic medal around my neck they let us 14 streeters go, but don't come back. went to holy redeemer w/some of them.