A REMINISCENCE OF MY YOUTH
Tom Phillips, Revised March 24, 2002

"Come on, Tom -- we're going up-street," my mother would say in the local colloquialism of the day, meaning that we were going shopping. To a three-year old kid growing up in North Charleroi, Pennsylvania, in 1932, these words conjured up the vision and excitement of a streetcar ride to Charleroi, a trip of about one mile -- and, since they were heard infrequently because of the economic conditions of the times, these words only heightened the anticipation of the trip.

After leaving our house at 348 Pennsylvania Avenue, we walked south to Fourth Street, passing the Clover Farm Grocery and Max Rubin's Drug Store. Then we proceeded down the hill, past Dr. Miksch's home, the Robison's, and Gaskill's Funeral Parlor which, protected by five 10-inch diameter, concrete filled steel pipes vertically imbedded at the curb line, somehow managed not only to stay perched on the steep hillside which fell away from the road to plunge almost straight down to the streetcar tracks below but also to avoid being struck by wayward vehicular traffic through the years.

All of these buildings are still there in 2002 (except Gaskill's Funeral Parlor) -- did it finally fall from the hillside? No, it "fell" to highway renovation after 1953.

At the bottom of the hill we came to the streetcar tracks at the Lockview Stop. My mother would say to me, "Let's look to see if there is a streetcar coming." We would then look northward along the tracks at the home signal located where the northbound track eased over into the southbound main to form a single track across the three high bridges. When the signal showed red over red, we knew that a southbound car would be along soon, but if we saw green over red, we might walk the short block to the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge to see if there was a streetcar coming from Monessen. If it was cold and rainy, we would step into Kramer's Pharmacy (the Interurban Station for North Charleroi) on the southeast corner of the intersection -- otherwise we would wait either at the west end of the bridge for the "yellow car" (Westside Transit) or in the dusty, unpaved frontage of the auto service garage on the northwest corner of the intersection for the "red car" (PRys). This location had various names depending on who was speaking: Lock Four (the natives), North Charleroi (almost everyone else), Monessen Junction (PRwys), or West Monessen (PRR). Today we would ride the "red Car".

All aspects of this scene have been obliterated. The stores were dismantled to permit a road-improvement project in the late 1950's. The bridge, now toll-free, is essentially unchanged but reflooring and repaving have eliminated all signs of trolley trackage.

With eager eyes and holding tightly to Mom's hand, I would study the specialwork until I heard the rumble of a 3800 coming up to the Lockview Stop. There the big red car would pause for a Safety Stop and possibly a passenger or two and then, with the traditional two blasts of the air horn, move on toward us, the wire singing, the wheels banging across the rail joints, the line switch cracking as it opened, and the air brakes hissing until it finally ground to a stop in front of us. The blinker door opened and the Operator spun around in his chair, peering over the Ohmer Register to see if Mom needed any assistance in boarding. Mom would pick me up by my arm and deposit me on the first step -- then, hopping up herself, she would repeat the operation until we were both on board. After receiving a nickel from Mom who announced, "Fifth Street, Charleroi, please," the Operator pushed several levers on the Ohmer and then hit the register button -- and, after a whirr and a ding, a 2" x 4" receipt popped from the back of the machine to be retrieved by Mom (but usually me) to be held and surrendered at destination.

Seemingly unique to the 3800's, the noisy line switch was a positive identifying feature. I don't recall PRCo's policy with respect to fares for four-year-olds but Mom never paid more than 5 cents for the both of us.

Then to find a seat -- my favorite was next to the door on the right side -- a flat cushion about 18" square (over the sandbox) near a neat narrow window and perfect for a four-year old -- high up, easy to see out in most directions, and close enough to the Operator to watch him control the large red and gray streetcar.

With a twist of his hands, the Operator released the brakes and pulled back on the controller. We started to move -- first past Kramer's Pharmacy, then the Borough Building which also contained our family doctor's office (his name? -- A. Sickman, M. D., if you please!), all on the left side of the roadway, and then, at Sixth Street, the Fire House nestled in the hillside on the right. Then past local entrepreneur Bobby Coyle's property on the left where the annual Firemen's Carnival was held complete with Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round, Tilt-A-Whirl, Caterpillar, and other treats as well as the ubiquitous games of chance ostensibly for the benefit of the Fire Department.

Needless to say, all of these scenes (except the Borough Building (now a condominium) have been oblitered. The Fire House is gone but a hole in the hillside remains to mark its location. Coyle's property now is the location of a medical office complex.

Then at the borough line, we reached some very interesting, perhaps unique, specialwork -- on the right, in the pocket was a West Side car waiting for his northbound counterpart but yet in the clear to allow us to continue our southbound movement. Just ahead were the single- and double-slip turnouts leading to the Westside Car House located in the gore at McKean and Lincoln Avenues.

The Car House still stands and now houses an Interurban Bus operation. There are no signs of trackage -- but I have always wondered if those slip switches were still under the asphalt pavement.

