Throwback: On Leaving Upper St. Clair

May 1997 Cover Image; an architect's rendering of the Upper St. Clair High School Modernization; underwritten by Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc.; Developed by Joseph R. Gasparella and Weijun Liu

Throwback with TODAY

On Leaving Upper St. Clair By R. R. Thomson

May 1997; pages 18, 19 & 83

The moving van will soon arrive, so I must hurry. After living in Upper St. Clair for 38 years, we have decided to go West, as Horace Greely once suggested.

I am not really an old-time resident like the Fifes, Phillips, Lesnetts, Johnstons and others for whom roads have been named. On the other hand, my recollections from the '60s and '70s may sound positively ancient to some - especially to the 68 percent of the Township residents who are under 45 and to the 46 percent who have only lived here for five years or less (according to the Township Home Page on the Internet). Furthermore, my memory is not what it used to be, so I will apologize for probably getting some dates, people, or places confused.

With the above as a disclaimer, here are some of my recollections of our early days after moving, in 1959, to that small, rural area called Upper St. Clair Township.

The population back then was about 4,000 compared to the more than 20,000 that currently reside here. The Township as managed by Bob Terrick, the road crew was Cap Caldwell and you paid your taxes to Bill Berster.

The Police Department was Jack Klancher. He was originally the entire department and also did electrical work on the side. He eventually had help from dispatchers, called desk men and a few patrolmen. The department could barely afford $350 for a portable radio.

The Township Building was relatively small and housed the library, police radio room, and a few offices on the first floor. The Public Works department was located below, in the rear. What impressed me most about the building was all the shoring holding it in place. This was necessary because of mine subsidence. The fire department had just moved to its present location on Route 19 from a gas station at Mitchell Corners. The building was originally of colonial design (see photo below) before it was remodeled in 1975. Its unpaved parking lot was often a sea of mud.

The fire department's first pumper was a 1937 Ward LaFrance (see photo at right). This vehicle was fondly referred to as "Old Betsy." Unfortunately, it was hard to start. Several volunteers would occasionally be seen pushing it down Route 19 trying to kick-start it on the way to a fire.

In the '60s a 1945 Pirsch aerial ladder truck was procured. It had an 85-foot steel ladder. The ladder itself got little use - there were few tall buildings or flagpoles back then. If you needed an ambulance, a mortuary "meat wagon" would respond, if available. Eventually the police department got a station wagon that would hold a stretcher in the rear. This was long before the arrival of Tri-Community South.

Our mailing address was Bridgeville, PA and ZIP codes were unheard of. Our telephone was in the Tennyson (TE-3) exchange and there were no cordless or cellular phones. Television signals were received either by rabbit-ears or by ugly rooftop aerials. Some of our favorite dining places were Gammon's, located at Route 19 and Fort Couch Road, the Pioneer Inn (originally Fort Couch) - a historic, log cabin type of structure on Fort Couch Road near where McDonald's is today, the Green Lantern near the present Borders Book Store and Howard Johnson's, where the Ground Round is today. Other favorites were the Moo Shop at Route 19 and Fort Couch Road and the Hi Ho, which was located at Drake, Bethel Church and McMurray Roads.

When thirsty, we would occasionally visit Walt's Tavern or the Beadling Sportsman's Club. The St.Clair Beach Lounge, off Hays Road, was another swinging place, especially on hot summer nights.

For entertainment, there were bowling alleys located above the present Un-Common Market at Mitchell Corners. These alleys were eventually consumed by fire. In those days, drive-in theaters were popular. Area ones were the Mt. Lebanon Drive-In near Canonsburg Dam (two screens) and the Bethel Drive-In near the present Taco Bell on South Park Road.

Movie theaters were in Mt. Lebanon, Dormont and Bridgeville. In the summer we would swim at St. Clair Beach. This was a massive commercial pool located off Hays Road between where Rossmoor and Monterey Drives are today. This “beach” had a cement bottom and resembled Dormont’s pool. Located on the site were picnic tables galore and a concession stand.

