High Times on Poorhouse Run

Examining the future of a relic. Revisiting a not-so-distant area from my childhood in words and pictures, one that stands to weather changes that may affect us all.

As an infant, my parents brought me home to an apartment above a garage behind my grandfather’s house, on Pleasant Drive in Center Township, Beaver County.  Before my brother was born the following year, our family moved to a house in the Plan 12 section of Aliquippa

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of relatives who lived on Pleasant Drive – I remember lots of grassy areas and woods, illegal fireworks on July 4th, and my grandfather’s large garden. Target practice with a BB gun from my uncle’s patio. A neighbor was a long-haul trucker and radio hobbyist, who helped fuel a passion for things wireless that lasts to this day. 

Topographic map of Poorhouse Run.
Horsehead plant and former Poorhouse site are in upper left.
Credit: USGS GNIS / Google Maps 



Poorhouse Run.

Pleasant Drive hasn’t always been known by that name. Until around 1945,  it was known as Poorhouse Run Road. As the road moves north from Center into Potter Township, it follows the general path of Poorhouse Run, a small stream that moves into underground piping at the road’s intersection with Frankfort Road, also known as Pa. Route 18.

Beaver County Home and Hospital (1853-1959), Potter Twp.
Photo circa 1921. Credit: J.A. Cole / Poorhousestory.com
Beaver County Home and Hospital (1853-1959), Potter Twp.
Rear of building – Credit:   JoAnn Bishop

Poorhouse Run empties into the Ohio River just downstream from the former Beaver County Home and Hospital, AKA “The Poor House”. Originally constructed in 1853, with additions in 1876 and 1940, the facility was replaced in 1959 by the Beaver County Geriatric Center in Brighton Township, known today as Friendship Ridge.



Beaver County Home and Hospital (1853-1959), Potter Twp.
Main entryway – Credit:  JoAnn Bishop
Horsehead Zinc Smelting Plant, seen from the west.
Former poor house buildings are at the lower left corner.
I-376 Vanport Bridge is in the background.
Credit:  Horsehead Corporation  



The Poor House buildings still stand today on land owned by Horsehead Corporation, which operates one of the country’s largest zinc smelting facilities there. This facility begins a concentration of industrial sites along the south shore of the Ohio River, to the West Virginia border. 



These facilities include a Nova Chemicals plant, formerly known as the Kobuta plant, which manufactured butadeine, a component of synthetic rubber, during World War II. 


One of my mother’s earlier childhood memories is the smell that came over the hill from that plant. The plant was recently sold, but is expected to continue operations.


Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, Shippingport,
with church in foreground.

Further downstream are the FirstEnergy Bruce Mansfield power plant and Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, built near the site of the country’s first commercial reactor for power production, at Shippingport

Beaver Valley Power Station, seen from the north on the Shippingport Bridge.
 The small domed structures house the facility’s two nuclear reactors.

                                  




                                      
These facilities may seem removed from the greater Sewickley area, but in reality are rather proximal. The Horsehead plant is just down the hill – and usually upwind – from the Beaver Valley Mall. The 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around the nuclear plant extends to just short of Leetsdale. Depending upon the type of hazard involved, this complex of industrial sites is truly just down the road, as the crow flies...


An ethane cracker facility.
Credit:   Borouge Illustration / Beaver County Times

This area has seen its fortunes wax and wane with changes in demand for the various products produced there, including energy. Those fortunes are now showing significant potential for improvement with the recent announcement that Shell has chosen the Horsehead site for the development of an ethane cracker plant


This facility, if constructed, will cost in the area of $ 1 Billion to build, and stands to infuse the area with thousands of jobs, and the associated residential and commercial development that accompanies such activity.


The potential positive impact on the local economy is being touted to the levels one would expect with such an announcement. Interest in real estate in the immediate area is expected to increase – speculative optimism may also fuel development and efforts at entrepreneurial activity as the process moves along. Municipalities and school districts may already be developing visions of new infrastructure and larger operations dancing in their heads.

Should the Shell project and all associated with it actually come to fruition, there stands to be significant change in both the landscape and nature of life and living in the small towns and open spaces that coexist with the industrial necessities of modern living.

Two such towns caught my eye while exploring this area. One is Hookstown, a small borough along Route 168, completely surrounded by Greene Township and home to  all things rural, in particular the annual fair.

Another is Georgetown, a seemingly isolated riverside community accessible by only two roads, both originating in Hookstown. The town has a robust history as a riverboat stop, but seems extremely quiet for a modern day small town. 

Hookstown.

Driving around, the town felt reminiscent of the mythical town of Spectre in Daniel Wallace’s novel (and Tim Burton’s film) Big Fish. This was despite both the lack of shoes flung over any overhanging utility lines, and the red pickup truck that followed me from 2 blocks away until I left town the way I came in. 

I’m wondering, as I’m sure many of the residents of these areas are, how the development, construction, staffing, and operation of a major new industrial facility will affect their quality of life. 

Along with these living examples of local history, I’m also concerned about the artifacts of the past that appear destined for the wrecking ball – especially the site of the former Poor House. 

Georgetown.

I recently spoke with Ali Alavi, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Horsehead Corporation, about the future of the Poor House site as it relates to making it available for those who wish to document the site’s interior for historical purposes, similar to what was done at the former Dixmont State Hospital in Kilbuck Township, south of Sewickley.

Mr. Alavi stated that it was “too early in the process” to make a statement about what, if any access would be granted to historical societies or other groups prior to any planned demolition. He also stated that it was his impression that Beaver County and/or Potter Township had adequate photo documentation. 


Mr. Alavi added that the 1940 addition to the complex was used as corporate offices for a time, but have since been moved, and the entire facility fenced off, because the buildings are “unsafe” and in “severe disrepair”. 

This past week I spoke with Mark Berton, Managing Editor at IN Community Magazines and author of the Arcadia Publishing book on Dixmont. He stated that he was unfamiliar with any effort to photograph the interior of the Beaver County site. 


Hopefully,  those involved in both historic preservation and the re-purposing of the Poor House site can find common ground on a way to properly document the building for perpetuity.  Parts of the structure are as old as Sewickley Borough itself. 

I have lived in an area of the western U.S. where the economic fortunes of an entire region have twice been shaken by the boom-and-bust volatility that is often the hallmark of large energy projects.

As much as the proposed ethane cracker facility brings the promise of improved economic conditions, the potential also exists for changes to the area that are not exclusively positive.

I encourage due diligence and a healthy skepticism on the part of our elected officials, and also encourage citizens to become active, involved, and elect leaders who espouse the above qualities in abundance. This includes a healthy respect for the past, and of the dangers of repeating previous mistakes. 

It’s also incumbent upon us as citizens to recognize both the importance of places like the Poor House and whatever it is demolished to make way for, to remember not only our way of life (past and present), but the potential for disruption should we forget.

Thanks to the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation, and their Director, Brenda Applegate, for their assistance and referrals for locating information and photos. 

Have a good week ahead.

This entry was posted in Business, Energy, Growth, History, Local, Rural. Bookmark the permalink.

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