My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

I Helped to Win a Music Award on a Technicality.

This photo is NOT a photo of the Mighty Marching Mountaineers.

This post is in honor of the postponed Grammy Awards.

When I was in high school, I played the clarinet in the high school marching band.

I was really bad at playing the clarinet because I very rarely practiced on my own initiative. One time, our band director, Mr. B., listened to me play and then all that he said was, “I am losing patience.”

I was really bad at marching because I am uncoordinated.

However, I showed up for every band practice. (Well, except for that one time when I decided to go to Pizza Hut in Somerset with my mom instead.) My rural school district was three buildings connected by a tunnel. My high school graduating class had less than 100 students. The band needed every warm body willing to show up.

Just for the record, my K. sister was much more dedicated to the marching band than I was. She started off in the fourth grade playing the clarinet. However, in high school, K. switched to the trumpet because our band desperately needed members for its brass section. Our school’s music department lent her a trumpet rent-free for several years. Mr. B. gave her special lessons so that she could learn the trumpet from scratch. K. actually practiced the trumpet at home a great deal. She was one of the band members who played “Taps” at a local cemetery every Memorial Day.

Since I was in the marching band, I attended every single home and away football game in which my high school participated for 4 years. So, that was 40 football games.

So, at one of these 40 football games, a bunch of us got bored or something. My sister and my best friend weren’t around. I sat with a bunch of kids that I had known since elementary school but with whom I didn’t have a close relationship. We decided to make fun of the cheerleaders. We made fun of the cheerleaders loudly. We had a pretty loud discussion about how terrible the cheerleaders were at being cheerleaders.

Well, here’s the thing:

One of the cheerleaders had a father who sat on the school board.

And this father who sat on the school board happened to sit pretty close to the band that night. He sat close enough that he could hear us.

It doesn’t help at all that I, personally, have a pretty loud voice. Pre-Covid, my husband Jonathan used to have to tell me to use my inside voice in restaurants. Back in high school, I didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me to use my inside voice. I also didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me not to talk trash about Somebody when that Somebody’s influential father was sitting next to me.

So, from what I understand, this father of a cheerleader who was also a school board member asked our high school administration why the Berlin Brothersvalley Mighty Marching Mountaineers looked and sounded so terrible.

The next week, the entire band and the band director, Mr. B., had to meet with our principal and explain to him why the school board now complained about how we looked and sounded.

We had to come up with an action plan for how to better represent our community. We had to have extra practices in order to improve our marching.

I think that the administration or the school board also told Mr. B. that we had to participate in a band competition in the next season. They might have even told Mr. B. that we had to win a trophy in at least one competition.

So, when we showed up for band camp that next summer, we had to prepare for football games, parades, and also for a band tournament.

Now, this band tournament was held about an hour or two north of our high school. Mr. B. scheduled extra practice sessions for this tournament.

When we arrived at the tournament, we learned that all of the bands were grouped into classes based on either the total population of our high schools or else the sizes of our bands. Either way, our band qualified for the class designated for the smallest schools. We learned that there was only one other high school band that would compete with us in our class. The competition awarded 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies to each class.

So, regardless of our final score at the end of this competition, we would take home at least a 2nd place trophy for our class.

We took home the 2nd place trophy.

Our only real “competitor” – the school that took home the 1st place trophy for our class – had a marching band so small that we joked that they could all fit on one of those miniature school buses. Looking back, I think that this school’s entire marching band was about the same size as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I don’t know if Mr. B. entered us into this particular competition knowing that we had an excellent chance of bringing home a trophy. Maybe this was just a lucky break.

The morning announcements in school that next Monday included our “second place trophy at a band tournament.”

For every performance for the rest of my career in high school marching band, we marched in to the introduction of the “Award-Winning Mighty Marching Mountaineers.”

For the rest of my high school career, every time that I applied for something – be it a scholarship, college, etc – I mentioned my involvement in an award-winning marching band.

I don’t know if this “achievement” actually helped me to get accepted to college or to win any of the scholarships that I won. But, it sure as heck didn’t hurt me.

So, the pissed off school board member actually did me a favor when he decided to teach us a lesson.

I was supposed to learn not to talk about other people in public. However, I learned instead that many “professional achievements” are actually the result of dumb luck.

