Union Dale Cemetery: The Lamb Lies Down on Baahway

iron grave marker of a lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

Union Dale Cemetery‘s Division Three, Section b (yes: that’s a lower-case b) lies waaay in the back, at a high point in the park, bordered by treelined fencing that separates the property from nearby Presley Ridge School. Section b is so far removed that it doesn’t even appear on the cemetery’s online maps*.

But if you can make it out to Union Dale’s far northeast outpost, the tell-tale shapes of lambs popping up on gravestones and laying down in the grass will tell you you’ve reached the right spot. The creatures will be calmly resting, their little lamb ears pointing out at the sides. Each one of them will face the same direction.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wm. B. Henderson

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jane Lee Blumfeldt

Listen here: when we shoot the sheep, we’re not talking about any jive-ass 2-D cutaways or bas relief lambs, either–though there’s plenty of those loitering on newer stones in the same neighborhood. No, this is full-on, worn-to-nubs marble and granite lambitude.

Two of the specimens (Kirk and Klein, photos below) seem to be the same general make and model, but otherwise each gravestone is unique. That’s not to say the lambs don’t look alike–they do–but there’s enough variance here to suggest these weren’t simply off-the-shelf lamb-on-a-box markers.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kirk

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Ralph A. Klein

Jennie Benford, our Concierge to the Dead, says “The lambs were very popular but almost exclusively for children’s markers.” The Internet backs her up on this claim, as does the anecdotal evidence of the dates we can see on the (still-legible) stones here. The deceased were all between months and just a few years old when they arrived at Union Dale and given the concentration in this one small area, we have to wonder if Section b was earmarked as plot for children.

The association of lambs with the death of children has a number of explanations, but the most common seems to this passage from the Bible:

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.  — John 1:29

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

June Ann Reese

There are other similarities. Every one of the markers (that we’re able to read) is dated from the same decade. Jennie assures us “The lamb stones are not strictly 1920s–I’ve seen them used much earlier than that and for some time after,” but it’s an interesting data point.

The lamb is always sculpted alone and awake, but in a resting position with its legs folded underneath. I imagine there is a practical aspect to this–sculpting those spindly legs from delicate marble is likely very expensive and accident-prone. That said, one has to accept that the feeling of innocence is even more pronounced with the gentle creature in repose. What could be more harmless and vulnerable than a kneeling fluffy white lamb?

Perhaps most curious, every single lamb faces to the left (as the visitor faces the stone)**. Now, that may just be a coincidence in our small sample, but if so, it’s equal to flipping “heads” ten times in a row. Still, reading any dramatic symbolism into facing left vs. right seems like a major stretch. Left, in this case, is also north, since all the stones face the same direction–west, or downhill and towards the only small access road. Again: likely not a planned coordination.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Catherine Achey

Union Dale Cemetery is an intimidating place to explore. It covers a huge area–likely equal to the size of Allegheny Cemetery or many (larger) city neighborhoods. The full plot is divided by Brighton Road and Marshall Avenue/Rt. 19, which effectively turns the park into three separate cemeteries. [Union Dale labels each of these a division.]

It’s hard to imagine there’s any best or worst way to take in Union Dale for the newcomer. That said, like so many things in life–or, it seems, in death–there’s nothing wrong with ending up at Plan b.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

John Buckalynn


* Section b should not be confused with Section B, right by the entrance. Also, it looks like Union Dale’s PDF maps may have a page 2 that just didn’t make it to the web site.
** Two of the markers photographed are simply freestanding sculptures without an engraved headstone, so there is no left or right.

The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The Frankenstein hillside of Woods Run (detail)

This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.

Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.

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

Get to the Point

Man pointing from Ohio River to Pittsburgh's highpoint

Ben points from The Point to Pittsburgh’s highpoint

Whether it’s a sport or a hobby or simply an absurd excuse for the journey is the destination, man, “highpointing” (its practitioners spell it as a single compound noun) is the pursuit of reaching the highest altitude spot in each of the U.S. states, amassing these achieved peaks like collector’s cards.  Ben Blanchard is a Pittsburgh highpointer.

