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The Steamboat Race of the Century

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By Brianna Horan  |   Image: The Christening of the Homestead, October, 1945. From the University of Pittsburgh’s William J. Gaughan Collection.

Brianna HoranThe Steamboat Race of the Century

In 1949, tens of thousands of Pittsburghers lined the riverbanks of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, packed onto bridges, and peered out of skyscraper windows to watch the “steamboat race of the century.” This friendly competition between two steam-powered tow boats owned by United States Steel Corp. and Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. carried serious bragging rights for the winner, and the photo finish was hotly contested.

Luckily for those of us who missed the race 71 years ago, a radio broadcast from announcers riding along on U.S. Steel’s Homestead still exists today, with a minute-by-minute recap of the action, a cacophony of cheering boat horns, and even a “hoowee” of glee from Charles R. Cox, president of the U.S. Steel Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation.

Take a listen to part one of the broadcast here, and hear the exciting finish here. The two audio files are about 9 minutes long all together. You can also read the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph’s recap of the events here, and a profile of the 49-year-old fire boss whose sweat and brawn secured the win for his sternwheeler can be read here.

The West End Bridge over the Ohio River served as the starting line, where the gun went off at 11:51 a.m. to start the race. The two sternwheel towboats, U.S. Steel’s Homestead, built in Ambridge in 1922, and Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.’s William Larimer Jones, built in Indiana in 1930 and named for the president of J & L, were both pushing four empty barges in front of them as they plowed towards The Point and veered right to head up the Mon. The Homestead quickly pulled to the lead, with the radio broadcasters onboard remarking, “Have you ever seen water boil and flow underneath barges like this?!” They describe the May weather as overcast, cool and cloudy, and note that they can’t see behind them because of the black smoke pouring out of the two vessels.

The race heats up as the sternwheelers reach The Point Bridge, a structure that spanned the Monongahela close to where the plaza around The Point’s fountain is, and was demolished in 1970. The Sun-Telegraph reported that the Homestead suddenly dropped behind, “while the black smoke pouring from its double stacks thinned to a haze.” Meanwhile, Jones & Laughlin’s “gleaming, single-stacked William Larimer Jones shoved its black barges into the lead in the stretch.” The broadcasters onboard the Homestead audibly deflate, and they point out that deckhands on the William Larimer Jones, “are waving their hands and jumping around, they are really excited and they are calling remarks back and forth.” By this point, the Jones’s staff of stewardesses, clad in white uniforms, have started to cheer, as well.

But as the finish line—the Smithfield Street Bridge—draws near, the Homestead had regained its slight lead. There’s an exuberant whine of boat horns in the audio recordings cheering along with what the broadcasters estimate to be 200,000 spectators. The recordings capture the roar of the William Larimer Jones blowing off its build-up of steam.

The “see-saw race” of 1.5 miles ends at noon in a photo finish. It’s so close that the deckhands and distinguished guests onboard both vessels erupted in celebration, each thinking that they had come in first place. The broadcasters can’t be sure who’s won, but get word that the judges, one of whom is Mayor David Lawrence, declared U.S. Steel’s Homestead sternwheeler the winner. The steamer’s Captain, Richard Hanna, was gifted a bouquet of roses and “an ornate captain’s cap” from the presidents of both steel manufacturers. After the race, a victory dinner was served onboard the Homestead while it took a “triumphal tour of the harbor.”

The Sun-Telegraph quoted the William Larimer Jones’s Captain William D. McConnell saying after the race, “They’ll be arguing the decision of this race for the next 100 years. And when the deckhands get together in a bar there’s sure to be a fight about who won.” The newspaper also reported that their newsroom was inundated with calls contesting U.S. Steel’s victory.

But the Homestead’s recapturing of the lead becomes even more impressive when it’s revealed that unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, the boat’s steam regulator valve failed midway through the race, and cut off the automatic stoker engines. Realizing what happened, the steamboat’s firemen, Ed Berry of Rices Landing and Jesse Beckner of Carrick, began a frenzied shoveling of “more than a ton of coal into the four raging boilers of the Homestead during the last minutes of the race.” A later interview with Beckner, a 49-year-old weighing in at 245 pounds and standing six feet tall, quoted him saying that it was “the Lord’s will” that brought them victory—although he also admitted that the $20 wager he’d put on the Homestead was also a strong motivator.

USS's sternwheeler towboat, the Homestead.

United States Steel’s sternwheel towboat, the Homestead, pushing coal or coke. Mid-20th-century image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

This steamboat race was the crowning event of Pittsburgh’s Welcome Week, hosted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce to show off what was being touted as “America’s busiest city” to draw more businesses and residents to town. The two steel companies had a rematch during the 1950 Welcome Week, and the winner was even announced in the New York Times—the Homestead won again, racing against J&L’s Titan. While Welcome Week lasted only a few years (Pittsburgh saw its last steamboat race in 1951), the city’s affinity for boat racing would later push the Pittsburgh Regatta, which debuted in 1978, to become the largest inland regatta in the country before going on hiatus in in 2019, when the iconic event was cancelled because the event management company failed to secure the necessary insurance.

As for the mighty Homestead, it worked in service to the company until 1960 when it was dismantled. It met that fate despite calls from some locals to covert it a tourist attraction…perhaps a early indicator of our region’s reverence for its industrial history—a notion we at Rivers of Steel wholeheartedly embrace today.

illustration of a steamboat

Pittsburgh’s Time as a Steamboat City

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By Brianna Horan  |   Image: An illustration of the Steamboat Arabia by Gary Lucy, provided by the Senator John Heinz History Center

Brianna HoranPittsburgh’s Time as a Steamboat City

What goes up must come down–that’s the easy part, thanks to gravity. Getting things to move in the other direction is the where the challenge usually comes in. For the feat of propelling a large amount of passengers and cargo against the south-flowing currents of the Mississippi River in the 1800s, the invention of the steamboat was revolutionary. Suddenly, merchants could transport their goods to new frontier settlements, expanding both the economy and the supplies available to pioneers in the nation’s interior.

Marked by their striking, steam-driven paddle wheels, these boats were made possible by the invention of the steam engine by Englishman Thomas Newcomen in the early 1700s. After a series of shaky attempts to combine steam engines and nautical travel, Robert Fulton, born near Lancaster, PA, refined the technology and built the Clermont in 1807—a flat-bottomed sidewheeler with a square-shaped stern that was initially dubbed “Fulton’s Folly.” After the Clermont consistently completed multiple roundtrip journeys between New York and Albany on the Hudson River, Fulton soon proved that his venture was popular and profitable, kicking off the first viable commercial steamboat service.

As is the case with so many stories of innovations that shaped America, the Pittsburgh region had a vital role to play in the steamboat industry’s history. The city became a steamboat hub after the Steamboat New Orleans set off here and became the first to complete the 1,800 mile journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The boat was funded by Fulton and Robert Livingston, a New York politician and inventor who helped to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Nicholas Roosevelt, who was a great-granduncle of President Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the building of the Steamboat New Orleans in Pittsburgh, which he named for its ultimate destination. On October 20, 1811, Roosevelt and his wife Lydia, who was eight months pregnant with her second child, set out from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River to make history. The Senator John Heinz History Center’s blog tells the riveting story of this maiden steamboat voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It is highly recommended reading about a riveting journey that included a delay in Louisville caused by low waters at the treacherous Falls of the Ohio that was perfectly timed to allow Lydia to give birth, riverbanks crowded with people terrified by the unsettling sights and sounds of the strange steam-powered behemoth, and navigation through a series of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the eastern United States. The seismic activity caused the Mississippi to temporarily run backwards, new waterfalls were formed, islands were swallowed up as new ones were formed, and fallen trees created an obstacle course of snags that easily could have doomed the boat. The newly-enlarged Roosevelt family arrived in New Orleans nearly three months later, on January 10, 1812, proving that steamboat was a viable—if dangerous—way to connect the nation’s interior as western expansion intensified.

Image of the New Orleans Steamboat from a book cover

Cover of the book “The Story of the New Orleans, 1811-1911,” from the University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh Book Collection.

By the 1830s, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s steamboats were being manufactured in Western Pennsylvania, using locally-produced wood, iron, glass and paint. Mon and Ohio River Valley communities like Elizabeth, Brownsville, Belle Vernon, California, and Sewickley employed a large number of skilled craftsmen, launching hundreds of vessels each month. As the Heinz History Center’s communication assistant Katelyn Howard wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014, “The booming steamboat industry helped maintain Pittsburgh’s role as a key ‘Gateway to the West’ from the 1830s through the 1860s.“ By 1849, Pittsburgh’s wharf hosted more than 2,000 steamboats annually.

