Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-Up Visit to Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

stuffed animal hung from its neck by caution tape on telephone pole, Clairton, PA

The scene of the crime. Lincoln Way, Clairton, Summer, 2018.

Sex. Money. Murder. That thin plot outline pretty much describes every episode of Law & Order–or maybe a particularly raging bar mitzvah. In this case, though, we found the three words in faded spray paint on the crumbling single-lane blacktop of a dead-end street. The cryptic message, along with a set of orphaned telephone poles, a couple out-of-place retaining walls, and the world’s eeriest sad toy, are about all that’s left of Lincoln Way, Clairton’s “ghost neighborhood.”

single lane paved road with words "Sex. Money. Murder." spray-painted on surface. Clairton, PA

“Sex. Money. Murder.” Lincoln Way

The plight of little Lincoln Way, a former residential street maybe a half-mile long on the north end of Clairton, has sparked a remarkable amount of interest in ye olde Orbite. Our story from early last year surveying the couple dozen remaining structures on the street has somehow made its way into the most read Orbit story, month-over-month, for the year-and-a-half since we originally ran it. [If you missed that one, read it here.]

Given the collective interest of both readers and writers, we thought we owed Lincoln Way a return visit to see where it is now, what’s left, and what it looks and feels like today.

single lane road leading into empty valley surrounded by trees, Clairton, PA

Today: entrance to Lincoln Way from State Street/Rt. 837.

The short answer is everything has changed. Gone are all of the dilapidated, burned-out, falling-down houses that lined both sides of the street. In their place is flat earth, newly reseeded with fresh grass that competes against wildflowers and knee high weeds in the most literal of turf wars.

The former houses of Lincoln Way were modest, two-up/two-down pre-war single-family homes and duplexes. But in their absence we get to see how large the lots actually were–especially on the upper part of the block as the valley dog-legs around to the right. A wide plain of greenery expands on either side of the remaining street surface, ending abruptly in tree-covered hillsides.

single-lane residential street with abandoned houses, Clairton, PA

A year earlier: Lincoln Way, February, 2017

The absolute lush green overgrowth of summer in the Mon Valley is stark contrast to the February day we visited a year-and-a-half ago. There was no snow on the ground, but every other telltale mark of winter was there: bare gray trees, threatening storm clouds blocking all sunlight, cold howls of gusty wind.

We mourn the loss of the compact little neighborhood we never got to know in its heyday, but on this hot afternoon with the sun out, birds chirping, critters buggin’, and deep deep green as far as the eye can see, it feels like nature (by way of the Redevelopment Authority of Clairton) may just do all right in this exchange.

overgrown hillside with retaining wall and masonry debris, Clairton, PA

hillside, retaining wall, masonry debris, Lincoln Way

The elephant in this particular room–err, empty valley–is the lives that were inevitably disrupted (at best) when residents relocated out of the neighborhood. Information on why Lincoln Way was abandoned is sketchy. There are plenty of empty houses in Clairton all on their own, but folks have also mentioned a planned connection of the Mon-Fayette Expressway to Rt. 837, which kind of makes sense. A 2015 Post-Gazette story mentions both natural abandonment, arson, and the city’s safety and redevelopment concerns.

broken toy soldier on street

sad toy on Lincoln Way

Regardless, most of the signs of (human) life we found in our last visit are all gone. That said, the demolition crews weren’t going through the weeds picking up every bit of effluvia wafted by the belch of a house with (possibly) generations of leftover, discarded stuff. A couple mangled toys, a scattering of broken records [oh! the humanity!], and that phosphorescent stuffed animal strung up by the neck with caution tape all made for creepy reminders that this quiet spot wasn’t always so placid.

street blacktop bordering overgrown weeds with broken records, Clairton, PA

Like a broken record. 45s among the many household items left at Lincoln Way.

No, people lived here. They worked, played, danced, swayed, and sung along to those 45s here. They grew up, grew old, and eventually moved-on from this little street in Clairton, one way or another.

These things are important. But when you’ve got a dead-end street, completely cut-off from the rest of town, full of dilapidated housing with both fire and safety concerns for the community–and then there’s that whole sex/money/murder thing–we’re pretty sure the City of Clairton made the right choice here.

