“ A city boy grows up in the country- Riverview Park- my back yard”.
And, recollections from Allegheny Observatory as I grew up as an AO brat- 1950-1967.
By: David D. Erskine, formerly of
Charlotte Apts,157 Riverview Ave.
My earliest recollections as a kid growing up in Riverview were hard to recall at first, but it didn’t take more than one trip with my wife, Donna to Riverview Park to show her around and my childhood memories came flooding back.
She even encouraged me at the time, saying “Why don’t you write a little booklet, or do a blog about this?”
Well, they say you should do what you love when you retire, and I happen to really appreciate my experiences, and the people I met while a “Riverview Brat”, so here it is:
The Sun-parlor windows at 157 Riverview Ave. were my “windows on the world” when I was just a toddler…..I’d crawl up and sit on the top of the huge cast iron radiators that lined those windows, and just take it all in , watching the park employees out there doing all sorts of interesting work;
Peter Petri, the master stone mason, chiseling, and re-pointing some of the stone on the steps leading up to the beautiful flower gardens adjoining the park office.
Louie, and another park laborer working in those flower beds, weeding, and planting more flowers over there.
My Dad would invariably appear now and then, wave to me, and sometimes I’d see him walking up the observatory road, past the old barn road, headed up to what was called back then the observatory garage, where the mowing equipment was kept for the lawns around Riverview.
Dad worked part-time doing small engine repair on the myriad of gasoline powered mowers, and tractors that had replaced the old work-horse teams kept down in the old barn.
I still remember there were still two of the huge old horses that were long retired kept as pets down there, and they got petted and fed fresh grass clippings by the bushel throughout the summertime.
Now and then, Dad would take me down there to the old barn, and set me on the stall rail, and I’d get nuzzled by one of the gentle giants…..something I never forgot, and I still love horses today, and my kids do too.
At other times, Dad would take me down to the Wissahickon Nature Museum, where he also worked part-time with Bob Harvey, the head naturalist.
Wissahickon, in it’s glory days, was a wonderful place; full of mostly live animal and bird, and reptile exhibits, including a huge Great-Horned Owl, that was one of my personal favorites.
It was like having a local miniature zoo, with many local species of wildlife living there in, or, around the outside of the museum in habitat-like enclosures…..the burrowing animals were even provided with their own “burrows” , so that they could carry on as they would in the wild.
Wissahickon always had it’s financial problems even in those days, but Dad and Mr. Harvey and the volunteers found a way to supplement the small amount of money that the museum existed on; They “Milked” the live Copperheads, and Rattlesnakes that were kept there in large glass snake terrariums for their venom, periodically, and Eli Lilly or other drug companies would purchase the venom to make anti-venom for saving people’s lives.
As I got older, I developed an interest in handling poisonous snakes, rather than the knee-jerk reaction of many people to kill them…..I came to realize that God put everything on this earth for a reason.
Being a kid in Riverview was really an incredible experience, as I look back…..Mom and Dad taking me and my tricycle-tractor I had down to the old merry-go-round area behind the apartments, and letting me pedal all over the paved walkways while they sat on one of the many stone –wood benches, or the steps of the old merry-go –round, and watched me have fun.
I remember always asking Dad; “Why don’t they have a carousel in there anymore?” and he’d tell me about his memories of the carousel when he was young, and say; “Well, son, it got old and hard to keep repaired, so they took out the carousel, and the carousel organ, and just made it into a big picnic shelter like it is today”.
I always wished that I could have had a ride on that old carousel….too bad.
The old Merry-go-round hill ( in the back ) used to be steeper than it is today, and we would sled-ride down it in the winter, sometimes making it across the field halfway to the old Chapel building…..Mom and Dad and my neighbor –friend, Tommy Hubbell, who lived next-door in the apartment would spend many winter days sledding back there.
As I grew older, maybe 5 to 8 years old, I spent more and more time outside by myself, or with Tommy, my friend from next -door, of course, we were under the watchful eyes of my mother or his mother, who had a perfect view of us from those sun-parlor windows in the apartments, and would visit with each other on and off almost all day.
I was quite young when I met and talked to a very interesting and intelligent old man who, he told me, actually lived in the Allegheny Observatory on top of the big hill where we often flew our kites on windy days.
His name was Mr. Daniel, or Zak as the folks around the Observatory called him, and he was an astronomer that worked there since 1910, he told me.
WOW !...1910 !....my dad was only born in 1917, so I couldn’t believe this fellow was so old!
Mr. Daniel told me he took walks out to the little market at Chemung St. and Perrysville Ave to get his supplies, and sometimes, he’d take a street-car (electric trolley) out north on Perrysville to Kuhn’s market.
He didn’t get around real well, I remember –he may have had a wooden leg, or something.
But, Mr. Daniel was fun to talk to; When I asked if he had any children, he said “Yes…..three Comets named after me” .
He went on to explain what he did up at the Observatory as a devoted astronomer, and said he never had any real children, but his children were the stars, and meteors, and comets, and he had discovered several comets, and so they had his name.
