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Delmont man blogs about industrial history of region, exploring long-cold coke ovens

| Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 10:36 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Mike Mance of Delmont stands for a portrait inside one of the Hester coke ovens in Brinkerton on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015.

Crunching a quarter-mile across an abandoned, snow-covered stretch of Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near Armbrust, Mike Mance led visitors to the former Hester Coke Works.

The dozens of long-cold beehive ovens are reminders of an industry heyday. Train cars once stopped along those tracks, chugging away with loads of the coke baked from coal.

“Back behind the creek is where the coal mine was,” said Mance, 42.

Long after such ovens ceased being used for coke production, they served a second purpose, providing a type of rural tenement housing for some Depression-era families, historical photos show.

Mance climbed inside a cold, dark oven, demonstrating their roominess.

“I can stand up,” he said.

Known to friends as “Coke Oven Mike,” Mance started the blog “Old Industry of Southwestern Pennsylvania” several years ago.

It's logged more than 29,000 page views at coalandcoke.blogspot.com.

“I had tons of pictures. I figured I should probably do something with them. I'm interested in the history of the area. I think it's important. There is so much stuff in the woods. It might be a pile of bricks, but it helped build the country,” he said.

The Delmont man has on occasion come across evidence of people living in former coke ovens, including one in Derry Township.

“He (the resident) had a whole camp set up and had been staying there for more than two years,” Mance said.

He's found some former coke ovens outfitted with couches or carpets.

More often, he said, he finds graffiti and collections of cups that revelers have left behind.

Employed with a pest control firm, Mance spends free time searching wooded areas and posting photos and histories of former area industrial companies to his blog.

A program he presented on local mines at the Delmont Public Library was well-received, library director Denni Grassel said.

“It's a very good program,” Grassel said. “He did an excellent event. He's very knowledgeable.”

He plans another event in May at the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society in Hempfield.

Mance consults historical books and online mine maps to track down former sites of industries worth visiting.

His blog readers give him suggestions.

Delving into the history of the region's old industry naturally led to an interest in rail transportation, he said.

Some of the more eerie photos on his blog show grass and vine overgrowth clogging still visible but long-abandoned railroad tracks and rusty trestles.

“I like old bridges. You get railroad purists who don't like them being turned into (recreational) trails. ... I figure at least it's getting used again,” he said.

Blog site photos include old gears, rusted hardware, wooden retaining walls and a close-up of an old brew house door handle.

He noted that the site of the old Shoaf Mine and Coke Works near Masontown in Fayette County, shut down in the early 1970s, stands untouched.

“It's like they just shut the switch off and walked away,” Mance said.

He seeks out increasingly rare “ghost signs,” faded advertisements on buildings that seem to whisper of long-shuttered businesses in formerly bustling downtowns.

Sometimes their appearance is a surprise, discovered when adjoining structures are demolished.

“If I see one, I stop and take a picture of it. They are hard to find,” he said.

He has an eye for intricate detailing. Photos on his blog include close-ups of Greensburg's Troutman's building and the old Masonic temple, metal spiral fire escapes on building exteriors and engravings reading “Inaugurated 1901” and “Established 1887.”

Mance sees some abandoned buildings, their windows boarded and entries barred but still structurally sound, as “potential being wasted.”

What began as a hobby, he said, has become an effort to inventory history, at least — for now — online.

“I've collected enough for a book. ... It's just neat how much is out there. And it's nothing compared to how it used to be. Nature is taking it back,” Mance said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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