Brian O'Neill: At its peak, there's not much to see of Pittsburgh

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The city's highest point probably isn't where you think it is.

It's not on Mount Washington or the West End Overlook. Nor is it at the apex of any of the Dirty Dozen hills that Pittsburgh's bike riders happily torture themselves climbing every Thanksgiving weekend.

The highest point is the Brashear Reservoir in Observatory Hill on the North Side, with an elevation of 1,370 feet, more than 100 feet higher than Mount Washington. How do I know this?

All it takes is a little shoe leather, a little investigative reporting and the Observatory Hill neighborhood newsletter arriving in the mail.

Once I read it, I had to see this Pittsburgh peak for myself. So this past beautiful Saturday morning, I walked the 3 1/2 miles from the North Side's flats to its heights.

In a sense this was training. In recent years, I've committed myself to hiking all or most of the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail someday. I will do this just as soon as I can spare (and afford) the time. I heartily recommend this dream to all ambulatory Pittsburghers for two reasons:

1. Who really has the time to through-hike the entire trail? I mean, come on. It takes five to seven months. Thus, this is an extraordinarily safe dream to keep forever.

2. You live in the largest metropolis in Appalachia. (Or did you think all these hills were on loan from Morgantown?) You can consider yourself in training any time you take a long walk for a haircut. Or a doughnut.

On my North Side hike, I walked up Brighton Road, climbed a set of city steps to cut east to Buena Vista Street, and then trekked north toward its intersection with Perrysville Avenue. Buena Vista is steep, brothers and sisters, but once you get to Perrysville it's a gentle rise.

To make a long-walk story short, after only one stop of a few minutes to stare down a doe standing in the grass on Perry Hilltop -- how many inner-city neighborhoods offer that? -- I finally made the right turn up Franklin Road and then steep Montana Street to the reservoir fence.

There, I turned and saw what so many have seen from that spot: not much of anything.

Trees and homes block most long-distance views from street level. If I came down Montana Street a bit, I could look between houses and see "U-P-M-C" slapped atop the U.S. Steel Tower in the distance but not much else of the Golden Triangle.

On a bus ride home, I thought about the bell tower I'd seen at Incarnation of the Lord church on Franklin Road. From there, I might have a more sweeping vista of my city from its highest neighborhood. On Monday, I called the rectory and left a message asking if I could make like Quasimodo up in that tower.

On Tuesday, Father David DeWitt got back to me. I couldn't climb the tower as pigeons had made it a place you wouldn't want to go without a respirator. There is, however, a window in one of the church bathrooms, he said.

Saddle my horse!

I drove to the church in 15 minutes. John Dey, the maintenance supervisor, kindly provided a ladder at the end of his workday so I could get the best view.

Alas, there will be no call soon for a binocular coin machine in the church bathroom. On a clear day you can see Brighton Heights. And McKees Rocks. And not much else.

Undaunted, I was back on that hilltop the next day with Ronald K. Duray, director of water quality and production for the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority. He let me on the reservoir site. We climbed some concrete steps but, again, trees blocked our view of Downtown.

I guess there's a reason most people think Mount Washington is the highest point. Even a guy on Montana Street told me it was, though I could see the Trimont on Grandview Avenue from there and its upper floors were at eye level, confirming Observatory Hill's edge.

The moral of this story?

Just because you're high doesn't mean you have a particularly great view (as anyone who has tried to have a conversation at a Grateful Dead concert could attest).

What do Pittsburgh and the Everglades have in common?

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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