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(Tube City Almanac photo)
One of the last vestiges of the railroad tracks that once cut through the heart of Downtown is finally getting a makeover.
McKeesport City Council this month awarded a $24,500 contract to Kucich Construction Inc. to renovate the former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossing tower at the corner of Walnut Street and Sixth Avenue.
McKeesport-based Kucich was the lowest responsible bidder, city officials said.
The tower is the only one remaining of 20 or more that lined the B&O railroad's tracks when they cut directly through the Downtown business district.
The tracks were removed in 1970 after a new bridge was built between Versailles and Liberty Borough, and the railroad was re-routed to the west side of the Youghiogheny River before crossing over again at 10th Ward.
In the 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century, crossing towers or “shanties” like the one on Walnut Street were staffed by railroad workers. When a train approached, the workers would manually lower the gates across the streets to stop traffic.
The development of automatic railroad crossing gates made such “shanties” and towers obsolete.
A.J. Tedesco, McKeesport community development director, said funding for the project is being provided by a federal Community Development Block Grant because the tower was deemed worthy of historic preservation.
The contract with Kucich calls for all of the existing paint to be removed, all damaged wood to be repaired or replaced, and the windows to be repaired and reglazed where necessary.
The roof of the tower also will be replaced in a manner that complies with historic preservation standards set out by the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to the contract.
When the tower was last repaired more than 20 years ago, it was repainted in a red and cream color scheme.
The city is trying to do a “more accurate restoration” this time, Tedesco said.
In an email to this writer, Deane Mellander, a B&O railroad historian and member of the McKeesport Model Railroad Club in Christy Park, said the tower would originally have been painted a very deep, solid red until the early 1950s, when the B&O adopted a color scheme of “cream and dark brown — black was sometimes substituted.”
Another railroad history buff, Dean Liberty Jr., former president of the Christy Park club, jokingly described the color combination as reminiscent of “a chocolate-covered banana.”
Photos of the tower from the late 1960s, and paintings of Downtown McKeesport by the late Jeff Madden, show the crossing tower in the cream and dark brown scheme.
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published September 27, 2019.