For Lincoln Way, we can only hope the bright new beginning it’s received will invoke the prosperous future this little street–and all of Clairton–deserves.

former cul-de-sac surrounded by overgrowth, Clairton, PA

The end of the road: Lincoln Way’s terminal cul-de-sac

Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

Spoiler alert: Cement City is neither. No, the lovely little residential neighborhood consists of a combined 80 single-family homes and larger duplexes lining just a few streets on a hilltop at the south end of Donora. With its 360-degree views across several different valleys, glorious green lawns, and kid’s bicycles left carelessly on front sidewalks, this is hardly the picture of urban life.

That name, though–Cement City. It’s industrial, brutal–fantastic even–like the fictional world created for a shoot-’em-up video game or dystopian science fiction. One might imagine each resident of Cement City as some version of Snake Plissken or Sarah Connor–an eyepatch, leather wristbands, and heavy weaponry required for the epic quest just to make it out alive.

Rest assured, though, nothing could be further from the truth. That said, Cement City does have a certain retro-futurism in its very interesting past.

row of cement houses in Donora, PA

houses on Walnut Street

In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the Borough of Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, grew like crazy. It went from incorporation in 1901 to reaching its peak population just 20 years later. That was all on the boom of the American Steel & Wire Company. With its integrated blast furnace, open hearth, and ancillary industries in zinc smelting and product finishing, the U.S. Steel subsidiary was the local employer in this prototypic company town. We learned all about these in our tour of the terrific Donora Smog Museum over the winter.

Twice a year, the same folks from the historical society throw a terrific combined educational lecture/walking tour of Cement City, a hundred-year-old housing development borne of the perfect storm of new innovation, high-demand for middle-management lodging, and a massive corporate entity that could take the whole project on and manage it after its completion.

wooden door detail showing 30 small window panes

original arts and crafts-style wood door

Today, Cement City doesn’t look that different than many other neighborhoods of pre-war, detached, American four-square houses–each with its own concessions to time. Here, a mismatched garage addition or fresh paint job, there, some buckling stucco or an obvious collapse in the fascia. Many houses have decorated with lawn statuary (including a generous number of front yard Marys) and ornamental landscaping; in others, the grill is lit, children’s toys are scattered in the yard, and bass-heavy party music blasts from open windows on this perfect Spring day.

There’s one big difference, though. Under the wide eaves and behind the technicolor paint jobs live skeletons of pure concrete. [Yes: concrete, not cement.] When industrial America needed to grow the most, Thomas Edison was trying to figure out what to do with all the concrete he’d been tinkering with. As a building material, concrete seemed perfect: it was cheap, wasn’t going anywhere, the termites wouldn’t touch it, and–most importantly in a pre-fire code America–it was impossible to burn down.

detail of cement ceiling in home in Donora, PA

basement ceilings reveal the original cement forms

We’ll not go into the whole history here–it’s just too much for one little blog post and we’d get the facts wrong anyway. But if you can go on the tour, D.H.S. president Brian Charlton will spin an engrossing yarn in a history that blends the often at-odds interests of Big Steel, quality-of-life, architectural design, and Age of Innovation new technology[1].

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to build a community of houses out of concrete–even more so on the slanted hillsides of Donora in 1916. Making the project cost-effective proved to be the biggest challenge of all. It takes an entirely different building model to pour in place the walls and floors of any construction. You need elaborate forms, a mobile mixing and delivery system, accounting for multi-day cure times, and then back-filling all the various trades that complete a home.

several cement houses on a hill in Donora, PA

Cement City houses on Bertha Ave.

Regardless, it all got done and the homes remain charming to this day. Eventually, the one-time company village grew from identically-maintained, corporate ownership to being sold off to individuals with the surrounding tennis courts and playground lots redeveloped into newer housing. Early photos show the neighborhood denuded of all vegetation as the land was clear-cut for build-out. Today, hundred-year-old sycamores line the sidewalks and reach way above the rooflines on Bertha and Ida Avenues as flowering dogwoods and manicured cypress decorate front yards.

