The Wood Demon of Woods Run

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

The Wood Demon of Woods Run

This blogger wasn’t looking for trouble, but trouble sure found him. Everyone knows blogging is dangerous work–just look at the language: deadlines, obitsgraveyards, “kill it.” Was it Ben Franklin or Jim Morrison who said “No one here gets out alive–so pay your taxes!”? Does it really matter? Whoever uttered those prescient words was talking about The Art of the Blog™…and it is a dark art indeed. We know all this going in, but rarely does the ne’er-do-well blogger literally come face-to-face with his demon(s).

Cloudless deep blues skies, sixty-ish degrees, a gorgeous Sunday with no obligations. Yes: God was telling us to go “reporting.” And so, on trusty steed to the North Side we did ride to follow-up on yet another golden baby tip [keep them coming!] and then on to check out the various Pop des Fleurs locations nearby [more about that soon…probably]. We continued–through the Mexican Wars Streets, Manchester, and then up Woods Run Avenue. It was a chance turn of the head–a mere tourner of the tête, a giro of the cabeza, if you will–that sealed our fate. Out of nowhere, a startled bewilderment that the scrubby, gnarled leaf-bare hillside revealed a face in the wood, staring back.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

It is a curious spirit, to be sure. Hewn from the remaining trunk of a felled medium-size tree, the figure rests maybe ten or fifteen feet back from the road and stands roughly five feet tall. It’s canted at an awkward angle. The Wood Demon’s face has the gouged triangular eyes and orthodontists’ paradise gap-toothed sadistic grin of a Hallowe’en jack-o-lantern. The nostrils appear to be sculpted by the not-too-delicate incision of a chainsaw. Eyes have been formed with a pair of rubber balls, hammered in place with what look like knitting needles. [Don’t mess with those crafters!] On his head is a jagged crown.

Whether The Wood Demon is watching over sacred land, is out guarding the fine citizens of Woods Run, or just wants to haunt wayward bloggers is unclear. Perhaps he’s just here to reinforce the late fees at the nearby Carnegie Library branch, a hundred yards down the road. [Music is just a one-week checkout! The Wood Demon grants no grace period!] Whatever he’s doing, we’re glad The Wood Demon is here, watching.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

Osteo-Mysterioso: Carnegie’s Giant Mystery Bone

close-up of one end of the mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, as close as we could get

Two immediate questions strike the nebby passer-by: What is it? and Why is it out here?

Around the back of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, between the entrance to the lecture hall and the pedestrian bridge-ramp to the parking deck behind the art museum, is a small, gated outdoor space that is clearly not meant for public inspection. The volume of people traffic on this walkway is light to begin with, and likely very few of them stop and check out the lifeless little negative space within. But that’s a shame, as it contains one very large, bone-shaped mystery object.

external gated area of the Carnegie Natural History Museum with mystery bone on shipping pallets, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the Carnegie Museum’s mystery bone outdoors, around back.

What is it?

It is enormous–at least twenty feet long and a foot-and-a-half thick. It has the gentle curve of a rib, or a boat’s hull. I can only imagine how much it must weigh–certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds. The big bone rests on four separate wooden shipping pallets (with space in-between) and vertical bookend-shaped supports.

The bone’s far end splays out as if it once joined to some greater structure, or guided supporting tissue. The near end tapers to a gentle point, again resembling an enormous mammalian chest bone. But if this is indeed a rib, the creature it came from would be the size of King Kong.

image of King Kong terrorizing actress Fay Wray in the 1933 movie still

One possible source of the Carnegie mystery bone

So, we set out to answer this mystery. Using only the most rigorous of modern identification techniques, we put together our years of hard journalistic acumen, consultation with the most brilliant minds in marine mammal science*, and, yes, “our gut.” Through this, we’re pretty sure we came up with a winner. The mystery bone appears to be one of a pair of lower jaw bones from a whale–likely a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. [Take that, Dippy!]

blue whale skeleton

That looks like a match to me! Blue whale skeleton [photo: Canadian Museum of Nature]

Why is it here?