Steamboats were plentiful, but so were the dangers of traveling on one. The average lifespan of a steamboat was only a few years long. American waterways were filled with treacherous curves, fast currents, and variable water levels. The country was heavily forested at the time, and steamboats had to contend with numerous tree trunks floating beneath the surface—known as snags—waiting to impale and sink the vessels.

illustration of a steamboat

An illustration of the Steamboat Arabia by Gary Lucy, provided by the Senator John Heinz History Center

The Steamboat Arabia was one such boat that struck a snag while navigating the Missouri River, sinking in a matter of minutes. Luckily, all 130 people onboard survived – the only casualty was a carpenter’s mule who had been tied to the boat’s stern. It was thought that the 220 tons of cargo onboard were lost forever—a loss that caused several frontier towns to dry up after the Arabia failed to arrive with the clothing, tools, food, mail, munitions, and other supplies onboard.

The Arabia had been built at the boatyard of John S. Pringle in West Brownsville, PA, in 1853. This 171-foot-long steamboat sat at the bottom of the Missouri until the late 1980s, during which time the river’s path changed course. When a team of Kansas City, MO, locals learned the boat’s story, they were able to pinpoint the Arabia’s resting place – which ended up being 45 feet below a cornfield near Kansas City, a half mile from the present channel of the Missouri River. During a four-and-a-half month excavation, they uncovered millions of items in what was the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts – all perfectly preserved for 130 years in an oxygen-free environment.

These treasures are on permanent display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City’s River Market (check out their website for some incredible photos), and in 2014 the Senator John Heinz History Center hosted a special exhibit displaying some of the recovered cargo, called “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.” The exhibition is now over, but luckily for us a thorough video tour guided by the History Center’s president and CEO Andy Masich is available online, where there are also a number of interesting facts and photos about the Arabia’s ill-fated journey. It’s fascinating to see goods made in western Pennsylvania and across the globe in the mid-1800s looking like new—including an assortment of clothing, bolts of fabric, jars of pickles, balance scales, fine china, tin ware, and even two prefabricated homes that were intended for frontier towns.

The Sprague at Point State Park

Postcard of the Sprague docked at Point State Park, 1959. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

To bookend a story that linked Pittsburgh with a steamboat “first” is the story of a local connection to the biggest steam-powered sternwheeler towboat in the world. The 318-foot Sprague was built in Dubuque, Iowa, at the Iowa Iron Works, but it was named for Captain Peter Sprague, a marine construction supervisor who spent his early years in Elizabeth and Shousetown, PA, learning the boat building trade. He was known for having built or repaired one steamboat for every year of his 72-year-long life, earning him an induction in the National Rivers Hall of Fame in 2000. It’s noted that towards the end of the 19th century, Sprague was able to look from one end of Pittsburgh Harbor to the other and see that he had either built, designed, repaired, or rebuilt nearly every boat.

Historic image of pittsburgh with steamboats and barges

A panoramic view of Pittsburgh’s riverfront from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad yards. The Smithfield Street Bridge is visible along with the Kanawha steamboat, docked on the Monongahela River, and several downtown business buildings including the Union Bank Building. From the University of Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 1912.

In 1899, more than 90 independent coal operators in Pittsburgh were consolidated to form the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Company, the largest river operation of all time. At the age of 71, Sprague took the job of overseeing the maintenance of the company’s fleet of more than 100 steam towboats. Soon after, the towboat Smoky City went up in flames in Pittsburgh in October of 1900. To fill the need to haul empty coal boats from New Orleans to Louisville, Sprague sat down to pen his final and finest design.

The finished Sprague was launched in September 1902, after her designer’s death. The massive vessel had to be towed from Dubuque to St. Louis to have her 40-foot paddlewheel installed because it was too long to pass through the Keokuk Lock in Iowa with the wheel attached. On her maiden voyage to Cairo, IL, the Sprague collided with a showboat called Temple of Amusement due to mixed up signals. The show boat was sliced in half and sunk in the incident. The Sprague also suffered damages, and she was taken to Pittsburgh to strengthen her structure and improve the signal system. Next came a successful run to New Orleans, after which the vessel returned to Pittsburgh for extra hog chains to be added to prevent the hull from sagging or “hogging” under heavy loads.

Before long the Sprague earned the nickname “Big Mama” in 1904 by pushing 53,200 tons of coal – only to break it in 1907 towing 67,307 tons of coal between Memphis and Baton Rouge, a 612-mile journey.  The Sprague also set records for the number of tows lost; on one incident in 1913 she hit a stone dike near Osceola, AR, and let go of 35 barges carrying 53,200 tons of coal – enough to temporarily form a new island in the Mississippi River. Big River Magazine details the Sprague’s eventful life in a 2015 article by Connie Cherba and Harold Pollock called, “When ‘Big Mama’ Ruled the Rivers.” The Sprague’s paddlewheel kicked up a 10 to 14-foot wake behind it, and some claimed that the Mississippi ran backwards after the Sprague passed going upriver, with her wheel wash splashing the shore for hours after she went by.

Flood refugees on the Sprague.

Steamer Sprague arriving at Vicksburg with refugees for Red Cross care, May 12, 1927. Photography by the American National Red Cross. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

In 1925, Standard Oil Company bought the Sprague to haul crude oil to Baton Rouge, LA,– more hauling records ensued. In 1927, “Big Mama” carried 20,000 refugees from Greenville to Vicksburg, MS, during a record flood of the Mississippi River. She continued to haul oil in service of the World War II, but after the war she was decommissioned at Memphis in 1948 in favor of more efficient diesel vessels. The Sprague was sold to the city of Vicksburg for one dollar in 1957, housing a popular floating restaurant and river museum.

George and Marilyn Sprague on the Sprague, 1959. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

In 1959, the Sprague made one more trip to Pittsburgh, towed to the Point in celebration of the city’s bicentennial. The Waterways Journal Weekly’s March 2008 “Old Boat Column” by Keith Norrington details the Sprague’s later years and the trip back to Pittsburgh. In preparation of the bicentennial appearance, “Big Mama” was treated to more than $100,000 of renovations and repairs before the Union Barge Line towed her 3,000 miles round trip on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Thousands of visitors toured the Sprague while it visited the Point in the summer and fall of 1959; one of them was a young Marilyn Sprague, a distant relative of Captain Peter Sprague—take a look at the photo of her with her father, George Sprague.

The Sprague returned to Vicksburg in November 1959 and continued to draw tourists as a floating theater, showing Vicksburg Little Theater’s long-running melodrama, “Gold in the Hills.” Sadly, an overnight fire on April 15, 1974, gutted the Sprague, leaving only the sternwheel and hull intact. The remains of “Big Mama” stayed on Vicksburg waters for a few years after, until the flood of 1979 sank her. That wasn’t before Marilyn Sprague paid a visit to what was left of the world’s largest steam-powered towboat one more visit in Vicksburg in 1975.

The Sprague in Vicksburg, MS.

Marilyn Sprague with the Sprague Sternwheeler, Vicksburg, 1975.

Pieces of the Sprague are strewn and rusting in overgrown riverfront property outside of downtown Vicksburg today. Marty Kittrell, a photographer there, has photographed these relics in an appeal to preserve the Sprague and its story on his blog. Today the Sprague can still be heard, thanks to a recording of her whistle from an LP recorded in 1965, shared by (listen to the second recording to hear “Big Mama”).

The Sprague enjoyed a life that extended long into the 1900s, but for the most part steamboats began to decline as the preferred way of trade and travel after the Civil War, when railroads emerged as a more efficient mode of transportation.

Pittsburgh’s reign as a steamboat city may have been fleeting, but the craft of boat building and the pioneering spirit that grew out of that age are an important foundation of the region’s heritage.

A Barge on the Mon River

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges

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By Suzi Bloom, Director of Education   |   Image of a barge on the Monongahela River by Adam Piscitelli, 2016.

Suzi BloomSouthwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges

While towboats and barges are not unique to Pittsburgh, there’s nothing quite like seeing a barge gliding through the early morning river fog. To me, it is one of the more iconic images of our working rivers. The powerful towboat and companion barges synonymous with the brawniness of Joe Magarac as the operation appears to glide effortlessly through rivers that have long been integral in the building of America.