Gingerbread House Demolition Day

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I woke up this morning and realized that today was THE DAY. Today was Gingerbread House Demolition Day.

Here in New Kensington, officials mark unsafe and abandoned buildings with a red “X.”

Upon inspection, I was forced to mark the Gingerbread House with a red “X” for the following Code Enforcement violations:

1.) A critical load-bearing wall leaned.

2.) The structure had no actual means of ingress or egress. I noted that all “doors” and “windows” were actually painted on by icing. This presented a fire hazard.

3.) It appeared that the lower body of Santa Claus was stuck in the chimney.

4.) The Gingerbread House was constructed in mid-December 2020. Since today is January 3, 2021, the Gingerbread House was at increased risk for hardening and cracking. Thus, it was imperative that the Gingerbread House be demolished this weekend.

The demolition crew arrived in time for an aerial photo. Flying conditions in the Gingerbread House’s neighborhood were NOT optimal for drone photography. So, I had to improvise for the below photo:

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. Aerial View. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Now, literature and folklore claim that the fork ran away with the spoon. I maintain that the fork did NOT in fact run away with the spoon. The fork participated in the Gingerbread House demolition crew.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

As we removed the roof, we confirmed our statement that a load-bearing wall leaned.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Unfortunately, upon the removal of this same load-bearing wall, we discovered the decapitated remains of a missing local Gingerbread Man.

It was necessary for us to summon the coroner of North Pole County. An investigation determined that the Gingerbread Man suffered decapitation when Jenny Woytek accidentally dropped him.

Gingerbread House Demotion. Coroner’s File. January 3, 2021.

After we completed the demolition, we took a final aerial photo of the site.

Gingerbread House Demolition. January 3, 2021. Jenny Gaffron Woytek Aerial Photography.

This dining room table real estate is now available for a new project. Contact Jenny Woytek. Serious inquiries only, please.

“Hamilton” -Adjacent: Friendship Hill

Friendship Hill, Point Marion, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I found an article titled “Who Was Alexander Hamilton’s Real Nemesis: Aaron Burr or Albert Gallatin and the Jeffersonians?” by Christopher N. Malagisi, dated August 30, 2018, on the Townhall website. This article referenced the book “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” by Gregory May.

The idolized and fabled Alexander Hamilton served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton rival Albert Gallatin served as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury.

Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States who appointed Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Aaron Burr was elected as Jefferson’s Vice President in the election of 1800. So, these guys all knew each other.

Now, my brain totally shut off about one paragraph into reading about the subject matter. Just as it did when I had to learn about the Federalists and the Whigs and the Jeffersonians in high school. So, I don’t have my own fully-formed opinion about whether Albert Gallatin was Hamilton’s real nemesis. I do think that if Lin-Manuel Miranda had rewritten the Hamilton musical so that it was just a bunch of guys arguing about whether Hamilton or Gallatin made a better Secretary of the Treasury, it would not still be on Broadway.

Albert Gallatin owned an estate in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, is buried on the estate. The National Park Service now runs the estate as Friendship Hill National Historic Site. There is no admission fee to visit.

Part of me wishes that Miranda had at least written Gallatin into his “Hamilton” musical – even in a tiny role – so that Point Marion could use it to lure tourists there.

If you want to sight-see while also social distancing, you may want to check out Friendship Hill. Here is my prior blog post about Friendship Hill.

Who Remembers Fashion Bug?

Christmas tree decoration at former Hornes department store. NOT Fashion Bug. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

When I think of Christmas-time, I think about my times shopping at Fashion Bug.

Fashion Bug started as a women’s clothing store in Eastern Pennsylvania decades before I was born. I think that all or almost all of the stores were located in Pennsylvania.

By the time that I was in junior high school, we had our own Fashion Bug in a strip mall in Somerset. I lived in Berlin, which was about ten miles from Somerset and 30 miles from Johnstown. So, we did most of our shopping in Somerset. I was so excited when I saw regular advertisements for Fashion Bug in “Teen Magazine,” and then I realized that we had one of our very own in Somerset. I believe that this was the only time that I ever saw an advertisement in one of my magazines for a store actually located in Somerset.

