(Photos special to Tube City Almanac)
One of McKeesport's neglected landmarks is on track for a $23,000 makeover.
Council has approved the use of part of the city's $1.075 million allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funds to repair and restore the railroad crossing watchtower at the corner of Walnut and Sixth streets, Downtown.
The tower is the only one remaining of possibly 20 or more that once guarded the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's tracks when they cut directly through the Downtown business district.
A.J. Tedesco, McKeesport community development director, said the tower was deemed worthy of historic preservation.
"Although aesthetically, it looks pretty bad right now, we don't believe it's in any danger of falling down," he said.
Repairing the tower, located in a parklet officially known as J. Clarence Kelly Park, is a project that's "come up so many times in the past," McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko said, but none of the plans came to fruition.
The city's plan calls for the work to be complete by the first half of 2019. It has not yet been put out to bid.
This year's CDBG allocation to McKeesport, authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is about $100,000 higher than last year.
Cherepko noted that although the additional CDBG funds are welcome, the city was receiving more than $2 million each year in community development funding in the 1990s, before the program was drastically slashed.
The additional CDBG money this year "makes it possible for us to redo that area and make something special happen," Cherepko said.
Until council's decision, members of the McKeesport Lions Club and McKeesport Model Railroad Club had been planning to start work on the tower this weekend.
Duane Turnbull, president of the Lions club, said the rainy spring was a "real obstacle to initiating work."
The Lions club had first started pursuing repairs to the tower nine months ago, he said.
Although the tower was painted its current colors of red with beige trim in the early 2000s, Turnbull and fellow Lions club member Joe Clemente researched its history and learned that the B&O railroad --- now part of CSX Transportation --- had used several schemes over the years, including a pale yellow with burgundy trim.
Clemente reached out to the model railroad club, located in Christy Park, and its members were going to provide much of the labor, starting on Saturday, Turnbull said.
With the news that the city is stepping up to preserve the tower, "the Lions backed off the project so no conflict would occur," Turnbull said.
Until the B&O line was relocated in 1970, there were as many as 28 railroad crossings in McKeesport. Most of those crossings were guarded by a tower, and in each tower was an operator whose job it was to lower the crossing gates when a train approached, and raise them again after it passed.
The gates were cranked by hand.
Although a handful of manually operated railroad crossing gates are still in use in the United States, practically all crossing gates are now raised and lowered electronically and automatically.
Also approved by council was the use of $258,072 of the CDBG allocation for demolition of blighted properties, $160,000 to replace the roofs on the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club, $140,000 for increased code enforcement, $100,000 for neighborhood security cameras, $30,000 to replace an emergency generator at the Public Safety Building and $131,728 for payments on new fire equipment.
Originally published June 09, 2018.