Step Into the Twilight Zone

Come with us on our search for the weird, the spooky and the just plain odd in our mysterious city.

Some of us prefer to see Pittsburgh as a plain, no-nonsense place. We’re proud of our lovely city, and we’ve never given a second thought to its mysteries. Sit down, these ’Burghers think, have a beer. How’s work? How are the kids? How ’bout them Steelers?

There are others, though, who look closer. This different breed looks for little green men in the woods, searches for zombies in the cemetery and seeks the uncanny stories of days gone by. Pittsburgh has a long, rich history full of monumental and macabre events—so why not uncover the hidden tales that surround us daily?

We at Pittsburgh magazine are most definitely of that second variety, always eager to hear the latest urban legend and the hottest ghost story. So, in honor of Halloween, we decided to track down the truth by visiting 15 of Pittsburgh’s most unusual locations. Some are spooky, some are morbid and some are just plain strange, but all are worth the trip.

And even after being locked in two jail cells, running from Mt. Washington ghosts, nearly tumbling down a precarious thoroughfare and snooping for artifacts in the middle of busy downtown streets, we’re looking for more. Head to pittsburghmagazine.com/bizarre to share your best urban legends, your favorite bits of offbeat history and your most beloved tourist traps.

Join us on a journey through the confusing, the terrifying and the weird. It’s a big, bizarre city out there — time to explore!

Even from the street, the old jail is an odd sight. A Romanesque dungeon modeled after 11th-century examples is, after all, a bit incongruous against modern skyscrapers and a busy Pittsburgh street; nevertheless, architect H.H. Richardson’s masterpiece still stands nearly 125 years after its completion.

The building served from 1886-1995 and now survives as the Allegheny County Juvenile Court. Fortunately, you can still experience a bit of the sad and spooky history of this place via self-guided tours on Monday afternoons. Wander into one of the tiny cells—many as small as 8 feet by 5 feet, with a canvas bed on a steel frame as the only furnishing—and a bleak picture of inmate life emerges.

If you weren’t creeped out by the claustrophobic cells, keep your eyes peeled for one of the many ghosts rumored to roam about the building.

Visit: Mondays from February through October (except government holidays) from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Self-guided tours are free.

While You’re There: Park at the Forbes Garage on the edge of Duquesne University’s campus, and grab lunch at the Red Ring Restaurant (1015 Forbes Ave.; 412/396-3550). The buffalo-chicken sandwich ($8.45) will make you appreciate your freedom even more than the tour did.

400 Ross St, downtown; 412/471-5808

In the 1980s, a series of bizarre tiles began appearing on the streets of major American cities. Hundreds have been spotted since—embedded in the concrete—stretching from Boston to Kansas City (with a few appearing in South America as well). The text is consistent: a variation of the statement “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK’S 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.”

No one ever came forward to claim responsibility or to fully explain the message (involving Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its implied relation to the historian Arnold Toynbee), although some theories have gained traction. You can find a number of notable examples of this phenomenon downtown; three tiles are embedded along Smithfield Street (at Forbes, Oliver and Sixth avenues) and a fourth can be found at Forbes Avenue and Ross Street.

Many others (including another famous Pittsburgh example, which contained instructions on how to plant the tiles) have been destroyed or paved over, so catch a glimpse of this enduring mystery while you can.

Visit: Carefully. All four tiles are in the crosswalks of busy downtown streets. Watch for traffic, and try not to knock anyone over while you’re staring.

While You’re There: Snap a few photos, then see if you can spot the Pittsburgh tiles in the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. The filmmakers investigated the tiles for years and came up with a fairly coherent interpretation of the message—and even believe to have identified the Tiler. You can rent the film on iTunes for $3.99.

Various Locations, downtown

The dual headstone marking the graves of George Swanson and his first wife, Geraldine, may not catch your eye at first. There are, after all, a number of lovely and descriptive memorials in Irwin’s ancient Brush Creek Cemetery (dating back to 1782), many giving a good sense of the departed. Should you stop at the Swanson grave, however (stay left when you drive in, and stick to the main path; it’ll be on your left), you’d first notice the lovely ode to Geraldine from her grandchildren.

Opposite, you’ll find an etching of an ’84 Corvette, an odd memorial for a beloved veteran of World War II. What’s truly bizarre is that the car rests beneath your feet. Swanson’s dying request was to be buried inside his treasured white ‘Vette, and his ashes are in the front seat to this day, 6 feet deep.

