There's no need for Pittsburghers to go to far places of the world to find strangers and interesting faces and stories. They can find them in the "Four Corners" of their own home town. This is a story of the Northeast Corner. Tomorrow, in the last of the series, that of the Northwest Corner, will be told.
THE wierd [sic] catacombs of 56 underground lakes, memories of an old mansion of strange stories and creepy thrills, a man, a huge city "annexed," the romance of a cabbage patch—
These await the explorer who visits the Northeast corner of Pittsburgh, over the river beyond Highland Park.
Approaching the city filtration plant, he'll cross over a patch of deep weeds. But the plot once was tended by Dutch women in wooden shoes, and the banks of the Allegheny looked like a bit of Old Holland. It was the most remarkable vegetable garden in the history of American big business.
Here H. J. Heinz made kraut for his first product of the now famous "57." He and his brother, Charles, peddled it through Sharpsburg in pushcarts, old-timers of Aspinwall and the vicinity recall.
The cabbage patch and kraut factory were located on what is now the southwest corner of the city filtration plant. An expanse of pure filtered water is hidden underground, beneath three feet of soil that protects the entire area of filter lakes from frost.
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IN ANOTHER corner of the filtration grounds is the old tow path of a canal that connected Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Those were the days when the only other route between the two cities was the famous Conestoga Wagon Road.
An unusual story regarding the annexation of the grounds in 1906 is told by Chester F. Drake, who has been superintendent of the plant since it started operating in 1908. It is the case of a city that went to a man, instead of the man going to the city.
"Civil Service rules went into effect about the time the plant was built, requiring all permanent municipal employes to reside in the city for which they worked," he said. "The man in charge of this plant must live nearby. So the city built a home for me, brought me out here and then annexed me!"
Pumps at the filtration plant handled 3,662,400,000 gallons of water last month. About 120,000,000 gallons are supplied daily to the city.
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THE strangest sight at the plant are the 56 underground lakes, each an acre in area. Between these lakes are immense galleries, that look like catacombs. Each is 500 feet long and 31 feet wide.
The watery dungeons are illuminated with electric lights and the weird scene resembles a motion picture set of a boatman lost in Dante's Inferno.
Last year, only three residents of Pittsburgh died of typhoid fever, according to Drake. He recalls that Pittsburgh had the highest death rate of any one of the ten largest American cities before the filtration plant was opened.
If the tour satisfies the visitor's desire for industrial exploration, he can turn to the site of the old Ross mansion on the Freeport Road, just beyond the filter plant.
The old mansion was partially destroyed by fire in 1930 and has been reconstructed as a modern inn. But the story of the old house—of suicides and ghosts and melodramas—still is a fascinating tale.
It was built in the early Eighteenth Century by James Ross, who previously had been a member of the convention which framed the Pennsylvania Constitution, and later U. S. Senator.
His estate was known as "The Meadows." It covered more than 1,000 acres, centering around land now occupied by Aspinwall. The old manor house was built in the glamorous period, when on a single day there were more than 40 steamboats with full cargoes at the docks of booming Pittsburgh.
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ACCORDING to a legend, Senator Ross tore the heart out of an early dwelling in the South, done in the Georgian style, and brought the woodwork to Pittsburgh for the interior decoration of his magnificent new home. The terraces made for his gardens are to be seen on the hillside in a corner of the filter plant grounds.
Forty years ago, the old folks of today gathered there for hay-rides, barn dances, and beer picnics. The rich rode in stylish carriages; others traveled in wagons, taking along a keg of beer for the picnic grounds on the hillside along Squaw Run.
No one knows how the place got the reputation of being haunted. It probably sprang from the weird case of a man who once hung himself from a tree in the yard, and later to a Pittsburgh owner of the reduced estate, Robert C. Hall, broker and art lover, whose death in the house was ascribed to suicide.
During the next two years no one lived in the place except an occasional tramp hiding in the basement. For about 12 years it has been leased from a local trust company by Mr. and Mrs. Fred A. Sanders of Rochester, N. Y., for a road house
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IF LOCAL gossip can be believed, the stairs in the Ross mansion gave Mary Roberts Rinehart her inspiration for her novel, "The Circular Staircase." The authoress is said to have rented a house once on the property, near the Veterans Hospital, and to have been friendly with the Halls.
The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania partially confirmed the story, adding that "there may be a connection between the old stairway and the Rinehart novel."
Drake, who says that Mrs. Rinehart visited him and discussed the novel, is firm in his belief that the thriller is based on the early history of the place that exists in the minds of neighbors. As the years have passed, rumors have grown, until tales of mysterious dungeons and dark deeds now are accepted as fact by the credulous.
After the fire in 1930, which destroyed the upper story of the house, two beautiful old mantles of black marble were removed, according to Sanders. One was taken by the local Historical Society, the other by a member of the Delafield family, the only living descendants of Senator Ross.
The old house today contains many modernistic paintings, in strange contrast to the antique woodwork. all the jazzy paintings are by Sanders and his wife.
They speak of their first entry into the desolate old house. They stared in awe at the queer gas fixtures and old wall paper in the ghostly rooms. Later, they turned the lovely mansion into a snappy road house with plenty of jazz for dancing couples.
Perhaps the old house was so full of injured pride that it tried to commit suicide by setting itself on fire.