Pittsburgh In Words

Rowing Through the Ruins

Erin E. Tocknell

Rowing Through the Ruins

The Warm-Up

Every day began in darkness the spring I learned about sight. Perhaps that is why I saw so well.

Sight is more than eyes. Sight is the morning, one of many, that I ran through Bloomfield in the dark, the rhythm of feet on asphalt. We ran past darkened houses, their windows empty stares, wondering who had lived in them. There was an Italian bakery at the top of East Liberty Avenue. The stronger the smell of baking bread, the closer we were to the end of our climb. I heard the quickening pace of 10 pairs of sneakers, and we crested the hill in groups of two and three, illuminated mid-stride by the yellow rectangle of light emanating from the bakery door. Looking inside as I ran past, I saw two men. The one with a moustache, who held a ball of dough that was beginning to ooze past his fingertips, stared out at us. It was 5:30 a.m.

The first glimpse of the river came and went quickly. That early in the morning, the Allegheny was merely a yawning absence of light, with the 31st Street Bridge arching across it. In the instant before more rowhouses and a peeling billboard blocked my view, I could see the current rippling in the reflections of streetlights on the water. The pre-dawn air was infused with spring, and the spindly landscaping trees we passed were beginning to bud. I felt the energy stirring beneath the bark and ran faster. Liberty Avenue curved into the remains of an industrial district along the river. We plunged toward the void.

That spring, my junior year at Carnegie Mellon, was the last of the 20th century. I took Reading the Built Landscape from Dave Demarest, a professor with gray muttonchops and perfectly round wire-rimmed glasses. I’d already taken classes in photography and design, and had fallen in love with form—the line a red-tile roof makes against a blue sky, the repetition of shapes in a row of houses, the perfect weight and curve of a Coca-Cola bottle, transient webs of light and shadow. I thought Demarest’s class would be more of the same, but he focused instead on the functions of cityscapes. He told us that we could analyze them as thoroughly as any book, that suburbs, interstates, prisons and public parks often belie the collective values of the societies that create them. Demarest’s expertise centered on the neighborhoods and industrial ruins of Pittsburgh, which is what he loved to teach. We sat around a seminar table during his lectures, and my quads ached from my morning row through the city. I had rowed every fall and spring since my freshman year and thought I had seen Pittsburgh. Not so, Demarest said; you have never really seen this place until you learn that Pittsburgh has grown from its rivers and the work they have supported. Then you will realize that it is all layers and that some of the layers peek through the others like sheets beneath a frayed blanket.

The Three Rivers Rowing Club is on Herr’s Island, its boathouse tucked in the corner of an office park, looking out on a narrow channel and the towering face of Troy Hill. Several teams row from it, including Carnegie Mellon’s. A hundred years before I joined the team, the island’s docks teemed with livestock being driven to the slaughterhouse. Factory sounds rang out over the squeals of pigs, and the air was thick and smoky—the combined smells of industry and death heavy, inescapable. One entire end of the island, which now supports an upscale housing development, was covered in entrails and hides.

I belonged to another generation drawn to work along and within the current. What I remember are florescent lights spilling from the team bays, rowers in Tevas and spandex carrying oars and boats. For our early mornings, the air was filled with commands from the coxswains: “Everyone, hands on the four! Ready for up to shoulders—and up! Watch the riggers!” We were students, but we owed two hours every morning to the river, our boat mates and the quest for the perfect row—when all the rowers in a boat move as one body and carry the boat forward, when the boat itself balances on the center of its keel and responds to the power from the oars. Rowing is the art of efficient power. In rowing parlance, a balanced boat is “set,” and forward momentum is “run.” Rowers can make an unbalanced boat move quickly, but it won’t have run; instead, it will slow down slightly, or “check,” as each oar is dropped in the water, and the rowers, the engine of the boat, will burn themselves out. As we pushed off the dock and began our warm-up, I felt tense and focused. A train rumbled by across the channel and breathed like an animal over our shoulders.

Early in the semester, Demarest showed us a painting of the young George Washington, a surveyor, standing on a hill and pointing down at the confluence of two rivers. We recognized it immediately as Pittsburgh before the bridges and Three Rivers Stadium, the hillsides nothing but undulating forest. A line from Washington’s journal served as the caption: “I spent some time in viewing the rivers and the land in the fork, which I think is extremely well-suited for a fort as it has absolute command of both rivers.” Before he climbed that mountain in December 1753, 21-year-old Washington had crossed the ice-choked Allegheny in a flatboat. He fell in and almost drowned near the site of what is now the 40th Street Bridge.

