I've heard that a town called Verner Town was entirely torn down to make room for Alcosan. Can you tell me anything about it? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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I've heard that a town called Verner Town was entirely torn down to make room for Alcosan. Can you tell me anything about it?

Question submitted by: Bill Evans, Carnegie

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There's no shortage of communities sacrificed for "progress" during the region's post-war Renaissance. Much of the storied Hill District was razed to make room for the Civic Arena, for example, and East Liberty was choked off in an effort to turn it into a pedestrian-only shopping zone. Many of these communities have been mourned and eulogized. Some have been made into Rick Sebak specials.

 

 

Verner Town, however, isn't one of them.

 

Verner Town was an isolated community on the western edge of the city's Ohio River shoreline, and technically it was never a "town" at all, at least not in the sense of having its own government. A similar community today might be Duck Hollow: an isolated Pittsburgh neighborhood on the Monongahela River that engineers plan to sweep aside for a much bigger project -- in this case the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

 

There's hardly a mention of Verner Town in the histories of the city and the North Side I've consulted. And though the last remnants of Verner Town disappeared in the 1950s, there's no mention of it in the numerous histories of the Pittsburgh Renaissance I consulted either. Yet traces of it remain: in the name of Verner Avenue, which once served the neighborhood, and on some old city maps. Maps from the late 1800s, for example, clearly depict a "Verner Station" near a metal-forging shop alongside the Pittsburgh, Forth Wayne & Chicago Railroad.

 

A small cluster of homes and businesses sprung up in the area, but they were never numerous.  Among the few places you can find any mention of them is the annals of Alcosan's official history. In October 1955, the authority notes, the city of Pittsburgh, which owned the land, "presented an agreement for the sale of ... 16.85 acres plus 20 building lots, formerly Verner Town, for $250,000 for the plant site." Less than six months later, the area had been wiped clean. A photo of the site shows the last house in the neighborhood being torn down; the legend "last of an era" is inscribed on the photo's reverse.

 

In fact, the end of that era was foretold many years before. The need for a sewage plant had been obvious even to Pittsburghers -- famed for their tolerance of noxious pollution -- since the early 1900s. But it wasn't until 1948 that officials got serious. Two years before, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority had been created, and in 1948 it released its magnum opus: "Proposed Collection and Treatment of Municipal Sewage and Industrial Wastes." 

 

The report studied numerous options for the location of sewage-treatment facilities: a single plant built in a central location, or a series of between three and 11 smaller plants sprinkled around the county. Alcosan chose to go with the single large location for a few reasons, the first on the list being, "The fewer the ...  sewage treatment plants, the fewer will be the objections to their location." As for location, Alcosan picked a site where the neighbors were unlikely to complain: "The central sewage treatment plant ... will be located on the Ohio River [downriver of] the Western Penitentiary."

 

The site was large enough to accommodate future expansion -- and obviously, it's always best to assume the amount of solid waste in the region will increase over time. Too, if you're looking to collect waste, being downstream of Pittsburgh has its advantages: The site was conveniently close to the industrial plants and densely populated neighborhoods that produced the most sewage.

 

Still, it took more than a decade to get the plant built. And as opening ceremonies drew near in 1959, a Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph story noted that "those attending the dedication will find at least one item marring the occasion -- a pervading odor over the [plant]." An Alcosan official noted, not very reassuringly, that the smell "will be eliminated one of these days." And, he said, "In six months, you'll be able to fish in the Allegheny River." Within months, in fact, the Sun-Telegraph was reporting some of the remarkable things the plant itself had caught: the remains of dogs, "pigs' toenails and ears that come from slaughterhouses" (hey, better in your sewers than on your table), massive amounts of pasta, and at least two babies.

 

I'm guessing the residents of Verner Town never looked back.

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