Barges have been used to transport coal and other goods along Pittsburgh’s rivers for well over the past 200 years. The concept of a boat pushing what is essentially a floating box may seem antiquated, but barge transportation is still competitive with other forms of transportation, like railroads and semi-truck trailers. In fact, water transportation for dry bulk goods is one of the cheapest and most energy efficient means of transport.

The first transport of coal by barge on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers was in the late 1700’s. However, barge travel during this time was not easy. With barges sitting so low in the water, transportation was limited to rainy seasons when rivers were deep enough to keep barges from running aground. During the dry season, when the rivers could become as shallow as a foot, industries dependent upon barge’s cargo were required to use other methods of goods transportation or they shut down.

Historic Images of Coal Barges

Postcard of “Coal Barge Scene in Pittsburg Harbor” depicting coal barges at the Point with the old Point Bridge and the Smithfield Street Bridge in rear, pre-1919. Collection of Rivers of Steel.

The first barges known as coalboats were powered by the river current and, as their name implies, only transported coal.  Coalboats were rectangular wooden vessels that were approximately 100 feet long by 20 feet wide and 6 feet deep.  They could carry up to 330 tons of coal and required a river depth of at least 7 feet. Many coalboats often wrecked on the journey, but for those that made the trip, the coal was unloaded and the boat itself dismantled and sold as lumber.

The invention of steam-powered boats was a game changer for river transportation. Coalboats were tied to steamboats for both up and downstream travel. Steamboat operators experimented with both the pushing and pulling of coalboats and ultimately determined that pushing was most effective

Southwestern PA was home to many shipyard companies that supplied the market with steamboats. From 1811-1888 boatyards along the Monongahela River alone produced more than 3,000 steamboats, with notable large-scale operations in Brownsville, PA.

USS's sternwheeler towboat, the Homestead.

United States Steel’s sternwheel towboat, the Homestead, pushing coal or coke. Mid-20th-century image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

In conjunction with the invention of steam-powered vessels, I would be remiss not to provide a brief history of the engineering efforts to increase the navigability of our waterways. U.S. Congress recognized the commercial value of navigable waterways and in 1824 authorized the first civil works mission assignment to Army Corp of Engineers to remove snags and obstructions from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Construction of small wing dams and dikes took place on the Ohio River to concentrate flow, but the need for a deeper river channel remained an issue. Additional small-scale lock and dam construction took place in the early 1840’s, but the turmoil of the Civil War stalled further development.

Progress reinstated on waterways improvements shortly after the war. Philadelphia native, William Milnor Roberts, a civil engineer who began his career in 1825 at the age of 16 and later became known as the “Genius of the Ohio River Improvement,” was promoted to the Superintendent of the Survey for the post-war Rivers and Harbors Act that concluded in 1869. Roberts’ career achievements had a major impact on the success of the commercial transportation of goods on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He worked in both the canal and railroad industries and his work on the Harbors Act concluded that the following actions were the most critical improvements necessary for Ohio River navigation:

The general substitution of fleets of barges for the former single steamers, or the plan of floating boxes. It is reasonable to believe that after a while a large proportion of the steamers engaged in freighting will be low-boats, running in connection with barges. Some single steamers will of course still be useful in carrying on the local passenger and freight business between the numerous commercial points along the river…;but the bulk of the freighting will probably be ultimately carried on by means of barges towed as steamers.

There is much more to the history of Roberts, U.S. waterways navigation, and the complications that arose from plans to canalize the rivers and build lock and dams. In fact, the history of waterways navigation in Pittsburgh could fill another blog entry and we will save that for another day.

Locally however, the first lock and dam built by the Army Corp of Engineers at Davis Island opened to the public in 1885.

Modern barge on the Mon River

A modern barge on the Monongahela River. Image by Adam Piscitelli / Primetime Shots, August, 2020.

Modern day barges are still essentially just floating platforms (now made of steel), that carry a variety of commodities and consumer goods such as coal, wheat, barley, corn, petroleum etc. Barge use can be slower but serves to maximize carrying capacity.  Barges themselves typically still do not have engines and are still pushed or pulled by a tug or tow boat. Tug or tow boats are usually powered by diesel or sometimes natural gas and even hybrid engines.

Towboats and barges are manned by a crew, which typically consists of 11 members including a captain, a pilot, a chief engineer, an engineer, a mate, a watchman, four deckhands, and a cook. Oftentimes shifts rotate onboard every 6 hours with the captain and pilot taking turns steering the vessel.

To return to the subject of maximizing carrying capacity, a typical 15-barge tow has the same dry cargo capacity as 1,050 Semi Tractor-Trailers. This carrying capacity helps to reduce landside highway traffic as well as emissions from trucks. The drawback to the system is that these barges are limited to the rivers that are navigable; modern day barges require a navigable river channel of at least 9 feet deep to accommodate the draft of a full vessel.

Fortunately, many navigable waterways lead to some of the most productive states. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their associated connections make up the majority of navigable waters in the United States. This leads to several waterways to choose from considering those waters stretch all the way to the Great Lakes.

A view of downtown Pittsburgh from the water showing recreation boat traffic.

A view of downtown Pittsburgh from the water with recreational boat traffic.

The Port of Pittsburgh itself is the fourth busiest inland port in the nation. According to 2014 data, each lock on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers handles about 9,000 barges per year. All 200 miles of commercially navigable waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania are in the Port of Pittsburgh District, which encompasses a 12-county region.

In Pittsburgh, some barges have even been repurposed and used as attractions, such as the floating “boardwalk” that was once moored on the Allegheny River from 1991-2008 and was home to bars like Donzi’s and Tequila Willies. That particular barge eventually was shipped in two pieces down the Ohio River to Chattanooga, Tennessee where it was to be used again for an entertainment venue that never came to fruition.

The Port of Pittsburgh is now part of The Marine Highway Program, which promotes the expansion of America’s navigable waters. Some of the public benefits of the program are the job creation, reduction of landside congestion, emissions reduction, and highway maintenance cost reduction.

The next time you see a towboat muscling a barge full of materials through our beautiful city, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity and carrying capacity of barge transportation.

watercolor by ryan keene

Artist Profile: Ryan Keene

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Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this monthly blog highlights an artist each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

Ryan KeeneAbout Ryan Keene

Our featured artist for the month of October is no stranger to Rivers of Steel.  Artist Ryan Keene (RakArt) was part of the inaugural Alloy Pittsburgh project in 2013 and has in the years since, continued to be a vital creative force in the Mon Valley Creative Corridor.  Making his home in Mt. Oliver, Keene’s work has evolved into a focus on angler art that has led to his paintings, illustrations and apparel gaining recognition across the country.

A Message from Ryan

About My Work

I approach art like walking into the dark forest, ripe with the smells of nature’s rot. You can find serenity as the light breaks through the overhead canopy or the action of a bird exploding from brush as you walk by filling you with both shock and awe at the power and beauty of nature. I work mostly in watercolor , its nature matching my own with it’s both meditative and explosive impatient characteristics. Washes mix and play as swipes of the ink nib leaves splatters and hard lines providing energetic reminders that nature is anything but a sterile world.

My Home

I have lived in my studio/house In Mount Oliver with my family for the past four years following a long stint in Oakland. The most intriguing aspect of Pittsburgh is its constant push and pull it has with nature. Trees and tall grass will take over a once fire breathing blast furnace or the many other abandoned structures sprinkled along the city limits.

Pittsburgh has always been so supportive of my art career ever since I arrived here almost 20 years ago. This was much different from the area I had left prior to here. Massachusetts and Maine both had great art scenes but their support of the struggling young contemporary minded community was limited. It was not long after moving I was already showing with the Society of Sculptors and a wide variety of other Art organizations. When I was an installation artist I would have never thought I would ever get the opportunities I had to create my body of work. In both the painting and sculptural time lines of my artistic career I feel like there was always this play of nature vs man, the natural and the synthetic. This city has definitely had its impact.

Find Me Online

Instagram: @rakart_pgh

Facebook: RAKart flies


Exploring the Heritage Area—Planes & Aviation

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Westmoreland County Airshow in Latrobe by Bill Rigsby. Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranExploring the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – Planes & Aviation!

