Day 13: The night the net went out in Pennsylvania
"When you came downtown on Saturday nights, these sidewalks here were so full that if you wanted to get from one building to the other you had to walk out into the street," Norma Ryan told me. We stood in front of a giant relief map of the greater Pittsburgh area, dotted with little red and yellow lights, each representing the site of a coal mine.
"All this coal helped Pittsburgh become the steel capital of the world."
Norma is a vigorous 90 years young, with lively green eyes and dark brown hair still matted and stringy from her morning shower. Born and raised in Brownsville, she volunteers here at the Flatiron Building, the site of a museum and art gallery, which still has an original floor from 1831.
"Our Internet is down, so not sure if we can process any credit cards," she told me when I asked about buying some souvenirs.
I want to read the DNA of this town, to understand the place where Bill Eadie, one of the wrestlers in my Pack, grew up and spent his formative years before traveling the world as a growling pro wrestler named The Masked Superstar and Demolition Ax.
Brownsville had three main phases--the first half of the 19th century, before the railroads, when it was a booming port town on the Mononghela River and a stop on Thomas Jefferson's National Road. The advent of the railroad in 1850 ended its tenure as a major river stop, but the discovery of coal in the late 1800s spurred a boom that drove the population at 10,000 (it's a little over 2,000 today). Following World War II, "everything just changed. The war was over, they didn't need as much steel. They started having malls. There was a decline."
Norma's cell phone, sitting on the desk at the musem entrance, rang.
"Oh, that's just my phone. Don't worry, the answering machine will pick it up," she reassured me.
Norma and her husband raised three kids in Brownsville, and at some point she decided to go to cosmetology school. She cut hair in town for 44 years, but the clients sitting in her chair knew she had more to contribute than a pair of scissors. At their urging, she ran for mayor, and in 1989 became the first (and still only) female mayor in the town's history.
"When I got to the city council, "they weren't used to women on there," she said. "Especially women who talk a lot."
Her re-election bid came up nine votes short.
"I didn't even ask for a recount," she said, with a twinkle in her eyes.
She didn't like the politics, didn't like the game, but she has always loved Brownsville, the place that gets her up early every morning and keeps her out late. I called her at 9 AM and we didn't part ways until 9 PM, following dinner in the neighboring town of, get this, California.
In the interim, I went on a mission to try to dig up some of the old copies of The Telegraph, Brownsville's daily (!) newspaper until it was sold to the neighboring Uniontown Herald-Standard in 1988. I was hoping to skim issues from the 1960s in the hopes of finding articles mentioning Bill Eadie. My first stop was back at the public library, where I descended into the catacombs to find a single microfilm (microfiche?) machine sitting next to a stack of books with a rocking chair.
"I don't know how to use it," the library director told me, leaving me alone in the cellar. The Internet was out, making it difficult for her to do much of anything.
I came close but never could get the copy on the screen, and so I set out for Uniontown, hoping the paper would have old bound volumes of The Telegraph in their archive room.
Twenty miles later, I walked up to the front door of the newspaper, and was shocked to see all the lights off, far from the bustling newsroom I expected.
And then I see the sign taped on the door: Closed. No Internet.
Too bad the net doesn't run on coal.