Captain's Log, Day 1
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world ...
Wait a minute. I'm thinking of the wrong Moby-Dick character entirely. Call me Ahab instead, the guy with a dark obsession, a desire to conquer a watery beast that has eluded him. But my prey is far larger than any mere whale, and too defiant to ever duck beneath the surface of the waves. It's more than a mile long and encompasses 150 acres, and I've seen it countless times. So has everyone else who's ever driven down West Carson Street and looked out across the Ohio River.
You'd think that more of us would have noticed it. Like the Ishmael of Melville's novel, Pittsburgh has taken new interest in its rivers, in seeing "the watery part of the world." In recent years we've created riverside trails, groups like the Riverlife Task Force, and buildings like the new Alcoa headquarters, which flatter and are flattered by the water nearby.
Yet in many respects my quarry remains hidden. Few Pittsburghers know its name, Brunot's Island; fewer still know how to pronounce it correctly. It has everything we want from a river-based attraction -- a shoreline, woodlands, proximity to Downtown Pittsburgh -- but it's as if no one can see it. I've met so few people who could find it on a map that sometimes I'm not even sure it exists.
Yet the thought of the island has plagued me for months, until finally I purchased a canoe -- call it the Pequod -- partly to get a closer look at it. Compared to Ahab or groups like the Riverlife Task Force, my objectives are modest. I just want to see the island up close, maybe set foot on it, to conquer it as a testament to man's triumph over nature. And hopefully end up better off than Ahab did.
The accursed island vexes me even before I get the Pequod into the water. I know right where the thing is, but I can't figure out how to reach it.
Located two miles downstream from the Point, just west of the West End Bridge, Brunot's Island is easily glimpsed by anyone driving Route 51 east of McKees Rocks. But glimpsed is all it is: West Carson Street traffic doesn't allow me to stop and ponder it. So I spend a rainy afternoon prowling the shores of the Ohio, driving up and down the dead-end streets of the North Side, looking for a place to launch my boat. But a private marina has much of the shoreline sewn up, so I circle aimlessly, feeling more like the captain of the doomed Flying Dutchman than anything else.
Eventually, I discover that the best view of the island is next door to Western Penitentiary. Here, at a spot favored by local bird-watchers who track the flight of blue heron and other birds that live on the island, I find a concrete pad just beside the river. Standing at river's edge in a gentle rain, I get my first long look at my implacable prey.
For most Pittsburghers, the island across the river is terra incognita, perhaps the only such place in the city. A railroad bridge bisects the island and provides its sole connection to the outside world: There is no other access except by boat, and from here its interior is a mystery. Trees shroud much of its shoreline, and the place looks especially mysterious beneath a sky of cold-rolled clouds. To my left, a wooded copse rises above the island's rocky easternmost point. The island flattens out to my right, trailing off into meadows on its downstream end.
It's hard to see how anyone could miss something this size. Smaller only than Neville Island, which it trails like a destroyer accompanying a battleship, Brunot's is easily three times larger than the Allegheny River's better-known 42-acre Washington's Landing. And it's almost as centrally located.
Others have scratched their heads at the island's anonymity too. William Lafe, a consultant who has been retained by local foundations to study potential uses for the city's shorelines, has told me that it's both "unbelievably well-situated and unbelievably ignored." Why? "One has to ask, why did it take Pittsburgh roughly 150 years to glom onto the idea that Mount Washington was a desirable place for looking down on the city? Why did it take Mayor Pete Flaherty to build those lookouts [from Grandview Avenue] in the 1970s? Why wasn't it obvious in 1920 or 1890? It's a mystery."
Or, perhaps, a medical problem. Tim Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon University-based conservation group Three Rivers Second Nature, has his own diagnosis: Pittsburghers, he says, suffer from "panoramic myopia."
"The industrial culture we used to have was spectacular," he notes "We're still remembering this smoky spectacular place" and places like Brunot's Island "just look like a lot of green stuff."
If there were only green stuff to ponder, however, Pittsburgh wouldn't be letting the island go to waste: We'd probably have built a mall on it. But almost directly across from my perch on the North Side, cleaving the wilderness in two, stand a series of three prominent chimneys. They rise up from a jumble of pipes, storage tanks and outbuildings whose purpose from here is a mystery. Elsewhere on the island, high-voltage electrical lines and towers rise up from the foliage like the relics of a lost tribe.