Surprising Contributions in Flight

As we explore our region’s legacies in transportation, it seems natural to focus on our the crisscrossed network of railroads or even the auto industry of the early 20th century. After all, those industries were intrinsically connected to the iron and steel that the Pittsburgh area was so famous for. For the third segment in the series. we delve into the somewhat surprising, but highly relevant, contributions that have been made in the field of aviation. From a pioneering female aviator to the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, pilots from Western Pennsylvania have left a proud legacy. Read on to learn more about these exemplars, the flights and fields that helped birth aviation here, the places you can visit and the experiences you can have—including a special event on August 25—to celebrate planes and aviation in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

But first, we have to share the story of the 1956 disappearance of one B-25 bomber that crashed into the Monongahela River…

Illustration of the B-52 "Ghost Bomber" descending into the Monongahela River

Illustration of the B-25 “Ghost Bomber” descending into the Monongahela River, Image courtesy of the B-25 Recovery Group.

The Enduring Mystery of the “Ghost Bomber”

One of the region’s most well-known aviation-related incidents is surrounded by what many consider to be mysterious circumstances. This much is agreed upon: Shortly after 4:00 p.m. on January 31, 1956, a B-25 Mitchell bomber with crew onboard fell out of the air, skimming low over what is now the Homestead Grays Bridge and splashing into the icy, 34-degree Monongahela River downstream of where Sandcastle Water Park in West Homestead is today. The men were on a routine training flight from an Air Force Base in Nevada to pick up a cargo of airplane parts at Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg when it became clear they were quickly running out of fuel and had a malfunctioning engine. All six crew members survived the initial crash, but sadly two drowned while attempting to swim to shore. After the crash, a Coast Guard cutter caught the wing of the submerged plane with its anchor, but when the line slipped it was the last sign ever seen of the B-25 bomber. Official search efforts continued for two weeks with no luck finding the aircraft, and a number of additional attempts in the years since have also been fruitless.

This is where the questions arise—though there are many locals who swear they know exactly what happened. Some say they witnessed the military secretly recovering the plane’s wreckage in the dead of night to conceal its sensitive cargo, which is said to range from nuclear weapons to Soviet agents, or even a UFO from Area 51. (Remember, this was at the height of the Cold War.) Others contend that the aircraft’s aluminum body would have been eaten away decades ago by the polluted waters of the Mon, leaving only the steel engines and landing gear remaining. Some believe the craft was washed down the Mon to the Ohio River and may have landed somewhere around Emsworth. But if you ask the B-25 Recovery Group, who are determined to rescue the aircraft, it’s settled in a gravel pit near where it first sank, under 32 feet of water and 15 feet of silt. The Senator John Heinz History Center has a detailed account of the incident, including original newspaper clippings and official documents pertaining to the mystery of the “Ghost Bomber.”

Aviation Destinations in the Heritage Area

If you’re planning to hit the road on these itineraries during the global pandemic, please be mindful of the health and safety guidelines in place from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be sure to contact the sites, restaurants and attractions directly to confirm their operating statues and the safety protocols they have in place. We encourage you to bookmark these itineraries as travel inspiration to return to when things are less uncertain.

Image courtesy of Air Heritage, Inc.

Air Heritage Museum and Aircraft Restoration Facility

35 Piper St., Beaver Falls, PA 15010 | 724-843-2820 |

This working museum in Beaver Falls has a large collection of displays and ephemera that tell the rich history of flight, specializing in World War II and Vietnam era aircraft and artifacts. Members of the organization have repaired and restored numerous aircrafts over the past 30+ years, and visitors can see active restoration in progress in the large hangar.

Spirit of Freedom, image courtesy of Visit Greene, the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency.

Aviation Day in Greene County

417 E. Roy Furman Hwy., Waynesburg, PA 15370 |

This annual two-day festival celebrates the history and thrill of flight every August at the Greene County Airport in Waynesburg. The historic Spirit of Freedom takes flight for a Candy Drop as a kid-friendly way to re-enact the Berlin Airlift, and children aged 8 to 17 can take a free Young Eagles flight. The event is presented by Support Our Aviation Resources (SOAR) of Greene County, which brings together aviation enthusiasts and professionals to support the community airport and inspire youth to embark on careers in flight. The 2020 Aviation Day has been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Butler Flying School, image courtesy of Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau

High-Flying History and Dining at Butler County Airport

Serventi’s on the Runway, 473 Airport Rd., 2nd Flr., Butler, PA 16002 | 724-481-1213 |

The flat spread of land that makes Butler County well-suited for agriculture also made it an ideal place for early pilots to land. In 1908, a member of the Wright Brothers’ Exhibition Team soared over Butler in a one-man dirigible from the current site of Butler High School to the Courthouse and back, completing the first flight in the county. By 1929, a 230-acre site made up of the former Nixon and Dodds Farm was officially opened as the Pittsburgh Butler Airport, which served as the primary airport for the Pittsburgh region until Pittsburgh International was built in the early 1950s. The Penn School of Aviation was originally housed here and was regarded as one of the most state-of-the-art air transport and mechanical schools in the nation. Amelia Earhart attended the airport’s dedication, and she returned in 1930 to train in Butler’s skies for three months to earn her instrument flight certificate prior to her flight across the Atlantic. She had long-range fuel tanks installed on her Lockheed Vega (dubbed the Little Red Bus) while in area. The 2015 Butler County Visitors Guide has a detailed timeline of the county’s aviation milestones. Read up and let history come alive as you settle in for a meal at Serventi’s on the Runway, which serves fine Italian cuisine overlooking the Butler County Airport. At dinnertime you can watch jets taking off against the setting sun.

Helen Richey in a U.S. Mail Carrier, image courtesy of McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.

McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center

1832 Arboretum D., McKeesport, PA 15132 | 412-678-1832 |

The collection of this museum is extensive, and includes an exhibit honoring McKeesport native Helen Richey, a pioneering female aviator who was started her flying career as a teenager out of high school. In 1929 at age 20, she became the first licensed female pilot in Allegheny County, and by 1932 she and Frances Marsalis set a new women’s endurance record, staying aloft for nearly ten days. She beat out eight men for the job when she was hired as the first female pilot for a commercial scheduled passenger carrier, Central Airlines, in 1934. She was forced to resign soon after, however, following a gross case of sex discrimination when male pilots threatened to strike if she stayed on – women wouldn’t become airline commercial pilots again until 1973. Later, Richey became the only female flight instructor for Army Air Corps cadets at Pittsburgh-Butler Airport. During World War II, she ferried combat aircraft around England as a member of the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Take a look at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center’s webpage dedicated to Richey to see vintage video footage of her in a Universal Newsreel titled “Lady Mail Pilot.” Pittsburgh International Airport’s Blue Sky News blog also recently wrote about Richey as the Amelia Earhart of Pittsburgh.

Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh

Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh

501 Hopkins St., Sewickley, PA 15143 | 412-741-4409 |

The Sewickley Cemetery is home to the largest outdoor memorial to Tuskegee Airmen in the country. Ninety of these legendary first Black military airmen were from western Pennsylvania—the largest contingent involved in the Tuskegee experience. The memorial is one of the first displays on the road into the cemetery, with four handsome granite monuments, an honor roll of local Tuskegee Airmen, and an airplane tail sculpted from red granite inspired by the Tuskegee unit’s nickname, the “Red Tails.”  Like most things in the United States, the U.S. Armed Forces were segregated in the leadup to World War II. Racist beliefs that Black people couldn’t learn to fly aircraft prevented African-American men from joining the newly expanded civilian pilot training programs to prepare the country for war, until 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt listened to the lobbying campaigns of the NAACP and Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and announced a new training program for Black pilots. Nearly 1,000 African-American and Caribbean-born airmen volunteered to train at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, flying more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen’s impressive performance—they are especially known for their protection record, having lost only 27 of the 179 bombers they escorted, compared to an average of 46 among other units—earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. This heroism and excellence helped to encourage President Harry Truman to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces and mandate equality of opportunity and treatment in 1948, three years after the end of the war. In 2007, 350 Tuskegee Airmen and their widows received the Congressional Gold Medal. WQED produced a documentary called Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania’s Tuskegee Airmen, featuring the stories of more than 40 aviators from the region.

Pittsburgh International Airport

The Pittsburgh International Airport also honors the legacy of local Tuskegee Airmen, with a museum-quality photographic display in Concourse A, which can be seen by non-travelers who get a myPITpass at the third-floor ticket counter. This memorial and the display at Sewickley Cemetery were both created by Regis Bobonis Sr., a retired Pittsburgh journalist and amateur historian who was inspired to pay tribute to Tuskegee Airmen from the region after meeting with dozens of them in a quest to capture their stories. Pittsburgh International Airport’s Blue Sky PIT blog has more information about the memorials, and how to view them.

Special Event at the Tull Family Theater

Tull Family Theater, 418 Walnut St., Sewickley, PA 15143 | 412-259-8542

On Tuesday, August 25, 2020, Chauncey Spencer’s traveling museum dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen will be parked in front of the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Tull Family theater will also host two free showings of a 30-minute documentary, Tuskegee Airmen: Fight and Flight, at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Spencer is taking his museum on a cross-country tour from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to honor his father, Chauncey Spencer Sr., who flew a plane with Dale White in 1939 between the same two cities to convince Congress that African Americans had a place in aviation. What became known as the “Goodwill Flight” did include a stop in Pittsburgh, where they were forced to land in the dark after they were refused arrival at Morgantown’s airport. After landing safely in Pittsburgh, they were grounded the next day by the Civil Aeronautics Authority—ensuing legal proceedings drew Robert Lee Vann, an attorney and then publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, to come to their legal defense. Spencer Sr. and Dale’s flight convinced Congress to allow Black people to be included in the pre-WWII Civilian Pilot Training Program in Tuskegee. This article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has more details about the traveling museum, and the Tull Family Theater website has information about the documentaries.

Westmoreland County Airshow by Denise Eidemiller. Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Westmoreland County International Airshow

148 Aviation Ln., Latrobe, PA 15650 | 724-539-8100 |

The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport usually hosts a two-day airshow each May, often featuring the Navy Blue Angels, who are slated to perform at the 2021 event. Daredevils and fighter jets entertain the crowd with stunts and narrated re-enactments of war missions. Attendees can step onboard static aircraft to peak into the cockpit. The Westmoreland County International Airshow is on hiatus in 2020.


If you missed them, be sure check out the Automobiles and Roadways itineraries, part one and part two, as well as the Trains and Tracks itinerary.

Stay tuned for more itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation. 

Celebrating National Aviation Day

By Blog

Photo: Huffman Prairie, National Aviation Heritage Area, courtesy of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

Across the United States, there is a vast network of National Heritage Areas, each one designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is just one of 55 National Heritage Areas, each one focusing on a special that’s defined America. Today, we’re transporting you about 260 miles west in the comfort of your own home to learn more about the National Aviation Heritage Area, which encompasses eight counties and more than 15 aviation sites radiating out from Dayton, Ohio—the birthplace of flight. Learn more about the experiences that the region offers at!

Logo for the National Aviation Heritage Area with the tagline "Come. Discover. Fly!"

Celebrating the Wright Brothers on National Aviation Day


By Elizabeth Connor, APR.   |  Director of Communications, National Aviation Heritage Area


Today, on National Aviation Day, we take a moment to celebrate the national success of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their invention in Dayton, OH connected the world in real life before the internet shifted our perception of time and space. Started in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Orville Wright’s birthday (National Aviation Day) is now annually a time to honor connections, share resources, and discover new adventures.

We invite you to read and enjoy this story, shared with us by our friends and neighbors in southwest Ohio at the National Aviation Heritage Area.

During the late 1800s, the Carnegie Steel Company managed the steel mills in and around Pittsburgh, PA including the Carrie Blast Furnace. For a massive sale price of $492 million, Andrew Carnegie sold his company to J.P. Morgan in 1901. The new conglomerate: United States Steel Corporation.

But that wasn’t the only business investment J.P. Morgan was making at the turn of the century. On February 17, 1901, W.H. Ogan of Boston represented the financial interests of Morgan at the first run from Springfield, OH to Urbana, OH on the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana interurban rail line(DS&U).[i]

While the rise of the automobile signaled doom for the interurbans, in the early 20th century these electric streetcar lines were a primary means of transporting passengers between cities and provided new access to rural farms and small towns. Two brothers became some of their best customers.

Wilbur and Orville Wright took the DS&U daily from their west Dayton shop to the farm of Torrence Huffman about eight miles to the east. The DS&U had a small shelter called Simms Station there and the 100-acre farm was perfect for an impromptu airfield, as long as you didn’t mind a few cows and horses grazing on the runway.

Beginning first with the Wright Flyer II on May 26, 1904, the brothers flew 25 feet across Huffman Prairie. Their father had come to watch the spectacle and caught the 3:30 DS&U back to Dayton after his sons’ flight. It took less than 30 minutes to get back home.[ii] Six years after that first flight, almost to the day, the Wright brothers took their father up into the air for the first time. As we all are, the brothers were nervous about their father’s reaction. But his words were only, “Higher, Orville. Higher.”[iii]

As word of the brothers’ success spread, tourists and supporters frequently traveled the DS&U to Simms Station to watch history unfold. At Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905, through a series of unique experiments, the Wright brothers mastered the principles of controlled, powered flight, and developed the world’s first practical airplane.

In 1904, the brothers made 105 flights, totaling 49 minutes in the air with their 1904 Wright Flyer II. With this flying machine, they made the first turn and the first circle in the air. They also employed a starting derrick for the first time and Wilbur set a new distance record.

When the brothers returned to the Huffman Prairie for the 1905 flying season, they brought along an improved machine, the 1905 Wright Flyer III. This flying machine, which evolved throughout 1905, could bank, turn circles, and make figure-eights. On October 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the plane for a world record of over 24 miles in 39 minutes. About two weeks later, the brothers ended their experiments for 1905 feeling that they now had a practical airplane that they could market. In the 1905 flying season, the brothers stayed aloft for 262 minutes in just 50 flights.

The Wright brothers returned to Huffman Prairie Flying Field in 1910. The field was used by their new business, The Wright Company, as a testing ground, flying school, and home to their exhibition team. The Wright Company ceased use of the flying field in 1916.

You can no longer travel on the interurban today, but you can visit Huffman Prairie. Located on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the area includes the Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and the Wright Memorial.

At the Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center, you’ll see exhibits that focus on the achievements of the Wright brothers at Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and the story of their continuing legacy as embodied by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Dedicated in 2002, the interpretive center is owned by the U.S. Air Force and operated by the National Park Service.


[i] Keenan, J. (1992). Chapter III, 1901 – The Year of Promise. In The uncertain trolley: A history of the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana Electric Railway (p. 33). Fletcher, OH: Cam-Tech Pub.

[ii] Ibid, (p. 62).

[iii] Crouch, T. D. (2003). The Bishop’s boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (p. 12). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.


Join the National Aviation Day Conversation

Want to keep learning about everything there is to celebrate on National Aviation Day? The National Aviation Heritage Area is facilitating a #NationalAviationDayChat all day on Twitter. Follow their high-flying Twitter handle, @visit_NAHA to join the conversation and enjoy the connections that aviation—and the internet—provides!


About Elizabeth Connor

Elizabeth Connor is the Director of Communications at the National Aviation Heritage Area in Ohio. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and an avid Pens fan. Elizabeth has worked in tourism throughout the globe since 2008 and was named the 2019 Emerging Leader by the Ohio Travel Association. The National Aviation Heritage Area is the recognized center of aviation heritage tourism and aerospace innovation, sustaining the legacy of the Wright brothers.

Artist Profile: Latika Ann

By Blog

Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this monthly blog highlights an artist each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

About Latika Ann

During the month of August we are excited to showcase the artwork of Braddock resident Latika Ann as our featured artist in the Mon Valley Creative Corridor.  In addition to her studio work as a painter and printmaker, Latika also channels her creativity through the Braddock Carnegie Library’s Neighborhood Print Shop.  Working with youth and adults across the region (Rivers of Steel has worked with Latika on numerous community silk screening events in the Mon Valley) Latika’s dedication to her craft and passion for her community shines through in all aspects of her practice.

A Message from Latika

About My Work

This work of art is based off of all the events that are going on in the world and my perspective on how it affects me. There are pieces that represent things from the past as well, our history is still so present that even when I’m not aiming to add an element from the past somehow an element from the past still makes its way to my pieces, they always connect back to the issues we are now facing. I try to capture everything that comes to my mind when things are happening in the world. I get a lot of inspiration from listening to interviews and catching a word or phrase a person may say, I’ve also been really inspired by my youngest sister and the protest she has been attending.

