Monday, April 28, 2014




                 The recent week has been a difficult one due to the unexpected loss of a young family member. 


                After the original shock wore off, I went through an assortment of emotions.  I was sad, I was unhappy, I was angry and I was disappointed.  I was in a daze and I was confused.  I spent an unbelievable amount of time praying for this young man and his immediate family.  I prayed for his cousins and his friends, but most of all, I prayed for myself. 


                I know it sounds selfish, but I needed it.  I prayed that I could somehow come to except this event.  I prayed that I would remember the good times, that I would remember his life as a blessing to us all.  He was a gift that was given to us for a brief span of time.  I prayed that I will continue to remember him as the terrific kid he was!


                When someone dies, I so often feel as if I will forget them, thank God that doesn't happen!  The people who have died decades ago still remain close to me in my heart, my love for them remains, their importance to me stays just as great as it was.  But still, as a human being, I worry about things like this!


                My faith has helped me through this week, along with the help of the many family members and friends I have talked and commiserated with.  I can only hope that I have somehow helped someone else during this difficult time the way they have helped me. 


                There will be a viewing and a funeral to go to in the upcoming week, but I know with the help of family and friends, we will all make it through it.  This week and the weeks, months and years to come!


                I'd have to thank the people who make up the scenery of my life.  I know I don't say it enough, but I love you all!


                                The weeks ahead will be tough, many tears will be shed in private.  But there will also be glimmers of sunshine that will through the gloom of our sorrow.  Family and friends are the sunshine that illuminates our lives!  It is them that will get us through this. 


                Austin, you WILL always remain with me in my heart and in my thoughts! 


                I ask you, the readers of this simple blog, to please say a prayer for Austin and his family.  The power of prayer is a fact, it helps both the persons prayed for and the people who are saying the prayers.  Believe me, we all need some prayers!  Thank - You!


Austin Critchlow   1996-2014


Monday, April 21, 2014

Searching for the Ovens of Dunbar

Searching for the Ovens of Dunbar


by Phil Breidenbach

Bird's Eye View of Dunbar- 1900

(Photos will enlarge when clicked)

                You never know what you might find in the woods!

                Both Ann Marie and I had the day off so we decided to go for a hike in the woods.  Our last few hikes had been in urban settings and we had the desire to get "away" on this trip.  I found a couple geocaches in Fayette County that we could look for and early in the morning, we set off.

                The first cache was a nice easy find, hidden in a parking lot of a mega-store we passed on our way.  Our next cache would be about 25 miles away, a distance we quickly covered on the PA turnpike.  Arriving in New Stanton, we were just minutes away from our next find.
The neighbors are moving closer and closer...

                This cache involved a short hike.  We had to go up a small hill to a water tower.  We could have driven right to the site, but we figured we'd take the more scenic route and walk up an old dirt road, past a burnt out building and then through the woods to the tower.   The view from the site was nice, farm land with views of the encroaching neighborhoods.  It's sad to think that the farmland below us might not be there in a couple years.

                Back in the car, we returned to our voyage to the south.   As we neared the town of Dunbar, we decided to stop there and see if we could locate some of the coke furnaces which used to be numerous in this area.    I had recently acquired a print of a "birds eye view" of Dunbar.  This showed the town in 1900.  We had gone over it looking for familiar places we had seen on previous visits.   As we were doing this, we saw  some coke ovens in the bottom left hand side of the picture.  (see the first picture above)  We had never seen these in our previous trips to this town and thought maybe we could find them today.

                Dunbar is a small town located a bit south of Connellsville, PA.  Formed in the 1790's, it used to be called Frog Town, which later changed to Dunbar City and then to just Dunbar.  An iron furnace was built in 1793 and it was an industrial center for decades to come.  At one time 5 banks operated within its boundaries!

                Coming into town, we saw that the Dunbar Historical Society was open!  This is a small building filled with maps, pictures and other historical items dealing with their town and the surrounding area.  We had visited here a couple other times, the last time to find out some details about some ruins we had come across while hiking in the near-by Game Lands.  It is amazing how many things are in this storefront.  The best resources they have, are the people who help out at the place.  We have always gotten lots of information here!