One of the things that really stuck with me through life was when he told me that he could see us sometimes running down the observatory hill, hanging from our kites, trying to “fly” down the hill as we ran top speed. (I was a “poster –boy” for Tide detergent, my Mom used to say).
He said that he knew someone who was a director at the observatory many years ago who actually built a glider-like large kite, with wings, and had flown down that same hill, but sort of crashed into trees at the bottom of the hill by where our apartment now stands, and that he was second behind the Wright Brothers in aviation invention.
The man who he was referring to, I found out years later, was Samuel Pierpont Langley, who became quite famous as a scientist, and astronomer, and inventor…….this inspired me so much , you can’t imagine!
Just to think that I was running in this famous scientist’s footsteps, down the observatory hill…it gave me goose-bumps!
I guess that since Mr. Daniel lived alone in the observatory, and he couldn’t “talk” to his children –the comets and stars, he enjoyed talking with real kids, and teaching them about the history of the observatory, where he spent most of his life.
One time, as he was telling me about what a “grand institution” that the observatory used to be in it’s “golden days”, and how the observatory even had electric power before the houses on Riverview Ave had …..he said that George Westinghouse himself (I didn’t know who that was at the time) had installed a natural gas powered generating plant near the observatory to heat, light, and run the whole place, and the old gas lights were all taken out and replaced with electric.
As a kid, that sounded like a cool idea…..although I didn’t even know that they used to have gas lights……I thought people in the old-days used oil-lamps, and candles…..oh, well.
He said he remembered the power plant used to be in the under-ground “observatory garage” to keep vibration to the telescopes from ruining observing , and blurring the plates (photographs)….it was removed, after Duquesne Light came in, and the garage given to the city to use back when he first began at Allegheny…..about 1910. ( now a mower storage area).
This is something that always stuck with me too, as I grew up into adulthood, and I found written evidence at the University of Chicago digital archives recently that yes……Mr. Daniel was not just telling tales to a little kid; the power plant did exist!
As a matter of fact, Mr. James Shelton, former director of the Westinghouse museum, is locating pictures of the old power plant for me from the old Westinghouse archives.
Mr. Daniel passed away in his 90’s, leaving all his money to Allegheny Observatory to start a fellowship grant program…the Daniel Fellowship.
What a devoted and truly altruistic human being…..too bad many people didn’t get to know him
Well, back to being a kid again……
Summer days at the Riverview swimming pool, and winter days at the old ice pond, playing ice hockey, and skating with my friends were the norm for us Riverview Brats as we grew up, but one fairly regular event, both summer and winter that Mom and Dad, and the Hubbell’s next door liked to engage in was packing up some food, blankets, sleeping bags, and supplies, and heading into the park to the old Watson cabin.
I don’t know if it even exists anymore; it was called the “Girl Scout Cabin” in later years, but it was in perfect usable shape when we used it for camping-out in the park.
It had a huge “walk-in” fireplace, with a stone chimney…..built as the Watson family homestead back in the 1700’s , it was a piece of living history that hadn’t changed much in centuries.
We’d go down there, and even in the winter, it was great; Dad and I would build a roaring black-locust fire in that would ember-down and last most of the night.
Mom would bake potatoes on the hearth, and cook chili in an iron pot near the coals…..it was like we had lived there in a past-life, or something….It felt like home away from home…..and all within hiking distance from the apartment.
Back then, there was a crude sleeping loft made of boards laid across the beams (logs), and it was nice and warm up there for sleeping, even in winter stays…..we’d just drag our sleeping bags up the ladder.
Sometimes, late at night, we would hear voices in there while everyone else was asleep…..Mr / Mrs. Watson, I presume?
We spent so much time in Riverview, we hardly went anywhere during Dad’s vacation times…..the park was always there.
I actually got to love this way of living…..very basic, but so close to nature itself as to be awesome….not your average city-kid’s upbringing, and it affected the way my four children were to be raised: on a farm, with wood heat, and a wood cook stove, and tending horses and goats, and living close to the land. (Even though I was an engineer by trade at the time).
As I grew older, Mom and Dad found that we needed more room, and Dad found a place to buy about a mile away, up Perrysville Ave, and down Dunlap St.
Of course, Dad continued working for the City DPW, but now, as a truck-driver in the parks system.
This didn’t change things much, as we still spent a lot of time in Riverview, picnics, riding bikes, hiking the now familiar trails, and even collecting flint arrowheads from a few old trees that had seen the Indians hunting there centuries before.
One of the strangest places in the park I ever heard of (it didn’t seem to fit into what I knew of Riverview) , was Snyder’s Point, and the myriad of spooky stories that surrounded it:
First of all, it was a place to be avoided especially on Monday mornings at eleven o’clock, unless you wanted to have your ears blown out; it was home to a powerful Air-Raid Siren on a wooden tower that was triggered to test by Pittsburgh Police radio every Monday morning at that same time….rain or shine.
Back then , during the cold-war civil-defense era, this thing would blow so loudly, and rotate as it did so, and was heard all over Perry hilltop, down in Woods Run, and over in McKee’s Rocks!