Visit: Quietly, by daylight; the cemetery is still very busy, and you’ll probably encounter a few legitimate mourners.

While You’re There: There’s good food (mostly under $10) and drinks at nearby Fontana’s Cafe (7720 Pennsylvania Ave.; 724/863-0900). Locals speak highly of the grub, and the price is right.

Brush Creek Cemetery, Brush Creek-Manor Road, Irwin; 724/863-9501

Small-but-proud Donora, Pa., has undoubtedly seen better days. The town is no longer home to such necessities as a gas station, grocery store or high school. But, surrounded by empty storefronts on McKean Avenue, the Donora Smog Museum remains open.

The name refers to the events of 1948, when overcast weather trapped toxic smoke from the Donora Zinc Works in the Monongahela Valley, leading to 20 deaths and thousands of residents taken ill. The incident gave birth, in part, to the Clean Air Act—which led to the mills moving out of town.

That story is on display at the museum, along with documents and artifacts from the rest of the town’s 100-year history, including a bat and ball signed by Donora’s favorite son, MLB Hall of Famer Stan Musial.

Visit: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

While You’re There: Grab a souvenir, like a Donora Smog Christmas ornament ($7.50) or hooded sweatshirt ($20), from the museum. Proceeds help keep the museum open: Staff members are currently working to find funds to operate through 2012.

595 McKean Ave, Donora; 724/823-0364

Controversy erupts! The hair-raising Canton Avenue, at a 37-percent grade, may well be the steepest street in the world. Yet the Guinness Book of World Records still awards that title to Baldwin Street in New Zealand, at a mere 35 percent. After you get your angry-letter-writing campaign to the Guinness people going, visit this terrifying little hill.

Don’t try to go up slowly, though, or you simply won’t make it. It’s also wise to avoid checking out the eye-popping views through your windows—you are driving at an angle at which man was not meant to go forward.

If you overcome your vertigo and make it up the hill, you’ll have to go around the block to return; for obvious reasons, traffic is allowed to go up but not down. And don’t try driving up Canton in the winter, lest you become entertainment for the people in the quiet homes along the street.

Visit: On a nice day in the warmer months; snow, rain or even darkness could make for a treacherous climb.

While You’re There: Head to nearby Dormont to wander the revitalized business district surrounding the corner of West Liberty and Potomac avenues.

Intersection of Coast and Canton Avenues, Beechview


This historic graveyard provided the setting for much of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, catapulting Pittsburgh to its now-iconic status as zombie capital of the world. The cemetery manages to fully retain its creepiness during the daytime—ill-fated siblings Barbara and Johnny did visit on a bright summer evening, after all—and as autumn creeps in, the isolation can be downright chilling.

Surrounded by woods and littered with sinking gravestones, the cemetery feels cut off from civilization. After a few moments, you’ll be looking over your shoulder to ensure that the shambling undead aren’t approaching. Dedicated fans can start at the shed near the entrance—Barbara walked by en route to her father’s grave and fled past moments later—and find the specific headstones used in the opening scenes about 50 yards down the main road on the right.

Visit: In the early evening to more fully capture the setting of the film. (It’s less likely you’ll encounter a mood-tainting groundskeeper mowing the lawn then, too.)

While You’re There: There’s a bevy of places for grub and beers on East Main Street in Evans City, especially if you’re up for pizza or subs. Check out Sports & Spirits (223 E. Main St.; 724/538-9013) if there’s a game on.

100 Franklin Road, Evans City

 

We’ve mentioned the bizarre home of curators Mr. Arm and Velda Von Minx before, so consider this a reminder: Trundle Manor may be the top destination in Pittsburgh for anyone who loves the unusual. Part museum (featuring an extensive collection of taxidermy, medical equipment and “things in jars”), part un-ironic spookhouse (you’ll be seated in a coffin at one point or another) and part old-fashioned roadside attraction (don’t even ask about the singing tumor), Trundle Manor is one-of-a-kind.

A recent appearance on “MTV Cribs” only increased the bizarre building’s already high profile, so make an appointment for a guided tour now—and if you’d like, you can extend your visit with drinks at the bar or movies in the parlor. If you’re lucky, you may get your own bizarre thing-in-a-jar to take home.

Visit: After making an appointment via phone. All tours must be pre-arranged.

