Sunday, May 2, 2010

from the road

Greetings from Western Pennsylvania, where everyone clings to their guns and religion. And in this particular region, their pasta, pirogies, and polka. Almost everyone here is Slavic or Italian, and even though the Italians have almost total dominance of the area's eateries, they invariably leave a slot for those little potato dumplings in between the spaghetti and ravioli. (My theory is that the Slavs would rather eat than cook, a suspicion born out by their more than ample bottoms).

I went for a long walk this humid morning, from the burrough of Scottdale to the township of Upper Tyrone. Everything looks desolate, old and decayed, even along this main street, unironically named Broadway. When it was built long ago it was undeniably a broad street and hence it's name. A gas station with pre-electronic pumps selling Smoking Jim Cigars. A large, boxy wooden VFW building in need of paint with scarcely a window. (If it didn't need paint it would look out of place.) Many of the depression era houses are built right up to the sidewalk, and I have to step toward the street to avoid a window air-conditioner resting on cinder blocks to protect a window frame too rotted to support it. A Sheetz Service Station, all red and yellow plastic and glass, looks almost futuristic in its ramshackle setting.

Toward the far end of my walk, I pass barren lots which look incapable of growing anything beyond weeds, interspersed with churches, and then a large graveyard, it's population greater than that of the town. A quarter mile past that is another graveyard, this one smaller, older, and more ornate. There is a historical marker out front. This is the final resting place for the 109 workers killed in the bituminous explosion at the Mammoth Mine back in 1891, the biggest disaster of it's kind up to that date in these parts.

In the morning's ultra-conservative Tribune Review (motto: 'Worthy of Western Pennsylvania'), there is the story of another Pennsylvania mine in Centralia. It's not much of a town, only nine people, although it used to have over eleven hundred. But forty-eight years ago, a trash fire ignited an above ground vein of coal and the mine has been burning ever since. Not that it's all gone; this is anthracite, the caviar of coal, and it is only found in this state. The deposits beneath Centralia are believed to be worth at least a billion dollars, but they belong to the government of the town as long as it shall remain in existence. Which should not be long. The remaining nine residents are fighting Pennsylvania's public safety eminent domain claims, and even if they win, most are in their eighties.

This is coal country.


  1. Dude, that's my father's ancestral homeland, born and raised ten miles WSW of Scottdale in Republic.

    Whenever I go to visit family, it's like driving through ghost towns.

    And they wish there still was still coal in the ground.

  2. So apropos, in view of the ecological disaster now facing the Gulf Coast.

  3. BDR,
    Send me your email and I'll send you a few pics you might like.

  4. I just took a drive down Broadway: