How many of the old timers in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio recall when many of the rural roads were covered with something called “red dog?”
Although most of these roads are paved with asphalt today, that was not the case 60 or so years ago when they were predominantly dirt.
Most township trustees were dealing with tight budgets and demands from country dwellers to keep the roads passable, while the spring thaws and rains often turned dirt roads into sticky, muddy quagmires.
Limestone was available from Carbon Limestone, west of New Castle, and slag from local steel mills, but these products were relatively expensive.
Pennsylvania Coal Co. A cheaper alternative was a waste product of the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s Champion No. 6 coal washer just south of Negley, Ohio.
In 1933, the Pennsylvania Coal Co. built a 13-mile, single-track rail line from a coal unloading facility on Little Beaver Creek near where it flows into the Ohio River at Smith’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, north to Negley.
Here it connected with the Pittsburgh, Lisbon & Western RR, which hauled the coal cars west to Signal where they were picked up by the Youngstown and Suburban RR, which ran north through Columbiana and Boardman into Youngstown, where the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. steel mill was hungry for coal.
Run-of-mine bituminous coal contains impurities, such as slate and sulfur that steel mills don’t like, so Pennsylvania Coal Co. built the Negley coal washing facility.
The full coal cars from Smith’s Ferry were unloaded and the coal was put through the washing process.
The cleaned coal was reloaded into hopper cars which were picked up by a locomotive, taken to Negley and transferred to the PL&W and then to the Y&S which hauled them into Sheet and Tube at Youngstown.
The sulfur balls, slate and other debris removed from the coal was trucked to a nearby field where it was dumped and piled by a bulldozer.
Before long this mass of waste caught fire by spontaneous combustion and the piles burned for years, emitting a strong “rotten eggs” odor that could be smelled for miles around.
I recall when I was a child the west side of our farm was just a couple of miles from the burning dump and we could often smell it, and we could also, if the wind was right, hear the whistles of the Consolidation 2-8-0 steam locomotives that worked the plant.
But, to get back to “red dog.” As the big piles of waste burned, the heat and the pressure of the material above turned the residue into a fairly hard, shale-like substance that was orange-red with streaks of light tan or cream color.
After the fires had eventually burned out, this stuff, which broke apart when dug away from the pile, made a good surface material for dirt roads and, as nothing but cast-off waste material, it was fairly cheap.
When I was driving a dump truck for Tommy Ferguson in 1952 and 1953, I would sometimes be sent to pick up a load or two of red dog and then spread it on one of the township roads.
There was a man, whose name I don’t recall, who had leased some of the waste piles from PCC. He had a small power loading shovel and spent his days all alone out in this bleak area waiting for trucks to load.
I believe he was an independent operator and he seems to have made his living selling the red dog, which was considerably cheaper than slag or limestone.
The late Lindsey Gillis, who lived at Scenery Hill in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and who was active in the National Pike steam show, once wrote a little story about a red dog road that was recently sent to me by a friend, Dan Ramsier of Seville, Ohio.
Lindsey described a huge pile of slate and coal waste that was dumped and burned near his farm and then wrote, “About 1954, I was busy not only as a farmer but also as an insurance agent. I wrote all types of insurance, auto-fire-etc. One day we had an insurance claim and the field man, who was from New York State, was on the phone talking to my wife to get directions to the claimant’s residence. My wife said, ‘You go down the main road here at Beallsville about 2 miles and then you turn right onto a red dog road.’
“I guess he had been writing down the directions and said, ‘What the hell is a red dog road?’ We all had a good laugh.”
In its heyday, the eight-story-tall Negley coal washer was capable of washing 400 tons of coal per hour and employed 20 or more workers. The operation became less and less profitable, however, and the facility was closed in 1957.
No longer does the valley of Beaver Creek echo with the sound of steam locomotive whistles, nor is it redolent with the pungent smell of eggs past their prime. Let us know if you ever traveled a red dog road.