My Evening with the Fire Hall Medium: Part 1

Last week, a (Western Pennsylvania) volunteer fire department held this fundraiser: a dinner with a Pittsburgh Area medium. A medium who claims to contact the dead.

I – a skeptic – attended this dinner with a medium because:

  • A volunteer fire department held this dinner as a fundraiser.

Volunteers planned the event.

Volunteers prepared the chicken and pasta dinner in their fire hall.

(Coffee, iced tea, and soda pop were provided, alcohol was BYOB. Tickets were $35 each.)

I shall call this particular fire department “Hosting Fire Department.” In disclosure, my husband is a volunteer firefighter at a department less than 10 miles from Hosting Fire Department. My husband is not affiliated with Hosting Fire Department.  We like to support local fire department fundraisers.

  • I attended for the experience.

I write fiction about the life of a Pittsburgh medium in 1890. I wanted to watch an actual practicing medium “at work.” Even if I never publish these stories, at least I can get a few blog posts out of the evening.

Here’s why I became a skeptic years ago:

  • Do a Google search or a Wikipedia search on the Fox sisters. Then do a search on the spiritualist movement in the 1800’s. If you’re still bored, then look up the debate between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As a finale, search “Confirmation Bias.”
  • When I attended and lived at (a Catholic) college, our school required each floor in each dorm to plan two activities for outreach. For our project, my floor invited a Greensburg Area psychic to our lounge to give private palm readings for $25 or $35 each. We advertised this on campus so that people not affiliated with our dorm could also pay for readings.  (Somehow the residential life office at our Catholic college approved this. I don’t think that they fully understood our “project.”)

So many people showed up that the psychic stayed several hours past her scheduled time. Why not? Everyone paid their fee directly to her. I didn’t purchase a reading because I was nervous about spending money. However, several of my friends did throw down the $25 or $35 to learn their futures. The psychic told my friends that if they shared what they “learned” in the readings, then their readings wouldn’t come true. However, my friends shared their readings with each other a few days later. They learned that the psychic gave them all basically the same prediction!

To be clear, the Greensburg Area psychic at my college was NOT the Pittsburgh Area medium who performed at last week’s fire hall dinner. I share this story to point out that I knew going into this dinner to not be disappointed with the outcome.

Did you ever hire a psychic and / or a medium? What was the outcome?  Did the experience leave you satisfied?

Al Roker’s New Book Underwhelmed Me

Al Roker just put out a new book: Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Guilded Age Disaster.

Al Roker’s new book underwhelmed me.

In my opinion, it rehashed much of  “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough. It didn’t provide enough new insights.

Here’s the thing: From ages 7 – 18, I lived in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains (the Laurel Highlands) about 30 miles from Johnstown.  Johnstown was the “city.” We drove to Johnstown frequently in order to access services that we didn’t have in our own town.  (Johnstown was much closer to us than Pittsburgh.)

At my school, we studied the Johnstown Flood of 1889 for weeks. We had to write essays about it. We toured the flood museums in downtown Johnstown and at the site of the South Fork dam that caused the flood. (Yes, multiple museums about the the Johnstown Flood exist.) We also visited the stone railroad bridge where many flood victims burned to death, as well as the cemetery where Johnstowners buried many of their flood victims. We saw the graves of the unidentified flood dead.

After college, I moved to Johnstown for three years for a job. I worked downtown. Every day, I walked past monuments to the victims of Johnstown’s three major deadly floods. I walked down the streets that the flood destroyed. I drove past and under the infamous stone railroad bridge. (Route 56 goes under the very edge of this bridge.)

After I left Johnstown, I purchased and read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough.

Roker listed McCullough’s book as a source document. In fact, under his section “A Note on Sources and Further Reading,” Roker says, “The best-known modern book on the subject is David McCullough’s groundbreaking The Johnstown Flood, first published in 1968; its nearest predecessor similar in scope was Richard O’Connor’s Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke, published in 1957.”

If you aren’t familiar with the Johnstown Flood of 1889, then first note this: downtown Johnstown is in a valley at a river confluence. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was an exclusive, secretive, private club upstream from Johnstown.  Many of the very wealthy industrialists of Pittsburgh, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick. Andrew Mellon, etc, belonged to this club.