All of Cement City’s original houses are still standing, largely occupied and in good shape. A remarkable number of other features–including original sluiced backyard storm drains and locally-made Ellword woven wire fencing–persist as well. There are similar Edison-era collections of concrete houses all over the Northeast and upper Midwest, but Donora’s set of 80 homes makes it the second-largest development of its kind.

detail of Ellwood woven wire yard fence made by American Steel & Wire Co.

hundred year old Ellwood woven wire yard fence, made locally by American Steel & Wire Co., in a Cement City backyard

Like we saw with Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, the transition from high-concept, mass-produced worker housing to present day free-market community is an interesting one. Were they alive to see them today, the after-market shutters, dish TV hook-ups, dangling gutter systems, and quaint lawn ornamentation would probably have given Edison and American Steel & Wire fits.

But the fact remains that good design endures, even if the humans that come along later monkey with the architects’ master vision of clean lines and a uniform presentation. It speaks volumes that 100% of Donora’s original concrete houses remain today–a hundred years after they were constructed–in a town that has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the same time frame[2].

cement house in Donora, PA with lawn statuary and porch modifications

Lived-in. Cement City house on Walnut Street with lawn statuary and porch modifications.

The next time you’re in Donora–and yes, make sure there is a next time–you’ll have to take in the classic McKean Ave. twofer of the Smog Museum and Anthony’s Italiano. Grab a hike up to St. Nick’s if you get a chance, too. But then consider making the short drive south and up the hill for a post-pizza constitutional around Cement City’s handful of streets. You’ll not be sorry you did.

concrete house in Donora, PA's Cement City

Cement City house on Ida Avenue

The Donora Historical Society will offer the next Cement City lecture/walking tours the weekend of Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23. at 1:00 p.m. both days.

RSVP by calling 724-823-0364 or email donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com


[1] Brian Charlton literally wrote the book (or, at least, detailed article) on Cement City. His article “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s experiment with worker’s housing in Donora,” appeared in the Fall, 2013 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.
[2] Donora’s current population is around 4,600 people, down from 14,000 in 1920. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donora,_Pennsylvania

The Donora Smog Museum

miniature models of blacksmith shop tools in the Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith tools by Joseph Hostenske, Donora Smog Museum

The big display case has a plate glass front, top, and interior shelf like you might see showcasing diamond necklaces or gold earrings in a jewelry shop. In fact, it may well have done just that in a previous life. Inside, though, is a different type of treasure.

Tiny replicas of an entire blacksmith shop–work benches, heavy tongs, hammers, wrenches, pick axes, and pliers; wheelbarrow, anvil, shovel, and coal bin–have been rendered in perfect miniature by hands that could only have known the real thing. An ink-calligraphed placard on a repurposed photo stand informs us the collection of pieces was created by Joseph Hostenske, “the first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora, Pa.”

model of blacksmith tools, Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith set made by Joseph Hostenske, the “first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora”

The Hostenske collection exists somewhere within the realms of folk art, personal history, and–for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Barbie and Ken really get down to hard labor–the world’s most grueling set of doll house accessories. How fascinating would it be if we all reduced the most memorable of life’s possessions to 1:12 scale?

The little blacksmith set is also among the most interesting array of items in a room full of very stiff competition. That space is The Donora Smog Museum.

mannequin with majorette uniform, Donora Smog Museum

majorette mannequin in Donora Dragons black-and-orange

Any way you slice it, little Donora has had a tough run. Like its fellow Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns–Clairton and Duquesne, Monessen and McKeesport–Donora experienced the familiar boom and bust of big industry setting up shop right at the turn of the 20th century, building a massive economic engine that provided thousands of good-paying local jobs, a thriving community and business district, and then ultimate collapse under the weight of newer, more-efficient technology and changing global economics.

And then there’s the killer smog. Like Johnstown and Love Canal, Centralia and Hopewell, Donora is primarily known to outsiders as the site of a deadly environmental disaster. In October, 1948, a rare weather event called a temperature inversion caused an exceptionally low cloud ceiling over the Mon Valley that remained unmoved for five days. The deadly smoke produced by the Donora Zinc Works had nowhere to go and ended up poisoning thousands of locals, ultimately causing the deaths of twenty-six.

painting of historic sign reading "Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA", Donora Smog Museum

“Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA”

At one point, Donora had a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored welcome sign declaring it Next to yours, the best town in the USA. That deferential boast may be hard for an outsider to understand–even put in context that it was erected at the town’s economic peak, while the mill was still running and the streets and storefronts were full of people.

