We had some lovely weather this past spring, after a rather mild winter. I took advantage of this and started going out for walks on my lunch break. It is a nice way to break up the day (read: get out of the office!) and get some exercise.
If you cross the Smithfield bridge coming from town, you run into a trail set up to encourage bikers and walkers to take in the beautiful views of the city and surrounding areas while they exercise. This segment is a part of the Riverfront Trails that follow all 3 of Pittsburgh’s rivers and is a much appreciated respite from congested city walking. Once across the bridge you can go either way – towards the Point and the Fort Pitt Bridge or towards the historic South Side. On this particular day, I decided to start walking towards the South Side and the still-under-construction Liberty Bridge.
Everywhere you look, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, there are vestiges of the past which are still very much a part of the present in this city. I think it is a subtle, everyday reminder, to paraphrase that wonderful Southern author, that the past is never past. I thoroughly enjoy bumping into other decades, even centuries, when I’m out exploring. It’s kind of a nice, oh hello, I’m still here – or hey, this happened here, learn about me! There is always something new to read about; there’s just never enough time!
Once you cross the Smithfield Street Bridge there is a pedestrian tunnel to go thru to, which actually takes you under the bridge proper and pops you out on the opposite side. It always reminded me of an old subway tunnel, with the tiles on the walls and ceiling.
On the other side you run right into an old relic left to keep watch as a reminder of the Age of Steel, when it was once among many. It’s a stately relic, but like all old equipment past their time, always looks a little sad to me; conspicuously surrounded by modernity. Still, all these years later it is still an imposing structure.
This particular relic is what is what is known as a blowing engine, and it was the “lungs of the Blast Furnace.” This one, that still stands in Station Square today, was just one among many “lungs” that provided the wind, or the blast, to superheat the iron ore, coke and limestone as it sat in the furnace. This would create the “hot metal” or liquid iron required for the steel making process. I can’t even imagine seeing those huge wheels pump and turn; to endure the danger, noise, stench and temperature is unthinkable to a person of our age.
Further down the path there are some old train cars on display – they look like passenger carriers to me, but I am no train buff. The railroad winds down the Monongahela River and all the way thru Homestead (where a lot of mills used to be) is still used today for freight, and goes as far south as Fayette County. (Note: Homestead was the site of a famous labor/owner standoff, the strike of 1892). It never ceases to amaze me how much trains are still used in this area. I can hear their lonely whistles up from the valley, by my house; when the windows are open and it always conjures up visions of another time and place. A poem I wrote sort of expresses those strange, not quite of this time, or even from my memory, impressions I feel every time I hear that whistle. Those same trains wind down thru the old Mon river towns like Munhall, McKeesport and Port Vue. Once booming steel towns, they have sadly deteriorated into shells of their former selves.
But, there is always hope for a struggling town to come back. Along another river, the Allegheny, there is a similar story. However, grass roots organizations like the River Town Program have started to reclaim deserted spaces and have gotten the community involved with the care and upkeep of urban lots and riverbanks. I like to think with that kind of effort, the beauty of these communities can re-emerge from beneath all the loss and neglect.
Train whistles and insects
As I lay, I listen,
to the late August sounds; I feel the cool
drift in and caress me.
With it comes the drones of locusts, hums of crickets and the whispers of trees.
Slowly, their whines blend together.
Then, their song is pierced by a sad, far off whistle that reaches for another era;
clings to a long-gone time.
Its call feels old, sad and longing for what has passed.
Within its tune I feel dirt roads, and open fields.
Trees near a stream and horse hooves clopping.
I think of luminous blue sky,
and grey storms that turn the path to mud.
The past heard this same song,
it seems to bridge time.
There, they also had hot days and dinner time.
There, they also heard the summer insect hum.
There, they also knew that melancholy whistle.
They too, remembered and cherished,
while those sounds onward drummed.