My Home

I currently live in Braddock, PA. I like the area I live in because this is home. Braddock is where all my family is and where I have connected with people I would have never imagined connecting with. Although Braddock gets a bad name, people outside of the community don’t understand the love “Braddodians” have for one another. Most of the community knows my family so it has automatically been love since I was young, now that I’m older most people now know me for being an artist and a screen printer at the Braddock Carnegie Library. I believe my work always has some sort of representation of where I am from and where we as a community are trying to go whether it’s screen printing or painting. My job provides me with a lot of opportunities and a large range of individuals to network with. Braddock is like a goldmine and most people aren’t even aware of half of the hidden gems we have in our community. I believe we as a community try our best to support those we really see trying to evolve, there is still work to be done but I feel as though we are making progress in the Mon Valley area.

Find Me Online

Instagram: @latikaann


Exploring the Heritage Area -Trains & Tracks

By Blog

A CSX train approaches Station Square, August 2020.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranExploring the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – Trains & Tracks!

Transforming Travel & Industry

Railroads and streetcars were once vital to the movement of people, natural resources and manufactured goods throughout southwestern Pennsylvania to power the Big Steel industry. The first tracks were laid here in the 1840s, but it was in the 1870s that railroad networks spread throughout the region, crisscrossing what is today the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. To get people to their jobs, streetcar lines reached into every neighborhood in major towns, and Interurban lines connected mine patches and market towns with each other and with Pittsburgh. Long-distance mainlines—like the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, the Norfolk & Western, the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, and the Bessemer & Lake Erie—carried raw materials, products, produce, and people between southwestern Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation. Steel companies built rail spurs to carry coke fuel from their mines to riverfront barge landings, and workers from one plant or patch to another. And that’s not even counting the hundreds of miles of train tracks on mill sites themselves to move materials and molten iron between shops—there were more than 150 miles of track within U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works alone.


7 Pullman Porters (black men) stand with a steward and a conductor (white men).

Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Pullman porters, steward and conductor standing in front of a New York Central Railroad car, September 8, 1950. Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh via Historic Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company Records Collection.

The Complicated (and Even Subversive) Legacy of Pullman Porters

Many physical remnants of tracks and rails exist to visit throughout the region today, whether preserved as a museum or historic site, repurposed into a new dining or entertainment venue, or still moving people and things from one place to another. But as time passes, memories of the height of train travel dwindle and become even more valuable. This 2009 article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review captures recollections of former KDKA-TV reporter Harold Hayes and the late Harvey Adams Jr., a prominent civil rights leader who helped integrate the Pittsburgh police force, both of whom were grandsons of Pullman porters. This 2002 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shares more locals’ memories of the pride that porters took in their work, and the racist treatment they endured from passengers and their employers.

The legacy of Pullman porters has ties in cities across the United States. To bring luxury and convenience to the rising railroad industry after the Civil War, industrialist George Pullman furnished plush sleeper cars that included the service of a porter. Pullman hired only African-American men—often former slaves—for this role, who were expected to be at the beck and call of the passengers they served. Common duties included carrying luggage, shining shoes, ironing clothing, minding children, tidying the train car, and serving food—some passengers even expected porters to entertain them with song and dance. “When Lincoln freed the slaves, George Pullman hired them,” is a saying often associated with Pullman porters.

Harvey Adams Jr. told the Tribune-Review that with all of the work to be done, his grandfather, Wister Adams, “walked” to California and back on the cross-country trains that he worked on for decades. With trains traveling across the country at all hours of the day, porters also had grueling schedules. They generally worked 400 hours each month, and usually were allowed only three or four hours of sleep between their 20-hour daily shifts. Porters had to pay for their own meals, and the purchase and care of their uniforms was also their responsibility.

Margaret Tardy, a Cincinnati resident, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002 that she remembered her father, Harold T. Tardy Sr. of East Liberty, proudly wearing a black uniform and white shirt with a starched collar, topped by a black cap with a small bill. She said her father, who passed away in 1964, liked to go to baseball games in New York City when he had time off, and that he avoided traveling below the Mason-Dixon line to the Jim Crow South. For generations, porters were all addressed by passengers as “George”—after George Pullman, just as slaves were called by their master’s name before emancipation. Margaret remembered that her father, who was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, rejected that treatment. She told the Post-Gazette, “Dad would point to his name tag, greet the passenger with a smile and respond that he had a name, and his name was Harold.”

A single porter stand in a unpopulated dining car with dressed table settings.

View of a porter posing in a new side-door Pullman dining car, May 22, 1935. Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh via Historic Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company Records Collection.

Life as a Pullman porter was demanding and often demeaning, while also allowing Black men to bring decent wages home to their families and information from other parts of the country to their communities. Harold Hayes told the Tribune-Review that his grandfather, Thomas Burrell, earned $3,200 in wages and $700 in tips in 1950, an income that allowed him to build a house in Beltzhoover and send his daughter to Howard University. Burrell worked on the Pittsburgh to Detroit run on the Pennsylvania Railroad for 13 years.

In 2002, a 77-year old James Austin of Homewood reminisced to the Post-Gazette about visits uncle, Spurgeon “Sonny” Austin, would make to his childhood home, preferring to stay with family instead of at a boarding home in the Strip District like many Pullman porters did. James remembered his uncle sharing dozens of stories from his travels, and that he “could make a bed faster than anyone in the house.”

Pullman porters were key in expanding the reach of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely circulated and well-respected Black newspaper in the country in the 1930s and ’40s. At that time, sheriffs in the Jim Crow South banned the publication and frequently burned those that made it into their towns. To get the paper into the South, the Courier launched a clandestine distribution campaign in 1936 that lasted until the mid-1940s. The Post-Gazette reported that porters helped to deliver 100,000 papers a week into the south.

The elaborate operation started when the Courier camouflaged its trucks and smuggled bundles of papers to the railroad station in Pittsburgh, wrapped in special weather-proof paper. Porters hid them aboard or under the trains, and then dropped the bundles off about two miles outside major cities like Chattanooga, TN; Mobile, AL; and Jacksonville, FL. A network of Black ministers would then secretly retrieve the papers and distribute them to their congregations.

Porters distributed the papers for free, but sometimes received as tip from the Courier. The success of these secret deliveries led other Black newspapers to turn to the porter network to distribute their papers in the South, as well. Frank Bolden, a former city editor and foreign correspondent for the Courier, told the Post-Gazette in 2002, “They were the guys on the front lines. They were foot soldiers.”

A contemporary image of the front facade of the Wilkinsburg train station. Courtesy of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Rail-related Destinations in the Heritage Area

If you’re planning to hit the road on these itineraries during the global pandemic, please be mindful of the health and safety guidelines in place from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be sure to contact the sites, restaurants and attractions directly to confirm their operating statues and the safety protocols they have in place. We encourage you to bookmark these itineraries as travel inspiration to return to when things are less uncertain.

Carnegie Science Center Miniature Railroad, courtesy of the Carnegie Science Center.

Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad & Village

One Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212 | 412-237-3400 |

For more than 100 years, this miniature replica of regional landmarks has captivated visitors with scenes of the way people in the Pittsburgh area lived in an era spanning the 1880s to the 1940s. This detailed, animated display started in the home of Charles Bowdish of Brookville, PA, in 1919; it was moved to the Buhl Planetarium in 1954, and then opened at the Carnegie Science Center in 1992. The 83-foot by 30-foot platform usually has about five trains and one trolley operating on a landscape that includes key historic and cultural sites like Kaufmann’s Grand Depot, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood House, Fallingwater, Punxsutawney Phil, and many more.

DiSalvos Station, Latrobe by Deborah Stofko.

DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant

325 McKinley Ave., Latrobe, PA 15650 | 724-539-0500 |

This restored 1903 train depot of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Latrobe serves classic Italian fare that has earned numerous accolades. Guests enter the restaurant by walking through a tunnel that leads to a spacious, cobblestone atrium. A full-sized dining car sits inside the restaurant, and the former luggage and ticketing area is now a tap room. The lower level of the restaurant is a cavernous, speakeasy-style cigar bar.

Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington with Duquesne Incline Station. Photo by Richard Nowitz.

