Bad planning on the tracks
Removal of one public nuisance created a worse one in Downtown McKeesport

“McKeesport developed a reputation for getting itself involved in bizarre political conundrums. The most enduring was the decades-long fight to rid itself of the B&O Railroad tracks that ran through the center of town. ....

“By an accident of history, the B&O tracks ran through the center of the city, and the passenger depot stood at the corner of Fifth and Locust. Directly across from the depot, a chest-high iron railing stretched some thirty yards along the Locust Street curb in front of two taverns, dividing the sidewalk from the B&O tracks. ... Located only a block from the main gate of National Tube, the railing was a social center for steel workers before and after shift change.”

John Hoerr
And the Wolf Finally Came:
The Decline of the American Steel Industry

By Jason Togyer

They were sometimes known as “McKeesport luggage.” More often, they were called “hunky suitcases.”

They were ordinary brown-paper sacks, but to long-time residents, the giant shopping bags sold by Balsamo’s Food Market in downtown McKeesport are a symbol of everything that made the city a milltown—and a weird and wonderful place to live.

In the morning, men used them to take a change of clothes and their lunch to the mill. At night, they carried home the dirty clothes—and maybe something for that night’s dinner.

One story has it that James V. Balsamo himself, the store’s owner, watched someone carry them up the gangplank of a trans-Atlantic steamer in New York.

James Balsamo was a wholesale grocer in the 1920s. When a chain of markets that his company supplied went bankrupt, he agreed to accept as partial payment on the debt one of the chain’s stores that his firm supplied. Originally, they offered him a market in West Newton, a tiny coal-mining town in Westmoreland County, but Balsamo fought and cajoled until they let him have their McKeesport store.

His new acquistion wasn’t much—and if the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location, then Mr. Balsamo picked either the best, or the worst, location in the city. Balsamo’s new store abutted the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s tracks through the middle of McKeesport, a public nuisance that the town fathers would fight to remove for the next five decades.

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The railroad wasn’t always considered a nuisance. In 1837, the promoters of the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad held the rights for a canal and railroad system through the Monongahela and Youghiogheny valleys, but the money ran out before the first rail was laid. Another group of investors bought the charter and tried again ten years later, but again the project was abandoned.

When the plans were resurrected in 1854 by the backers of the Baltimore and Ohio, McKeesport was horrified to learn that the company planned to run the line well east of the city, through present-day White Oak Borough. McKeesport offered $150,000 as an “inducement” (also known as a kick-back) for the railroad to take the longer route across the outskirts of the city. Everyone was happy when the first train chuffed past the town.

After a while, though, McKeesport began to chafe at paying the installments on the $150,000, and in 1896, the B&O reduced the obligation to $104,000. This was paid off by 1906, but by then, another problem had developed.

The B&O’s tracks had just skirted the edge of McKeesport when the line opened. Since then, the town had grown up and over the tracks. The trains that the city was desperate for in the early 1800s had become a smelly, noisy, dangerous, traffic-disrupting pain in the neck.

The B&O’s tracks cut through the heart of Downtown McKeesport’s business district. This photo is taken from along Fifth Avenue, looking toward Locust Street. (McKeesport Model Railroad Club collection, used with permission.)

McKeesport was now a main stop on a railroad with 24 passenger trains between Washington and Chicago and 28 freight drags, as well as eight local switching trains from the steel mills. Several times an hour, crossing tenders would climb down from their shanties and close the gates, blocking the streets. One ill-timed derailment would shut down the city for hours.

By now, of course, the railroad was comfortably ensconced in McKeesport, and was willing to move—as long as the new route was no longer than the current one and cost the company as little as possible.

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All sorts of plans were discussed. One wag suggested a tunnel the length of the town be built. Someone else wanted to put the tracks on stilts. A consultant suggested that the original 1854 route through White Oak be resurrected. When surveyors noted that the line would require some cuts deeper than the Panama Canal, the idea was squashed.

In 1958, it became clear that the only feasible solution was the “P&LE Plan.” The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad ran across the edge of the National Works (skirting the business district), crossed the Yough, then ran to Connellsville along the edge of the river, opposite the B&O.

