Pitcairn Historical Society
Sharing the history of Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

RAILROAD DAYS BY LOUIS CHANDLER

 

______________________________________________________________________

The Pitcairn Yard of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad is now history, but its story lives on in the words of those who worked there, and those who chronicled its daily life.

______________________________________________________________________

 

 

There was a time when the quiet streets of Pitcairn Pennsylvania rang with the clanging of bells, the scream of shrieking whistles, and the high-pitched screech of grinding brakes. Puffs of steam rose up in great clouds from mighty locomotives that chugged and roared like mindless jungle beasts as they went about their daily business in the massive switching yards along Turtle Creek. It was the age of steam: the Pennsylvania Railroad reigned supreme across the state, and the Pitcairn yard was its prized jewel.

 

The Yard began in the years after the Civil War. Even as the railroad began running out of room at its 28th Street Yards in downtown Pittsburgh, Superintendent Robert Pitcairn was eyeing up some 215 acres of farmland in the upper Turtle Creek Valley just to the east of the city. That tract of land would serve for another hundred years as the home for the Pittsburgh Yard and its workers.  In time, all east and west bound freight of the PRR would be channeled through Pitcairn, as the sprawling Yard grew into one of the largest and most strategic classification facilities on the PRR’s system.

 

Don Waite, a retired railroad engineer, recalled the era when the land between Pitcairn and Wall rocked to the sounds of steam locomotives, screaming whistles and rivet guns, that could have been a chorus of Gatling guns for all the racket they made. Day and night. Twenty-four hours a day.  Waite remembered the time:

 

We had some people come here to stay from Philadelphia. They said, ‘How do you sleep with all that noise?’ We said: ‘What noise?’ It was just like music. You got used to it. Those were days that had no beginning or ending, at least not ones defined by the sun when the Yard was roaring with activity.

 

When I was a youngster, I would go down to ride the trains. Every Saturday, I would go to Pittsburgh. It was exciting. The big steam monsters would be hissing. There was dirt all over the place. The sights and sounds were something you never forget.

 

In their heyday, the yards bustled with activity. Newspaper Reporter Bruce Kish takes up the story:

 

     From the west, trains pulled into the loading docks from Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati to drop off grain and agricultural products.  Loading crews refilled the cars with manufactured goods and sent the trains back to the Midwest.

     Gray plumes of smoke rose into the sky.  The air reverberated with the hum and whir of machines and the pounding of sledges.

     Pitcairn handled virtually every aspect of train travel and maintenance.  In the vast network of machine shops and factories were roundhouses used for repairing passenger and freight cars.  The town was self sufficient, having its own electrical plant.

 

Paul Kogut of the Gateway Newspapers gives us this picture of the beehive of activity.

 

The plant’s brick smokestack, the highest point in the Yard loomed over everything; the stack thrust hundreds of feet into the air and spewed gray—black smoke almost continuously.  There were two roundhouses. On the Pitcairn side of the valley Freight and passenger cars were repaired at in a roundhouse that resembled a giant donut.

 

The other roundhouse, on the Wall side, was used for repairing locomotives. Like most of the Yard’s buildings, it was a busy place.  During one 24-hour period, 200 engines were serviced and repaired at the Yard.  There was also a chain of shops where cars, including private ones, were built and painted.  It was there, during the Yard’s heyday between World Wars I and II that workers turned out about 55 cars each day.

 

They mainly built gondolas—flat, open topped cars usually used to carry lumber and machinery—and hoppers—also open topped cars that were use to haul materials such as coal. The sides of a hopper are higher than a gondola’s, and there is an opening in the bottom to empty the material.

 

During World War II (1941-1945), more than 200 trains passed through each day.  At one point, about 7,000 people from all over the valley, were earning their paychecks at the Yard.

 

  Years later, when only the ghost of the old yard remained, long-time railroader David Cutshall told his story.

 

 Mondays and Tuesdays are usually quiet,” he says.  “Then the number of freight and passenger trains gradually picks up on Wednesday and Thursday.  By Friday, they’re hammering through town.  Whenever I hear those trains, I think back to the old days when Pitcairn was a railroad town/.” It was a company town.  Many a son followed in his father’s footsteps, working in the machine shop, roundhouse, or office.  In my family, my grandfather was a conductor, his father and brother engineers, and his uncle an air brake foreman in the steel ship.  I worked as a clerk in the Yards for most of my career as did my sister.  PRR employees were a close-knit family. If you went to the bank and said you worked for the railroad, you never had a problem getting credit or a loan.  I was proud to be a railroader.

 

Arthur Fox, a life-long Pitcairn resident, well remembered growing up in a railroad family.

 

Raised in a railroad family, I lived half a mile from the continuous turbulence, clamor and thick, gray haze generated by one of the largest rail facilities in the world-the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pitcairn Yards. In the 1950s my week-ends were filled with playing in the dusty abandoned buildings and oil-soaked wooden sheds bordering the PPR tracks, exploring boxcars on remote sidings, and laying pennies along the rails to watch them flatten into thin, copper wafers by passing trains.