The library in those days was a small room in the Township Building. What it lacked in space and books was offset by the friendly, dedicated, all-volunteer staff. For years we attended the annual county fair at South Park. We never really enjoyed the fair all that much but went nonetheless. Possibly it had something to do with the fact that it was free.

Other free activities included taking long walks in the area. Strolls about the Mayview property were always enjoyable. Such walks were enhanced by seeing the patients working on the farm and in the fields and orchards. Such work always seemed to me to be so therapeutic. Other walks were taken through the area now occupied by South Hills Village. Deer and pheasant were often spotted. While deer will still occasionally scamper through our backyard (and often across Route 19), the pheasant are long gone.

Another popular pastime was hitting golf balls. There were two driving ranges, one on each side of Fort Couch Road near where the Village Theater is today.

Serious shopping was done at Sears in Dormont and at Joseph Horne’s, initially in Whitehall and later in Mt. Lebanon. Hardware items were available at the Bethel Hardware located near the old Green Lantern at Mitchell Corners. For a special treat we used to buy fresh produce at an old farmhouse that is now the Convent at St. Louise de Marillac.

When we arrived, teenagers attended the Mt. Lebanon High School. The USC High School was just being build and the Clifton School, located between the Log Cabin and Route 19, was being razed. Back then, there was very little school busing. Students had to walk unless the distances were extremely long. In addition, public busing was not provided for non-public schools.

Trash pick-up was handled by individually subscribing to a private service. In those days, they would pick up from your rear yard. Since you had to pay by the can, most folks would have only one. This meant that residents would burn most of their combustible trash in open fires. Every Saturday morning, rain-snow-or-shine, I would burn our trash in our rear yard. Not only would this create a variety of offensive odors, but in the winter, the snow would turn black from the flying fire-brands. In the fall, we would also burn our leaves. Today, the thought of burning leaves brings fond memories. Long forgotten, however, is how the odor would cling to you indefinitely and how, at certain times, the smoke would hang in the valleys for hours and hours.

Even back then there were taxes to be paid. For the 1959 tax, the millages were: County 11, Township 9.5 and School District 27. Of course back then our assessment was lower than it is today. While there was a wage tax, there was no sewage nor cable TV bills to contend with.

Before Interstate 79 was built, Route 19 was the major road between “little” Washington and Pittsburgh. It never seemed to be as busy as it is today but there were frequent accidents on it. This, I judge, was because of the heavy truck traffic. Another contributing cause was that the traffic would speed in through rural Washington County and suddenly be faced with “congested” Upper St. Clair.

In those days, there were major field fires every year. These were often where the Village is today, across from the present St. Louise, and out Hays Road into Peters Township. In the daytime, such fires would fill the sky with dense, black smoke and at night there would be an eerie sky-glow. You would know that the fire department had been called as the sirens on the roof of the fire hall and out behind Bethel Hardware at Mitchell Corners would blow and blow.

From the above comments it should be apparent that the expression, “You’ve come a long way, Baby,” aptly applies to USC. Clearly, the Township has grown not only in population but in stature and professionalism. Unfortunately, as with the rest of the country, a few things have been lost. Gone are the days when you could leave your doors unlocked or roam the Township day or night without fear. This is especially noticeable today on Halloween night when the kids must be closely supervised for their safety and protection. Gone too is the close-knit nature of many of the neighborhoods. Yearly block parties are no longer as prevalent as they once were. Also, the days when almost all of the Township homes and streets were lit by luminaria have passed.

All things considered, the community is top-notch. It has first class local government, school system, police department, fire department, road crew (public works department), emergency medical service, library, parks, recreation programs, and other features. We consider that we have been fortunate indeed to have lived for so many years in such an outstanding township.

Well, the moving van has arrived, and I must go. Let me leave by quoting the road signs entering the Township that say, “USC – A Nice Place to Live.” That was true back in the ‘60s just as it is today.

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