Oakmont talks offer glimpse of railroading

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The headline on Dec. 3, 1932, in a Vandergrift newspaper read, "15,000 miles on 48 cents."

But it wasn't entirely accurate.

"It was 13,776 miles," Joseph D. Szalanski said of the distance his late father traveled while hopping boxcars to ride the rails through what was then 48 states.

Mr. Szalanski, 72, of Vandergrift, will discuss his father's adventure next month in Oakmont Carnegie Library. His talk will be based on the journals his dad, Joseph F. Szalanski, kept of the 4.5-month trek and which the younger Szalanski has compiled for his book, "Boarding the Westbound: Journey of a Depression-era Hobo."

Less than eight years after his return from the hobo life, Joseph F. Szalanski died in an accident at the Mon Valley Works-Irvin plant in West Mifflin. His son was 2 months old.

"My dad died at 30. This gives him some air time in the world," Mr. Szalanski said of the impetus for his book and presentation.

The talk, at 6:30 p.m. July 18, will be the second presentation in the library's free, three-part Summer History Lecture Series, titled "Trains and Local History."

The first will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with local historian Ken Kobus presenting a look at trains that traveled the Allegheny Valley.

The third and final talk will be held Aug. 15 at 6:30 p.m. with Gary Rogers, Oakmont Historical Society president, sharing stories from his book series, "Tales of Our Towns."

When Joseph F. Szalanski lost his job during the Great Depression, at age 22, the sound of trains rolling past his parents' home in East Vandergrift carried an allure of new places he found irresistible.

On July 31, 1932, the older Mr. Szalanski, with a friend named Kelly and little money, hopped on a Pennsylvania Railroad freight train bound for Pittsburgh. He switched to trains for Altoona and Harrisburg, eventually arriving in Elmira, N.Y.

"He did it as a great adventure," his son said.

His father recorded most of his daily activities, such as sleeping in boxcars, missions, jails and under the stars, as well as bumming food at homes, restaurants, shops and missions.

He mailed his first completed journal home from South Dakota.

"This is as close as I could possibly get," he wrote of his estimated 5,279 miles of travel to that point. "You know this is unofficial."

Although the culture of roaming wherever he pleased while keeping one step ahead of the railroad police fueled romantic folklore of the era, the practice was quite dangerous.

In a journal entry after passing Redding, Calif., the older Mr. Szalanski wrote: "Indian fellow tried to hop on the freight I was on, he missed the step and got his leg cut off. I saw him after he pulled his self away from the cars, freight never stopped."

When his friend returned home after traveling through 16 states, the older Mr. Szalanski completed his trek alone, making it to the remaining 32 states and across the border into Mexico.

"He wanted to make it international," his son said.

The younger Mr. Szalanski decided to write the book after his mother Louise DeMichele Szalanski -- who never remarried -- died in 2002 and he re-read the journals while cleaning out the house.

He based his book mostly on the journal entries, but it also includes a history of the era and of the family as well as information on Western Pennsylvania immigration because his father was born in Poland.

His mother, who met his father after he completed his travels, had kept a letter he wrote to a friend during the journey, but none of the postcards he sent from the road survive.

It is in his jottings of daily life that his sunny disposition and easygoing personality emerge, and that's what his son enjoyed the most.

"I got to know him a little that way," he said.

Registration for Mr. Szalanski's July 18 talk is preferred, but not required. To register, call 412-828-9532. His book is available for $16.95 at Word Association Publishers, 1-800-827-7903; Rivers of Steel in Homestead; Pennsylvania Railroad Museum in Altoona; Reads, Ink Bookshop in Vandergrift; or Amazon.com.


Margie Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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