Study reveals history of Route 28-Archaeologists to report findings to PennDOT
By Brandon Keat
When archaeologists are in the field, some days they find gems, and some days just stones.
But even when the artifacts they unearth are not especially valuable, each excavation adds layers of information to the historical record.
The initial archaeological investigation of the Route 28 corridor recently was completed, and the firms that did the digging have prepared a report on what they found on and under that patch of ground.
The report will be analyzed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg and be used to determine the path of the road’s expansion and to decide which portions of the corridor – if any – need to be further excavated or documented.
The archaeological study of the corridor from the Heinz plant on the North Side to the 40th Street Bridge at Millvale was done by the engineering firm Michael Baker Jr. Inc. and by the urban archaeologist firm Christine Davis Associates.
From spring to fall of 2001, they studied historical records to learn about the area and dug excavation pits.
Christine Davis said her company dug 15 “backhoe trenches” about 13 feet deep.
“You don’t know what you’re going to find,” Davis said. “There’s many, many times that there’s nothing found.”
When her firm excavated the site of PNC Park, workers found a wealth of valuable artifacts, but the Heinz Field site right next door yielded almost nothing of interest.
David Anderson, an archaeologist for Michael Baker, said, “We really didn’t find all that much (in the Route 28 corridor).”
He said this is partly because the site has been so disrupted over the past 100 years.
What they did find, either through excavations or research about existing structures, are buildings and artifacts related to a former Millvale brewery, the Croation enclave that was centered around St. Nicholas Church along Route 28 and an older, mostly Irish, community called Duquesne Borough.
David Anthony, historical structures specialist for PennDOT, said other noteworthy structures on the site are the former American Brewing Co., which is located in what now is the Millvale Industrial Park.
Baker’s excavations revealed a large subterranean brewery vault.
Built in 1866, the building operated as part of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. after Prohibition before becoming a meat-packing plant from 1930 to 1961.
The site currently houses a wide array of businesses, from an artist’s studio to a fence company.
On the other side of Route 28, the pre-Civil War hamlet of Duquesne was well situated, with access to the Allegheny River, the Pennsylvania Canal and the Pittsburgh and Butler Turnpike – what would become East Ohio Street and then Route 28.
The remains of Thomas Carlin’s foundry and coke ovens, which operated from 1890 to 1915, also were discovered by the archaeologists.
The town also became an important railroad interchange.
“You had a major transition from this little riverside village to this major (railroad) round house and foundry,” Davis said.
“It was one of those communities that started as a small village, then became an industrial area and then was wiped out by construction (of the current Route 28 and by railroad expansion). ”
The study also identified buildings associated with the area’s Croatian community, including St. Nicholas Church and the Marohnic Book Store, founded in 1893 to sell religious literature written in Croatian.
Anthony said the archaeological and historical report prepared by Davis has been sent to the Federal Highway Administration, which will in turn pass it on to the state museum commission.
He said the reports will be made public by the end of this year.
At that time, the public and interested organizations such as the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Preserve Croatian Heritage Society, Preservation Pittsburgh and the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will get to weigh in on the plan.
Those groups, along with PennDOT, the museum commission and the highway administration will decide on a mitigation plan – what will be done to preserve the historical resources in the path of construction.
“Most of the time, we’re on the same page,” said Pat Remy, PennDOT environmental manager for District 11, which includes Allegheny County.
Sometimes, roadways are rerouted to avoid destroying historic resources.
More typically, structures to be razed are documented with drawings and photographs, and artifacts are removed and given to museums or other interested parties.
“In a case like Route 28, there may not be any other alternative than to build it where it is,” Remy said. “It may not be the best alternative. It may be the only alternative.”
Remy said archaeological excavation of government construction sites began after the federal National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was passed.
Other protection laws followed, and their effect came into play in PennDOT projects beginning in the 1980s.
“People are surprised what we have to look at to get a new bridge or road,” Remy said.
“There are laws protecting all cultural resources at a state and federal level, and even a local level, so we have to assess that on all our projects.”
Davis said PennDOT seems to take the laws seriously.
“PennDOT does a good job about coming in early and getting it done,” Davis said. “They do a really good job when it comes to cultural resources.”
Davis said that even if the Route 28 excavations did not reveal anything of major significance, valuable information still was gleaned through the study.
“It’s this little part of history that’s gone and through this work can be brought to life again,” she said. “It’s one little piece of history that’s been lost and now we can have it back again.”
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Tribune Review