Old image of river diverting pipeOld image of river diverting pipe

Discovering a portal to Nine Mile Run

May the watershed always find you.

A few years ago we made the big decision to go through the county’s Vacant Property Recovery Program to acquire the vacant house adjacent to ours and demolish it to expand our yard. Squirrels and stray cats frequented the gloomy vine-covered house and sometimes people would dump tires there. We estimate it had been empty and exposed to the elements for at least 30 years.

This spring, we hired some skilled friends to build a fence around the side yard, as a corral for our toddler. One friend was very particular about the correct depth of the post holes: if there were bricks or concrete or other fun stuff buried in the way, that meant getting a jackhammer to work through it. After many years working in vacant properties converted to community garden sites, I thought I had seen everything there was to see buried in the dirt around here.

However, much to my surprise, we did find something in one whole that was very intriguing. After blasting through a 6″ layer of concrete, the bottom dropped out and there it was – a portal to another world? – no! Of course it could only be Nine Mile Run.

Our house was built in 1892, around the same time that large sections of the stream were “culverted” (directed into pipes or bricked tunnels below ground) to make way for development.

What a joy to discover that the stream had been there flowing beneath us the whole time! I visited the hole in the ground frequently to put my ear close to the dirt and listen or shine a flashlight in to get a better sense of the depth and movement of the water. I invited my kid to “come visit the stream!” in all kinds of weather. Once, when asked what street we live on, my two year old matter-of-factly responded, “Nine Mile Run”. I couldn’t bear to plug it up again.

One day maybe there will be enough funding and political will to “daylight” more sections of the stream, to restore Nine Mile Run to its previous stormwater-mitigating, habitat-supporting glory. But until then, we are very happy to have found a simple compromise: a galvanized pipe with a 90 degree elbow on top that reaches down past the fence post into the culvert. We can continue to listen to the stream quietly gurgling on dry days and energetically crashing by on stormy days. The pipe also provides access to a bonus sensory experience: you can smell it on wet weather days.

This yard portal marks clearly how human activity has permanently transformed our watershed. And also it reminds me the stream is always there, serving only its own ever-present desire to flow downhill.

This post was written by Rayden, a Wilkinsburg resident, Penn State Master Watershed Steward, and Nine Mile Run member since 2019.