The original sign hasn’t survived–or, at least, no one knows where it is–but it’s made its way into Society for Better Living, a wall-sized painting of Donora history by Cal. U. associate professor Todd Pinkham. The big work hangs on the museum’s north wall and forms a kind of overture to all the museum will have to offer as well as hazy nostalgia for many small town things any Donoran would have internalized. There’s a parade float sponsored by the Zinc Works, steelworkers in wool caps, famous local residents, and, of course, the mighty blast furnaces of U.S. Steel’s Donora Works.

painting of images from Donora history overlapping, Donora Smog Museum

detail from “Society for Better Living,” Todd Pinkham’s Donora history painting

All those elements come alive in the Donora Historical Society’s museum. The Orbit was lucky enough to get a personal walk-through with museum curator/archivist/educator Brian Charlton and volunteer Mark Pawelec. To call what these guys do a “labor of love” would be underselling both labor and love.

Pawalec is a lifelong Donora resident who commutes way past Pittsburgh just because he can’t imagine leaving his home in the valley. Charlton clearly battles outsider status having grown up five miles away in Monongahela. There aren’t a lot of quantitative rewards to spending your Saturdays preserving the history of a town that frankly many of us down river couldn’t place on the map. But luckily there are more ways to measure success than with a calculator. The quick repartee this pair exchanges when they share names and dates, facts and figures is great to witness and the service they’re doing for the whole Mon Valley is immeasurable.

very old black-and-white panoramic photographs of Donora, PA

historic panoramic photos of Donora

On what is obviously the most threadbare of shoestrings, Charlton and his crew of volunteers have dug deep to illustrate the full scope of 20th century life in Donora. There are its claims to fame, for sure–U.S. Steel’s vertically-integrated operation, responsible for everything from the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to your (grand)mother’s kitchen tongs; famous local athletes Stan “The Man” Musial and the Ken Griffeys (Junior and Senior); and, of course, that deadly smog.

But the museum–and the town of Donora–goes much deeper than these handful of historical bullet points. Donora was an immigrant landing spot that brought newcomers from all over the world. Those new residents founded dozens of local churches and a comparable number of ethnic social clubs–some of both survive today. While America was (and is) still very much racially divided, the museum includes photos of integrated company picnics, school sports teams, and local musical groups that existed before the civil rights movement took hold nationwide.

student display with smokestacks and dates around air quality legislation, Donora Smog Museum

air quality history display (detail)

For such a tiny entity–in a town of less than 5000 residents–The Donora Historical Society has made some impressive connections. The museum has joined The Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program and partners with California University of Pennsylvania for a series of student-led research projects and videos in their “Digital Storytelling” program, led by Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English.

The text- and photo-based displays that fill the center of the Smog Museum have originated from a combination of these sources. The Donora Historical Society’s web site hosts a terrific set of short documentaries from the same collection of sources.

display with news stories and photographs of the Donora smog of October, 1948

history of the Donora smog displays

The services offered by the DHS extend beyond the Smog Museum’s walls. The group offers regular tours of both Eldora Park and Cement City–an early housing development based on Thomas Edison’s design for efficient, fireproof, poured-in-place concrete construction. Donora claims one of the largest collection of Edison concrete homes in the country.

The museum features a collection of documents including the original blueprints for Cement City in their extensive archive of local history. The big, back room is filled with bookcases and file cabinets full of detailed town maps, photos, and glass negatives.

We’re booked for the April 22 Cement City tour so maybe you’ll see a follow-up story then.

blueprints for cement house, Donora Smog Museum

Cement City blueprints

The Smithsonian, this ain’t. The Donora Smog Museum doesn’t have the corporate endowments, government sponsorship, or turnstile receipts to have virtual reality experiences or interactive phone apps. Heck–other cultural institutions have gift shops larger than the entire Smog Museum.