We rowed out of the channel clumsily, not yet in sync, our muscles not fully awakened. We always waited slightly upstream from the 40th Street Bridge for the rest of the team. Our boat drifted with the current, so we took strokes occasionally to avoid the stone pilings. The size of the Allegheny took me aback every time we entered it. From the water, the bridge itself seemed as high as any skyscraper, and the occasional truck rolling over its joints sent echoes off the footers around us. In 1923, the newly completed triple-arched structure had been named Washington’s Crossing Bridge. I don’t know how Washington mustered the bravery to cross this river when it was surrounded only by wilderness. Even with the city all around, the view from the water made me feel vulnerable and insignificant. Trees rose up from the shoreline, causing the land to appear high and distant. Above them, orderly rows of lights from Bloomfield and Polish Hill marched down to the river. Without sunlight, the water seemed black and bottomless.

Except for the coxswain, who steered, we all faced backward. I rowed in the bow seat of a four-person boat. We taped a flashlight to the decking behind me every morning to alert barges to our presence. The sputtering yellow bulb only broadened my understanding of the darkness. Barges displace water by the ton, yet are amazingly stealthy, and almost every crew has a near-miss story. As one passed silently in the middle of the river one morning, our boat rolled and bounced pitifully in its wake. I thought about Washington, about the history that would not have been written had he drowned in that spot.

Rowing Upstream

I have learned that cities are built upon the ruins of cities, which were themselves built upon the ruins of cities. What builds cities, or anything, but work and dreams? The fort envisioned by Washington defended British territories from the French and, later, played a role in the American Revolution. The rivers that made such an ideal location for a military post also situated Pittsburgh at the forefront of western commerce and industry. When the fort was dismantled in 1792, its pieces were used to build houses in the growing city. We often rowed past the fountain and state park that mark the site where Fort Pitt once stood and the Ohio River begins. As the 19th century dawned, grist mills, printing shops, glass makers and iron works thrived in the city. Coal was mined from the very hills Washington had walked. Pittsburgh’s rivers surged and frothed with barges, cargo ships and paddle-wheelers. James Parton, a journalist passing through Pittsburgh in 1868, gave the city a lasting name and reputation: “If anyone would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara,” he wrote, “he may do so simply by walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg and looking over into—hell with the lid taken off.”

Even then, the city’s potential to work was largely untapped. Seven years later, in 1875, Andrew Carnegie, having noted the problems with maintaining iron train tracks and the expense of importing steel rails from England, brought the first high-volume steel mill to Pittsburgh. More followed, and by the 1940s, Pittsburgh was producing more steel than the entire Soviet Union. There was so much smoke that streetlights were left on 24 hours a day. Then, through the 1970s and ’80s, as American demand for steel dwindled and imported steel became cheaper, most of the mills closed. When I rowed in the 1990s, I looked up, not down, at what Parton might have considered hell’s remains. Iron pipes protruded from the shore, stone staircases and abandoned railroad bridges led to nothing, and factory roofs jutted over the trees—all of it an endless repetition of shape and form, all of it silent and watching us. The summer after I took Reading the Built Landscape, the last brick smokestacks within the city limits—six towers along the Monongahela—were torn down.

Rowing upstream beneath the crumbling remains of Carnegie’s vision, we felt the burgeoning weight of our own hopes in the dark. Off river, we were college students carrying our separate dreams; our minds hummed with the stories we hoped to tell one day. In the current, we thought only of blending power and technique. We understood and read the sounds made by fiberglass seats moving up the metal slide, oars catching in the water, the river swirling as we pulled through it. For all of us, a balanced and moving boat meant the universe had clicked into place, but it was a difficult balance to maintain. As soon as someone shifted her weight, pushed her oar out of the water too soon or succumbed to the desire to take a light stroke, the boat would flop to one side and send oars chattering along the surface. The ideal rower would be an engine. She would never lean too far back at the finish or rush up the slide. She wouldn’t pause at the catch; she would push through the drive with violent and beautiful force. She would never, ever doubt herself. We hugged the south shore of the river, and I wondered, “How long can I row solidly, without mistakes?” Passing silently beneath low-slung mill buildings, I thought only finish, arms away, slide, catch, drive. Match the other oars; match their hand heights and the angle of their backs, a thousand times in a row. It was still dark out.