Ben explains that he got into highpointing naively. Years ago, he stumbled across a road sign directing motorists to the highest point in Maine, Mount Katahdin (alt: 5,280 feet). After making his way up and down from the mountain, Ben decided it would be a fun way to let kismet be his travel agent and kept after further highpoints.

It turns out Ben is not alone and highpointing is a real thing.  Web sites like highpointers.org and peakbagger.com provide both statistics and community information. Ben has currently visited thirteen state and two city highpoints.  Next on the list is a New England swing to include New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and a return trip to Maine.

ducks on a log in river

These ducks technically started lower than us, but we didn’t see them make it to the top.

As no two states are the same, no two highpoints are either.  Highest points are as diverse as a Philadelphia suburb (Ebright Azimuth, Delaware) or the upper edge of an inclined plane (“Mount” Sunflower, Kansas) to true mountain peaks like Mt. Whitney (California) or Mt. Elbert (Colorado).  Every American highpointer’s ultimate goal is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.

For The Orbit, I proposed scaling the highpoint for the City of Pittsburgh.  Apparently highpointers look down on city/county highpoints in favor of states/countries, but it sounded interesting to me.  I laid out a goal that we would travel from low to high, and make the journey on bicycle.

Western State Penitentiary, Pittsburgh

Along the way: Western State Penitentiary, Woods Run

Historically, Pittsburgh’s low point was Donzi’s in the Strip. But with that floating meat-rounder barge sadly no longer operating, its bass cabinets and Jello shot molds long dormant, we had to settle for river level (alt. 719 feet) as the accepted lowest altitude.  And, just to get real symbolic, we met at “The Point,” the tip of Point State Park, where the three rivers meet.

Our destination was the top of Montana Street (alt. 1345 feet), KDKA’s giant broadcasting tower standing as a (literal) beacon for us head toward.  The route would take us down the Ohio River bicycle trail, past the old Western State Penitentiary, through the neighborhood of Wood’s Run, up along the northern edge of Riverview Park, and finally up to the peak in Perry North.

View of KDKA tower from Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

View of KDKA tower in the distance from the steep climb up Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

The one block assent of Montana Street proved the most difficult cycling of the trip, it being one of those Pittsburgh hills so steep the rider is forced to lean over the handlebars just to avoid the bike flipping backwards on itself, but we made it.

I had been on one previous (city) highpoint in Washington, D.C. (Ft. Reno Park) and similar to that one, the actual peak is off-limits to the public.  Ours has a high chain-link fence surrounding a large water reservoir and processing facility.

View from Pittsburgh's highpoint showing mainly trees

“View” from the highpoint: Mt. Washington it ain’t

We were able to walk the full circumference of the facility.  There’s no benchmark to get a photo by, nor is there much of a view–you’re surrounded by trees on all sides.  But in the early Spring, we still got some nice glimpses of the observatory in Riverview Park and the top of Downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline, looking like it grew naturally out of the woodlands.

Our stats: we climbed 626 vertical feet over around 6.5 miles, about half of that along the river to get from town to Wood’s Run.  It took us around 45 minutes going up on bicycles; the return trip is very short as it is literally all down hill.  A bar called Rumerz in Wood’s Run [Ben: Have you heard anything about it? Me: Don’t believe everything you hear. Ben: What are you talk…oh.] provided few beer options, but a nice outdoor deck, built Pittsburgh grotto-style, right up against a rock wall.

Man celebrating reaching Pittsburgh's highpoint

Victory: point high for a highpoint!

A note to would-be bike-pointers: this blogger made the trip up just fine, but the rest of our party (ahem) needed to get off and push a couple times.  It’s no big deal, though, if you’re in decent shape and have a full collection of low gears.  The bigger deal (for me) was actually coming down the hill where my (under-performing) brakes were pushed pretty hard and I reached a semi terror state.  If I’d had to actually come to a full stop anywhere, it would have been ugly.