By Nancy Covert
Steamy clouds of mist drifted up from the cup of hot cider I’d just poured myself one morning—the wintry scene on the mug transported me ala Maryjane and Sniffles-style back to my childhood days in the North side burg neighborhood where I’d spent about two decades—folks just didn’t move around much in those days.
The snowy scene showed the local business district: pharmacy, bakery, bank, grocery store, movie theater, variety store, gas station, church, high school…and the long, sloping hillside that went up to the “highest spot” in the city where we lived.
Of course, the newly erected TV transmitter station, located on another hillside behind our home, actually was the tallest point around. When it first was installed I used to have nightmares that it would fall on our house. Never did. It’s still there.
What an exciting place the neighborhood was: besides walking everywhere in those days—dad only used his small coupe, with the fold-down back seats—for special occasions. Otherwise, we rode the trolley into the city.
One Saturday my mom and grandma and I boarded the north side-bound trolley to spend the day at Bogg’s and Buhl’s Department Store. The store was especially significant to grandma since she’d worked as a glove seller at the store when she was younger. That’s the place where she met the handsome, red-haired Pittsburgh cop one day when he wandered in and spotted my grandmother.
Bogg’s and Buhl’s was located in the “heart” of the North side—not far from the Buhl Planetarium, the Carnegie Library, the Public Market and Westside Park—across the river from the growing city of Pittsburgh.
Stepping through B&B’s revolving doors—mesmerizing for a little girl—I didn’t want to get stuck, but I did manage to revolve around theme a couple of times before my mom realized I hadn’t followed her.
Scolding me for disobeying her instructions, she held my hand tight as we marched across the display floor to—another amazing device—an escalator. It went up and up and up. And I had my first bird’s-eye view of the show floor below–the sight of those glass and metal counters piled high with merchandise was fantastic.
The trick to boarding this moving staircase, I learned, was stepping onto the sliding step before another took its place. Finally I mastered the eye-foot coordination maneuver and followed mom and grandma—we were headed for the third floor where I was going to take my first train ride.
“A train ride—in a store? You gotta be kiddin’!”
(An explanation is due here: Pittsburgh was a major railroad city—many of the men in our neighborhood were railroad employees—in my family that included `my dad, his father, and two uncles—kind of like Boeing).
Anyway, B&B employees had transformed about half of the third floor into a winter wonderland, complete with red-suited Santa on his ornate, gilded throne for kids to visit after the ride.
Encouraged by my towering relatives, I queued with dozens of little kids who’d come to the store that day. After handing over my “ticket to ride” to a smartly, uniformed conductor, I stepped through a doorway into a world of glittering snow, tiny elves bustling about, and lots of tiny houses stretching as far into the distance as I could see.
Sitting on a cushioned seat in the step-through car, I waited while the engineer walked around the train to make sure all his passengers were safely in their places, then he strode to the front of the train, stepped into his cab, pulled on the whistle, and the train lurched forward.
As the train moved through the elaborate stage set all of us chattering kids were mesmerized—wonderful, snow-covered cottages with tiny people peeking through the windows, doors opening and shutting, fantastic birds flitting through the barren branches overhead—the train made three or four circuits of the winding tracks—I didn’t want to get off when we arrived back in the station, but there was more magic in store.
Standing beside the railroad track while the next group of passengers boarded, I tried to peek behind the curtain one more time to glimpse this fairyland scene—alas, my mom once more grabbed my hand and tugged me away—this time to join the line of kids waiting to meet Santa.
“I want another train ride,” I told him as he “ho, ho, ho-ed” in his deep Santa voice.
Ah, well. I didn’t get another train ride for several years—but the first authentic one I took—on a full-sized Pittsburgh and Lake Erie train—was headed to Youngstown, Ohio.
There truly was some magic in those huge rolling steel wheels, steam billowing around the platform—because that short trek across the Ohio border to visit an ancient relative named “Aunt” Bird, whetted my appetite for further rail adventures—all the way to the West Coast, via the Empire Builder.
The last time I visited the Burg—arriving on Amtrak for my mother’s 90th birthday, I meandered around the Downtown area and, in one of the old stores I spotted a photo display of that long-ago B & B train ride—definitely a historic adventure.