Duquesne Incline

Lower station parking lot 1197 W. Carson St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219 | 412-381-1665 |

The 794-foot long double tracks of the Duquesne Incline have been lifting passengers in twin cars a height of 400 feet up and down the face of Mount Washington since 1877, closely following the path of an earlier coal hoist. At one time there were nearly 20 funiculars servicing Pittsburgh’s bluffs, carrying cargo, livestock, and people. But today the Duquesne Incline is one of the few remaining in the country—along with the Monongahela Incline further east on the face of Mount Washington. Be sure to take a tour below the operator’s room at the Duquesne Incline’s upper station to see the hoisting equipment in action!

Grand Concourse Restaurant and Station Square

100 W Station Square Dr., Pittsburgh, PA 15219 | 412-261-1717 |

At the base of Mount Washington lies a dining and entertainment complex along the Monongahela River called Station Square. This area is where passengers once arrived on the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, first chartered in 1877. It soon became known as the Little Giant for the amount of tonnage that it moved through the region. Shops, restaurants and nightlife now make their homes in the terminal and freight station; the historic Pittsburgh Terminal Train Station has been preserved as a multi-purpose building. The ground floor houses Grand Concourse restaurant, a local favorite for more than 40 years, resplendent with stained glass, intricate woodworking, a grand staircase, and many reminders of the building’s past life.

Harry Clark’s Indian Creek Valley Railroad Model Railroad at Connellsville Canteen

131 West Crawford Ave., Connellsville, PA 15425 | 724-603-2093 |

Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

All aboard to the Connellsville Canteen, home to a local World War II museum, a charming café, and a world-renowned model railroad display. After returning from World War II, Connellsville native Harry Clark started to build train cars by hand at the kitchen table as a way of relaxing. Clark came from a long line of B&O Railroad employees, and was a carpenter by trade. Over fifty years, he built what became a world-renowned display that he called the Indian Creek Valley Railroad, depicting Connellsville, Meyersdale, and other mountain towns in western Pennsylvania from the 1940s and ’50s in loving detail. Nearly all of the buildings, train cars, stations, saw mills, patch towns, coal mines and coke ovens were made by hand. In 2012, about a year after Clark’s death at age 91, the display was moved in one 28,000-pound piece on a tractor trailer from Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, where it was formerly showcased, to its new home. A crane lifted the 25-foot by 50-foot model railroad in place, and the Connellsville Canteen was built around it, modeled after the town’s old B&O station. Clark’s display was featured in Model Railroader Magazine with a centerfold, and Model Railroad Academy produced a nine-part video series about the Indian Creek Valley Railroad display and Clark’s passion and talent – a great way to enjoy the display virtually!

Thomas Town at Kennywood, courtesy of Kennywood.

Kennywood Park

4800 Kennywood Blvd., West Mifflin, PA 15122 | 412-461-0500 |

This historic, beloved amusement park in West Mifflin has tracks galore – on rickety wooden coasters, adrenaline-packed steel coasters, and retro favorites like The Turtles or the Auto Race. Younger railroad enthusiasts will delight with a visit to the park’s Thomas Town, with a number of kiddie rides and a Thomas-themed train ride that guests of all ages will enjoy.

­Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association

3032 Idlewild Hill Lane, Ligonier, PA 15658 | 724-238-7819 |

The Ligonier Valley Rail Road’s 10.3-mile long main line connected Ligonier and Latrobe—a relatively short amount of track that was a long time coming. It took about 25 years of planning, surveying, and legislating before Judge Thomas Mellon finally stepped in and agreed to complete and operate the railroad line in 1877. His main goal for the venture was to give his sons, Andrew and Richard, business experience. Idle Park, or Idlewild, was a venture established by the Mellons to increase passengers on their train, but the real boon for business was hauling freight – coal, coke, stone, and lumber. The “Liggie” made its last run in 1952 after 75 years of operation, but today the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum keeps the line’s history alive in an original station that was built around 1896.

Open car at Museum Road, courtesy of Trolley Museum.

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

1 Museum Rd., Washington, PA 15301 | 724-228-9256 |

Step back to the dawn of the Electric Age when in 1918 the Pittsburgh Railways Company operated some 2,000 trolley cars, 65 different lines, and more than 600 miles of track. A nickel would take you where you wanted to go! After enduring hard times during the Great Depression, streetcars were returned to service during World War II when fuel and rubber were rationed. But after the war, the rise of the suburbs and the auto culture spelled out the end of the trolley’s heyday. Lucky for us, staff and volunteers at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington have been preserving the nostalgia, history, and streetcars of this era since 1949. Visitors can step aboard and see the restoration in progress of more nearly 50 cars including the original “Streetcar Named Desire,” take a roundtrip ride on a vintage trolley, and engage with hands-on exhibits that even put them behind the controls of a street car.

A restored streetcar is in the History Center’s Great Hall. Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center.

Senator John Heinz History Center

1212 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222 | 412-454-6000 |

There are a number of transportation-themed exhibits to explore at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Pittsburgh Streetcar #1724 greets you upon arrival into the museum’s Great Hall, where you can step onboard and imagine what it would have been like to travel through the South Hills communities on this streetcar – as it did until 1988. Visit the History Center’s Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibit to see pieces of the extensive Westinghouse Collection. George Westinghouse’s influence on the world was wide ranging, including the invention of the air brake, automobile shock absorbers, the development of railroad signaling, and much more. After your visit, you can also take a ride by the nearby Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters on Liberty Ave. between 24th and 25th Sts., which was built in 1869 as Westinghouse’s original air brake factory.

Youngwood Railroad Museum and Station Cafe

1 Depot St., Youngwood, PA 15697 | 724-925-7355 |

Home to an assortment of locomotive paraphernalia, photographs, uniforms, equipment, and miniature train collections, this museum opened in Youngwood’s depot building the same year it was set to be demolished, 1982. Concerned citizens and railroad enthusiasts couldn’t let the legacy of their town’s rich railroad industry be forgotten. The original train crossing was established in the 1870s at the junction of John Young’s and James Woods’ properties, and by 1902 the newly chartered borough of Youngwood boasted a 15-bay roundhouse, a switch tower, miles of mainline and spur tracks, and the depot building, home to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s baggage and passenger station. Twenty years later, one-seventh of the nation’s supply of coal and coke ran through the Youngwood yard, which sometimes saw as many as 700 train cars per day.

Wilkinsburg Train Station 1916, courtesy of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Coming Soon: The Wilkinsburg Train Station Restoration Project

Across the street from Wilkinsburg Public Library, 605 Ross Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15221

After sitting vacant for more than 50 years, this beaux-arts beauty is being lovingly restored to its original glory and is set to once again become a hub of community activity in the revitalizing town of Wilkinsburg. Originally built in 1915, the opulent station earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. When the $6.5 million renovation is complete, it is intended to be a center for indoor and outdoor dining, shopping, and community gatherings.

Holiday Displays

A number of local model railroad collectors open only during the holiday season to showcase the miniature scenes and tracks that their members lovingly preserve and create. Visit their websites for more information:

  • Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Gibsonia |
  • Ohio Valley Lines Model Railroad in Ambridge |
  • McKeesport Model Railroad |
  • Allegheny West Toy Train Museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side|
  • Beaver County Model Railroad and Historical Society in Monaca |

If you missed it check out the Automobiles and Roadways itineraries, part one and part two.

Stay tuned for more itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation. 

B/W images of train tracks and buildings in WV

Mill Marks: A Legacy Stamped in Steel

By Blog

Photos and Essay by Kevin Scanlon, Rivers of Steel Volunteer

Mill Marks

The latter part of the 1800s was the era that made Western Pennsylvania a leader in steel production. Several events added up to enable that growth. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. This spurred growth of all railroads. 1872 saw the invention of George Westinghouse’s automatic air brake. In 1873 the automatic coupler was patented. This all meant that trains would be longer, heavier, faster and with bigger locomotives. The existing railroad bridges would have to be replaced with stronger ones, and the iron rails themselves needed to be replaced with steel rails to withstand the pounding. 

Andrew Carnegie saw opportunity during the time he spent working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railroads were going to need lots of steel to improve their right of way and he would be their primary supplier. His Keystone Bridge Works took on spectacular projects such as spanning the Mississippi River. Carnegie Steel built the Edgar Thomson Works in 1875 to provide steel rails for the PRR. It was his first steel mill and is still in operation, though no longer producing rail. It can be argued that Pittsburgh would not have become what it was without the era of railroad growth.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the years walking along railroad tracks. Anyone who does so will notice that all of the rails have mill marks: cast-in “labels” identifying who made the rail, the size, when it was rolled and other specialized details. The marks are repeated every few feet along the side of the rail. Not only are the rails identified this way, but often bridge girders, tie plates and equipment have mill marks or builders’ plates. All of the rail infrastructure was made for heavy use and made to endure. Railroads can’t repave their tracks every 7-10 years like we do with roads. It is not unusual to see rails on secondary routes and yards that are still doing their job 80-100 years after being rolled in the mills. 