More than 70,000 men were employed in the mills at the turn of the century, most of them immigrants recruited from the farmlands of Europe. The nature of the work they did in the mills veered sharply from the work and dreams of their fathers. Millworkers were not skilled craftsmen or agrarians; they were the fuel for the fire and smoke of the Industrial Revolution, pieces of a vast machine. While their wives and children settled on the hillsides around the city, the men walked down to the river every morning and worked 12-hour shifts with only one day off every two weeks. They loaded and unloaded furnaces, stoked fires, stood watch as liquid flame was cast into ingots and repeated this endlessly. I have seen pictures of them presiding over rivers of molten metal, their faces grease-blackened and their biceps bulging under thin work shirts. They went weeks without seeing sunlight.

I liked to tell my non-rowing friends that when I woke up in the morning, dawn wasn’t even a promise. Noah and his crew had a better understanding of land beyond the flood than I had of sunlight when practice began. Later, when we turned our boats downstream, the thinnest of olive branches appeared in the sky, a yellow and pink ribbon stretched over the contours of Polish Hill. It grew steadily wider as I watched the night sky diminish. The pale blue dawn with the yellow and pink bands looked like an Easter egg. Like hope itself.

Demarest loved industrial ruins. In class, he showed us slides featuring pictures of himself standing on piles of rubble, peering into the spherical structure of a brick furnace and leaning against smokestacks, his round glasses fitted with dark lenses against the sunlight. In the English department’s main office, rusted wheels and cogs and pitted chunks of coal that Demarest had collected were displayed under glass like museum pieces. “These are our Roman baths,” he told us as he flashed a slide of a rusted blast furnace. “Our Parthenon, our Colosseum. When archeologists dig up the American 20th century, this is what they will find. What does that say about us?” It says that workers who rarely saw the sun, who wore grease and soot like permanent mascara, laid the foundation for our own layer of life. They founded the neighborhoods—the Italians in Bloomfield, the Poles in Polish Hill, the Germans in Troy Hill. We saw all of these neighborhoods from the river, heard them waking up, noticed their falling down and empty houses. Until that spring though, I had never noticed the work or its remains, the accomplishments of men who lived on the hillsides, who walked to the buildings we saw from the water and laid the framework for our cities.

Some teams rowed downtown, under the glimmering skyscrapers, past the park commemorating Washington’s fort and onto the Ohio River. Because the water was calmer upstream, we spent most of our practice there, beneath the remains of Pittsburgh’s industrial district. We marked how long we had been rowing by the landmarks we passed. Usually, we could see only pieces of things: paddle-wheelers turned houseboats, the fence surrounding the go-kart track, the top of a rusted crane, refueling docks for barges, a row of tunnels, the high corrugated metal wall of a factory with windows broken by vandals, a long stretch of wooden docks and crooked pilings. I had always preferred rowing downtown, where the river was bordered by a clean, new walking path and glass-fronted buildings, but that spring, I learned to keep my eyes soft as we rowed upstream. I could see the other rowers’ shoulders, sense if we were moving in unison and also see the river beyond them. A partially sunken barge met its own reflection; vines wound through the wheels of a train on an abandoned spur. A row of yellow-brick coke ovens, which resembled beehives, guarded the shoreline. The sunrise revealed water like glass. With dawn came the sounds of a city waking itself: compression brakes on the bridge above us, construction equipment rumbling and train whistles in the distance. Work long completed and work not yet begun converged at the water. Beneath the ruins, we cast about for form and function as if their residue still hung in the air. I believe it did. I knew that men had built and run the machines rusting around us. I could peel back the layers of time, rediscover their work and dreams.

Downtown Speed Work

In the middle of practice, Coach Oliver let us rest and stretch. Then he motored the coach’s launch a little closer and brought a megaphone to his mouth. “Four minutes on. Two minutes off. Down to the Point. Racing starts.” Four minutes—about 1,000 meters. It’s probably 7,000 meters from the spot where we turned downstream to the Point, Washington’s triangle where the Ohio River begins.

“Staggered starts, women’s four, you’re first.”