But in this one turn-of-the-century former bank building–still retaining design elements from a past life as a Chinese restaurant–there is so much heart, love, and dedication to the history of its town that it does everything we can hope from such a place. The experience is eye-opening, educational, a little bit melancholy, a little bit wacky, and very thoroughly Orbit-approved.

safe from Donora Slovak club or beneficial society and other historical items, Donora Smog Museum

items from the museum including a safe from the former Donora Slovak club or beneficial society

Getting there: The Donora Smog Museum is located on McKean Avenue at the corner of Sixth Street. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, see: http://www.donorahistoricalsociety.org

Bonus tip: The pizza at Anthony’s (just down the block at 557 McKean) is among the very best this blogger has ever had. The dough (the dough!) was like the best ciabatta bread–a little toughness to the outside and an unbelievably delicious, chewy, airy middle. Do yourself a favor and get a couple cuts after you visit the museum.

exterior of the Donora Smog Museum

The Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave., Donora, PA

Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Lyndora

front face of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Lyndora, PA

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Evergreen Street

Had you told this blogger a simple detour on the way home would lead him on journey starting with old world immigrants and Eastern Orthodox religion and wind up exploring the themes expressed in Poison’s debut Look What the Cat Dragged In[1], well, in the words of C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett, and the gang, he’d have told you to cry tough.

Such is this journey we call Orbit.

front view of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Main & Chesapeake Streets

Frankly, little Lyndora didn’t even exist on The Orbit‘s mental map of the region. As it turns out though, the town–thirty miles north and basically a next-door adjunct to more name-brand Butler–is quite the destination for the onion dome-obsessed. Lyndora is a classic industry town, host to the AK Steel plant which occupies a tremendous amount of Connoquenessing Creekside acreage and continues to belch enough white smoke to tell us it’s still very much in operation.

Steel-making aside, Lyndora’s primary claim-to-fame seems to be the birthplace of Bret Michaels (née Bret Michael Sychak) of ’80s glam/hair metal band Poison. That’s all well and good, but we’d like to nominate it for its fine collection of old-school/high-style orthodox churches–all of which can be easily navigated in a fine little constitutional around the borough.

steeple view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Penn Ave.

front view of 1906 St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Hansen Ave.

We were actually headed home from points north when Lyndora’s four-pack of tell-tale gleaming ornaments gave themselves away–or perhaps, yelled for attention. The silver globes reach into the sky and beckon the wobegone traveler to re-route him- or herself off Highway 8 and up into the town’s inviting hillside clutches. Come to us they seem to whisper, a secret awaits. Obey their trance-inducing powers we did.

While every rose may indeed have its thorn[2], it’s safe to say not every town of 6,000 has four glorious orthodox Catholic churches–two of them (St. Michael the Arcangel and Saints Peter & Paul) are enormous Ukrainian Catholic churches, which tells us a fair amount about the Big Steel-era immigrants who first populated this particular borough.

wooden tent sign advertising "Today Pirohi Sale", Lyndora, PA

Sadly, Peter & Paul’s pirohi sale was not happening the day we visited [it appears to be every other Friday, 8-4–but not sure on that one].

rear view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Penn Ave.

Long before siring the author of “Unskinny Bop” and “Talk Dirty to Me”, the Sychak family were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. It’s quite possible young Bret actually worshipped at St. Andrew during his earliest years in Lyndora. A Huffington Post article by Megan Smolenyak[3] actually discusses this:

Was Bret Sychak one of us? [Carpatho-Rusyns] It took a little digging, but I discovered that his great-grandfather, Vasil Sychak (spelled a frustrating number of ways) claimed in his naturalization record to have arrived in New York in July 1905. Vasil’s wife to be, Anna Daňo, had arrived in Baltimore the month before, and by September of the following year, they had met and married in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh.

