Duo rediscover Stuff That's Gone in Westmoreland, outlying counties

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Forty years ago, two high school friends would spend hours cruising around the steep hills and deep valleys of western Pennsylvania in a '66 Mustang.

There was no specific destination, but the goal always was the same: Find cool stuff.

Over the years, the friends would collect signs, pop machines and railroad signs.

John Qualley of Harrison City and Mike Pochan of Irwin still are at it, but now, the friends have garnered a huge following in social media and online. It seems that people all over the country want to check out what they find around western Pennsylvania.

“I'm making a social connection with people about their childhood and things they remember,” Qualley said. “It's these little idiosyncrasies that emit so much emotion on these people's memories. We help them remember what they forgot.”

Almost 5,000 people follow the group's Facebook page and about 2,000 people subscribe to the group's YouTube channel, both named Stuff Thats Gone.

Although the friends were active relic hunters in high school, they have shifted their focus to old buildings, road alignments, streetcars and coal-heritage artifacts over the last five years.

Qualley remembers stumbling upon a coke oven when he was riding on the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail.

He'd never seen one before. He shot a short video clip and posted it online.

“I became hooked,” he said. “I became obsessed with learning about the whole thing and understanding the relationship of these patch towns and supporting the coke-oven operation.”

Workers would cook coal in the ovens for about a day and a half to turn it into a charcoal-like substance, Qualley said. That substance was used to make steel in Pittsburgh.

The Shoaf operation near Smithfield was one of the last remaining operations in the region and closed down in the 1970s, Qualley said.

“It's like you don't even know it's there,” he said. “You drive back all these old country roads, trying to use your GPS to find it. Then all of a sudden, it's there. It's fascinating.”

Sometimes, Qualley stumbles upon his findings. A few weeks ago, he was in New Kensington when he spotted a ghost sign on a building that was being demolished. He snapped a picture before it was destroyed.

And sometimes, he gets tips or does research to investigate cool stuff. He used geological maps, combined with modern-day GPS units, to locate old bridges and streets.

“I found a bridge in the woods that was an old streetcar right-of-way,” he said. “We have focused our attention on Fayette, Westmoreland and Indiana counties, but we've exhausted everything we can find, so we're branching out.”

In November, the pair is planning a trip to Johnstown to investigate a tip about an coke oven.

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or adolasinski@tribweb.com.

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