by Bob LeBras with additional text provided by Raye Scott Schaller and Steve Raith The weatherman predicted that it would be a cloudy, rainy day for our scheduled tour of the Union Railroad (URR) between Monroeville and Clairton, Pennsylvania. Ten men assembled for the event including our host and expert guide, Scott Schaller. No spirit was dampened by the forecast, and anticipations ran high for an informative and productive day-long photo shoot and history lesson.
The tour itself was organized by Schaller as a prelude to the industry railroad SIG that is holding its annual convention in Pittsburgh starting the next day and running through the weekend. In fact, everyone in the tour group was either directly connected to the steel industry, or modeled steel railroading in HO scale on their own layouts. Being an O gauger, I was the outsider, and, it seemed like, somewhat of a novelty as far as trains go. These guys are scale modelers scratch building entire steel mills in miniature. I am a toy trains collector/operator satisfied with some ballast, flock and a tree or two. Although we did not share a common interest in model railroading, we are all railfans, history buffs, and very interested in learning. While many of the attendees came from far-flung destinations like Texas, Florida and Louisiana to see the remnants of the greatest steel making valley in the world along the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, I was there because it was my home, and I just didn’t know much about the URR.
The main thrust of the tour was to visit the trackage and facilities of the URR. However, as the primary purpose of this railroad is to serve the massive steel mills at Clairton and Hazelwood, one cannot simply look at the URR without also studying the United States Steel (USS) Clairton and Edgar Thompson (ET) Works, the Norfolk Southern (ex-Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Conrail), CSX (ex-Baltimore & Ohio), and the Bessemer & Lake Erie (BLE). This integrated rail network of crossfeeding trackage is much like arteries and veins feeding raw material to the heart of the mill and circulating finished products out. I have never seen such an amazing amalgam of prototype trains intertwining, crossing, merging and dividing. If God had a layout, this was it, and His was better than everyone else’s.
Our tour began with a meet at the Monroeville Holiday Inn at 8:00 a.m. The guys were easy to spot because they were dressed for the outdoors and all had cameras; railfans tend to stick out in a crowd. Of course, I was hardly incognito in my East Broad Top T-Shirt and PRR baseball cap lugging my own baggage.
About a week prior to the tour, Scott sent everyone a packet that included a large folded map of the URR system from 1959 (not much has changed since then), signal locations, driving directions, bibliographic information, and a few interesting photos. He is passionate about the URR recognizing its history and importance to both the region and the nation. During the tour, he provided invaluable insight and I tried to stay close by so as not to miss too much detail. In fact, being an avid listener and learner, I rode the entire day in the passenger seat of his truck absorbing a myriad of descriptive facts.
The tour consisted mainly of visiting various URR physical plant facilities, chasing trains and witnessing the intricate marvel of steel production. While all of our stops were off-property, we were taken to some truly amazing locales to photograph. Like hunters in the bush, we stalked out pray relentlessly. With each passing train, cameras of every brand captured the movements in exquisite detail. Indeed, rolls and rolls of film were used while I stuck with digital imaging to facilitate this online report.
By far, for everyone, the most amazing stop was at a location in North Versailles. Parking the truck and van, we marched down an abandoned roadway for about 1,000 feet coming to an old steel and railroad tie bridge. The bridge spans the NS tracks between the tunnel and bridge at Port Perry affording a spectacular view of ET, river traffic, railroad operations on both banks of the Mon, and how this ballet of men and machines combines seamlessly to serve heavy industry. We were chased away by fast approaching severe weather, but not before taking good advantage of this very special opportunity.
By the end of the day, we wound up at the Universal cement plant. This abandoned factory is a crumbling gothic cathedral in concrete. Scott told us an amazing tale of the interdependence between Universal, the URR, and the steel industry. We saw an abandoned branch of the URR along with a stranded derelict train next to the facility.
I extend my sincere gratitude to Scott Schaller and the railroad industry SIG guys for a terrific day of railfanning and education. As a native Pittsburgher, I hope that all of the out-of-towners enjoy the convention, the city, and that great Primanti Brothers lunch.