Pipes and coke: Getting in the swing of things

by davidharries

Homestead's Waterfront.

A vestige of U.S. Steel’s Homestead plant.

Today was the first nice weekend Pittsburgh’s seen in quite some time. Spring has sprung; they’re calling for snow Tuesday. Whatever. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. At any rate, I got a great ride in — one of the first longer treks of the season — a little more than 40 miles out and back from Lawrenceville to just past McKeesport, Pa., where the GAP turns from fabulous asphalt into crushed limestone (acres better than the C&O, especially toward Cumberland). I should be riding my Cross-Check to get some miles on my TransAm bike, but with a day this warm, I couldn’t help myself: I grabbed my CAAD10 and hit the road. I’d been down the GAP before, but never quite this far. Usually my destination is Homestead’s excellent Taqueria, Smoke. Usually with a substantially slower return leg.

The other reason for this trek was to capture enough pictures to put a gallery up here on Sur La Plaque!. So, here’s the first edition. Still working on some formatting, but very happy with PUPS‘ ability to batch upload photos from my iPhone 5S to WP’s servers.

While making an effort to take photographs, I was reminded over and over again about this part of Pennsylvania’s past. Growing up in an anonymously and pleasantly generic Northern Virginia suburb — Fairfax County — I’m still getting used to the heavy industry in Pittsburgh and its surroundings. The photoset reflects that. A favorite shot is the image of smoke stacks juxtaposed with an advertisement for The Waterfront, Homestead’s answer to U.S. Steel’s 1986 closure of the plant (the site of a rather dramatic 1892 labor strike and the source of more than one-third of America’s Steel during WWII). This area is home to a host of big-box stores, a multiplex and restaurants, but, barring the backdrop of the Monongahela River and a few fossilized heavy-metal behemoths, it could be Anywhere, U.S.A.

Usually, rail trails are built on abandoned rail beds, and while that may be the case along portions of the GAP trail, lots of rail line is still currently in use. I saw hundreds of coal and tanker cars along the path, including entertainingly named “Coke Express” units, perhaps bound for Clairton Coke Works, America’s largest coke-producing facility. I didn’t make it quite that far today, but I did spy a U.S. Steel United Tube Company building, which hopefully explains all the pipe stacked along the GAP from Homestead clear into McKeesport.