It’s difficult to imagine these days, but Braddock’s desolate Washington Avenue once throbbed with life. A century ago, narrow houses and shops lined the street, which runs the length of the borough and ends at the Edgar Thomson Works steel mill. People fell in love here, raised families, struggled in low-paying and dangerous jobs. They celebrated births, grieved losses.
In his novel “Out of This Furnace,” author Thomas Bell sets several scenes on Washington. One is quite peaceful. Two of the novel’s central characters, Mike Dobrejcak and Mary Kracha, take a stroll down the Washington on a pleasant evening. The couple are falling in love.
Bell writes, “Along Washington, there were stores, lights and people; they said ‘hello’ to people they knew, they stopped to gossip, they looked and were looked at.”
Little remains of the Slovak community Bell describes. Nearly all of the houses and stores are gone. One two-story brick building remains at the corner of Washington and Ninth Street. Past Ninth, a foreboding chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, protects a gas company. It’s no longer suitable for a pleasant walk.
There’s a reason Washington serves as a key location in Bell’s novel — it was once his family’s home. The 1910 census shows Michael and Mary Belejcak (sometimes spelled Belejchak) living at 904 Washington. With them are three children — Albert, 7; Paulina, 5; and Anthony, 1. Albert would grow up to be the writer Thomas Bell.
Bell’s novel is largely autobiographical and told from the Slovak point of view. Life for immigrants in this Mon Valley steel town could have its beautiful aspects — the love story of Mike and Mary Dobrejcak is an example — but it was often dangerous and violent. Bell did not have to invent the hazards of immigrant life. He drew from his own family’s experience.
The novel’s Michael Dobrejcak is fashioned after Bell’s father, who emigrated from the Slovak province of Sarisa to the United States as a teenager in 1890 and worked in Braddock as a steelworker and bartender. Michael Belejcak’s brothers Joseph, John and Paul soon followed.
Three of the brothers would die relatively young in their new home.
Two days before Christmas in 1909, an assailant struck Paul in the head with a metal pipe during a workplace brawl at the Edgar Thomson Works, where Paul labored in a blast furnace. He lingered for a week at Braddock General Hospital before dying of “traumatic pneumonia following a fracture of the right side of his skull (prob. murder),” reads his death certificate. Paul was 20.
The murder made news as the first of two killings at the steel mill in little more than a week. On Jan. 1, 1910, another dispute in an Edgar Thomson blast furnace ended when foreman Michael Brennan was struck in the head with an iron shovel. He died four days later.
John Belejcak, too, worked in an Edgar Thomson Works blast furnace. On Monday, Sept. 9, 1912, he told his colleagues he was going to the bathroom. When he failed to return, a co-worker went to look for him and found John collapsed by a boiler house wall. He’d died of asphyxiation. “Was furnace gas around,” reads testimony attached to a coroner’s report.
Thomas Bell’s father, Michael Belejcak, died of tuberculosis in 1914. A few years later, the disease took Bell’s mother.
Bell wrote six novels. “Out of This Furnace,” first published in 1941, is his most compelling work. It chronicles three generations of the Dobrejcak family and the half-century struggle to unionize the steel industry.
By the early 1970s, the novel, long out of print, had been largely forgotten. David Demarest, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, persuaded University of Pittsburgh Press to reissue the book in 1976.
And so the novel remains as a reminder of the struggles faced by immigrants who helped build this region. Edgar Thomson Works remains, too, still rumbling at the end of what’s now a largely empty Washington Avenue.