                When we asked about the coke furnaces, we were quickly told how to get to the location of them, how many were there, shown pictures of them AND told about another spot, located on private property where we could go to see some more.  We were given the name of the property owner and where she lived so we could get permission before we went to see them.  All this AND a hand drawn map to show us where to go!

Our first view of the ovens

                  After talking a bit longer, we got the dog out of the car and headed down the Sheepskin Trail, a nice rails-to-trails trail that follows Dunbar Creek towards Connellsville.  About a half mile out of town, where the trail crosses the RR tracks, on the side of the hill, peeping out through the weeds and trees, were a couple of the coke ovens. 

                Looking like dark eyes peeking out of the ground, you wouldn't even notice them unless you were searching for them.   We went up to the first one and started walking along the hillside checking them out as they appeared to us.
View into the oven

Fire worn bricks hanging on the roof of the oven
                The fronts are missing from all of them, because they were removed for tax purposes.  Without the fronts, they could be classified as unused and be exempt from taxation.   They were "beehive" coke ovens, as the name implies, shaped like a beehive.  They are all about the same distance apart from each other.  Some are hidden by huge trees which have grown above them, dropping their roots and offshoots  in front of the openings.  Small trees and vines cover numerous  ovens.  After the weeds of summer start growing, they will be even harder to see. 
                About 8-10 feet across at their base, they had a door in the front and a circular opening at the top, called a trunnel hole.   This was used to load the ovens.  A good deal of  them have trees growing out of these holes, if they even have them anymore.  The ovens  were used to change coal into coke, burning out the impurities of the coal.  The coke would be used in smelters, blast furnaces and foundries in the iron industry.
Lining the hillside
Side by side
One of the ovens with the front still attached
                A small valley separated the first ones we found from the second batch we encountered, all in a long line.  In all, I believe there are 78 ovens situated here.  Three of them have the original brick fronts still on them.  Nice moldings are visible at the top of one furnace giving us an idea of what they looked like "back when".   These ovens were owned by the Cambria Steel Company according to the picture.
                The furnaces were built in banks called batteries.  Dirt was put overtop of them to provide insulation.  Once they were fired up, they would be used 7 days a week until the firebrick in them was burnt out.  Then they would be cooled down and re-bricked and then the process would start over again.   It is fascinating how the brick is put in place and the way it supports itself.
                The land in front of them was flat, rail lines used to be here to take to coke to the customers.  This would have been a very busy, smoky, noisy area back then.  Now it is quiet and smells like springtime.  The only noise we heard was someone's dirt bike as it rode around near-by.
                People at the Historical Society had shown us some pictures of people who at one time actually lived in the abandoned ovens, possibly during the Depression.
                We returned to the car, enjoying the nice trail and the stream below us.  We talked for a bit with Donna Myers from the Historical Society before we got in the car and searched out the second site they had told us about.