A quick inspection of his passenger arrival record revealed that he was actually a bird of passage–a term used for those who came to America several times. These were generally men who didn’t really intend to stay here, but instead planned to come, work and go back home to live comfortably as the richest fellow in the village. Vasil had first arrived in 1899, meaning that he was about 16-17 the first time he made the journey. This was a common age for Rusyn immigrants since many of them were seeking not only to escape poverty, but also to avoid the draft.

cornerstone for 1914 St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew’s cornerstone. The English side reads “St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church”

After marrying, Vasil and Anna lived for a while in McKees Rocks, then briefly in Sharon, and finally in Lyndora, Pennsylvania where they remained for the rest of their lives. Most Rusyns worked in either the coal or steel industry, and Vasil was no exception, working for Armco (American Rolling Mill Company). [Editor’s note: the former Armco plant is now AK Steel-Butler Works.]

If there was any doubt that Vasil was Rusyn, a number of documents pertaining to his life list him as Ruthenian or Russniak, both alternative terms used for this ethnic group. He and his wife also attended a Greek Catholic Church–one of the telltale signs of a Rusyn–and were born in Habura and Kalinov, respectively. Both are in Slovakia less than 15 miles from the town that claims Andy Warhol.

The “Greek Catholic Church” Smolenyak mentions is undoubtably St. Andrew’s on Penn Avenue. Its cornerstone reveals it as formerly “Russian Orthodox/Greek Catholic”. The handsome octagonal silver tri-crossed cupola was the first thing we spotted from the highway across the creek.

mosaic detail of Mary and baby Jesus, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

Detail from mosaic above St. John’s entryway

side view of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church with wooden signs for upcoming Easter fair, Lyndora, PA

Open up and say…paska! St. Michael the Arcangel’s Easter Fair is coming up April 7-9.

The very end of winter: a gloomy day, cold drizzle, deserted streets, no one home to let a loitering blogger poke around the icons, candles, and gold-leaf relics. And yet what a privilege to have these beautiful bits of tangible near-history ours for the poking, available on-demand as leg-stretching scenery and lazy drive ponderables.

As Bret Sychak [we really wish he hadn’t felt the need to Anglicize his name] would remind us back in 1988–and I’m pretty sure he was talking about Peter & Paul’s pirohi–don’t need nothin’ but a good time, how can I resist?

front view of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Getting there: Lyndora is straight up Route 8 from Pittsburgh. It takes about 50 minutes to get there. Butler (right next door) amazingly has two brew-pubs and is also well worth a poke-around.


[1] For the record, these are (according to Wikipedia): ambition, lust, sexual frustration, love lost, and anti-social behavior.
[2] Whether every cowboy sings his sad, sad song is not confirmed.
[3] “Bret Michaels: The Rusyn Roots of the Rock of Love”, Megan Smolenyak, Huffington Post, May 21, 2010.

Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

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Gone windows. Collapsed porches. Crumpled forms. Roof lines slant, flex, wheeze, and implode. Thin trees grow straight up through foundations and strangle outside walls. Nature crowds in from all sides as small single-family homes and squat double-houses are enveloped by vines, moss, weeds, and debris. The only signs of human life are the stray household items jettisoned by families forced to move and the spray-painted graffiti added by miscreants in their wake.

In a few cases, only the exterior walls remain. Former kitchens and living rooms are reduced to piles of layered rubble. For the most part, though, the two- or three-dozen parcels here are still recognizable as houses–but like Elvis working that milk cow, they’re just real real gone.

abandoned house with porch roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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It’s no secret: The Orbit makes a living off ghosts. It’s a strange way to earn a buck, but business is good. Oh sure, we love to run stories on weird religion, city steps, egg hunts, and the like. But you try to pay the rent covering some street artist who won’t call your ass back!

Since the beginning, so-called ghost signs and ghost houses have been stock-in-trade for us and Orbit faithful snack on them like funnel cakes at the county fair. We’re already licking our lips for the ghost pizza we’ll never get to eat in an upcoming Pie Day feature. One ghost bike made these pages, but mercifully, cycling deaths have been rare enough to not warrant follow-up stories…yet. All that said, Clairton’s Lincoln Way ghost neighborhood is something altogether more dramatic.

abandoned house with only rear exterior walls still standing, Clairton, PA

abandoned double-house with roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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Speeding south, the billowing white smoke of U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant is already on the horizon. Not a care in the world–next stop, Donora! But then, all of the sudden something flashes through the passenger-side window. With just the quickest of glances, we see it’s a pair of burned-out and bummed-out houses on a thin residential street just off the main road. They’re alarming, but sadly not that all that unique in the depopulated Mon Valley.

