|Bad planning on the tracks
Removal of one public nuisance created a worse one in Downtown McKeesport
By Jason Togyer
They were sometimes known as “McKeesport luggage.” More often, they were called “hunky suitcases.”
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 clothesand 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 muchand 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.
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.
By now, of course, the railroad was comfortably ensconced in McKeesport, and was willing to moveas long as the new route was no longer than the current one and cost the company as little as possible.
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 upto $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, 1970a 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.
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.
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.
© 1996, 2006 Jason Togyer. All rights reserved. Please do not redistribute without express permission.