First sight
                About a mile out of town, situated in a weed covered valley, a small path led over to what we would find to be a treasure of hidden ovens.  All I could see from the start of the small, barely disenable path was a dark spot off in the distance.  The fresh green of  spring and the grey of winter set the dark black spot off, making it a little more noticeable.   Working our way through brambles and jagger bushes and swampy ground, we came to the first of the ovens.
The beehive shape is obvious
                  It was situated at the end of a column of dirt, about 8-10 feet high.  Equally spaced, going away from us, were the holes of the furnaces that once occupied this section of land.  On the opposite side of the mound of dirt was another line of furnaces, stretching away from us.  Just barely discernible was another row, about 25 yards further into the woods.  Later investigation would show that this also was faced on both sides with ovens.  Moving up the column, I found about six or seven more across a flat field from the first ones we found.  All told, I would guess there were close to 100 ovens in this location.  (These were not shown on the drawing of the town.)
Some still retain their front wall
Mother Nature slowly taking it back...
Going, going, going....
Hidden in the brambles
                Some at the farthest ends were still fronted with bricks, but the majority were just broken ovens slowly reverting to nature.  Trees and roots were slowly tearing them apart.
                It was overwhelming to see that many ovens in one place. The pictures I took weren't taken carefully, they were taken more as a record.  I'd love to come back some day and get a better idea of exactly how many there are, how they were arranged and when they were shut down.  They told us at the Historical Society that some of the ovens in this town were used well into the first half of the 1900's!  These ovens were part of the Mahoning Mine which operated from 1872 through 1903.
                Unfortunately, this second set of furnaces may be endangered.  The fracking industry is moving towards this site and they soon may be destroyed.  I can only hope that something can be done!  At one time, in 1900, Fayette County had almost 20,000 of these ovens.  Some need saved!
                Eventually we made our way back to the car and went to find ourselves some lunch.  After getting some food, we went further south to the foothills above the town of Fairchance.
Way above the town of Fairchance
                 Here we did a small hike, just a little over a mile and a half long, going up a bit over 600 feet.  The hike brought us to the top of the hill, where the power lines cross.  Of course, there was another geocache there!  We also found one on the way back down.  We were surprised that we didn't see anyone else in the woods today, but then again, it was a Friday, and Good Friday at that!  We did see a LOT of insects on this hike though, they ate me alive!
                I pulled into my home right about 10 hours after we left.  About 182 miles had been added to the odometer of the Jeep.  We were tired, hungry and ready for a shower.  The dog slept most of the way home, as usual.  We retired to our perspective homes and spent the rest of the evening relaxing.  (and scratching my bug bites!)
                Once again, Dunbar was the highlight of our journey.  In all the times we've been there, we have always enjoyed ourselves!  Stop by and visit it for yourself, I think you'll agree.  You never know what you might find!
The Dunbar Historical Society's website can be viewed here:
A couple other blogs I've written about the Dunbar area can be seen at...

A Friday in Dunbar

Back to the hills of the “Fayette Cong”

Back to the “Congo”


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Step by Step

              On Saturday, Ann Marie and I took off once again to the streets of Pittsburgh.  Taking a walk to try and shed a couple of the pounds we have gained over the last Winter.   This is the tough part of the cycle, it is always easy to gain weight, but to lose it involves a bit of work!  So, that's what we are doing, keeping moving and dropping the weight....