It occurs to me, peering at the equipment in the rain, that I may not be the first person to notice Brunot's Island after all.
Having decided that next door to a prison is an ominous place to launch the Pequod, I have found a better location: the mouth of Chartiers Creek, which enters the Ohio beneath a McKees Rocks railroad trestle. Reaching Brunot's Island will require only a couple minutes of paddling across the island's back channel. But the elements themselves conspire against my doing so. The weather has been foreboding, and my schedule precludes me from taking advantage of the few sunny days we've had. If someone really wanted to write a novel about man's struggle against nature, they'd write about trying to find a sunny day in Pittsburgh during the early summer. Especially on a weekend.
And so I take shelter in research, waiting for the clouds to break.
Brunot's Island is named for a Frenchman, Felix Brunot (and is thus properly pronounced "brew-KNOW," rather than the Pittsburgh pronunciation "brew-KNOT"). Brunot came to America with his foster brother, the Marquis de Lafayette, and served as a surgeon in the American Revolution. After moving to Pittsburgh, he bought the island for $2,800 in 1797. A prominent local citizen and noted herbalist -- he grew many of his cures on the island -- he had what one biographer describes as "an especial faith in the therapeutic properties of electricity."
Brunot's hospitality was equally renowned, which may be why in 1803 Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, made it his first stop on the way to St. Louis, where he would pick up William Clark and begin their famous expedition. According to an account of the visit written by William K. Brunot -- a descendent of the island's former owner -- Lewis stopped a few hours after leaving Pittsburgh, in part to test a new "air-gun," which fired bullets pneumatically, like a BB gun on steroids. The gun proved almost too accurate. It went off when an associate of Lewis' named Blaze Cenas was handling it, whereupon the bullet struck an unnamed woman standing near by.
Brunot estimates the odds of the woman being struck at 1 in 542,000. But while it's hard to call such a person lucky, the shot only grazed the victim's head. As Lewis' journal recounts, the woman "fell instantly & blood gushing from her temple. We were all in the greatest consternation [and] supposed she was dead [but] in a minute she was revived to our ... satisfaction."
History has largely overlooked this incident, but Pittsburghers miss forget a chance to relish a fiasco. (Washington's Landing, for example, is so named because George Washington swam ashore near there after his raft capsized during a river crossing.) This Aug. 31, 200 years to the day after Lewis launched his expedition, history buffs organized by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania will return to the island, where they will re-create the farce which christened one of the great expeditions in American history.
But while Lewis and Clark were off exploring the frontier, Brunot was finding his island more difficult to maintain. Some say he was never the same after the island was hit by an 1811 flood. A contemporary recalled seeing Brunot standing pitifully at a second-story window, watching the floodwaters carry away his corncrib and crying out, "My God, she's gone."
Brunot sold the island in 1819, and it was used as farmland for decades. But in 1894 it was bought by George Westinghouse and within a decade, a small electrical plant was constructed there.
In the early years, at least, the island offered chances to both work and play. In 1902, the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Driving Club constructed a mile-long dirt oval racetrack on it; wealthy captains of industry raced horses there. Later, it hosted races between automobiles, airplanes and, on one occasion, ostriches. Famed aviators like Glen Curtis made appearances at events that drew as many as 15,000 people -- all brought on and off the island by ferries.
But the power plant's growth eventually consumed the island. New high-voltage power lines displaced the track in the 1910s, and in 1930 Duquesne Light opened a $10 million James H. Reed power plant there. A Pittsburgh Press account heralded the development as "industry's latest step in changing Pittsburgh's three principal islands, Neville, Brunot and Herrs, from quiet farm lands to isles of steel."
The collapse of local industry in the 1970s and 1980s reduced electricity demand drastically; for a few decades the plant was essentially mothballed, and much of it was torn down. In more recent years, the remaining facility operated as a "peaker" or "cycling" plant -- a stand-by unit used at times of peak demand. On some of Pittsburgh's other "isles of steel," redevelopment has reversed the process the Press once extolled: Herr's Island -- the old name of Washington's Landing -- and even portions of Neville have been converted to less environmentally damaging uses, if not back to farm lands.
But Brunot's Island has resisted such change so far. Poring over my books, I wonder: If its original owner saw it now, would he again lament, "She's gone?" Or would the doctor, who believed in the medicinal uses of electricity, be thrilled to have a power plant so close at hand?