I remember that the Fashion Bug ads included coupons for $10 off of a $30 purchase. The coupon was one big reason why I was permitted to purchase my eighth-grade winter coat from Fashion Bug in Somerset instead of from Kmart in Somerset. (Kmart and Fashion Bug shared the same strip mall in Somerset. Come to think of it, every single Fashion Bug at which I ever shopped was located in the same shopping center as a Kmart.)

After I outgrew “Teen Magzine,” my favorite thing about Fashion Bug was the adrenaline rush that I got from thinking that I saved a TON of money from shopping there during a “sale.” Everything that I ever purchased from that place included a price tag that indicated a significant price reduction. The store printed this same price reduction on the LONG receipts that I received with every bag of clothing. Every single item on my receipt would say something to the effect of “Full Price: $59.99. New Price: $14.99.” Then, the end of the receipt would say: “Total: $34.99. You Saved: $2,999.”

I once purchased a pair of sandals from Fashion Bug’s clearance rack for a college function for $6.99. Unfortunately, the shoes were so uncomfortable that I only wore them one or two times.

By the time that I graduated from college, I purchased most of my office “work clothes” from Fashion Bug. Twinsets, turtleneck sweaters, etc.

One time, I watched a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a contestant on a fake dating game show identified herself as a Fashion Bug employee. The punchline was that the contestant didn’t have an opportunity to find love because she was too busy with her entry-level retail career at Fashion Bug. (I’m not laughing at retail employees. I worked in fast food next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I worked a low-paying retail job at a non-Fashion Bug clothing store. I worked in the shoe department at Walmart. I am sure that the “Saturday Night Live” show writers did similar.)

What does this have to do with the winter holidays? Well, I bought SEVERAL of my winter coats from Fashion Bug. I Christmas shopped there. I bought a New Year’s Eve dress for my friend’s 21st birthday party there.

I miss Fashion Bug.

Cremation Pioneer on Gallows Hill

The United States’ first crematory is located in Western Pennsylvania. Its first cremation took place in December 1876.

I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.

I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.

I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.

Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?

On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.

Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.

According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.

I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.

Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.

Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.

Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.

Woytek Virtual House Tour Christmas 2020

Here is a photo of Wigilia (Christmas Eve) during a much simpler, pre-pandemic time. No, this photo will not appear in the video, but I am thinking of all of my friends and family right now with love. Thank you for all of the happy memories!)

I am so excited to present Jonathan and Jennifer Woytek’s Christmas 2020 Virtual House Tour. Jonathan finished this tonight especially for all of you, since we aren’t having visitors at our house this holiday season.

Our house was built in the 1890’s. I intend, at some later date, to blog a little bit about this house and the Victorian-era traditions that it might have seen.

Click here for the YouTube link.

Nor’easter in New Ken?

Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I joked in a prior post that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, I received a new camera for Christmas. The camera arrived on Krampusnacht. I tested it today during our first snowstorm of the winter.

I actually took these photos several hours ago. We have even more snow right now. The snow is still falling.

Alcoa Aluminum Smelter in Voodoo Brewery’s Beer Garden. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

You should see above a photo of the Alcoa aluminum smelter that now sits in Voodoo Brewery’s beer garden in New Kensington.

This relic sat for decades at Station Square in Pittsburgh. (Station Square is a dining and shopping district along the Monongahela River, directly across said river from downtown Pittsburgh.)

The property owner at Station Square no longer wanted it.

Now, Alcoa actually plays a role in New Kensington’s history. HUGE role.

So, a month ago, crews moved this smelter 20 miles to the beer garden on Fifth Avenue, New Kensington.

Pittsburgh’s loss. Our gain.

Here’s an article from the Trib about the Alcoa smelter if you want to read more about it.

To be honest, I have eaten out at Station Square many times. I went there for boat trips on the river when I was in high school. This smelter actually stood next to the dock that we used for these trips. I don’t remember EVER seeing the smelter during my trips to Station Square. I’m sure that this was because Station Square just had so much other things to see. Also, because back in the olden days, I wouldn’t have actually cared about an Alcoa smelter. I never had any interest in industrial history when when I was high school. (The only reason that I remembered Henry Clay Frick was because Emma Goldman’s boyfriend shot him during the Homestead riots.) I never cared about Alcoa until I met Jonathan Woytek and he brought me to New Kensington.

