Spectacular scenery, culture are captured
June 27, 1998
SUTERSVILLE -- I'm typing this on my laptop computer, outside, during a rumbling thunderstorm and a raging bingo game.
Luckily, I and the other River Sojourners are safe under the big picnic pavilion at the Sutersville Volunteer Fire Co. Fairgrounds, having just chowed down on the fish that the firefighters kindly fried for us.
This is Friday. This grassy little park, now filled with our tents and cars, is just a slippery climb up a muddy bank from the Youghiogheny River, from which we pulled our canoes before the rain hit late in the afternoon.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is sponsoring this voyage to celebrate its 1998 River of the Year. A changing group of about 60 people -- including Post-Gazette photographer Annie O'Neill and I -- has been traveling along the Yough for five days since leaving Confluence, using canoes, rafts and bikes. By the sixth and last day today, when we hit McKeesport, we will have covered 74 miles.
For much of this week, Annie and I have felt like a team from National Geographic, drifting through some exotic river region's spectacular scenery and distinctive culture.
True, we've never been more than a two-hour drive away from Downtown Pittsburgh. And yet what fascinating places we have seen.
Night before last, as those of you who've been following our dispatches know, we camped at Whitsett. It's just off Route 51, and yet the 200 residents don't get offended when you say you've never heard of them.
It's your loss.
Imagine a coal patch town -- of once-identical, now-customized miners' frame duplexes -- spread out along a hill and some flats along the river.
In fact, as we learned at an evening history program, the ''bottom patch'' used to be a big island in the river -- Rainbow Island. The back channel was filled in and more houses stand on it today.
The top patch is where most of Whitsett's black residents, who came here to mine coal, now reside. They still account for about half the population -- very unusual in these parts -- and probably more than their share of pride for their everybody-gets-along town.
But yesterday morning at 9:30, we had to pull out and start paddling the 13.5 miles to Sutersville.
Whitsett's reception, like the weather, couldn't have been warmer. But there were no showers, only spigots from a hose. As DCNR Rivers Program Section Chief Don Dreese quipped at lunch, ''I washed down as far as possible, I washed up as far as possible, but I didn't wash possible.''
There were no showers again last night, unless you count the ones pouring from the clouds. Annie, sounding just like a photographer, says she feels ''filmy.''
On the river yesterday, we didn't have time to stop at many of the towns we passed, which was a real shame at Smithton, since we could see the old brick brewery where they make Stoney's, the local beer.
Just up river from Sutersville, Annie and I stopped our canoe at a rope swing along with others of our party, including Eric Martin, owner of our outfitters, Wilderness Voyageurs. By standing on his inflatable kayak, he managed to fall off backwards into the river. But on the third try using my paddle, he did free the rope from a tree branch so he could swing with the local kids.
Those included 18-year-old Angela Mayfield, whom I interviewed from my canoe as she stood thigh-deep in the swift brown waters of the Yough, wearing a green swimsuit top and her brother's plaid boxer shorts.
She told me this swing, which they call ''The Rope,'' as been at this deep spot ''since my Dad was a kid,'' and they still use it in the summer pretty much every day.
I didn't try it, but I did get to explore Sutersville, in the company of Sojourner Whitney Werner.
The 13-year-old Fox Chapel lady and I set out through this borough together, and were pumped to see, first thing, the sign for the Mission Thrift Store.
We managed to buy $22 worth of souvenirs, including a khaki army shirt and a necklace for her, three bandanas for her sister Madeline, an orange Hawaiian dress for her sister Chrissie, and a canoe Christmas ornament for her mom, Susan Whitacre. We also bought Annie, who loves the National Aviary, a parrot vase.
I got an orange Hawaiian shirt, a pair of unworn vintage jeans and an old campfire popcorn popper. And our money went to local charities.
Then, carrying our four bags, we toured First and Second avenues, the town's two main streets that run right along the twin railroad tracks, all following the bend in the river.
City Council President Jan Mercino said his borough -- Pop. 752 -- actually is two towns since, ''The federal government doesn't put the S in Sutersville.'' That is, mail gets postmarked ''Suterville'' at the local post office.
At Miller's Place, a convenience store-luncheonette, we asked waitress/cook Heather Randolph, 25, if June Bug's Restaurant and Lounge, across the tracks, used to be a hotel. She referred us to the guy for whom she was grilling a cheeseburger, whom she called ''Pap,'' but to whom she said she wasn't related -- ''Not yet anyhow.''
And he -- 70-year-old Brownie Swope -- said June Bug's used to be one of at least four hotels that used to cater to railroaders and miners when the coal mines across the river -- Warden and Ocean 5 -- were working. Workers got to the mines on a cable ferry strung across the river, since the one bridge was too far downstream.
Swope, saying he had pictures to prove it, said, ''You wouldn't believe the traffic on this street.''