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.

 

The Ultimate Pittsburgh Greenhouse Experience

worn painted wooden sign reading "Greenhouse"

Here’s how you get there: Go out Penn Avenue all way through Wilkinsburg and Forest Hills. Pass Vincent’s Pizza Park. [Pro tip: keep Vincent’s in mind–time things right and you can stop there for lunch on the way back.] Take the turn onto Electric Avenue to get you down into Turtle Creek. When you’re stopped, staring straight up at the giant old Westinghouse plant, make that left. You’ll slide onto the Tri-Boro Expressway, but you won’t be there long.

As soon as you see a handmade sign reading Greenhouse stuck into the grass, take that left, and then a quick right where the road forks and leads you straight up the hillside. Follow it around until you get to Henkel’s Greenhouse.

temporary roadsign for Henkel's Greenhouse

Directions to Henkel’s: it’s somewhere up the hill

Why go all the way out to Turtle Creek when there are so many places that will sell you plantlings between here and there? I’ll tell you why: Henkel’s is the ultimate Pittsburgh greenhouse experience. Thanks to my buddy Bill for the tip on this one, it’s become an annual tradition ever since.

This weekend is a couple of things: today is Mother’s Day. Nothing says “thank you for bringing me into the world” like a drug store greeting card and brunch at King’s, but this blogger really does love his momma, and momma is a terrific gardener. It also happens to be exactly the right time to get your vegetables in the ground, and this turned out to be a perfect sunshiny hot weekend to get on it (but don’t worry if you didn’t, there’s still time).

So we’re going to honor mothers, gardeners, thumbs (green and otherwise), and terrific old-school family businesses with this little Orbit tribute to Henkel’s Greenhouse via three great reasons to get your keister out to Turtle Creek.

Henkel's Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Henkel’s Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Reason #1: Four generations of Henkels growing your plants

I’m not going to pretend that I know the Henkel’s whole family tree and The Orbit isn’t the kind of shady “journalism” that “asks hard questions” and “gets answers.” No, we go with our gut and just hope we’re right. But here’s what our gut has witnessed over the years: a relationship of what appears to be great-grandpa, grandpa, father, and son (yes: all Henkel growers seem to be male), ages roughly eight to eighty, sowin’ and growin’ together. It’s beautiful. (But guys: maybe let the ladies get in the dirt too.)

Henkel's Greenhouse with tomato varieties

Tomato/pepper greenhouse, Henkel’s

Reason #2: The trip to the greenhouse

It’s a little bit of an adventure just getting up there.  The signage is minimal, you’re very far off any commercial drag, and the single-lane road that takes you there could well be on a mountain in West Virginia. Home Depot, this ain’t. Once you’re there, Henkel’s occupies the large yard of a humble two-story frame house, built up a steep hillside, cobbled together over likely decades with jerry-rigged kits and recycled shipping pallets.

cardboard box containing vegetable plants for replanting

What twelve bucks gets you

Reason #3: It’s cheap*

Here’s what twelve bucks buys you at Henkel’s**:

  • 9 tomato (3 each: Golden Boy, Potato Leaf, Viva Italia)
  • 15 pepper (6 Sweet Banana, 3 Early Sensation, 6 Inferno)
  • 4 zucchini
  • 3 sweet Italian basil

* Realistically, travel time and expense to Turtle Creek likely erases any monetary savings, but it’s still cheap.

** This blogger is obviously interested in vegetables, but Henkel’s has a full compliment of flowers, shrubs, ground cover, etc.–which we’ve purchased in the past. I just didn’t pick any of those up this year. They also have lots of other vegetables, but I just stuck with the basics this year.

stacked planting containers

view of greenhouse through ventilation slats