On the days leading up to May 31, 1889, a significant amount of rain fell. On May 31, the dam on the private club’s private lake failed. The lake emptied into the valley below. This caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

To Roker’s credit, he did focus a great deal more than McCullough did on the actual members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

However, if you needed to read one book – and only one book – on the Johnstown Flood, I recommend McCullough’s book over Roker’s book.

As a side note, Johnstown is upstream from New Kensington and Pittsburgh. McCullough’s book noted that flood debris and flood victims were carried to at least Pittsburgh. Here is my blog post about that.  

The Pennsylvania Shelf

I removed a book from the Oakmont Carnegie Library without “checking it out,” and I have no plans to return it.

The Oakmont Carnegie Library includes in its basement the Squirrel’s Nest, a used bookstore. You can purchase used books and other items during library hours.

I like to browse the “Pennsylvania Shelf” at the Squirrel’s Nest. See the above photo. I took that photo with my phone minutes before I pulled from it that book which says “Pittsburgh” on its grey and black spine.

This book is titled Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, by Stefan Lorant. I purchased this signed third edition of this 670-page coffee table book for five dollars at the Oakmont Library’s Squirrel’s Nest.

The copy in my possession has a copyright date of 1980, but the book also lists a copyright date of 1964 for the first edition.

That’s right. For five dollars, I purchased a 670-page time capsule of Pittsburgh from 1964-1980. Signed by Stefan Lorant.

On page 416, I read the following: The Three River(s) Arts Festival started in 1960 and has been repeated each summer ever since. Its main features are an open-air exhibition of paintings, performances of plays and high school band concerts. 

I mention this because the Three Rivers Arts Festival is currently underway for 2018. I have attended it every summer now for over a decade in order to watch national acts on the main stage. I have never seen a high school band perform at the Arts Festival. (Not to knock high school bands. I played the clarinet in my own high school band for four years.)

Here are some other favorite gems from Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City:

From pages 488 – 489, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing miniskirts: “Pittsburgh girls have the most beautiful legs in the world,” says a Frenchman, says an Italian, says a Turk, says a German, says a Hungarian. Nevertheless – it is the truth.

From pages 490-491, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing skirts and shorts: If these Pittsburgh girls would walk in Paris all sidewalk cafes would be filled by males. But alas, Paris does not have the steep hills of Pittsburgh to develop shapely leg muscles.

From pages 572 and 573, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing split skirts: The miniskirt of the seventies (see pages 488-491) is superseded by the split skirt of the eighties. Though fashion trends have changed, the women of Pittsburgh remain as beautiful as ever.

From pages 592-593, the caption under 4 page-length photos of men wearing suits: The men of Pittsburgh are immaculately dressed, even on the hottest summer day they wear a vest and a tie – downtown executives are conscious of changes in fashion.

Thus were Pittsburgh men, women, and “girls” in 1964-1980.

P.S. After I published this blog post, I did some digging (Google search) and I learned that Stefan Lorant was born in Hungary and he was imprisoned for opposing Hitler in the 1930’s. He became famous for documenting all this after he fled to England. Really famous. So famous that Edgar Kaufmann (the department store titan and owner of Fallingwater) wooed Lorant – persistently –  until Lorant agreed to author Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. 

A few years ago, I would have played it off that I totally knew that Stefan Lorant was a famous filmmaker, photojournalist, and magazine editor. But the truth is that I had no idea until about 15 minutes ago.

So if you knew who Stefan Lorant was before you read my blog post, then:

1.) Congratulations. You are more well read than I am.

2.) Please continue to enjoy my blog.

3.) You can help me to figure out if I can sell my signed copy of Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City for more than the five dollars that I paid for it.

Corpus Christi Sawdust Carpets

Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum marks the Feast of Corpus Christi by creating sawdust carpets in their parking lot each year.

It would not be fair of me to regurgitate the information that I just took off of another website about these sawdust carpets. So, if you want to know why and how the parish does this, you should Google it. I just did.

I live across the Allegheny River from Tarentum. However, I found out about these sawdust carpets less than a week ago, when my sister-in-law shared a Facebook post about this.

Here is what I personally noted about the tradition:

This past Thursday (May 31) was the Feast of Corus Christi. So, on today – Sunday – the parishoners of Holy Martyrs labored over their sawdust carpets. They worked all morning and afternoon on these in order to hold their vesper service in late afternoon.

I took my sister-in-law and her two small boys to Holy Martyrs at around 2 this afternoon.  We chose this time because this was after the last Sunday mass.