 

Pitcairn workers always kept the trains running. A spirit, enthusiasm and pride united the 7,000 men of all races and nationalities who worked in the Pitcairn yards during the 1940s.  That spirit appeared to be forged by tough hiring practices. Family connections became a prerequisite for employment-on many crews, fathers worked alongside their sons. The family connections also made the workforce a happier group of individuals. This camaraderie was reflected in the daily life of Pitcairn families. For instance, my father, grandfather and two uncles all worked for the railroad. My grandmother kept the kitchen table permanently set for meals since railroaders worked unconventional schedules in those days.

 

While in high school, I worked as a clerk in Peter Serra’s cramped, corner confectionery store that was across from the iron railroad bridge linking the Pitcairn Railroad station to Broadway Avenue, Pitcairn’s main street. “Pete’s” served as a cross section of the borough when railroaders, rail passengers, and local crowded the store in late afternoons and evenings.

 

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, I provided passengers fresh off the train with updates from our small radio. Pete’s not only provided services, but functioned as the town’s “social club.” Many of the businesses along Broadway, facing the railyard across Turtle Creek provided for the needs of railroaders and thrived until the late-1960s.

 

  Another of those local businesses along Pitcairn’s Broadway that grew up to cater to the railroad workers was Amelia Shipley’s tiny luncheonette next to the Broadway Hotel.

 

The town was so crowded with workers, railroad crews, passengers and soldiers who were coming and going, you couldn’t walk on the streets for eight hours a day. Every eight hours, a railroad crew would stop for a shift.  They came from Altoona, Enola and Columbus.  After they ate at the restaurant, they went to the Broadway or one of the boarding rooms to get some sleep. They paid a 10-cent deposit on the room and the company picked up the tab.  When it was time for them to go, two calling boys covering the shift would leave their rooms at the ‘Y’ and knock on their doors.

 

The end began sometime after World War II as, one by one, yard operations were phased out or relocated.  By 1960, employment at the Pitcairn Yard had fallen to a little more than 1,000.  In January 1967, the Pennsylvania Railroad ceased all major operations at the Pitcairn Yards. By 1979, only 75 workers remained. 

 

In the end Conrail (successor to the PRR) decided it could no longer afford to keep the Pitcairn yards open. It was a bitter decision; workers with years of loyal service lost their jobs. The local businesses suffered, but some, like Mrs. Shipley’s luncheonette, managed to keep the doors open for a while longer.  Still, the atmosphere around town wasn’t the same.

 

The railroaders were my friends.  After you serve those guys for 20, 25 years and see them every other day, they became part of the family.”

 

 The abandoned yard was later to experience a re-birth in1996, when given a new lease of life as a much scaled back inter-modal facility, then operated by the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

  

Was George Washington Here?

By- Kurt Seibel - Pitcairn Historical Society

Did he pass through Pitcairn?

In October of 1770, there was one matter to which Washington felt was his duty as a soldier and a man of honor to devote his time and energies. A grant of two hundred thousand acres of western lands had been promised by the government to those who  enlisted for the war against the French and Indians in 1754, but nothing was ever done to fulfill the promise. Washington undertook this act as an agent for his comrades. He, along with chosen friends and scouts, set off on a venture to explore possible sites for the bounty lands, making notes and observations as they journeyed to Fort Pitt, down the Ohio River and to the Great Kanawha River.

     

The following is documented by George Washington in his journal.

(On his way westward towards the Ohio Country);

October 17th - Dr. Craik and myself, with Captain Crawford and others, arrived at Fort Pitt, distant from the Crossing forty-three and a half measured miles, dining at one Widow Miers, at Turtle Creek. In riding this distance we passed over a great deal of exceedingly fine land, (chiefly white-oak,) especially from Sewickley Creek to Turtle Creek, but the whole broken; resembling, (as I think all the lands in this country do,) the Loudoun lands for hills.

 

On his return eastward to Virginia 37 days later;

November 23rd - After settling with the Indians and people that attended me down the river, and defray the sundry expenses accruing at Pittsburgh, I set off on my return home and after dining at the Widow Miers' on Turtle Creek reached Mr. John Stephenson (Scottsdale, PA.) two or three hours in the Night.

 

The Miers's house was located in the vicinity of the former Turtle Creek High School on Sycamore Street and Monroeville Avenue in Turtle Creek Borough. Several large hills occupy the northern slopes of North Versailles just south of the Mier's house and with no known roads on that slope, which ascends about 450 feet to the ridge, it is unlikely that he traveled over the creek and up the large hill where the present day Greensburg Pike bridge crosses over Turtle Creek. Standing at that location today, one could imagine being there in 1770 with nothing in view but dense forest. Glancing across the creek towards the south at the large hill, you would logically assume that Washington instead traveled through the valley along Turtle Creek, through today's communities of Turtle Creek, Monroeville, Wilmerding, Pitcairn, and Trafford and reaching Brush Creek. With the hills not as steep past Brush Creek, he would have been able to travel with more ease in that area.