On the way home, Swiss-cheese-for-brains has already forgotten the sighting mere hours beforehand. But when a mirror-image of the earlier picture pops through the windshield, it’s deja vu all over again. This time breaks squeal, the Orbitmobile is stashed on a muddy berm, and we hoof it back up the road to see what’s going on.

abandoned house covered in bare trees, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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What’s going on is pretty intense. An entire residential street–not long, but still the equivalent of maybe five or six city blocks–with every single home abandoned, crumbled, collapsed, gutted, scarred, and mocked. Lincoln Way is a hollow between steep rising hills on either side with no outlet streets or other exits, so there’s literally no visible habitation that isn’t in this shape.

The scene is one that could be interpreted as anything from a Love Canal-style environmental disaster to world-without-us post-apocalypse. [That hasn’t happened yet, right?] This was clearly not the result of any single house fire or the general tough economics of the Mon Valley–every inch of Lincoln Way was vacated for a reason.

masonry walls from otherwise collapsed houses, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with spray painted graffiti "I am the antichrist", Clairton, PA

2

Though we found it all on our own–by accident–The Orbit was not the first cop on this particular beat. Once one fires up The Google Machine, he or she finds out Lincoln Way has been documented by sources from the mainstream/”dishonest” press (“Clairton fire decimates ‘ghost town'”Post-Gazette, April 11, 2015) to paranormal support groups (wikinut.com’s “The Mystery of Clairton’s Abandoned Lincoln Way”)–and I’m sure every teenager at Steel Valley High.

Most terrifically, though, the great Architectural Afterlife blog covered Lincoln Way back in 2015 with an astoundingly great collection of photographs taken through a pair of visits in both winter snow and summer’s lush, full overgrowth. Unlike this need-to-get-home-for-dinner blogger, AA’s Johnny Joo wasn’t afraid to risk falling through the floorboards and got some beautiful, heartbreaking inside shots as a result. His piece is highly recommended–and the contrast with The Orbit‘s recent photos show how fast Lincoln Way is returning to cinder.

abandoned house with graffiti "That's all she wrote", Clairton, PA

“That’s all she wrote” is about right


Update (September, 2018): We’ve gone back to visit Lincoln Way a year-and-a-half after this original post. To see what it looks like today, check out “Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-up Visit to Clairton’s ‘Ghost Neighborhood'” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Sept. 2, 2018.)

On Making America Great … Again

President John F. Kennedy addresses a large outdoor crowd in Monessen, PA, Oct. 13, 1962

President John F. Kennedy speaking in Monessen, Oct. 13, 1962 [photo: Cecil W. Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]

The scene is likely one of–if not the–most remembered days in Monessen history. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stands at a lectern on a stage erected in the parking lot of an A&P supermarket. There, he addresses a sea of faces as far as the camera can trace them in the distance. Dressed in business suits and Sunday best, the crowds peer from windows and crane from behind the stage and up the adjoining streets. The Post-Gazette reports there were an estimated 25,000 people–more than the entire population of the small city[1]–crowding in to be a part of it.[2]

Attendees carry signs of support: Hail to the Chief! and Monessen Welcomes Our President and Hello Hello JFK. Tri-color bunting hangs from buildings and lamp posts. Behind the president are billboard-sized welcome signs from the Croatian Hall, Italian Society of Mutual Aid, Ukrainian Club, and others. A banner fifty feet long stretches under the third floor windows of the Duquesne Hotel: Thank you Mr. President for signing our pay bill – postal workers of Monessen, PA.

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

A lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. For one, it’s hard to imagine a crowd today dressing up to thank a politician two years into his or her term. More than that, though, Monessen and the rest of the Mon Valley have suffered as much as anywhere in the country during this time. As a result, the city looks radically different today.

There’s still a grocery store at the same Donner Ave. location [it’s a Foodland now] but gone is pretty much everything else in this scene. The collection of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings between 6th and 7th Streets has been replaced by a couple of nondescript commercial storefronts, plus one small parking lot.