Now, this blogger doesn’t have a lot of room to talk. His small back yard is a de facto dumping ground for household detritus he should be dealing with instead of reporting on stories of somebody else’s mystery bones. That said, Pittsburgh Orbit is not a 120-year-old giant regional cultural institution with a large number of paid staff (at least, not yet). Hell, we’d be ordering our interns to stow the mystery bone in the hall closet or sell it cheap on Craig’s List. Put that on your resume! [Note to self: get some Orbit interns and have them clean up the back yard.]

side view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, side view [note second mystery bone peeking out from around the corner]

The most plausible answer is simply that there just isn’t any place to put the giant bone. It’s too damn big and heavy to move, and as a weird standalone–without the rest of its blue whale parts–it may not make a lot of sense to exhibit.

But this leads to a follow-up question: if The Carnegie values this asset enough to keep it around, why not protect it a little bit more? It seems like an easy enough task to at least send one of those interns out to wrap it in plastic [Laura Palmer got better treatment!] or throw a tarp over the whole thing–and maybe get some Fantastik® and clean that green algae off while you’re at it. I realize bones are pretty tough, but put one through enough Pittsburgh snow, ice, and rain**–not to mention radical temperature and humidity shifts–and it’s hard to imagine it preserving that well–it’s already splitting! Ah, hell–that’s why we’re bloggers and not mystery bone scientists.

top view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, top view

** Not that it looks like we’ll get any this year

Step Beat: When Tullymet Sylvan

View from the top of the Tullymet St. city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from the top of the Tullymet Street city steps, Hazelwood

It is around this time of year that the intrepid city climber has usually packed-away his or her step-hiking boots and can but merely dream of a fast-forward to warmer temperatures, de-iced stair treads, and the re-greening of hillsides. But this particular season’s relentless run of glorious late fall weather has kept the traditionally cold, gray, and wet days at bay. There’s been nary a snow flurry, freezing rain, or frosty morn to even hint at the inevitable winter days to come. The bewildering number of perfectly blue sky days is something rarely seen around these parts.

And so it was this past weekend. We seized the opportunity to embark on an up-and-down* bicycle-based reconnaissance of the Greenfield and Hazelwood neighborhoods which led us to a happenstance trip up Tullymet Street, a most excellent set of city steps heretofore unexplored by this blogger.

Tullymet city steps, Pittsburgh, PA.

Steps as far as the eye can see. The longer stretch of the Tullymet steps, from Sylvan Ave. up to Gladstone St.

Hazelwood’s long, curving riverfront was once home to the enormous Jones & Laughlin steel mill and it is one of the many city neighborhoods that used to primarily house the industry’s huge local workforce. Like a number of its peers, there is no longer that much to walk down to anymore–the mill is gone, as is most of the commercial activity on Second Avenue.

Unlike those other neighborhoods–say, Troy Hill or Fineview or The West End–there’s also not that much to walk from up the hill. Gladstone and Sylvan are quite long streets that clearly used to contain many homes, (you can see this both in old city platte maps and evidence from the extant foundations that remain) but are now almost completely vacant. Today, there might be just one house every hundred yards up here–and half of those appear uninhabited.

Concrete house foundations with trees growing through.

Nature without man. Foundations of felled houses, seen from the Tullymet Street steps.

It’s a curious thing, as I could imagine it being quite a terrific place to live. The location is right there in the city (it’s probably three miles to downtown, as the crow flies), just around the corner from bustling Squirrel Hill, and an easy ride to Oakland. These particular streets are completely surrounded by nature, spectacularly quiet, and with lovely views all the way across the river–at least by this time of year, when the leaves have all fallen to clear the sight lines.

Oh, sure–it’s probably hard to get a pizza delivered up here and I imagine you’d get snowed-in pretty easily being the only one left on a half-mile dead-end street, but people pay top dollar for that kind of isolation in other places. Imagine the possibilities!

Street sign for Tullymet St. and Sylvan Ave., Pittsburgh, PA.

This is where Tullymet Sylvan

Whether or not you’d consider moving in, it’s well worth an afternoon visit–especially if you get another it-ain’t-winter-yet day like this one. Tullymet’s two sets of steps probably contain 250-300 actual stairs (I didn’t count), so it’s a good run any way you cut it. But numbers aside, I can’t stress enough how fantastic it was to be right there, on the edge of the center of the city, in eyeshot of the Monongahela River, in absolute tranquility; the only sounds the chirping of birds and the rustling of fallen leaves.