Now that this smelter sits down the street from my house, I am sure that I will have plenty of opportunities to check out the smelter as I sip on my Voodoo beer. Maybe take a few selfies in front of it.

Not now, of course. We are living through a snowstorm and also a global pandemic. But soon.

Catoris Candies, Fifth Avenue, New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
This block is caddy-corner from the Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

“Todays [SIC] Gonna Be Great”

I looked through my laptop for photos that will cheer you.

I found this photo, saved in my Lightroom folder on May 10, 2019. I think that I actually took the photo earlier that spring on my smartphone.

Shelter at Gateway Center Bus Stop, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Spring 2019. This is a photo that I took of a Phipps Conservatory advertisement posted on the side of the bus shelter.

In the pre-Covid days, on most days, I waited in front of one of the Gateway Center buildings to catch a bus home from Pittsburgh to New Kensington.

In the spring of 2019, the bus shelter at my bus stop featured an advertisement for weddings at Phipps Conservatory. This ad featured a couple dressed as a bride and a groom, standing in one of Phipps’ exhibit rooms. The copy on this ad read as follows: “THE POWER TO plan a better future.”

Above the photo of the “groom,” somebody put a sticker on the bus shelter glass that said, “Todays [SIC] gonna be great.” I assume that whoever placed the sticker on this glass intended for it to look like a thought bubble from the groom.

I snapped a photo of the bus shelter with the Phipps ad and the comical sticker placement so that I could text it to my husband and his family. I thought that they would all get a kick out of it. Later, I realized that I could see reflected in this same glass the building where I worked. So, I kept the photo saved on my laptop.

I don’t know anything about the photographer who took the original photo for the Phipps advertisement, or about the advertising firm that created the copy.

I actually majored in Advertising and Public Relations in college. I ended up working in the Property and Casualty insurance industry because that was where I found my first post-Walmart, post-Americorps job. However, from what I understand per my school’s alumni magazine, some of my classmates pursued actual advertising careers in Pittsburgh. So, maybe one of my former classmates worked on this ad campaign.

Let me tell you about this bus shelter. When I waited for my bus home, I faced the far west part of Liberty Ave. This bus shelter stood on my left. If I were to walk past this bus shelter, I would reach Point State Park. If I followed the path in Point State Park that leads to The Point, I would walk past the footprint of Fort Pitt and eventually reach the actual point where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers join to form the Ohio River. This used to be considered as the “Gateway to the West” before St. Louis became the Gateway to the West. In fact, you could boat from Pittsburgh’s Gateway to the West until you reached St. Louis’ Gateway to the West. Lots of people, some famous and some forgotten, actually did this. Pittsburgh’s Gateway to the West is a very short walk from the Gateway Center bus shelter where I waited every day for my bus home to New Kensington.

So, when I waited at the Gateway Center bus shelter, I had Gateway Center buildings both in front of and behind me. If you look at the bus shelter that I posted, you can see the Gateway Center T station. (The “T” stands for “train.” This is part of the city’s light rail system.)

One time, I stood directly across Liberty Avenue from the site of this photo, and I heard “Jenny, Jenny.” It was my aunt – my mom’s sister – and my cousin. They were in town for the Three Rivers Arts Festival. We hadn’t planned to meet up. They had no idea that I worked across the street from this bus station.

Another time, I stood across the street from the scene of this photo and I ran into a cousin from my father’s side of the family. It turned out that her favorite coffee stand was located in the same building where I worked.

I haven’t been to this bus station, or this block, or this downtown since Covid changed everybody’s life.

I used to visit Phipps Conservatory several times a year. I haven’t been there, either, since Covid changed everything. My last trip to Phipps occurred in January or February 2020. That time, I laid on the floor to take a photo of an exhibit hanging from the ceiling. Then, I tried not to grasp the handrail when I walked the stairs down to the ground floor, even though I actually needed it. How many germs did it hold? I had just recovered from some mystery bug that had kept me sick and coughing for the past month. Weird. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have laid on the floor that day.

Thank you for reading this blog. Todays [SIC] gonna be great.