While You’re There: Eventually, you’ll be able to pick up some old-time chic from Trundle Manor’s forthcoming Villain Couture Clothing line. For now, plan on having dinner (entrées range from $10-$15) at Curry Away (247 Edgewood Ave.; 412/731-0740), a great under-the-radar Thai place in the neighborhood.

7724 Juniata St, Swissvale; 412/916-5544

Solemnly towering over a quiet neighborhood, the so-called Forest Hills “Atom Smasher” is a giant industrial relic from the recent past. Officially known as a Van de Graaff Generator, the device—a five-story metal construction, roughly in the shape of an upside-down teardrop—was built by Westinghouse in 1937 for early nuclear experimentation. It’s a distant grandfather to devices like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Today, it—and the site it rests on—are abandoned, showing signs of decay and surrounded by an imposing barbed-wire fence. You can peer in, though, at the fading Westinghouse logo on the huge metal beast and contemplate the terror that would go with scaling the thing (precarious ladders hug the sides).

It’s a place of spooky desolation, but it serves as a reminder of a time when some of the most advanced research in the world was going on in Forest Hills.

Visit: In the daytime or early evening, when the view is clear. Don’t think about trying to scale the treacherous fence; you can see it just fine from the road.

While You’re There: If you head back toward Ardmore Boulevard and you’ve got a pooch that needs a trim, stop in at Pup, Pup and Away (2215 Ardmore Blvd., Pittsburgh; 412/271-6222).

Near intersection of West St and North Ave, Forest Hills

This bar and restaurant was a 2011 Best of the ‘Burgh honoree for its fantastic Bacon Night promotion, and was mentioned in our 2011 City Guide issue for the delicious Sunday buffet. What’s not on the menu, though, is the spooky history.

The building was home to the Soffel family in the late 1800s; after Kate Soffel’s headline-grabbing affair and jailbreak with notorious criminal Ed Biddle around 1902, it became a tawdry landmark. Ever since Mrs. Soffel’s death in 1909 (approximately), the building has gained a reputation as one of Pittsburgh’s most haunted places.

Grab a bite to eat, and keep an eye out for Mrs. Soffel, especially if you sit in the upstairs dining room; this area would’ve been the Soffels’ bedroom, and a number of patrons have spied her in the mirrors that line the far wall.

Visit: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-1 a.m.

While You’re There: Try Mrs. Soffel’s pasta, a delicious, buttery shrimp-and-artichoke packed dish ($14.91). Claims that Soffel came up with the recipe should be doubted. (For the full story, rent the film version, Mrs. Soffel.)

123 Shiloh St, Mount Washington; 412/431-4000

Every town has Halloween attractions, but Pittsburgh boasts two of the best around. Both The ScareHouse and Hundred Acres Manor have been lauded by industry publications and travel guides as among the best spookhouses in the country, and with good cause: Both are immersing, professionally created experiences that will make you feel like you wandered into a particularly gruesome horror movie.

Part of that quality is due to a spooky feature of both houses: They are prepared and constructed year-round. There’s no off-season life for these buildings, just a year of preparation before six weeks of scares. That makes for an incredibly detailed experience and also for the chilling thought that, even on a bright summer day, these terrifying, blood-soaked scenes are waiting just around the corner, ready to attack come October.

Visit: After checking the haunts’ websites (scarehouse.com and hundredacresmanor.com). Days and times of operation vary, and it’s a good idea to purchase tickets online in advance; admission does sell out.

While You’re There: If you’re looking for spirits after the spirits, The ScareHouse is in walking distance of a number of Etna bars. And be sure to buy some grub from the concession stand at Hundred Acres Manor: All proceeds from both the house and the food go to charity.

Scarehouse: 118 Locust St, Etna; 412/781-5885
Hundred Acres Manor: Hundred Acres Drive, Bethel Park; 412/851-4286


Pittsburgh’s inaccessible island rises out of the Ohio River as a lush forest, creeping up opposite West Carson Street. Head a little further toward McKees Rocks and you can see the island’s only tenant: a rusting (though perfectly active and safe) power plant, minimally staffed and accessible only by a small footbridge running along the railroad tracks.

That footbridge is for employees only, so local explorers hoping for a closer look at the largely wooded island will have to arrive by boat.

It’s a lonely sight now, but this island was once home to a popular racetrack—and much earlier than that, it served as the first stop on the transcontinental journey of Meriwether Lewis, having launched from Pittsburgh to meet William Clark near Louisville, Ky. Brunot Island provided an inauspicious starting point for Lewis’ great journey; however, when showing a resident of the island a new pistol, he inadvertently shot a female bystander. (She was only mildly wounded.)