View of late fall trees and vines from the Tullymet St. city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hillside view from the Tullymet St. steps

And I realized what a mistake it was to consider the post-fall colors period to be down time for a step hike. What’s left of Pittsburgh’s lush spring/summer viney overgrowth, denuded in the cold weather months, creates an eerie, otherworldly science-fiction landscape when struck against the impossibly bright blue sky and low winter sun. How fortunate are we to have these magical landscapes right here, open all year ’round.

Tullymet city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down the shorter stretch of Tullymet steps, from Sylvan Ave. to Chance Way

* “Up and down” is no joke. This blogger’s fancy phone informed him that he climbed the equivalent of 131 flights of steps over the course of Saturday–this is roughly a hundred flights more than the average day.


The Mystery of the Tip Top Chop Shop

Wooded hillside in early fall

There’s cars in them thar hills. Looking up at the former hillside chop shop location.

It’s a truth among bloggers that if you haven’t had your “Geraldo moment” then, you know, welcome to amateur hour: you’re not really blogging, dude. This citizen-journalist/new media shaman (err…shamed man) is here to say he’s been through the eye of the needle and is back to tell the tale.

We certainly didn’t expect our Waterloo to arrive on a glorious sunny fall morning, the echoes of a classic Casey Kasem American Top 40 from ’72 still ringing in the ears. [What a great era when “Popcorn” by Hot Butter could chart! You try catching Moog-based instrumental proto-disco on “terrestrial radio” nowadays.] But there we were, on a pristine wooded hillside, high above Turtle Creek (the actual creek, not its namesake town). This post, its lack of sound and/or fury, may forever mark The Orbit’s Little Big Horn, our little corner of the blogosphere’s Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.

white wall tire in wooded area

The first evidence: that looks like a whitewall to me!

The promise was spectacular and had Orbit written all over it: an untouched fifty-year-old automobile graveyard in about as improbably inaccessible a location as one could imagine–a thick wood up a steep hillside outside Monroeville. The junkyard had been abandoned for half a century leaving a rusting collection of stray Hudsons and Studebakers, Packards and DeSotos as far as the eye could see. Trees had grown up, over, and through the spent carcasses. Pickers and plunderers had pulled everything of value. Nature had reclaimed what she could.

rusted leaf spring from an old car among fallen leaves

Model T-era leaf spring among fallen leaves

WOW! Sounds incredible, right? I know! So naturally The Orbit‘s dawn patrol caught the first suitable morning light to high tail it out The Parkway East  to meet our native guides, Moskal & Son. I’d been told that “We’ll have to take you there–you won’t be able to find this place yourself.” Truer words were never spoken. The journey involved one twisty-turny car ride, some combination of bridges, train tunnels, and one climb up a still-soaking-from-rain-the-night-before hillside.

The story goes that in the 1950s and ’60s an underworld operation existed that stole automobiles off the streets of Pittsburgh, drove them way out here to (pre-Squirrel Hill Tunnel/pre-suburbia) Monroeville/Wilkins Township, and somehow hoisted them all the way up the hill to this secluded location. There, this crew ran a woodland chop shop for the cars’ re-salable parts. At some point in the 1960s the location was discovered and the whole ring busted, crooks were sent to the big house, and their spoils were just left in the woods to rot. Pa Moskal had been to the site several times since the ’60s, but as a pair, father and son hadn’t been up the hill in twenty years–the younger but a wee Moskal at the time–so we’d have to do some tromping around to find the right spot.

window handle crank and rusted metal in fallen leaves

Window crank and door panel

Let me tell you something: if you want to see two grown Moskals and one still-figuring-things-out blogger brought to tears, just put them this deep in unspoiled nature. The three of us climbed, hiked, and trudged–hell, we located walking sticks and were on verge of singing mountain songs! How is one supposed to remember his or her troubles in this degree of mid-autumn pleasantness? The dappled sun streaming through the still-changing leaves; the only sounds, the chirping of birds and babbling of brooks. Very disheartening.

rusted automobile metal in wooded area

One big rusted carcass

Well, we know it is darkest before the dawn and even at this moment of greatest despair, like Geraldo unearthing that alleged bathtub gin bottle, we tripped across our first evidence. It’s certainly not unusual to find discarded tires in the woods, but the whitewall that popped out was something that looked older than your garden-variety illegal dump site. It was followed by a distinct leaf spring–the kind found on the suspension of very early automobiles–protruding from a pile of downed foliage. Next: an unmistakable door panel with its window crank still attached. Just one giant rusted steel carcass appeared: itself so twisted, decomposed, and enwrapped in thick vine that its original shape was completely lost.