3-story brick former EIS Manufacturing building with broken windows and roof caved-in, Monessen, PA

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

What’s changed more, though, are the opportunities for finding anyone to fill these spaces.[3] Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel employed thousands of people at solid, union wages until it ultimately shut its Monessen operation in the 1980s. A raft of other, smaller industries were based on the same giant swath of curling riverfront and thrived through most of the last century. Today, the city’s population of 7,500 is around a third of its 1930s peak.[1]

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the small city boomed in all possible ways. Monessen steel built the Golden Gate Bridge and helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. Cassandra Vivian’s Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town describes a rich cultural environment where immigrants from dozens of countries (mostly eastern and southern Europe) both blended with each other and held onto the food and language, music and dance of the old world. I’m sure it was rough, but it must have been a fascinating place to grow up.

late Victorian wood frame 4-square house, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

When you lose two-thirds of your population, you end up with a lot of these. Vacant home on Reed Ave.

The slogan Make America Great Again is an easy one to write off cynically as reactionary, nationalistic, resentful, even hate-filled–it’s that appended again that really twists the knife. When, exactly, was America “great” the first time? Was it back before we could conceive of a black president? When a woman’s place was safely in the kitchen? When we pretended that gay people don’t exist? Or was it just when white men were reliably in charge of everything?

The industrial towns and small cities of the Mon Valley suggest such a different reading of this phrase that it’s important to try to see the appeal not on social or cultural terms, but as pure economics. Towns like Charleroi, Donora, Monogahela, and Monessen are achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly vacant. The valley’s need for something better is palpable.

three-story late Victorian retail/apartment building, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

The commercial districts of these towns share a common general design: compact, late 19th/early 20th century two-, three- and four-story brick façades built to support a workforce of thousands who commuted on foot to the local mills and small factories just blocks away.

Those big commercial stretches obviously once thrived with green grocers and dry goods, butchers, bakers, theaters, and hardware–you can still see some of it in the ghost signs fading on brick walls. Today, though, the ghosts are often all that’s left on blocks and blocks of vacant storefronts, empty lots strewn with debris, cracked windows, and caved-in roofs.

ghost sign for Brooks Department Store, with text "Everything for Everybody, chinaware, oil cloth, millinery, cloaks & suits", Monessen, PA

“Everything For Everybody” sounds pretty appealing, almost like a campaign promise…hey, wait! Ghost sign, Donner Ave.

Like Kennedy, Donald Trump (and, notably, not Hillary Clinton[5]) also visited Monessen during his presidential campaign last year. It was for an invite-only crowd of just 200, where he was photographed in front of a bunch of crushed aluminum[4]. Whatever. Eighty percent of life is showing up, right?

Those of us who inhabit the “liberal bubble” may cringe at the pandering macro-jingoism of Make America Great Again and the pathological lies and hate-filled rhetoric it came with. But to look closely at the desperate mill towns upriver from Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to hope Monessen has a brighter future than its fading present. Whether honest or not [we’ll go with not], in that way Trump was ultimately selling the same thing as Barack Obama eight years earlier, Hope.

Old drug store window with word "Prescriptions" painted on glass, Monessen, PA

We’re going to need a bigger pill. Former drug store, Donner Ave.


See also:
* “24 Hours with JFK and Teenie Harris”, Kerin Shellenbarger, Carnegie Museum of Art blog, Nov. 22, 2013. A great account of JFK’s full two-day, five-stop campaign swing through the area in 1962 with terrific photos from Teenie Harris.


Notes:
[1] Wikipedia lists Monessen’s population at 18,424 for the 1960 census.
[2] “In Monessen, in 1962, JFK was one of the people”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 16, 2013.
[3] In fairness, both replacement buildings appear to be currently-occupied (by a daycare center and pair of professional offices), but there are many more in downtown Monessen that are not.
[4] “Trump campaign rolls through Monessen”, TribLive.com, June 28, 2016.
[5] That Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Monessen–or any individual town–is no crime, but it’s pretty clear that ignoring much of the industrial North hurt her vote significantly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.