Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
Visibility while driving on Route 166 through Grays Landing in Nicholson Township has dramatically improved over the last 50 years.
Thick smoke from the hundreds of coke ovens lining the state highway, the hillside above it and the railroad tracks paralleling the Monongahela River made daytime seem like nighttime.
That smoke was the filthy byproduct from the production of millions of tons of coke that was loaded directly from the ovens into railroad cars for shipment to mills, which turned the coke into the steel used to build America.
“When I was a kid, when you drove down the road it was dark from the smoke,” said resident Carl Butcho.
Coke from the ovens was shipped north to Brownsville and south to West Virginia, said Jack Arndt, a Nicholson Township supervisor.
“This is where it came from. Now we have nothing,” Arndt said.
Founded in 1877, Grays Landing was named after the Gray family, which owned land and a distillery across the river in Monongahela Township in Greene County, according to one historical account.
Like its neighboring villages to the south, Gallatin and Martin, Grays Landing used to have a ferry boat that carried people across the river to Greene County. Many coal miners took the ferry to work at the mine in Alicia.
“This is where everybody worked. People lived where they worked,” Arndt said.
The two-miles flat riverfront land from Grays Landing to Martin was known as Provance Bottom, which was named after John William Provance, one of the first settlers in Nicholson Township.
The woods around Grays Landing were stripped of trees that were used to fire the ovens before coal was used, Butcho said.
“Anywhere you go you see scars of industry. There were no forests when I grew up,” Butcho said. “This area built America — southwestern Pennsylvania. This area won the wars.”
Crumbling remnants of the coke ovens lie hidden in overgrowth surrounding the tiny town, which is comprised of about 40 company homes and one auto shop unevenly scattered along Route 166 and a handful of winding streets on the base of a hillside overlooking the Monongahela River.
Despite the scars and loss of industry, Butcho sees something worth preserving.
He has completely renovated two homes, including the one he and his wife Marilyn live in, by gutting them down to the wall studs and rebuilding them to better-than-new condition.
His new-looking house did not have the brick façade it has now when it was built in 1919. He said the house would be worth $300,000 if it was located almost anywhere else in Fayette County.
Most of the homes in Grays Landing were built for two families, but most have been converted to single family homes. Some are in better condition than others.
Butcho’s latest preservation project is a piece of Grays Landing’s industrial past — a coke yard with a power house that produced electricity and a scale house that was used to weigh trucks along Route 166.
Constructed the same year as his house, the facility remained in operation into the 1960s, he said.
Later the property, which is between Route 166 and the Monongahela River, was used as a staging area from construction of the Grays Landing Lock and Dam in the 1990s. Samples of concrete used in the lock and dam were cured and tested for strength at the site. Butcho helped build the curing room and worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a few years.
The property sat idle until Butcho and his brother-in-law bought it a couple years ago with plans to fix it up and lease it for industrial or commercial use.
“It was all overgrown. Garbage all over it,” Butcho said.
Bricks from buildings that were bulldozed decades ago were salvaged and used to close window openings and he installed power and water in the old generator building.
Butcho does the work himself using the knowledge of construction he put to work as an electrical, heating and air conditioning specialist for the National Park Service for 26 years before he retired a couple years ago.
To install the water line in the old power house, he had to dig through the concrete footer. He discovered the footer was 5 feet thick.
“That’s how well they built it,” Butcho said.
At the corner of Route 166 and First Street are the remains of a building from the village’s less distance past.
The large, red brick building was once home to a post office, store, hotel, and restaurants and bars.
Butcho’s mother ran Butcho’s Store and his uncle Pete Carmella operated Carmella’s, a restaurant and bar.
Construction workers from the lock and dam frequented the businesses along with residents from the area, Arndt said.
“Everybody came,” he said.
Neon signs with names Carmella’s and Kozy’s Casino, another bar, are still attached to the building.
“It had a stage and dance hall. It was beautiful,” Arndt said about Carmella’s. “Beautiful wood stage. Beautiful wood floors. Just remarkable.”
Trees and other vegetation overgrowing the building and a collapsed roof are evidence of years of neglect. The township is trying to get the owner to demolish the building, he said.