At last the forecast is for clear weather. Today I will circumnavigate the island, scouting out its features and ensuring that it does, in fact, actually exist.
For the task I have recruited the aid of my brother, who hereafter will be known as "Queequeg." He's an honorable and faithful servant, if one can look past his exotic religious beliefs (lapsed Presbyterian) and barbarous reputation (he's an Ohio State grad). Plus, he's a good paddler.
We arrive at McKees Rocks not long after a cool, windswept dawn and slide the Pequod into the water. Despite storms the night before, the back channel is quiet, troubled by nothing more than the reflection of red-tailed hawks sailing overhead. We approach the island, looking for deer in the water; locals have told me the animals often swim to and from the island. We don't see any deer afloat, though two does gaze down at us from the island's bank as we approach.
Turning upstream, we paddle along the shoreline. From the woods on the riverbank above us, we hear the cluck and cry of birds, the hidden scamper of squirrels. For a moment, it is possible to imagine the island as Meriwether Lewis once saw it, as an early visitor, Fortescue Cumming, described it in an 1807 journal entry of his own:
"[Brunot] has judiciously left the timber standing on the end of the island ... and a beautiful locust grove of about twelve acres. ... He has [left] a delightful promenade all round it, between the fences and the margin of the river, which he has purposely left fringed with the native wood about 60 yards wide, except where occasional openings he made either for landings or views, the latter of which are very fine, particularly that of M'Kees romantik [sic] Rocks opposite, impending over the narrow rapid which separates them from the mainland."
But from the Pequod we can see the island hasn't been so carefully tended since then. Instead of the native trees Cumming saw, the shore today is choked with invasive species like Japanese knotweed and "tree of heaven." Knotweed is pernicious along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers; like bamboo without the charm, its extensive root system thrives in disturbed soil and spreads quickly. Portions of the shoreline seem almost overrun with it.
Other changes are even easier to spot. Along the island's middle third are sizable oil-storage tanks, painted white, a somewhat ramshackle boat dock, a set of concrete piers sunk into the river for barges to be secured to. The trestle bridge above us thrums with near-continuous rail traffic. And those re-enacting Meriwhether Lewis' shooting party this August will find it harder to land than Lewis did. As Queequeg and I round the upstream end of the island, we discover that no one could land a keelboat on the main-channel side today: Almost all of it has been lined with a concrete wall nearly as impenetrable as the knotweed.
We do, however, find a fallen tree trunk we can tie a line to. Almost immediately, we see signs of previous visitors: a fishing lure snared in a tree branch. Queequeg alights onto a sturdy branch, and we clamber up the bank.
We find ourselves near a dirt road, running east and west, a meadow before us. We can barely see the power plant from here, and I'm not yet sure who owns the land I'm standing on; it's not posted at all. On the off chance no one owns it, I'm prepared to stake my own claim. Moving quietly, I plant a French flag in the soil -- both to honor the island's namesake and to irritate Republicans. It's a party-favor-size banner that stands less than a foot high, but it gets the point across. Stepping back to photograph it, I hum a few bars of "The Marseillaise." It is a proud moment -- a slight rustle of wind, the raucous cry of birds, and the French anthem drifting over l'ile du Brunot.
Meanwhile, Queequeg has discovered a four-point deer antler caught in the branches of a slender tree. How it got there is a mystery.
I'm not much at identifying birdsong or animal traces, but in 1997, members of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania conducted a nature survey for Duquesne Light, compiling a census of the island's animal population. Audubon volunteers identified deer, raccoon, rabbit, fox, squirrel, beaver, and a large number of monarch butterflies (during their September migration) as well as blue heron, Canada geese, mourning doves, and some 50 other bird species.
Field researchers also discovered two varieties of chickadee sharing both the island and a kind of bird song they'd never heard before. "[T]he song must be a 'local dialect,'" their report asserts, "a situation which has occurred elsewhere, notably on Martha's Vineyard, where isolated populations sing their own special songs."
It occurs to me that whole new avian vocabularies could be developing around me, unique in all the world. And then a new song is added to those of the birds: The church bells from McKees Rocks are ringing. In this unlikely garden spot -- halfway between SCI Pittsburgh and the battered buildings of McKees Rocks -- one feels an almost Thoreau-like satisfaction with the world, and our place in it.
Shortly later, a dissonant horn blast emanates from the power plant, but by then we are back on the river.
