Postcard sent man on journey to find out about old Irwin train station

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Fascinated by trains since childhood, Andrew Blenko didn't know what was in store when a fellow employee presented him with a reproduction of a postcard from around 1900.

"I did a double take because the image showed a wooden train station adjacent to the stone arch underpass where Main Street goes underneath the railroad tracks in Irwin," said Mr. Blenko, 57, planning director for North Huntingdon. "I drive under the arch several times a week and was stunned because the postcard showed a building I'd never seen before."

Growing up in Wilkinsburg, Mr. Blenko said he and his family had driven through the underpass many times, even before moving to North Huntingdon 16 years ago.

His curiosity revved up even more that following December during a visit to the Westmoreland Mall, where he discovered a vendor with bins of antique photos and postcards. Rummaging through a bin marked Irwin, he came across three more images of the same train station, shown from three different angles.

"What I've since learned is that postcards were printed when something new came along, partially as a promotion," he said. "Obviously, Irwin took a lot of pride in the station because someone was printing postcards with its image."

Curiosity piqued, he began looking through his collection of books on trains to find out when the station was built and what happened to it. He also began asking the children and grandchildren of "old-timers" to see what they knew about the station. Before long Irwin resident Tom Agnew learned of his interest and gave him some maps, including one of Irwin in 1853 which showed the town's rail station in a different location than the one in his postcards. Mr. Agnew also gave him old railroad timetables from the 1930s, which gave him additional information.

"While researching the station, I discovered what a great impact the railroad had on the area," Mr. Blenko said. "It really put Irwin on the map."

Mr. Blenko's research continues and what happened to the station remains a mystery. Still, he has put all his discoveries together and presents them in talks and PowerPoint demonstrations to organizations such as the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, the Norwin Public Library, several rail conferences and a couple of churches.

At 7 p.m. Feb.12, the Westmoreland County Historical Society will feature Mr. Blenko in a talk titled "In Search of Irwin Station" at the Calvin E. Pollins Library, 362 Sand Hill Road, Suite 1, in Greensburg. The program is free to society members and $5 for nonmembers. Seating is limited; to reserve a seat call 724-532-1935, ext. 210.

"Every time I give my talk, someone in the audience grows the Irwin Station story by giving me facts I never knew before," he said.

A member of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Mr. Blenko doesn't plan on setting his findings to print, but he has promised the Norwin Public Library that he'd put together information on the street car lines that once served Irwin.

"As a rail fan, I have many friends who work for the railroad," he said. "Researching rail transportation and its history and sharing it with the public is the next best thing to working on the rails. My research brought together my interest in railroads, my knowledge of local history as township planning director and my background as a civil engineer."

According to Joanna Moyar, education coordinator for the historical society, over the years, besides administering historic Hanna's Town, the society has presented a number of programs dealing with county industry, social history and transportation, especially rail history.

"Mr. Blenko seemed a nice fit for our audience, and we feel his topic on the Irwin Station would be something they would be interested in," she said.

For a complete schedule of upcoming events, go to www.westmorelandhistory.org.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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