Step By Step

By Phil Breidenbach
                The day started out foggy, very foggy!  As I drove home from work the night before, I drove a bit slower because of the fog.  It made for a great walk with the dog, it is another world when you're walking in a cloud.  The location of the moon could just be seen, but it shed no light on our walk.  It was dark and quiet.
Movin' through the fog
(Pictures will enlarge when clicked)
                The next morning when I woke up, the fog was still evident, both in my head and outside, but slowly it was burning off.  The day looked to be a good one.  I picked up AMB and we drove over to the parking lot of the Eliza Furnace Trail, located off of 2nd Avenue.  The fog was still in the air, but not for long.  The parking lot was filled with bikers preparing for their rides along with joggers and walkers starting on their journeys.   We got the dog out of the car and started down the trail.  RIGHT, after we watched a train go by. (First things first of course!)
                One of the places we wanted to visit was the Shrine of the Blessed Mother, hidden on the hillside above the Parkway East.  This small shrine has been there since 1956 and very few Pittsburghers even know it is there.  To get to it, we would, of course, have to do a little climbing.  Thankfully, it wouldn't be that tough, steps and streets would take us right to it.
                Getting off the trail at Bates Street, we had to climb down a hillside to get to the street.  A new bridge on the trail, crossing Bates Street eliminated the paths leading between the trail and the street.  Naturally, since they removed the access, people who regularly use the trail, replaced it.  We followed a path down to the street and then started uphill.
Frazier Street Steps
                A short distance up Bates brought us to the Frazier Street steps.  This is only a set of steps at this end, but following it all the way up brings you to the street itself.   It is a nice set of stairs, with a long flat stretch crossing over a weeded gulley.  There is another set of steps that intersect them here, going off at an angle up to Romeo Street.  We passed this intersection and continued on to Frazier and up to the top of the cobblestoned street.  Here we turned on Ward and then onto Wakefield where the Shrine is located.
                If you were driving a car, you would have to park along this street and then walk down to the shrine, passing in front of two houses on the way.  You almost feel as if you're trespassing...but the shrine is open for anyone who wants to visit.
Pittsburgh and the Parkway East
                The view from on top of Wakefield is beautiful with the city and the Monongahela River stretched out in front of you.
Shrine of the Blessed Mother
                The story of the shrine is as follows.  There are more than one version, for now, this one will have to do.   In 1956, an immigrant steel worker names Philip Marrow, was walking home from work when he noticed something shining on the hillside.  As he continued walking, he realized it was a vision of the Holy Mother.  Determined to find the spot, he worked his way up the streets and pathways and eventually found the spot where the shrine is now.  There, he met Sophie Toma, who had a dream that she would meet someone named Philip and that they should build a shrine at that location.  Together they erected  a small statue of the Blessed Mother and started clearing a spot on the hillside.  A house used to sit near-by but getting to the area of the shrine was never easy.  Neighbors helped over the years, carrying bricks by hand to make an altar for Masses and cleaning and maintaining the site.  To this day, it is maintained and cared for, open to anyone.   Even though it is right above the Parkway, the noise tends to fade away as you sit and contemplate or pray.
                At one time it was known as the Shrine of the Holy Waters.  One of the women wished that there was a better way to water the flowers at the shrine and soon afterwards a small spring was found near-by.
Situated on the hillsides of Oakland
                It is a small area, with some wooden benches to rest on.  We sat for a bit, took a couple photos and then, refreshed both spiritually and physically, we continued on.
Down and then back up again 
Downtown Oakland in the distance
Railing outside of an old Church
                Returning to the Frazier steps, we descended to the intersection with the Romeo steps and headed back up again.  This brought us back up into the neighborhoods of Southern Oakland.  Off  to our left we could see the Cathedral of Learning towering over the buildings around it.  Using that as a beacon, we walked through the blocks,  enjoying the different views and the people we met.
                (Just a quick comment.  It must be nice, getting out of the parents home, living by yourself or with others your age and doing whatever you want to.  We passed a couple guys this morning walking down the street, one wearing just a's Oakland, who knows what you might see...)
Cathedral, Fountain and student
                It didn't take us long to get to the Cathedral of Learning.  We stopped at the fountain , A Song to Nature, located outside the Frick Fine Arts Building.  This fountain which was built in 1918 has always been a favorite spot for me.  Not only because of its location near the Carnegie Museum and Library, the Cathedral of Learning , Hillman Library and the Fine Arts Building,  but because of the fact that it is built on top of a bridge.  At one time, there was a small valley here , it was filled in to make more room.  The bridge that spanned it (The Bellefield Bridge) remained when the valley was filled.  The fountain uses this bridge as its base!  (A little bit of Pittsburgh trivia for ya there!)
Students heading up to Oakland
                Behind the Frick Fine Arts Building are "the most used steps" in the Pittsburgh area, so some say.  Going from the area near the museum down into Panther Hollow, these steps are used daily by the workers and students who park in the Hollow.  We passed a few people on them as we were working our way down into the valley.
Yarrow Street's sidewalk steps
Dilius Way steps
                Before we returned to the car, we did 2 more sets of steps, just to say we did them.  There are some "sidewalk" steps located on Yarrow Street.  Comprised of only 19 steps, more like 19 sections of sidewalk slightly out of alignment, they are steps never the less!  Going down Boundary street a bit brought us to Dilius Way.  The steps here would take us back up to where we were just 10-20 minutes ago...but we did them anyway!  These steps are pretty new, they pass by 3 or 4 houses including a couple that are sort of hidden by the houses in front of them.   We went up and then turned around and came back down again.  Why not, it was a nice day and we were free to do whatever we wanted to...sort of like the "kids" who go to school in this area.  ;-)
Steps in the distance, maybe the site of a future hike...
A Ghost under the bike trail, a sign from the past
                Returning to Boundary Street, we followed it into Panther Hollow and followed the bike trail back to our car.  Returning to the roads, we were soon back on 2nd Avenue and thereafter, the parking lot where our car was parked. 
                Getting back a little less than 3 hours after we left, we returned back to our houses to do some of the many things that are there needing to be done.  The fog had dissipated, both in the air and in my head.  I was ready for the rest of the day!
Our route