Back on dry land and in my office, I discover I'm not the only person to harbor a fascination with Brunot's Island.
"Islands always give me dreams," Mike Lambert, the executive director of Three Rivers Rowing Association, tells me. He sees Brunot's Island as a great location for a boathouse to supplement the one his organization operates from Washington's Landing. "Boathouses on islands are the way to go," he says, in part because the calm, quiet water of their back channels allow novices to practice boating without having to contend with motorboats and barges. Brunot Island's back channel is ideal, in that it is "very wide, but you don't have barge traffic there."
Local architect and river enthusiast Rob Pfaffman imagines Brunot's Island "as a destination you could paddle out to, where you could picnic and maybe even camp, not a place where you build a bunch of townhouses like on Washington's Landing." The less that is done with it, the better, says Pfaffman. "I see it being a counterpoint to Point State Park. It could be about what it was like to be on the river before there were a whole bunch of people. It would give you a historical perspective."
"It would be fantastic as a destination for a canoe or kayak trip from anywhere around the Golden Triangle," says John Stephen, a co-founder of the group Friends of the Riverfront. Stephen also sees the island as the Point's counterpoint. "The ideal would be something that had limited access -- you could only get there by ferry or boat. That type of use wouldn't scare away the wildlife. You could use the island as a sort of urban ecology park."
Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh has toyed with using the island as the home for a "river center," which he says "would be a hub for river-oriented education and recreation. It would be a place where a bicyclist could come down a trail and rent a canoe or kayak."
But thus far, Brunot's Island has never made the short list for anyone's dreams. Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, says, "It's a unique resource, with a rich natural habitat so close to a major city." But the task force has "not really zeroed in on it," she adds. The group's focus has been closer to the Golden Triangle, and Schroeder has never been on the island herself.
The lack of access to the island is a problem, as is the presence of the utility. Stephen says he "had some meaningful discussions with Duquesne Light" about alternate uses for the island, but "they were looking at selling it, and didn't want to deal with a nonprofit." Plus, the power plant is inconveniently located in the center of island, where it cleaves the wilderness in two. Still, Brunot's Island has been big enough to provide electricity and recreation before. As Stephen says "It's such a fantastic site, those discussions have to happen again."
I'm headed to Brunot's Island a final time, this time aboard a vessel operated by Pittsburgh Voyager, a nonprofit group which conducts river-oriented science programs for area school kids. And instead of Queequeg, my traveling companions are Beth O'Toole, executive director of Pittsburgh Voyager, and Gail Landis, a spokesperson for Reliant Energy.
Reliant, it turns out, owns almost the entire island, though hardly anyone I've spoken to knew that. Duquesne Light owned it for the better part of a century, but in the brave new world of electricity deregulation, it's changed hands twice in three years. In 2000 Duquesne Light sold it to another utility, Orion Power Holdings, which was acquired by Houston-based Reliant in 2001.
Just about the only people who've visited the island during that time have been the kids participating in Voyager's summer camps. There, O'Toole says, they learn the basics of orienteering, "team-building exercises" and plant identification. The lessons dovetail with Voyager's hands-on lessons in river biology, water quality and boat mechanics. "We like to show every aspect of the rivers," O'Toole says. "The kids are always shocked that there are islands in Pittsburgh." Reliant has allowed the camps to continue this July, and in fact helps underwrite the Voyager program.
Our boat lands on the company's somewhat ramschackle dock, where we are met by the Brunot Island plant's affable general manager, Greg Mitchell. Mitchell gives us a walking tour of a postindustrial Paradise Lost: We cross half-buried railroad tracks and empty asphalt lots -- remnants of the now-scrapped coal-fired generators that once occupied the island. Eventually, only the last vestiges of a road remain to guide us. But our path is literally strewn with flowers: Fallen orchid blossoms are scattered about the trail. We push through fallen tree branches and skitter along large rain puddles until we stand at the island's tip, looking out toward the West End Bridge Pittsburgh. The view is impressive despite the haze.
Just downstream is the centerpiece of the Reliant plant: three recently modernized, environmentally friendly natural-gas generators. But Mitchell says the plant has been idle "the vast majority of the summer"; designed to offer extra electricty during peak usage, it's been off-line because of the cool summer and the high price of natural gas. And despite being within sight of the skyscrapers of Downtown Pittsburgh, his worksite is strangely rural, almost rustic.