Visit: By boat, and if you want a decent view, you may have to circle the island for a while. A portion of the island is walled against the river.

While You’re There: It’s best to stay in your skiff. Technically, the whole island is private property. Bring a picnic lunch, find a nice spot to float for a while and investigate with your eyes.

Ohio River Between West Carson St and Ohio River Blvd, downtown


This one’s less of a destination and more of a sight, but it’s weird enough to make the list. The Grant Building was dedicated with a flashing beacon at its peak, one of the earliest examples of a consideration for passing airplane pilots; at the request of the building’s then-president, the blinking beacon was set to spell out the word “Pittsburgh” in Morse code. You can still see it doing so today, now in green rather than the original red; for a while, though, any Morse code enthusiast that took the time to read the message would’ve been thoroughly confused.

The antiquated equipment controlling the beacon began to err throughout the years, and it was eventually pointed out that the word had changed to “Pitetsbkrrh.” So, you know, close enough. The problem was corrected, so the message should be fine again. We’d check, but no one here knows Morse code either.

Visit: Somewhere with a view. You can see the beacon clearly from Mount Washington and pretty well from parts of South Side.

While You’re There: Keep an eye peeled for Pittsburgh’s other informative skyscraper: the Gulf Tower. A light atop its glowing crown forecasts the weather (red/orange for clear skies, blue for precipitation and blinking for colder temperatures.)

310 Grant St, downtown; 412/281-9000

 


When Croatian artist Maxo Vanka immigrated to America in the 1930s, he said, “Every man who comes to America should show his gratification to his adopted land by making a contribution to its culture. This church is mine.” And it is a truly unforgettable gift. Vanka’s dramatic murals, lining the interior walls of St. Nicholas, not only depict the Saints and religious icons, but also images of the experiences of the Croatian people at home and abroad. The Crucifixion is contrasted with a mural of a mother mourning a son killed in World War I; the Pieta sits opposite a scene of tragedy in a Pittsburgh mill.

Some of the images are deeply disturbing, like a depiction of Satan wearing a gas mask or a scene of Christ on a battlefield cross between warring soldiers. All, however, are incredible works of art, making the church a must-see establishment—particularly with a guided tour from Mary Petrich, a longtime parishioner and board member of the Society to Preserve the Murals (as a child, she saw Vanka at work in the church).

Visit: Tues., Thurs., Sat. and Sun. from 1-4 p.m. Special arrangements for tours at other times can be made as well.

While You’re There: Be sure to purchase an excellent book of photographs of the murals ($10); proceeds will go toward the church’s continued restoration process.

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, 24 Maryland Ave, Millvale; 412/681-0905

On a hillside behind the Kecksburg VFD, an odd shrine sits atop a tall pole, illuminated against the night. It’s in the shape of an upside-down acorn, about 7 feet tall, painted tan and adorned with otherworldly markings. The model sits undisturbed, as a point of pride in this sleepy town; the original, which landed off of what is now Meteor Road the evening of Dec. 9, 1965, spent a very brief time in Kecksburg.

Whatever it was—UFO, meteor, Russian spy satellite, who knows what else—locals swear they saw it carted out of town by the military soon after it streaked across the sky and loudly crashed in the woods. Ron Struble, head of the UFO Festival Committee, was present on the day of the crash.

“A lot of people wouldn’t talk about it,” he says, “but I know something was down there.” Visit him and see the evidence for yourself at the store and museum maintained inside the VFD.

Visit: Daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Call ahead if you’d like to chat with Struble. You can also plan your visit around the annual Kecksburg Old Fashion Days and UFO Festival, usually held in September; check out kecksburgvfd.com for all the info.

While You’re There: Pick up a Meteor Road street sign ($25) or a Kecksburg UFO mug ($10) and shot glass ($6). You can also grab a DVD ($20) for the full treatment of the tale. All proceeds benefit the VFD, as well, so you can feel good about buying a boatload of alien merch!

Kecksburg volunteer Fire Department,5128 Water St, Mount Pleasant; 724/423-9540


If you grew up in the North Hills, every urban legend you heard was attributed to this path. Blue Mist Road—so named for an odd atmospheric condition that causes bluish fog to appear on a near-nightly basis—is really Irwin Road, winding along the edge of North Park. While a portion of the road is open and inhabited, a few miles are closed to vehicular traffic.