We moved our seats three-quarters of the way up the slide and dropped in our oars. I centered the balls of my feet, prepared to apply all my weight to them. Then I shifted nervously, made sure my back was straight and matched the angle of the back in front of me, took deep breaths to enjoy the oxygen while I still could. Our coxswain’s voice crackled through the small speaker attached to the hull. “Ladies? Racing start into a Power 10. Then 10 to settle. Are you ready?” Silence, oxygen, the highway rumbling overhead. “Row!” The water swirled and frothed around our blades. We knew to shorten our strokes to get the boat moving. Our coxswain, Laura, called out the lengths of our slides. “Three-quarters!” We jumped off our feet, popped our oars out and returned halfway up the slide, caught as she yelled, “Half!” then, “Three-quarters!” “Building!” “Full!” and “Power 10, ladies!” Laura counted 10 strokes. The boat rocked, but we were moving fast. We hit 38 strokes per minute during the Power 10 and needed to stay at 30 for the rest of the piece.

It took a little less than a minute to start the boat, complete a Power 10 and settle into 30 strokes per minute. For another 30 seconds, our adrenaline carried us. Then we noticed our ragged breaths, our burning quads. I realized I was slouching as if curving my chest would somehow bring in more air. Fatigue undermined my good intentions. When I straightened my back, the boat rocked to one side. “None of that, ladies!” Laura yelled. On the north shore, a coal train whistled, and in my oxygen-deprived state, it sounded as if the whistle was both above and within me. “You hear that train?” Laura said. “You are that train! Don’t you dare let anyone else carry your weight! We’re doing a Power 10 when that train reaches us! Take it up in two: one ... two!” The shriek of steel on steel, the thunder of the cars flying past, drowned out her count. I gasped for breath. The train seemed to be in the molecules of the air. By the time it passed, there were only 30 seconds left in the piece. Still, the boat was not entirely set, so we were working harder than we needed, but we had speed in spite of the check. Our oars dipped into ribbons of sunlight. The river was no longer glass. It was flame.

Andrew Carnegie laid the groundwork for Carnegie Tech, which became Carnegie Mellon, in the last years of the 19th century. We studied him that March in Demarest’s class. We argued about him across the seminar table, called him a philanthropist, a robber baron or a ripe bastard. Controversy aside, I admired his practical idealism. When proposing his idea for a university, Carnegie assured the mayor of Pittsburgh that he was prepared to support the project. “My heart is in the work,” he wrote in a letter. Just in case, though, he equipped Baker Hall, where Demarest’s class met, with sloping floors. That way, should the university fail, the campus could be easily converted into a factory, and a portion of it was, indeed, a factory in the early 1900s. Students welded steel and practiced bricklaying in the cavernous space where I later attended lectures and prepared for a life of writing and teaching.

My two worst habits were rushing up the slide and catching late. They surfaced after a couple of speed pieces when exhaustion laid its weight on every muscle. I occupied my space less and less effectively, felt my oar hanging in space before it dropped into the water. My teammates had to work without me for a split second every stroke. “I can read the Bible in the time it takes you to catch, Tocknell!” Oliver yelled across the water. He came alongside us, and we all began to drive a little harder off our legs. “Catch! Drrriiive!” He used the megaphone to make his voice sound mechanical. “Catch! Driiivveeee!” Daylight had come in earnest, and we were downtown, below shining glass skyscrapers that were supported by steel and housed technology firms enjoying the dot-com boom. Fresh from the ruins, seeing the world as I did, I wondered what separated technology from industry besides a few decades and a stretch of river. The bridges were golden and flared pink in the morning sunlight. Everyone in Pittsburgh could see the skyscrapers, the bustle of commerce, the traffic streaming across the bridges. Only we rowers were treated daily to a view of what was holding everything up: steel bolts passing through steel plates, like massive knuckles gripping an arm, and long girders, where pigeons made their nests. The sunlight came through the railroad bridges and backlit a grid of triangles and rectangles. Form and function: Rowers dream of this at night, seek it in the morning. It was all around us, like water molecules. How long until this, too, would be abandoned?

For a field trip in Demarest’s class that April, we rode an incline up Mount Washington, so named because Washington surveyed for Fort Pitt from its flanks. An upscale row of businesses—the kinds of restaurants where students go for graduation or to celebrate an anniversary—and dwellings front the peak today. A luxury apartment building of white concrete and glass catches morning light. Demarest told us that the entire hill is riddled with tunnels because they mined Mount Washington for the coal to power the mills upriver. After that day in class, I’d see the mountain from my boat and imagine those mines could someday reclaim the land above them. The entire mountain might collapse beneath the weight of its own history and crumble into the rivers. Waves would catch our boats like surfboards, and we would balance at the crest of the foaming water, transcending it all.

