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Restored tunnel leads to history at former Ford City PPG plant

| Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

FORD CITY — At one time hundreds of hardworking people walked through the tunnel at Third Avenue and Ninth Street, under the busy train tracks and Second Avenue each day to go to and from work at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Ford City Works.

They'd be coming through for half an hour at every shift change, some remember.

The PPG factory ended operation in 1991 and today a pair of Ford City residents and history buffs with ties to the plate glass plant are doing everything they can to restore the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's historical landmark site to its original look.

Ted Breuer and Bill Oleksak are making the tunnel look like it did when their fathers worked there.

"When we were kids we'd come to meet our dads," said Breuer. "I only had to walk two blocks. Sometimes I'd set up a Kool-Aid stand."

"It was my excuse to get my dad's car and come down and pick him up to get to drive," added Oleksak.

"At four o'clock in the afternoon there could be as many as 800 to 900 coming out of there," said Breuer. "Both of our dads were supervisors in Works 6. Supervision, hourly, they all came in and out of that tunnel."

"They'd walk home or to the bars," said Oleksak.

"At one time there were 35 bars in Ford City and they were all well used especially on Fridays and paydays," said Breuer.

The fact that the tunnel is designated as a historical site prompted the two men to make it historically accurate.

Layers of paint were sandblasted off recently. It will soon be repainted with the original colors. An area artist will be painting a mural of workers walking through the tunnel to place at the entranceway.

PPG opened in 1887. At its peak the plant employed more than 3,500 ethnically diverse workers who passed through the tunnel daily.

Works 6 began being constructed sometime around 1928 and was completed by about 1932.

"Right after they built it they saw they didn't have a good way to cross the train tracks," said Breuer. "With a train coming up here every 15 minutes, plus PPG had two of their own tracks and they were moving all of the time, they found out a couple of years after they opened Plant 6 that they'd better do something else. That's when they put this in. There were a lot of close calls."

Breuer said that soon after that tunnel, PPG added a second one further south at the Works 4 entrance.

"To me it's a destination point," Oleksak said of the tunnel. "When people come to Ford City they're looking for things and this probably brings back a huge amount of memories — a hundred years of industry in Ford City. Hopefully when people come back for events such as Heritage Days we have places for them to see that brings back those great memories."

Breuer and Oleksak said they received private and public support to do their project. They said they have received state funding from the office of state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, and from a local business, Klingensmith Healthcare and its president, Dave Knepshield.

The Ford City Garden Club, of which Breuer and Oleksak are members, also got involved in the restoration project with a beautification project of its own around the tunnel.

A club member, Cindy Strosser, is creating a mural of workers at the tunnel's entrance and another mural at the back wall of the tunnel facing the Ford City Trail where the garden club will plant flowers. In the background along the Allegheny River is the empty, old and deteriorating factory building that once thrived as one of the largest and most productive plate glass operations in the world.

Strosser operated an art studio in upstate New York before moving to the area. She works as an art designer.

The back wall mural she has painted is of a garden pathway leading to the gazebo in the Ford City Park.

The tunnel entrance mural will look like an old photo of the men and women who worked at PPG coming out of the tunnel. The workers will be carrying silver lunch buckets and wearing Dickie's-type work clothes and the supervisors will be wearing neckties.

"I want people to remember the people who worked for the company," said Strosser. "They were all hardworking, good people. That's what I want to get across."

The Ford City Garden Club has nine beautification projects going on around the town and is planning more.

The club is looking for monetary support and anyone interested in helping pay for more projects can send it to: Ford City Garden Club, Box 148, Manorville, Pa, 16238.

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