We parked on the hill above the church since the parish makes its carpets IN their parking lot.

Then, we walked around the parking lot and looked at all of the finished and work-in-progress beauties.

From what I understand about the tradition, the church held its vesper service in late afternoon. Then, they brushed over all of their sawdust masterpieces!

What traditions does your church celebrate?

5 Tales of the Brackenridge Family (that I Learned from a Novel)

Cemetery talk prompted this post.

The Community Library of Allegheny Valley announced an informational session at its Tarentum branch about the history of Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge, PA. 

I learned about this talk from our local newspaper. I cannot attend the session. However, I DID attend a “ghost” (and history) tour at Prospect Cemetery one Halloween.

I learned that Hugh Marie Brackenridge and his wife and family are prominently buried at Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge.

Hugh Marie’s father, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, founded both the University of Pittsburgh and also the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

And then I read the novel “The King’s Orchard” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. This historical fiction follows General James O’Hara (George Washington’s quartermaster and Mary Schenley’s grandfather), with Hugh Henry Brackenridge as the protagonist’s good friend.

And here’s what I learned from “The King’s Orchard” (and also from the internet) about the Brackenridge lore:

1.) Hugh Henry Brackenridge grew up poor on a farm in New England. He borrowed other people’s books. A cow ate one of these borrowed books.

2.) Hugh Henry saved up enough money to send himself to the school that became Princeton University.

3.) The first time that Hugh Henry  saw his wife Sabina, he was a lawyer headed to the courthouse in Washington PA. Sabina was a farmer’s daughter chasing after a runaway cow. (Cows are a theme here!)

Hugh Henry watched Sabina vault over a fence without touching the fence. Then, he told the other lawyers that if Sabina did it again, he would ask Sabina to marry him. She did it again.

Sabina’s father said that Hugh Henry couldn’t marry Sabina because dad needed Sabina to “shrub the meadow.” Hugh Henry paid Sabina’s father $10 to hire somebody else to “shrub the meadow.”

4.) Hugh Henry (again, the founder of Pitt) wanted a political career. Sabina had no education. So after the wedding, Hugh Henry sent his new wife to finishing school in Philadelphia for a year.

5.) Hugh Henry’s son (Sabina’s stepson) was Hugh Marie Brackenridge.

McKeesport to Duquesne Bike Ride, Part Deux

This post is just more photos from last weekend’s rail-trail bike ride along the Great Allegheny Passage past McKeesport, Port Perry, Duquesne, and Kennywood Park.

Here are more scenes from the McKeesport roundhouse:

This is the US Steel Braddock Works. We stopped for a rest directly across the Mon River when I took this:

Peddling (AND Pedaling) in McKeesport

On April 29, my husband Jonathan and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. We drove to McKeesport to try out a “new to us” section of the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle and walking trail.

The McKeesport Police Department sits next to the trail and offers free parking to trail users. So, we parked at the McKeesport Police Department.

We biked past this vacant train roundhouse.

We crossed the Monongahela River (the Mon) on this former railroad bridge.

Then we rode alongside miles of working Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Union Railroad rails. We peddled past Kennywood Park roller coasters running cars of screaming passengers. (Kennywood’s open!!!!)

I don’t have any roots in McKeesport. However, I can tell you a little bit about McKeesport’s saga and struggle with steel.

My mom grew up in Pittsburgh when Pittsburgh and McKeeport and all of the other river towns here thrived with steel mills. (Thrived with the money that steel brought here.)

When I replay the childhood visits to my grandparents’ house in the Burgh, I smell the sulfur. I see the mills glowing on Christmas Eve.

I was born in central Pennsylvania right before the Pennsylvania steel industry collapsed. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors left the state. Then my friends from high school left the state. Then my friends from college left the state. Then three of my sisters and my sister-in-law left the state.

Which is my way of saying that I know that bike trails alone won’t bring all of these people back to Pennsylvania. But it was fun to bike past all of this history last Sunday.

Love In the Age of Locks

This has nothing to do with bike trails.

However,  Pittsburgh Magazine published a story yesterday (April 30, the day after my own wedding anniversary) about Newly Married Couples (NMC)  who made their love and commitment “more real” by sticking a lock on a bridge after their weddings.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to blog about this because I like to joke with my husband and sisters about the “bridge lock thing.”

See, I work in downtown Pittsburgh and my husband works a few miles away in Oakland. Both areas are hot spots for the trendy new Pittsburgh “tradition” of couples IN LOVE to write or engrave their names on a lock.  Next, the couple closes “their” lock around the chain link fencing of a Pittsburgh bridge.

This “bridge lock thing” started in Europe and spread to Pittsburgh. (Granted, A LOT of things started in Europe and spread to the New World.) And the whole practice generates controversy – about bridge safety, among other issues –  in Europe and in Pittsburgh.

This “bridge lock thing” was not a thing when I met and married my husband. Otherwise, I KNOW that I would have begged my husband for us to do this. Actually, I asked my husband to do this a few years ago for our anniversary. (I’m human.) My husband did not agree to do the “bridge lock thing.”

Now I joke.

I joke that somewhere on the internet sits a wedding message board where brides and grooms groupthink the whole lock thing. That they strategize their wedding day visit to a Pittsburgh bridge for the “locking of the lock.” That they include a “bridge lock photo” among their list of “must-have” photography shots.

Here is what I satirized about this in April 2016:

Some of the locks on Schenley Bridge look as if they were engraved at Things Remembered. And those locks have dates, like a wedding date.  In this scene in my head, a wedding limo stops on the bridge. A Newly Married Couple (NMC) get out of the limo and place an engraved lock on the bridge. They pose for a photo as they fasten their lock to the bridge, together. It’s their first act as a couple. They do this before they even change their Facebook statuses from “Engaged” to “Married.”

I told this all to Jonathan. And then we joked that this is what really happened: The bride-to-be probably joined the Pittsburgh board on The Knot. All of the other brides (called Knotties) on the Pittsburgh board talked about ordering an engraved LOCK from Things Remembered. This bride also needed a LOCK from Things Remembered to commemorate The Day. She added this to her wedding “to-do” checklist. (The “to-do” checklist is the Bible for Knotties.) This bride made the groom go to Things Remembered with her the same day that they picked out the wedding bands. She put her groom in charge of remembering to bring their LOCK to the ceremony. He forgot to do this. After the Newly Married Couple took their deathless vows and climbed into their limo, she asked him for the LOCK. He didn’t have it.  Married for 30 minutes, and the groom was already in trouble with his wife. After they came back from their honeymoon, they FINALLY placed their LOCK onto the Schenley Bridge. Then they rented a loft in a trendy city.

And now I see, by reading Pittsburgh Magazine, that this is no joke.  That couples actually plan this as cherished rituals of their wedding days.  I wish them much peace and love.

On the Bike Trail: Dravo Cemetery

Here is the first post about the Great Allegheny Passage (a pedestrian / bicycle trail on the footprint of railroad tracks). This post references the Youghioheny (Yough) River Trail (YRT), which follows the Yough River but is just one section of the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Dravo Cemetery dates back to 1812. A former owner built the Dravo Methodist Church next to it in 1824. The church burned down twice.

You can access the Dravo Cemetery on the YRT from the trail’s Boston (Pennsylvania) trail head in Elizabeth Township.

My husband Jonathan and I once parked at the Boston trailhead, and biked past Dravo Cemetery to Cedar Creek Park in Rostraver Township.

Cedar Creek Park provides bike camping sites, a restroom, and clean drinking water.

We camped one night. As we cooked our dinner, an SUV drove down the bike trail and deposited a family’s supplies in a neighboring campsite. That family set off fireworks all night. I lay on the ground and listened to the freight trains moving along the opposite side of the Yough River. I worried about bears. I also worried about the type of people drive SUV’s down bike trails and then set off fireworks all night in the bike trail campground.

We pedaled back to Boston the next morning.

See this below photo? This pictured drinking well, bench, pavilion (in background of photo) and also Dravo’s Landing Campground all sit next to Dravo Cemetery.

So, you can stop and eat your lunch next to Dravo Cemetery.  Or, you can camp next to Dravo Cemetery at the Queen Aliquippa Campground.

At least the cemetery inhabitants won’t drive their SUV down the bike trail and then set off fireworks all night!

Note: The first summer that Jonathan and I knew each other, we pedaled round-trip sections of the Great Allegheny Passage. We continued each summer.  At one point, we conquered the entire accessible trail in round-trip sections. (Then new sections of trail opened!) 

I based this post about Dravo Cemetary and the YRT on trips that we took a few years ago.  Very shortly, I will post about our April 29, 2018, trip from McKeesport, along the Monongahela River, on the Great Allegheny Passage.