All the plan required was a bridge to connect the B&O to the P&LE, and the approval of the railroads. On June 27, 1966, the B&O Railroad was given another payment by the city; this time, the bribe was to remove the tracks, and the price had gone up—to $7.5 million in city, county, and state funds.

With much fanfare and hoopla, the last train pulled out of the downtown McKeesport B&O station on May 6, 1970—a four-car self-propelled commuter train bound for Versailles. “McKeesport’s on the right track now!” yelled the banners on Fifth Avenue, and it certainly seemed that way. The railroad’s removal had left 24 streets free of grade crossings, and cleared a large swath of land through the center of town for development.

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The McKeesport police department shows off its fleet of new 1955 Chevrolet police cars (and one International Harvester “paddy wagon”) outside Balsamos. (McKeesport Model Railroad Club collection, used with permission.)

But what about Balsamo’s? The wholesale grocer had built a failed food market into a grocery empire on Fifth Avenue. While Balsamo’s might not have been much to look at on the inside, with rough-hewn plank floors, bushel baskets and barrels for shelves, it was a revolutionary concept for the day. Balsamo’s sold all types of food under one roof—dairy, meat, fish, produce, and canned goods—and sold them at wholesale prices.

Supermarkets had still been an experiment when Balsamo’s first opened, and self-service was almost unheard of, but at Balsamo’s, even in the 1930s, customers were welcome to taste deli cheese or vegetables for freshness, or to browse through the bins of produce.

And James Balsamo’s “bad” location was a godsend. Balsamo was fond of renting a boxcar from the B&O, decorating it with an advertisement for a “car-load sale,” then letting the railroad’s switcher push it around town as it performed its chores.

A B&O passenger train bound for Pittsburgh and points west cruises to a stop at the McKeesport station, circa 1950s. (McKeesport Model Railroad Club collection, used with permission.)

More importantly, the crowded, congested, noisy station area was the focal point of life in McKeesport.

The mill’s Locust Street gate was one block away, and the area around the railroad’s Fifth Avenue crossing was full of bars, coffee shops, and all-night restaurants. An average 23,000 vehicles and 10,828 pedestrians passed Balsamo’s every day.

Though passenger trains were fading and the train station had moved to a trailer behind the Eat’n Park restaurant on Lysle Boulevard, the grocery store was going strong. Then, the city decided to capitalize on the new land available with a series of public-works projects designed to keep shoppers from heading to suburban malls.

Instead, they created a disaster area that casts an appalling shadow over the business district to this day.

James Balsamo closed his store in 1974, and his family showed little interest in opening another. With his business gone, along with a host of others, bulldozers had a clear path to rip out three entire city blocks, bordered by Lysle Boulevard and Seventh Avenue on the north and south and Locust and Sinclair Streets on the east and west.

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In place of the houses, apartments, and stores that had been there for generations, the Midtown Plaza was built. A subterranean shopping mall, it was topped by a parking garage and a public-housing high-rise.

The reinforced concrete structure, adorned with mercury vapor lights and dark brown bricks, created a tunnel over Fifth Avenue that shoppers were required to use to enter the stores inside. It resembled an arcology out of a futurist’s dream, but it was plopped down on a McKeesport street in the mid-1970s, blotting out the view and dividing the business district.

Midtown Plaza was mostly empty throughout the 1990s, though a discount produce vendor took over one of its corner stores, just across the street from where Balsamo’s sat. Balsamo’s “hunky suitcases” have become prized collectibles. James Balsamo died at age 86 in 1986.

The last supermarket left in downtown McKeesport is a Foodland where even the cheapest shopliftable items are kept hidden behind a counter.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was bought by the Chesapeake and Ohio and became the Chessie System, which in turn merged with several southern railroads to form CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla. The Port Authority of Allegheny County presided over the 1989 death of the remnants of the commuter trains to Pittsburgh. And even Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, once the pride of the B&O, no longer pauses in McKeesport.

© 1996, 2006 Jason Togyer. All rights reserved. Please do not redistribute without express permission.