We never found the hundreds of car bodies we were hoping to see–they’re long gone–but at least we knew we had the right place.

Bob and Mike Moskal in Monroeville woods

Our intrepid guides Moskal & Son

So what happened to the acres of autos? Pa Moskal’s theory is that the railroad owns the land and cleaned it out when they put in the (newish) gravel access road we came across. I looked for a news story on a Monroeville-area illegal junkyard clean out some time in the last couple decades, but came up with nothing.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Geraldo never found any buried bodies in Chicago and he ended up O.K. At least we got a little rust.

If you have any information on either the history of the Monroeville Tip Top Chop Shop or its cleanout, please get in touch. We’d love to hear about it.


Step Beat: Rising Main, The Longest Steps

Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Rising Main Way steps (from hobo camp)

The one and only time he met (then) Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl, this future citizen-journalist knew it was a prime opportunity. “What are you doing to save the Rising Main Way steps?” was the sum total of my interrogation. (There was a rumor at the time that Rising Main was slated for demolition.) I got a non-committal response: “I thought those were getting fixed-up?”

Sure: public education and jobs and keeping crime down and paving the streets are all important things, but The Orbit will argue all day that the city steps (in general) and Rising Main Way (in particular) are a historical and cultural treasure that should be maintained and protected the way we preserve the Fort Pitt Blockhouse or Pitt’s little log cabin.

Intersection of Rising Main Way and Toboggan Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from base camp: the intersection of Rising Main Way and Toboggan Street

In the world of city steps, Rising Main Way is the big Kahuna, the alpha and the omega, the most colorful single crayon in the box. At 371 steps, Rising Main is not just the longest stretch of city steps in Pittsburgh, it is among the longest sets of community steps in the country. To put it in perspective, it’s something on the order of a fifteen to eighteen-story building, built straight up a steep hillside, and now totally surrounded by nature. And it’s less than two miles from the center of downtown Pittsburgh.

Two sets of steps of city steps in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Two sets of steps: Toboggan Street (foreground) and Rising Main Way (back)

Getting there: There are a couple different ways to approach the Rising Main steps. Probably best for the first-timer is to drive/ride to the very end of Howard Street (off North Avenue, North Side), park/lock up anywhere and plan to just do an up-and-back. It will be plenty.

That said, there are a ton of terrific steps throughout Fineview and a lot of great things to see when you’re up there, so the more adventurous could plan one of many possible longer routes around. The Orbit will most certainly be back to describe some of these possible journeys.

Former home foundation in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Forgotten foundation

One of the fascinating things about any step hike is the amateur archeological survey one inevitably ends up on. At one time there were dozens of properties that lined the hillsides of both Rising Main and the shorter Toboggan Street. Today maybe eight houses still stand, and only a few of these appear to be occupied.

Along the way up, you’ll see plenty of evidence of these former homes: if their sandstone foundations and crumbling walkways don’t give them away there are obvious breaks in the step railing that show where there was an entrance point from the steps to a property. Some of these inevitably become hobo camps or teen drinking hangouts. If you’re lucky, there’s evidence of witchcraft.

That houses were only accessible by the steps is certainly not unusual–you still see many of these around. But the thought of being half-way up or down this particular incline, needing to haul your groceries the equivalent of, say, eight or ten stories to your front door, is pretty amazing. It’s romantic to think of the houses built in this environment, but the reality would certainly be challenging. It’s no surprise that few of these homes remain.

View from Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from half-way up Rising Main city steps

The original purpose of the steps was of course a means of commuter travel from the many high hills (where people lived) to the valleys and flats along the river (where they worked, shopped, prayed, and played). Some of the steps still serve this purpose, but Rising Main certainly does not. Plenty of people live in the Fineview neighborhood (at the top of the hill), but there’s really nothing to walk down to anymore.

The project that built I-279 in the mid-1970s ran right through the industrial and commercial heart of the valley that separates Spring Hill and Reserve Township (on the east) from Fineview and Observatory Hill (on the west). The constant drone of rushing traffic never lets you forget it. The full run of houses that used to line Howard Street (at the base of the hill) have been long demolished (though again, many foundations remain), so there aren’t even any people to visit. [But The Orbit will put in a pitch to visit Pittsburgh’s finest piece of public art while you’re there.]

