Interstate Time Machine

Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania

A wrong turn in Pennsylvania sent me back in time. Back to the days of my great-grandmother.

We delivered our load about four miles north of this coal mining town. The eastern exit ramps of I-81 were closed for construction. The pre-delivery detour took us out-of-route to the north about 12 miles. The post-delivery detour was eight miles out of our way to the south. The GPS said exit 131A, but 131B was first. While there were signs, there were also orange construction barrels and cones and new asphalt, but no lines on uneven lanes. The next thing I know, I am trundling down the wrong exit. Toward an overpass that does not look like it has enough clearance for a 13 foot six inch vehicle. There was no clearance sign, which could mean trouble ahead.

“Stop,” shouted MacGyver. He jumped out of the truck with his walkie talkie in hand to eyeball the clearance. “Slowly, take it slowly,” he said, motioning me forward. I crawled under the rusty railroad bridge, a parade of local traffic forming behind me and headed straight down a steep, truck UNfriendly road, a road separated by a concrete median, a road with an eight percent grade. To Mahanoy City.

Panic set in before I was off the exit ramp. I had to remind myself to breathe. This is not a little problem. We’ve had friends who had to drive 50 miles to find a place big enough to turn a tractor-trailer. Pennsylvania is picturesque. It has tree-packed mountains and deep valleys. It has quaint towns built around rivers and railroads and nestled up against those picturesque mountains.

The main street in Mahanoy City, Centre Street, has two narrow lanes — the kind where smart people fold their sideview mirrors in when they park on the street — flanked on both sides with what seems like a three mile long two-story row house. No lawns. Front windows look over the street.

The housing is about 50 years old, a patina of charcoal, coal dust, gives the tiny town a distressed look. The city is built on a grid, a rectangular grid, there’s a railroad station around here somewhere. The narrow streets have tight corners, corners with penalty poles, utility poles inches away from the road, not enough room to swing a tractor. I see a church on Centre Street, not given to praying, I’m surprised to hear a squeaky voice in my head saying, “Help? OK?” The one, big building in town, has about 12-storeys. This once bustling town, roaring in my great-grandmother’s days, fueled by the railroad and the coal industry, is in decline.

We rumble down the street. The power lines crossing the street look too low.  There is no place to pull over and look at a map. Three miles through town, the city three streets wide and twelve streets long. The only places big enough to turn a tractor-trailer are off limits with concrete barriers and chains, overgrown lots the remindes of businesses past. We are out of town heading through the valley along the mountain.

Where am I going to turn around?

Another mile down the road we spy a large, winding driveway, heading up the mountainside with a parking lot at Blaschak Coal Corp., just big enough to pull in and slowly turn the tractor without ripping the farings, the batwings, off the back.

Relief floods every cell in my body.

On the return trip through Mahanoy City, relaxed, we drink in the sights, we like to go through little towns and villages and catch a glimpse of life.

“I know that building,” Greg says of Mahanoy City’s one tall building. “I’ve seen it before. Why would I think I’ve seen that building?”

My grandmother was born here in 1900. A few months ago my mother was telling us some family history while Greg was looking at the street view on Google. He recognized the town’s one big building, the retirement residence.

“I guess someone from the other side wanted you to see your roots,” my mother, who regularly asks if a load has taken us to Mahanoy City, told me on the phone the following day.

My great-grandmother Anastasia, a party girl, known as a great cook and a great hostess, emigrated from Austria to the U.S., and followed her sisters to Pennsylvania. She married a coal miner and opened a boarding house, but she wasn’t happy. She complained there was too much pollution and decided that America lacked spirituality. Not long after my grandmother Mary was born she convinced her husband to return to Austria. They bought land in what would soon become Poland, built a large, American-style house, started a farm and had four more children. My great-grandfather died in 1913 of black lung. To support her five children, and because she was allergic to hard work, Anastasia became a caterer since she could cook and she loved parties and my grandmother, at 14, began to run the farm. She married and in 1929 emigrated to Canada with her husband and three children, including my mother, not knowing that as an American citizen she could have returned to the U.S.

“You’re the first one in your family to visit here since your grandmother left,” Greg said. “I can pretty much guarantee that you’re the first one to show up in a big truck.”

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