 

In 1770, only two roads existed from the Allegheny Mountains into Pittsburgh, Braddock's Road and Forbes Road. Braddock's Road allowed travel from the southeast from Virginia, through Fayette County and crossing over the  Monongahela River twice near Duquesne, the crossing being just west of the mouth of Turtle Creek. Forbes Road permitted travel east through Ligonier, passing Bushy Run and Plum Borough to Fort Pitt. Seven years prior to Washington's visit was the Battle of Bushy Run. Colonel Henry Bouquet was forced to take an alternate route from Forbes Road at Bushy Run to pursue the Indians he had just defeated enroute to Fort Pitt. This alternate route went from Bushy Run to the mouth of Brush Creek at Turtle Creek (Trafford), through Pitcairn, then to the Mier's House in 

Turtle Creek Borough.

 

 

History tells us Bouquet discovered the Indian encampment at the outflow of Dirty Camp Run, a stream he named which flows into Turtle Creek from North Pitcairn. Being that Bouquet marched his army through Pitcairn after the battle, there must have been some remnants of a road cut through that area where he marched his troops.

 

It is also documented in the History of Western PA - By Israel Daniel Rupp that;

Prior to 1769, Aeneas Mackey, by permission of Lieut. Col. John Reid, made improvements at Dirty Camp, on Turtle creek, on the road from Fort Ligonier to Fort Pitt. John Frazier, John Ormsby, Sr & Jr,  and Oliver Ormsby, had made improvements to Turtle creek prior to 1762, by permission from the commanding officer at Fort Pitt".

 

This alternate route would have given Washington an easier access route to and from his destination seven years later. Since Bouquet created (and Mackey made improvements to) an alternate route through present day Pitcairn along the northern side of the Turtle Creek, it is even more likely that George Washington traveled through the Pitcairn Borough limits, likely keeping to the northern side of Turtle Creek, since the Widow Mier's house was already on the northern side.

 

It is unlikely that George Washington followed Braddock's Road between Braddock, PA and Stewartsville for the following reasons:

1)        On his return route, when he was at the Mier's House, he was already northeast about one and a half miles past the Monongahela River where Braddock's Road cut through the Monongahela River.

2)        He would have had to cross the Monongahela twice, as did Braddock's Road.

3)        On the day after his visit to the Mier's house on his return trip, Washington states in his journal that "When we came to the crossing at Crawfords (Connellsville at the Yough River) the river was too high to ford…" If the Yough river was too high to cross at that time, and was only crossable by canoe, then the Monongehela River would have definitely been too high the day before at Braddock, PA, which means Washington probably avoided the Monongehela River.

4)        It would have been easier with an access road already being through the Turtle Creek Valley to Trafford (Bouquet's and Mackey's). He then would have traveled only a few miles along the Brush Creek Valley to Circleville or Stewartsville, most likely in the area of Skellytown Road where he would have linked back onto Braddock's Road at Clay Pike.

5)        During Braddock's campaign, it was Braddock's intention to follow either the ridges (the direction of present day Rt. 30) or the valley (Brush and Turtle Creek) towards Fort Duquesne, but he was deterred by the hazards. As history has recorded in 1755:

"The crossing of Brush Creek, which he had now reached, appeared to be attended with so much hazard, that parties were sent to reconnoiter, some of whom advanced so far as to kill a French officer within a half mile of Fort Duquesne. Their examinations induced a great divergence to the left: (southwest) availing himself of the valley of Long Run (Lincoln Way), which he turned into, as is supposed, at Stewartsville (Norwin Towne Square area), passing by the place now known as Samson's mill, the army made one of the best marches of the campaign, and halted for the night at a favorable depression between that stream and Crooked Run, and about two miles from the Monongehela." (White Oak Borough)

6)        Washington mentions in the October 17, 1770 entry of his journal, "exceedingly fine land, (chiefly white-oak,) especially from Sewickley Creek to Turtle Creek". Braddock's Road does not come close to Turtle Creek. The only time Turtle Creek is near Braddock's Road is at the northern crossing of the Monongehela, about one quarter mile past the mouth of the Turtle Creek, where it enters the Monongehela River.

 

This being said, the assumption can be made that George Washington, age 38, traveled on horseback through what is now Pitcairn , PA during the afternoons of  Wednesday, October 17, 1770 and Friday, November 23, 1770.

It’s not certain, but it is most likely that “Yes!...George Washington Was Here!……TWICE!”

Upcoming Events

No upcoming events

Recent Blog Entries

by Carl | 1 comment
by Carl | 0 comments
by Carl | 0 comments
by Carl | 0 comments

Subscribe To Our Site

Send to a friend

Find us on Facebook

The Weather Channel