About 800 feet further south on McKean Avenue, our line merged into a center-of-the-street single track for the run through to Fifth Street but almost immediately after clearing the trailing switch, PRCo's Charleroi Sub-Station with it's iron gate and whining rotary converter was seen on the left. However, one's attention would quickly be diverted to the ladder track of the Charleroi Car House just beyond. The Car House was always an interesting and fascinating place to inspect. As usual, box motor F-7 was visible sunning itself at its normal location, several 3800's and perhaps a 4200 (Donora/Riverview Shuttle) could also be spotted -- in the barn, one could also see a retired 3400, now used as a work car and one or two other non-descript cars and work equipment, now long forgotten, and possibly a 3750. One did not, however, see any 3700's as would possibly be assumed today for they were normally assigned to the Washington line at that time.

The Sub-Station building has been removed and no signs of it remains today; however, the Car House still stands. The magnificent red brick building that, during Pittsburgh Railways Company days, was completely open to the weather at its north end and with a never-closed door at the other, later housed a super-market grocery. Fully renovated in the late 1990's, it now serves a Radiological and Medical Clinic.

Our operator eased the car to a stop near the south end of the Car House, opened the door, and without further word, alighted and disappeared into the office, no doubt for a relief stop and, perhaps, to refill the coin changer. Occasionally, there would be an operator change here, also. Within a minute or two, he returned and, after checking the Nachod signal on the pole at 1027 McKean Avenue, resumed our trip southward, crossing more specialwork at Eleventh Street.

This trackage allowed southbound cars to proceed south or to loop around the Car House to proceed north or to back into the Car House from the ladder track at the north end.. When approaching from the south, northbound cars would enter the building. Presumably they could have proceeded north without entering the barn but, in normal practice, none ever did. -- to do so would require relocating the trolley pole at 12th St.and resetting the Nachods

Immediately on the right at 1027 McKean Avenue, we passed my grandfather's blacksmith shop. Grandpa, his clothing protected by the omnipresent leather apron, was outside, deeply engrossed in an inspection of a wagon in need of repair and, presumably, in a discussion with its owner over a financial arrangement of no little import to both as to the cost of repair -- neither seemed to notice the big red car passing by.

The blacksmith shop, modernized with new doors and siding, still exists in 2002 -- it's last known use was as a bottle repository for a beverage distributor.

At 925 McKean Avenue, the whimsically designed Sunoco Gas Station was being prepared for a grand opening. Its appearance was something akin to English Tudor, Art Moderne, and Grimm's Fairy Tales -- quite a change from the shed which previously occupied the site.

Still there but quite shabby -- apparently no longer in use as a gas station.

As we passed 801 McKean Avenue, Mom pointed out that this was the site where my Grandfather's first blacksmith shop, with his home immediately above, had stood until all was destroyed by fire in 1899. On the diagonally opposite corner, Wall Motors was displaying the new Ford V-8's in the window. And, in the 600 block, Lowstutter Motors was likewise presenting the new Plymouth with "floating power".

Wall Motors, now Davies Ford, is still there -- but Lowstutter's is gone .The "new" building at 801 McKean Ave.still stands -- 100 years old!

As we approached Fifth Street, the car went onto double track, actually a passing siding capable of holding two cars. On the left was the locally famed Palace Theater, replete with its crystal chandeliers, balcony, and gilded accoutrements dating from vaudeville days and now showing only first-run movies -- no westerns or cops-and-robbers stuff -- and, just beyond at the corner, the noted Hotel Charleroi. On the right was Lee's Restaurant with its stamped steel ceilings and hanging ventilating fans that never seemed to be in dynamic balance, then Might's Book Store, long a place to buy streetcar tickets, and, on the northwest corner, Collins Department Store, one of two major stores in Charleroi.

The car braked to a stop and, after surrendering her receipt, Mom again by lifting me by my arm lowered me to the pavement. After the operator presumably had checked the Nachod signal in front of the Pep Boys Store, the car moved across the intersection, passed the PRR Station plaza, and returned to center-of-the street single track. With its horn blowing to warn anything and everything to move aside and its noisy line switch seemingly in augment thereto, the car proceeded on its way to Roscoe.

After completing her shopping chores, Mom would say, "Let's go back on the yellow car." She meant the Westside Transit line which ran on Fallowfield Avenue, one block west of McKean Avenue. This was single track, center-of-the-street, from a siding just south of First Street at the south end of town to the Car House at Lincoln and McKean Avenues at the north end. We waited for the car at the corner of Fifth Street and Fallowfield Avenue, across the street from Berryman's Department Store.

This store, Charleroi's other major department store, was always interesting to visit due to its strange way of handling monetary transactions -- a sales clerk would do the appropriate paperwork, take the buyer's money, and place both in a small wood cylinder. Then she would place the cylinder in a small carrier and hook it to an overhead trolley system at any one of several locations in the store and pull a lanyard causing the carrier to travel along the wire to a cashier located on a balcony in the rear of the store - - then, after a minute or two, a receipt and any change involved would be returned in the same way. The store building still stands -- it housed a Montgomery-Ward store from the late 30's until the mid 50's when that business moved to a larger location elsewhere in town -- it's present use is unknown to me.
(John Berryman, the owner, was not only one of the principal stockholders of Westside Transit and Webster, Monessen, Belle Vernon, and Fayette City Railway Company but also the builder of Berryman's Beach, a traffic generator, located on the trolley line about 3 miles southwest of Charleroi. The park was sold after Mr. Berryman's death in the mid-1930's and renamed Redd's Beach. Again changing hands and now named Pine Cove Beach Club, the park is operating quite succesfully in 2002.

