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McKeesport and the ‘Immaculate Reception’

January 9, 2012   

I remember my first visit to McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

It was December 23, 1972, the day after my birthday, and along with others, I was Christmas shopping on Fifth Avenue in the city. The streets were crowded, the stores were bustling, and Santa Clauses’ seemed to be on every corner.

There was added excitement because the AFC Divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders was being played that day at Three Rivers Stadium.

As I walked outside Cox’s Department Store, a light snow was falling, and in an instant there was a tremendous roar from the people in the streets, shouting and yelling, and horns were sounding from passersby in vehicles.

The Steelers had scored the winning touchdown, but not just any touchdown; it was the Immaculate Reception, a nickname given to arguably the most famous play in the history of professional football. 

On fourth down, with seconds remaining in the game, a deflected pass from Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw had been scooped up by Franco Harris and he ran it in for an improbable touchdown giving the Steelers a 12-7 victory.

The game was not televised locally (the NFL forbid local televising of NFL games in those days) so McKeesporters were tuning into the radio to hear the action.

The play remains controversial because it occurred before the existence of sophisticated replay machines, and there’s very little in the way of conclusive video evidence as to what actually happen during the play.

Still, the Steelers won, and things were never going to be the same. At the end of the decade they had won four Super Bowl Championships, and remain one of the nation’s favorite NFL football teams.

That day might be considered the high water mark for McKeesport.

A vibrant town of nearly 60,000 people, McKeesport had its own department store, downtown shopping district, daily newspaper, bank, brewery, hospital, hotel, school district, bus line, and dairy company.

The largest employer was US Steel’s National Tube Works, a manufacturer of iron pipes, which employed 10,000 people. McKeesport was also the corporate headquarters to the national variety chain G. C. Murphy Company, which also opened its first five-and-ten-cent store in McKeesport years earlier.

By the end of the 1970s and beyond, people would not believe what happened to the city.

A victim of the 1970s recession, the city was brought down by a combination of rising local, state, and federal taxes, the decline of the steel industry, a deteriorating manufacturing base, a devastating gasoline shortage and ensuing skyrocketing oil prices, and millions in federal Revenue Sharing dollars poured into the city that would change the face of McKeesport’s skyline forever.

All of these things resulted in a dramatic downturn in economic activity, and created devastating hardships for businesses and city residents, the partnership that had kept the city thriving throughout the 20th Century.

In an effort to “revitalize” the downtown district, the city embarked on an ambitious “redevelopment project” that razed hundreds of buildings and houses that were deemed aged and in need of structural repair. Most of these structures were built at the turn of the century, and constructed of stone or brick, and housed shops, restaurants, and other businesses.

Entire city wards were demolished. The result was the closure of scores of small businesses and the displacement of thousands of families.

The government did provide millions of dollars for the construction of low income apartment buildings, and speculative office plazas, along with new sidewalks, curbs, and lighting in the downtown area. But few people opted to take advantage of these low-interest loans, and the apartment complexes were considered sub-par in construction and conveniences.

Things were so bad McDonald’s Restaurant closed its doors.

Federal planners pushed these projects with little or no assessment as to the impact they would have on displaced businesses and residents. The tax base of the town evaporated virtually overnight, and with thousands of ensuing layoffs from the National Tube Works, the city could no longer provide adequate services to the downtown area. The specter of crime replaced this vacuum.

Today, there’s no department store, brewery, dairy, bus line, hotel, variety store, or shopping district in the downtown area of McKeesport. The spirit of the town is broken, and there are far fewer people, less than 20,000 according to the last Census.

But the celebration that resulted from the Immaculate Reception lives on, and will, for many years to come.