You can walk the trail and contemplate the spooky legends that surround the place; even with happy thoughts, though, paranoia can set in. The giant trees lining the path create a very real lost-in-the-wilderness feeling, even in broad daylight. At the end of the road is Cross Roads Cemetery, with graves dating back to 1826.

Search for the two ancient headstones that look like they’re leaning toward one another; the story is that if the two ever touch, the world will end. (Probably not true, but please do not test this theory.)

Visit: In the late afternoon. You’ll want to be there around sunset to see the mist, but the trail—like all of North Park—closes at dusk, and people do live on the road. They may not take kindly to amateur ghost hunters on midnight jaunts.

While You’re There: Before your quest, stop for some pizza (about $10) at the charming Tomato Pie Cafe (885 E. Ingomar Road; 412/364-6622), just a few miles away on the park’s opposite edge.

Intersection of Irwin Road and PA-910/Wexford Road, Wexford


Stroll down Main Street in Philippi, a beautiful old city that served as the site of a battle early in the Civil War, and you’ll be struck by how quaint and pleasant it is. You’ll pass small stores selling antiques and knick-knacks, and a number of family-friendly restaurants; at the end of Main, you’ll see a picturesque covered bridge lazily spanning the Tygart Valley River. On one side is the small Barbour County Vietnam Veterans Park, and on the other, the Barbour County Historical Museum, housed in an old railroad terminal.

Inside that building, there are two perfectly preserved human corpses. Allegedly the product of a farmer experimenting with embalming fluid, the mummies are on display in glass cases in a dedicated room of the museum. It’s an unbelievable sight and more than slightly morbid—but how could you not look?

Visit: Fri.-Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun., 1-4 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children and free for members of the military and their families.

While You’re There: Grab a meal at Smokey Ray’s Family Restaurant and Sports Bar (109 N. Main St., 304/457-2646) just down the street. It’s a great place for barbecue ($7.95-$24.95) and comfort food of all stripes.

200 N Main St, Philippi, WV

Everything about this building, which housed prisoners for more than 130 years (as
recently as 1995), is remarkable. If you take the incredible tour, you’ll see the original building, which housed Confederate prisoners of war as early as 1866.

You’ll be locked in a 5-by-7 cell, hearing the doors slam. You’ll be shown the rooms where prisoners staged a major riot and held guards hostage for better conditions. You’ll be shown wall markings ranging from beautiful artwork to disturbing graffiti. You’ll see the electric chair, “Old Sparky,” guarding over a collection of historic artifacts. You’ll see where Charles Manson’s mother was imprisoned—and read a letter from Charles requesting transfer to the prison (the warden quickly refused).

All of which is to say nothing of the other events held here—from ghost tours and paranormal investigations to a hugely popular “Dungeon of Horrors” Haunted House every October (you can even tour the prison during the day and stick around for the haunt at night). And if you’re going to go to a Halloween attraction, why not try one where hundreds of prisoners met their untimely demise?

Visit: April through November, Tuesday through Sunday. Tours are given every hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (in October, the last tour will leave at 3 p.m.). Admission for adults is $10, $8 for seniors and $6 for children ages 6-16.

While You’re There: The gift shop offers a number of awesome souvenirs, including lovely prints of the prison’s sinister facade ($20), a prison-style metal cup ($6.95) or an “Old Sparky” T-shirt ($12).

818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV; 304/845-6200


Snaking down a four-mile road too narrow for two comfortable lanes well outside Moundsville, one would be forgiven for thinking they’re lost. Nothing spectacular could possibly be at the end of this road—and then, suddenly, a golden palace rises over the West Virginia hills. The Palace of Gold, occasionally referred to as “America’s Taj Mahal,” was dedicated in 1979 as a shrine to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (you know, Hare Krishnas).

The beautiful palace is layered with 22-karat gold, gorgeous marble and stained glass from around the world as well as beautiful artwork and crafts made by devotees; elsewhere on the grounds, you can find an award-winning rose garden, a tranquil lotus pond and stunning views of the mountainous landscape. Simply put, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.

A guided tour will give you some background and history on the movement, but really, you’re here to be amazed by a stunningly beautiful place hidden in plain sight.

Visit: April through August: daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. September through March: daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admissions costs $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 6-18.

While You’re There: The gift shop’s hours are more limited than the palace’s, but if it’s open, stop in. Crafts and souvenirs are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere—in fact, most of them are imported from India.

Off of US-250, Moundsville, WV; 304/843-1812

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