Soon a yellow car appeared from the south and, with gong clanging, ground to a halt in front of us. The wider doors and folding step made boarding a bit easier than the red car. A fender was in use so this was an older car as the newer cars used a different type of protective device. As a four-year old, I gawked at the fender, not being able to fathom its purpose -- it looked like an old bedspring to me but where was the mattress supposed to go -- and also why were there little windows (clerestory) in the ceiling where nobody could see out of them. Also, this car had four doors instead of two -- why?

After we had boarded, the car proceeded north on Fallowfield Avenue. The trip was usually slow and tortuous due to the narrow street with vehicular parking permitted on both sides of the roadway which was about 36' wide curb-to-curb and with heavy traffic much of the time. In retrospect, I imagine that this situation with it's many near-misses caused many an operator to think twice about his chosen profession and to consider becoming possibly a house painter.

Beyond Tenth Street, Fallowfield Avenue merged into Lincoln Avenue, approximately 24' wide. The car tracks went to the left side (against the curb, retaining wall, tree line or whatever else was along the west side of the street) for the three-block run to the Car House at the borough line -- this made for a hazardous operation as vehicular traffic was two-way with parking permitted on the east side of the street.

As we reached the Car House, we could see the opposing West Side car approaching from the north -- not having to wait for us, he did not enter the pocket track but, instead, held on the southbound PRy's main for us to clear.

West Side cars would not normally use the pocket track but, schedule and traffic conditions permitting, would normally follow the main.

Proceeding north on McKean Avenue in North Charleroi, we passed the Borough Building beyond which there was a street leading to the West Monessen Station (PRR) below.

Continuing on about 200', the car rode through Monessen Junction, pulled onto the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge just far enough to have all eight wheels on tangent trackage, and stopped to handle passengers, there being a short walkway at the end of the bridge for this purpose. This was our debarking location, a very busy stop as it was one of two transfer points between the two streetcar companies, the other being at Fifth Street in Charleroi.

Parenthetically, the Bridge was fully double-tracked and, had we proceeded across to its east end, we would have come upon a full three-legged grand-union which, incidentally, was the only place on the Westside Transit (and the affiliated Webster, Monessen, Belle Vernon, and Fayette City Railway) where a streetcar could be physically turned.

Then came the trek up Fourth Street Hill past all of the previously mentioned landmarks. Mom never seemed to have a problem with this so presumably she did not have any heavy packages to tote -- my problems seemed to be more with shoe laces becoming untied or hat or mittens being dropped. But we always looked up the tracks to the north to see if the signal showed red over red! And, if it did and if time permitted, Mom and I would wait to watch the car pass.

Had we decided to return on the red car, we would have boarded at Fifth and McKean in front of the PRR station plaza where there were several benches on which to sit while waiting. We would watch the Nachod signal in front of Pep Boys to see when the car was approaching. Soon it would appear, slow for the turnout at the entrance to the short run of double track and, with much noise from the brakes and line switch, stop for us to board -- as this was a major stop there would usually not be less than eight or so people to board -- at special times such as Saturday nights, holiday eves, or when the movie theaters let out, there may been twenty or so people boarding -- this time consuming situation, frustrating to the northbound motorists who would take a diversionary route through the station plaza and the building's porte-cochere (there was no similar relief for the southbound motorists), may have taken up to five minutes or more to complete primarily because change was usually made and the Ohmer had to be reset by hand for each passenger. Since this was not only disruptive to the streetcar schedules but also to local businesses, PRCo would often provide some alternate method such as on-ground or conductor fare collection or even pay-leave handout receipts to reduce the adverse delays.

As the car approached Eleventh Street, it would enter the specialwork which would divert the car into the Car House where it would often stop, presumably for the same reasons as mentioned previously for the southbound runs. The track upon which the car stopped contained an inspection pit where minor adjustments or repairs could be made -- I never knew or understood why the northbound cars always passed through the Car House instead of continuing on northward on McKean Avenue -- but I always looked forward to the interesting sights inside the Car House, the ladder track special work, and the sharp swings of the car from an otherwise almost straight course for our travel distance.

Although the car traveled and sometime stopped over the inspection pit, it was rarely for repairs or inspections.

From the Car House to the Bridge, the route was as previously described for the yellow car except that we would ride through Monessen Junction and alight at Lockview Stop just beyond.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be able to look up that ROW one more time to and to see a signal that was red over red!

References:
1. Dr Sickman and Dr. Miksch: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~pamonval/files/doctors1938.html#LOCK4

NOTE: While the time-frame is based on the events of 1932, I'm sure that much of the content has been tempered by my experiences in Charleroi during my stay in the summers of 1939-40.