You wanted to be far, far away if you were hiking or bicycling on a Monday morning back then around there!
Then, there was the legend of Pope’s Road House, out on Snyder’s Point, hidden away back there, a sort of “speak-easy” that was established in the woods , and during prohibition, was a house of ill repute, and supposedly had a few murders to boot.
When I was about 13, my friends and I mounted an “archaeological dig” back by where the roadhouse used to sit.
We dug up old whiskey and beer bottles, bones, (not sure if they were human), old tableware, plates, knives, etc.
Never found any rusty old guns, but we did find a paraffin-soaked burlap bag of brass “slugs” that were the size of quarters.
HMMmmmm ….I wonder if the famous “Volpe Bros.”- some of Al Capone’s guys that ran the Pittsburgh mob, were there?
Then there were the auto accidents on the curve there at Snyder’s Point…..said to have been several deaths there due to cars going over the guard rail ( old wood-and cable type ) and the cars slamming into a tree (no air bags or seat belts) so there you are.
Brings back memories of the old song: “Oh where oh where can my baby be?...the Lord took her away from me “….etc….
Yes, even though Snyder’s was almost over-looked by the old Riverview UP chapel , it sure was a crazy, scary place to us kids, and seemed to be an “excitingly evil” place…..a lot of mixed feelings going up there, old Indian trails to explore….
There were also many memories connected with hiking , too, back then:
We’d hike past the old Road house site, down over the long, long, wooded hill into the Woods Run border area of Riverview.
What a downhill hike!....but we’d never hike back up there on the way back; we’d take the Valley Refuge road back up to civilization, after stopping at Joe Himmelstein’s Dairy to get cold, fresh milk, or buttermilk, pet the horses and cows, and continue on up the valley road, sometimes stopping in to visit my Dad at the Valley maintenance garage, or picking through the huge dump they had there to find weird treasures to take home. (yuck !)
Everyone knew everyone in those days…..it was like a giant neighborhood.
We were friends with Joe & son JD Himmelstein then ,and back when we lived at the apartment in Riverview, Joe used to deliver milk to all the apartments….it was the best milk I ever tasted.
There are no little family dairies left around Pittsburgh anymore……the price of progress, I guess.
OK; I have progressed along to when I was about 12-13 years old….not living in the Park anymore, but still spending a lot of my leisure time there for sure….so I digress;
About the time I was 11 years old, and on through my adulthood, I developed an intense, burning interest in Science; actually and not surprisingly, Astronomy, Physics, Electricity, and Chemistry.
This thirst for knowledge in the Sciences was fed to a large degree by not only my Father, who encouraged me to “Read as much as you can find time to” …..and I did…..but also the Observatory staff, including Dr. Wagman, Dr.Beardsley, and Dr. Gatewood, who all remained my friends, and “teachers” in life; I owe them a great deal of gratitude to say the least.
I spent many happy hours in those days, reading from the incredible collection of various books in the Allegheny Observatory Library, donated many years before by the Fricks, the Westinghouses, the Byers, the Carnegies, Buhls, Scaifes, and so many more of Pittsburgh’s industrialist /banker families.
These books contained every science area you can think of: Physics, Electricity, Metallurgy, Chemistry, Clock-Making, Astronomy, Spectroscopy, on and on.
Even though the books were “outdated” and largely ignored by many people, the foundational knowledge they imparted to me on these subjects allowed me to comprehend the sciences in a way that I am still grateful for today.
You see, book –writers tend to leave out a lot of the important foundational knowledge imparted to them by past generations, and I believe this is an academic mistake –it sort of “edits out” information that the reader might be able to put to use in his /her thinking, and thus be able to arrive at new, and ingenious conclusions that may be prevented from being given to mankind had they been able to readily access them, along with the newer information.
Moving along; not long before I started my own family around 1967-68, my Mother went to work at Allegheny Observatory as a measurer-computer technician in the Parallax Project.
She ran an IBM 1170 (I think it was) computer system that took up all the spare room in the plate vault, downstairs, unlike the new PCs out there, and ran a measuring engine upstairs to take data from the Parallax Plates.
Even though my employment, and circumstances prevented me from visiting Riverview, and the Observatory as often as I’d like to, I still managed to get down to Pittsburgh now and then, stop in at Primante’s for a sandwich, and go visit the Observatory, and my beloved Riverview Park now and then.
I don’t know any of the new administration at the observatory, but I hope someday to visit there one last time.
As far as the Park goes, it looks as though people are caring for it and keeping it maintained nicely as it should be.
I wonder if the grand fountain at the entrance to the park will ever be restored to its original beauty with the water-lilies and gold carp in there, instead of being filled with dirt, and used as a planter?......it would take a lot of work, I’m sure….and money!
The Pittsburgh Symphony summer concerts-in-the-park at the bottom of observatory hill may be but a memory now, but it looks like the city is moving toward more of these cultural events in Riverview, and other city parks….back to the future!
Thanks for allowing me to reminisce about my wonderful memories of growing up in Riverview Park…..it is a tonic, indeed.
Anyone who would like to talk about their experiences with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org