Often I find myself daydreaming about what was going on when a particular rail was being made. It’s kind of like looking at an autograph and thinking about the person who signed it and what was going on in their life when their hand held that pen.

Here are a few examples:

Thurmond, West Virginia

Carnegie Steel, Edgar Thompson, 1899

B/W images of train tracks and buildings in WV

This rail was rolled at the Edgar Thomson Works in November 1899 when the works were still owned by Andrew Carnegie and just 24 years into the mill’s life. Also in 1899 the Pittsburgh Zoo and Kennywood Park were only one year old. Iron City Beer maker Pittsburgh Brewing Company and the Duquesne Brewing Company were newly established. This rail was in a yard of the CSX Railroad in Thurmond, WV.

Lackawanna Steel, 1956

Steel plate reading Lackawanna Steel Construction Corp'n 1956"

The Lackawanna 1956 plate was on the cantilever signal bridge at the town of Thurmond. By 1956 Lackawanna Steel was a part of Bethlehem Steel. They specialized in plate and structural steel although they did roll rail at Lackawanna and their former Pennsylvania Steel plant in Steelton, PA. The Lackawanna fabrication shop made a lot of these distinctive cantilever signal bridges for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.

Spruce, West Virginia

Lackawanna Steel, 1904

Green valley and hills with a stream running through it

Rail stamped "LSC Buffalo 900 10 1904"

This section of rail was rolled by the Lackawanna Steel Company in Buffalo, NY at their brand new steel mill on the shore of Lake Erie. The mill was built in 1902 to compete with Carnegie Steel for the railroad business. The rail in the photo was still in service at Spruce, West Virginia when the photo was taken. Spruce was an isolated mountain town which had no road access. A lumber mill opened there in 1902 and the railroad was the highest elevation of any mainline east of the Mississippi at 4033 feet a few miles from Spruce. Nothing is left of the town except a concrete pad where the railroad engine house stood and some crumbling foundations of the old lumber mill. The photo of Spruce shows the Shavers Fork River flowing through the townsite, the railroad is on an embankment on the left.

Tobin, California

Fort Pitt Bridge Works, 1909

A deep canyon with a steel truss train bridge crossing close to the canyon floor, and a high steel arch bridge passes above it.

This is a builder’s plate on a Western Pacific Railway bridge in Feather River Canyon at Tobin, CA. The famed California Zephyr streamliner crossed this bridge on its run between Oakland, CA and Denver, CO. The bridge was constructed in 1909 during the 20 year span when Pittsburgh lost its “h”. The Fort Pitt Bridge Works was Pittsburgh based and specialized in bridges, steel structures, and blast furnace topworks. They supplied the steel for the Sewickley, Smithfield, McKees Rocks, 16th Street, and 31st Street bridges as well as bridges for the Parkway East and the PA Turnpike. When this bridge was being built, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their first World Series at the brand new Forbes Field. Honus Wagner led the Buccos in seven games, outplaying the Detroit Tigers with Ty Cobb.

Buffalo, New York

Lackawanna Steel, 1917

Lackawanna Steel Company rail from 1917. This was in service in Buffalo, NY at a grain elevator on the Buffalo River. In 1917, Buffalo was the hub for grain shipments coming out of the midwest through the great lakes. The big news for Buffalo at that time was the opening of the Glenn Curtiss Aeroplane manufacturing plant, the largest plane factory in the world. Just in time, too, since the US entered WWI that same year.

Coopers, West Virginia

Carnegie Steel, Edgar Thompson, 1926

Train tracks crisscross through a green valley with homes and industrial buildings.

Rail stamped "Carnegie ET USA 1926"

A lesson in reading mill marks: this rail was rolled by the CARNEGIE Steel Edgar Thomson Plant USA in 1926. The slash marks are for the month rolled, so this one is a September baby. 13031 indicates the rail weight, 130 lbs per yard. PS is Pennsylvania Section, the profile spec of the rail and OH indicates that it is Open Hearth steel. It must have been good quality because it was still carrying coal trains in Coopers, WV on the Norfolk and Western Railway. Coopers and the branchline this rail was on is near where a blacksmith named Jordan Nelson used coal from a nearby seam to fuel his forge. A representative from the railroad stopped by in 1881 as they were surveying their line. Jordan showed him where he got his coal, a 13 foot thick seam on a hillside. This was the start of the billion dollar Pocahontas coal field in the southern border of West Virginia. 

Johnstown, PA

Carnegie (US Steel), 1949

Johnstown was built around steel. This photo shows the Gautier Steel mill on the left and the Little Conemaugh River with a Norfolk Southern eastbound train starting the climb up to Altoona. The tracks of the Johnstown Inclined Plane climb Yoder Hill in the background.

This rail type is pretty unique. It was rolled by Carnegie (US Steel) in 1949 specifically for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR was rebuilding after WWII and specified the largest rail profile ever produced, 155 lbs per yard. This heavy duty rail was like everything the Pennsy bought for their railroad: built to last. They were called the Standard Railroad of the World because they set the goal that other railroads hoped to achieve. A four track mainline, stone bridges that are still rock steady over 100 years later, the most tonnage moved and the largest employer in the US at one time. It’s no coincidence that the mill where this rail was made was named by Andrew Carnegie after the president of the PRR, J. Edgar Thomson.

Nellie Bly—A Pioneering Traveler

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A lifelike figure of groundbreaking journalist Nellie Bly will join Franco Harris and George Washington at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranNellie Bly: Investigative Journalist, International Celebrity & Inspiring Traveler!

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known by her nom de plume Nellie Bly, was a pioneering investigative reporter. Her journalism career began in her teens at the former Pittsburgh Dispatch. At age 24 while working for The New York World, Bly set out to circle the globe faster than Phineas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” She set a world record by completing the journey in just 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds, travelling by  steamship, railroad, rickshaw, and sampan boat, horse and donkey. Her trip spanned November 1889 to January 1890, and Bly travelled solo with just one small piece of luggage—though she did purchase a pet monkey while in Singapore who made the rest of the journey with her.

Bly’s editors initially doubted that a woman could successfully undertake such a voyage, but upon her return The World’s publisher Joseph Pulitzer heralded her as a heroine on the paper’s front page, declaring her as, “personifying the independent American girl, the fascination of travel and the excitement of journalism.” Crowds awaited to cheer her on at each train station as she made the homestretch across the country from San Francisco, and when she arrived at her final destination, Jersey City, thousands were waiting to celebrate and welcome her home. The January 25, 1890, cover of The World’s Evening Edition proclaims tales of “The Little Lady’s Triumphal Journey Through Her Native State” with “Ovations at Pittsburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia,” and also marks her arrival time in Pittsburg (as it was spelled in 1890) as 3:10 a.m. One has to admire the tenacity of those who flocked to the train station in the middle of a winter’s night!

Bly gained international celebrity for her race around the globe, but her investigative reporting often spoke for people who were forgotten. She pioneered undercover reporting to expose the abuses of a New York mental asylum, the conditions of working women in various industries, the environment in women’s prisons, and became one of America’s first female war correspondents during World War I.

With her tenacity, wide-ranging knowledge, and sense of adventure, one can imagine that Bly would be the ultimate travel companion! Soon, passengers arriving and departing at Pittsburgh International Airport will be able to tip their hat to her when a lifelike statue of Bly is added to the iconic figures of George Washington and Franco Harris, made possible by a collaboration between the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Allegheny County Airport Authority. One likes to imagine that Bly is keeping an eye out for anyone who might try to upstage her record-breaking race around the world on a new-fangled airplane! Be sure to check out the Heinz History Center’s article about Bly’s big trip – and don’t miss the photo of a “Round the World” boardgame that was inspired by her globetrotting!

Portrait of Nellie Bly, c. 1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This story is part of a series of transportation-themed articles highlighting modes of travel throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.  Click through to read about Pittsburgh’s early automobile industry or to discover driving itineraries showcasing automobiles and roadways—both part one and part two. Stay tuned for more stories and itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation.