Routes 51 and 88
Overbrook at Rt. 51 and Rt. 88
Theses photo and explanation courtesy of Rob Trappen of Arnold, PA.
Every so often I wander off for an hour or so and nobody even misses me. That should not come as a surprise to many; it does give everyone’s ears a rest. Where I go though might be a surprise; I go off not so much to a place but to a time.
Several years ago I came into possession of a postcard that was sent to my great grandmother when she was a young girl. The post card shows the new Fairhaven Methodist Church in the town of Fairhaven and a group of 16 children gathered on a bridge crossing that is now the Route 51 and Route 88 intersection in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Today this is one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in this area but on that day it was a mud crossroads filled with wagon ruts. There are many horse tracks and pedestrian foot prints in the mud indicating that even long ago Library Road (now Route 88) was a corridor of some importance to the populace of Fairhaven.
This rather unremarkable photograph would have largely gone unnoticed had it not been for the purchase of a scanner and my decision to group and catalog the thousands of pictures my family had taken over the years. Once the initial scan of this 3 ½” x 5½” photo was done and the image was brought up in ADOBE I was able to look into a world of more than 100 years ago with great clarity. This world was made all the more significant to me because it is precisely where I grew up some 50 years later and was first married almost 30 years after that.
Whoever took the photograph had an eye for symmetry and balance. The photo shows an area of Fairhaven on an overcast day. It was still cold weather but spring must have been making its presence felt; there were traces of snow on the slopes of the hillside. The utility poles that lined the roads were bent like old men and their spacing seemed to be more coincidental that planned. A runt of a tree that I climbed and admired in its maturity stands behind them. This was the maple tree, whose branches formed an outline of a Witch with a hat and broom, visible only in the winter after the leaves had fallen. My mother and I talked about this tree on many fall and winter mornings in our house a block away. The appearance of the Witch signaled the coming of winter…and Christmas!
Due to their differing ages, a guess would be that this was not chance gathering of children near a playground who were drafted into the service of the photographer. There was probably formal gathering nearby, possibly Sunday school at the new church. Several of the boys wore a tie; this and the presence of a few books might give credibility to that scenario. None of them wore glasses and one boy carried a white placard with words that will remain a mystery. There are no adults in sight. This area became a mother’s worst nightmare due to the automobile traffic that plagues Overbrook (then Fairhaven), but on this day there were no vehicular threats, just mud and lots of it.
When I magnify the image I find houses on the hill in the distance and a long gone Catholic Church, St. Norbert’s, and it complimentary buildings. Words become readable on buildings and barns. Posters for a “Duquesne Cleanser” become visible on the power poles as does the name on the small wood structure behind the children “Station 2 Manufacturers Nat. Gas Co. There is a Howe Scale waiting to record the weight of someone’s load of coal or wood and the word Provost is scrawled sloppily in paint or chalk on the scale’s bulkhead. The sign on the old barn tells the travelers to “Go to Bernardi’s Dry Goods - Your Neighbor”. There are tiny details of that day in Fairhaven that reveal themselves to me each time I open the file but of foremost interest to me are the children. They are and always will be the photo’s greatest mystery.
Sixteen children from the turn of the century suburbs of Pittsburgh, who were they? What were their names? How many of them lived to maturity? So many questions, so few answers. A world war, cholera and flu epidemics and the Great Depression lay ahead of them but on this day in the late nineteenth century, they all appeared safe and well. Other than two who moved just as the shutter on the camera clicked their faces are now very familiar to me. They are handsome children of immigrant stock, probably second or third generation. Their clothes are typical of the time. Most wore hats and gloves. Heavy shoes and boots, the order of the day, were required to traverse this "townscape" of mud and horse manure. Some of the kids seem ready to break ranks and run as soon as the photographer waves his hand, others appear content to stand and huddle against the chill spring winds.
I often amuse myself regarding an imaginary conversation with these sixteen children. Fanciful indeed, but as several of the great minds now in residence at Princeton who study Quantum Mechanics and Physics postulate that travel back in time is theoretically possible I’ve given thought as to what, if anything, I would tell them about the future. Items of a scientific nature would be beyond their comprehension and matters regarding upcoming cultural and political events might frighten then into making decisions they might not make. The Star Trek Temporal Prime Directive would be best observed in this situation. I think I’d do more listening that talking; that would be a first for me.
Some 50+ years later I played on the very hill behind them. Possibly one of them even admonished me for trespassing on St. Norbert’s property during one of my many forays there. These children were possibly the grand parents of my neighbors. It is possible I knew one of them directly or indirectly.
They were old when I was young but now I am old and they are still children; paradoxically, the circle is now complete.
Overbrook photos courtesy of Carol Anthony
More photos courtesy of Ron Trappen
Flooding in June of 1956
The big snow of November 1950
In front of Kunkle's Tavern
Route 51 and Route 88 dedication. No date but after the construction in the 1930s