While the generating equipment takes its water directly from the river, for example, no one ever laid a water pipe to the island, so employees have to bring their drinking water themselves. They have to carry just about everything across themselves -- including the mail. "I'm working in the middle of the city and I can't send a letter," Mitchell muses.
There's also the daily commute to reckon with. A ferry comes to the island every few weeks; on other days workers reach the plant by way of an employees-only pedestrian bridge attached to the railroad trestle. In the winter, when there is no shelter from the wind blowing over the river, "Some days are pretty tough," Mitchell admits.
But there are advantages to the plant's bucolic setting. The island's meadows and wooded areas "are nice to have around you. ... A lot of the guys working here are outdoorsmen, and they sort of watch over the deer and the island." That hasn't translated into a formal wildlife conservation program like Duquesne Light once managed: In those days, workers controlled the spread of knotweed and tended birdhouses. Reliant has yet to restart those efforts, though when Mitchell later says, "We're privileged to be on this island, with the history it has," he seems to mean it.
Still, Reliant seems less than enthusiastic about sharing the island. "We'd evaluate anything people brought to us," Landis tells me, "but when we made the investment here, we did it based on doing it as a power plant."
Of course, as Mitchell points out, "When people have talked to us" -- like Pittsburgh Voyager or the Meriwether Lewis re-enactors -- "we've been accommodating." No one from Riverlife Task Force, or any other group I spoke to for this story, has approached Reliant about potential new uses for the land.
O'Toole is not so shy. "Can't we have just a little building out here?" she asks jokingly, admiring the trees around her. Later, she notes the island "would be a great place to film Survivor: Pittsburgh."
"That's an idea," Mitchell says.
Back on the mainland for good, I again ponder Brunot's Island from a distance. Recreational uses and a power plant shared the island a century ago. The racetrack was displaced by the plant's expansion, but now that so much of the old plant has been cleared away -- and now that the current plant is so frequently on standby -- couldn't room for new uses be found? As the Riverlife Task Force's Lisa Schroeder says, "I am constantly amazed at how much cities have been able to do by reclaiming river edges adjacent to industrial uses. I wouldn't be discouraged" about prospects for doing the same here.
But would the island really be better off if it had people clambering all over it? Maybe benign neglect is the best thing that could happen to it. If the power plant's presence has kept people from enjoying it, after all, it's also kept the woods from being plowed under for new homes.
Marsha Maslonek of the Wildlife Habitat Council, a nonprofit that helped manage Duquesne Light's conservation efforts, thinks a balance could be struck. "There are no species so sensitive on that site that people will affect them," she says. "With some intelligent planning you could plan a trail there and enjoy the island without harming it." Advocates of recreational use cite places like Washington, D.C.'s Roosevelt Island, where careful oversight allows people to hike through wildlife preserves without damaging them.
Still, I wonder. I used to walk along the Monongahela River, on a trail only the locals knew. Sheltered from the nearby railroad and Route 837 by a line of trees, it led to a pair of beached barges whose cargo holds had filled in with trees. It was a great place to fish or to watch the water go by. But the city discovered the trail, and did what many dreams for Brunot's Island would do: improve public access. Now the trail is fenced in and paved over, and while it is popular with in-line skaters and bikers, I hardly use it anymore. The trees sheltering it were torn up, and the fence makes it feel like a cattle run. What made the trail special was what hid it from view, and that is gone.
Tim Collins of Three Rivers Second Nature has seen similar trends along other shores. Even on Washington's Landing, he says, "We've seen trees just disappear, with lawns being extended right to the shore," worsening the threat of river erosion.
"There's a give-and-take in all these things," Sustainable Pittsburgh's Court Gould asserts. Even if he could build a river center on the island, for example, he's not sure he would. The center would require access the island doesn't currently have, and "I think the appeal of that island would really be hurt by building another bridge." As things stand, he notes, "The public doesn't have access to the island, but you may have a nice example of a corporation using a property for wildlife enhancement. Nature has taken over, even if unfortunately it's mostly knotweed."
And humans can be just as pernicious, even when we mean well. Is Brunot's Island better left alone, as an artificial preserve? In seeking to bend nature to our whims, do we risk destroying it -- and ourselves?
I may have read the answer in a book once, and someday people like Gould will find a way to use Brunot's Island without destroying it. Until then, I'll be content with what I have now: the sight of it in the distance, the deer antler I found in a tree ... as bleached and white as any great whale.