Stenciled marker reading "371 Steps" for Rising Main Way, Pittsburgh, Pa.

371 Steps

I’ve dragged a lot of out-of-town guests up the steps–and some of them don’t let me forget it! But if I were visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, I’d take a step hike over a trip to the museum, or a ball game, or whatever it is that most people do when they travel. Take The Orbit‘s advice: corral your guests and get their whining-ass kiesters up the steps–they’ll thank you for it later.

View from the top of Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from the top, Spring Hill in the distance

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Secret Picnic Spot

cement wall with graffiti, trees, and smokestacks in the distance

Over-the-Wall lies a secret picnic spot

When last we left The Over-the-Wall Club, members were straining their necks, up on their tip-toes, peeking and peeping. Sometimes we catch a break and actually make it over to have a look on the other side. And every once in a while we find out that the grass really is greener over there.

The most perfect secret picnic spot lies high in the aerie of Peregrine falcons, reachable only by trained tall tree-climbers with provisions shuttled in by drone. Sigh, someday. Until then, Orbit staff stumbled across a right nice substitute, on a grassy bank of the Ohio River, in the shade of flowering Spring trees, attainable only by bicycle. [Technically one could drive, park, and walk a trail, but that’s not as much fun.] The spot is accessed through a breach in a concrete wall.

woman laying on grass by the Ohio River

A very Pittsburgh picnic spot: Brunot Island power plants on the far shore

It is early May, the first definitive shorts-weather occasion of the year, and a glorious post-Pittonkatonk, post-marathon Sunday afternoon comin’ down. Not to nit pick on the picnic, but the menu was nothing to brag about (my fault, entirely). That said, we can credit Shur-Save with providing an acceptable board of fare (after we applied some after-market vegetables and condiments to the “Anytime Deli” sub) at a price that didn’t dent this blogger’s wallet.  Next time–and there will be a next time–we’ll do it up right.

But what’s really special here is the amazing peace on this particular stretch of riverbank. We were well within Pittsburgh city limits, but never heard the sound of an automobile, a booming stereo, shouting, clattering, or any other noise (man or machine) for that matter. In fact, the only “traffic” we witnessed was one long coal barge and a couple pleasure crafts on the river.  One train rumbled by on the Brunot Island bridge.

barge on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh

This barge is all the traffic we encountered at the Secret Picnic Spot

The Secret Picnic Spot is known to at least a few other river dwellers.  There was an empty Black Velvet bottle in the weeds and the burnt offering of an old school hobo fire.  A stray patch of brick wall embedded in the ground had been graffiti’d in black Sharpie.  We crossed paths with a pair of amorous middle-agers and a grandfather/granddaughter combo, but the spot’s fifty-or-so yards of riverbank can handle at least that much of a crowd with relative privacy.

bricks embedded in grass and dirt with handwritten "awsome" graffiti

Don’t take our word for it: Lizz + Neo + Oly confirm that the Secret Picnic Spot is awsome

If you’ve got a tip on a great Pittsburgh picnic spot (secret or otherwise), please let us know. We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.

The Twin Sycamores of Sheraden

Two sycamore trees trained and grafted together to form an archway over an entrance sidewalk

The twin sycamores of Sheraden

Magic.  Here at the Orbit we like all kinds of things: art and music and food and history, but above all, the world-weary blogger is looking for magic.  We found a neat little dose of it on a side street in Sheraden.

There, flanking the front walk to a very old frame house, are two great sycamore trees, trained up and over the walk to form a beautiful archway portico, and then ultimately grafted together into one united, very tall and healthy trunk that extends way beyond the top of the house.

Two sycamore trees trained and grafted together to form an archway over an entrance sidewalk

A 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on the trees explains that they were grown by one William S. Bockstoce, a Sheraden banker and horticulturalist who lived with his wife in the home until their deaths in the 1960s.  Bockstoce is also credited with cross-breeding tulips and roses that persisted on the property (at least up to the story’s writing–we may need to check back in the spring) and contributing to scholarly research on peonies.  The then-current owners of the home estimated that the sycamores were started some time around 1940.  I don’t know how long sycamores live, but here’s hoping this conjoined pair has another seventy-five years in them.