The final hard piece of the morning was often better than the ones that preceded it. We wanted to leave the river strong. One morning, on the fifth stroke of the Power 10, it happened: not four splashes, or even two, but the single sound of all our blades digging into the water simultaneously. The muffled crack of our oars turning in their locks still echoed in the air when we swung forward and proceeded up the slide uniformly. We did this over and over until the sound of the oars was joined by another noise, which only I could hear from my seat in the bow: water flowing rapidly under the hull. It sounds like coffee percolating. The sound, louder to me than all the traffic, meant that we’d achieved run, eliminated all boat check and accomplished what we set out to do that morning. Swish, Schook, Splash. Swish, Schook, Splash. Oliver and Laura crowed over our performance, but we didn’t dare say anything. Our voices would have revealed that we were not one body. We were content to be a single voice without speech, sight without eyes. There was only our own industrial chorus, the river speaking to me through the hull, the perfect line of our wake, the city of glass and steel above us.

I often noticed the same man crossing the Sixth Street Bridge in the mornings—at least, I think it was the same man. He looked like a comic book rendition of the middle-aged office worker— balding, with a thin brown moustache and carrying a brown briefcase. Sometimes he would look down from the bridge railing, stop and watch us. He watched us as if he was the only one in the city who knew we were there. Perhaps he was. When we rowed downtown, many noticed us, but few saw. Most of the people we passed under every morning still believe that rowers have one oar for each hand, that they sit in one spot and that they only move their arms and backs as they row. They didn’t take the time to notice what was true: we each had two hands around one thick oar handle, and our seats slid forward so we could coil and release our bodies like springs. That’s what sight is, I think: giving time the opportunity to strip away the layers between belief and truth, watching something as if you’ve never seen it, allowing wonder and energy to wash over you.

Sometimes I still think about the man on the bridge. I look back through the lens of my own post-college life and believe he was trying to float away with us. I wonder what he saw in us and how much he saw. Did he think we looked like water insects? Did he notice how the dark puddles we left in the water healed slowly to silver? Could he tell the difference between a bad row and a good one? And did he see the city itself, its gathering energy, the reflected pink and silver light over us all, the coiled expectation of April’s first warm morning? Or was downtown, for him, only a canyon of concrete between the parking lot and his cubicle? When we rowed, the ghosts of millworkers made us understand power and pain, but the office workers frightened us. We knew that future awaited us, the end of our luminous journeys through the city. I wondered how much longer I would take the time to see and understand the layers of my surroundings. With each stroke, I focused on driving off the balls of my feet, on pushing the city away. Soon we returned to our section of the river, with its coal trains and abandoned brick warehouses reflecting the sun’s fire in their windows. I knew practice was almost over when an acrid smell from the Heinz factory dominated the air.

After the Row

It’s hard to find people to row with after college ends. I climbed out of a boat the day before graduation five years ago and have not sat in one since. I have returned to Pittsburgh a handful of times, usually by myself or with a couple of friends who live nearby. They did not row or take Reading the Built Landscape. They like to drive up Mount Washington to look down on the vast expanse of hills, rivers and skyscrapers. Sometimes we ride the incline. I go along, but then, before I leave town, I drive out to Herrs Island, down the road past the subdivision, the offices and the boathouse. I park at some tennis courts and walk to the upstream tip of the island. There, a stone staircase leads down to an overlook. When the water is low, it’s possible to drop over the wall and land on a small spit at river level. From there, I can see the roofs of factories upstream, all of them blue or rust-colored. Or I can turn and look downstream at the skyscrapers and stadiums in the distance, the triangles, arches and rectangles of bridges stretching to the horizon. The old Carnegie Steel Works still dominates one shore though some of the buildings I remember are gone and others have been converted into offices. I know that entire lives played out there, that I am heading for a similar fate on my own layer of progress. Along the river, I remember the soaring sensation of achieving run and set, the layers and layers of seeing. All above me, the city shimmers and works, but the river surrounds me. I can smell it and hear it, feel its vast current, the understanding it brought to me and will continue to bring to those who know to seek it.

Author Bio

Erin E. Tocknell

Erin E. Tocknell grew up in Nashville but received all of her post-secondary education in or near Pittsburgh, earning her undergraduate... read more