Islands of my Mind

By Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer-Black

Written for my friend, Laura, in celebration of the Summer Solstice, 2012, with thanks to Danny Paul.


Growing up, I have always been fascinated by the islands in the center of the Allegheny River.  My Granddad told us boy scouts a fable about them.  It went like this:  Paul Bunyan was asked to create the Allegheny River, which he did, digging it deep and wide and perfect.  When the time came to collect his pay, however, the men who hired him decided that since the work was done, they could pay Paul less than they’d promised, and he would just have to take what they offered.  Paul Bunyan took understandable umbrage at this plan, though, and began to throw Paul Bunyan-sized shovels full of the rich earth back into the river, creating obstacles to boating which upset the men.  However, Paul would not correct the altered river, wouldn’t accept additional pay to remove them, figuring that the islands would stand as a mark of the dishonesty of those men who hired him and then chose not to pay the agreed-to price.

I say good for Paul.  People should deal in good faith, and if work is done, there should be fair pay earned.

Besides, the islands in the river are amazing places.  I kayak to them regularly, now that I am old enough to do so without causing my mom fits of worry.  It is very peaceful to head out in the early morning hours, when the river is calm and few boats are about.  There is a bald eagle nest with two healthy young, as well as lots of nesting water fowl, including some very regal snowy egrets that reside on the island closest to the lock near the Wicked Witches Bar.  The soil is rich and loamy, and there are trees whose roots reach into the river itself, seeming to anchor the island.

When I was younger, I would look out at the island and beg my parents to take my sisters and me to visit.  On the island closest to the lavender-colored Hulton Bridge, there are little cottages.  I wondered who stayed there, if they had electricity, if they had running water, or if they lived like our forefathers, so close to modern civilization, yet completely apart.  My parents never would take us, though, opting for the land-based parks in the area, like Deer Lakes or Boyce, leaving me to wonder at the islands. 

Still, living so close to the river, I would walk to the docks in Springdale and daydream about them every chance I had, determined to make my way to the mysterious bits of land, some named, some not, obviously posed within the waterways.  I wondered if I stood in the shadow of Rachel Carson, whose homestead was nearby, if the famed environmentalist likewise was filled with curiosity by the strange islands when she was a youth. 

It is a sad irony that the park named in Ms. Carson’s honor is flanked on one side by two towering smoke stacks from an energy company, but that company provides work for a large number of the community residents.  Further, there is also a huge power tower with overhead high-voltage wires that cuts the corner of the little track near its lone gazebo.  It is through this park that the small patch of land near the freight docks is accessed. 

In Cheswick, I would quietly walk along the Marina and the little stores behind the shopping plaza, from which vantage I could actually see my favorite island, an uninhabited bit of land just about a short kayak trip away.  It seemed close enough for a leisurely swim, but the undertow currents in the river are very strong and have claimed many a life, and I always chose to follow the examples of personal safety.

My first solo kayak trip into the Allegheny River was one that took a lot of contemplation and determination.  It was prompted by one of my many musings of a late June evening.  Fireflies flashed behind me, but they did not hold the allure of the strange glow that I saw on the island.  Like a will-o-the-wisp, I could see what seemed like a soft golden glow bouncing among the trees on what I’d decided was my own island.  Like a siren song, I was irresistibly drawn.

I polished my orange fiberglass craft, prepared my oars, and resolved that nothing would stop me.  I would solve the mystery of the glow on the island.  I was a strong lad who had seen 15 years, stubborn and, with teen-aged arrogance, convinced of my own abilities.  I would keep my excursion a secret from my protective parents, certain that they would call my excursion a folly.  

There is a wilder current and a calmer current in a river, and I had the advantage of approaching from the gentler side.  I felt like one of the indigenous people as I slipped ashore, securing my light-weight boat on the heavily forested beach.    I was greeted by a multitude of insects, a swarm of gnats and mosquitoes.  Walking across the undisturbed foliage were spiders, lady bugs, and caterpillars.  The walk from one end of the island to the other, and an accompanying perimeter of the entire place took no more than 15 minutes, yet this island felt as captivating to me as the much larger Galapagos Islands must have felt to Mr. Darwin.  The birds were in abundance, and I am pretty certain that I saw the rope-like tail of an oversized river rat ducking into a den close to where I’d landed.  The ground was very moist and threatened on several occasions to steal my shoe.

However, I saw nothing obvious that could have produced the strange illumination from the day before.  I am not certain what I expected to find, but I was strangely not disappointed that there was not a secret hermit who dwelled within a disguised abode, nor a pirating ship in evidence on the little island, but only the creatures, the lapping water, and some lingering sense that I had much to learn about this place.

So as to avoid arousing suspicions, I made my way back to the shore and returned home before anyone could have marked my absence.  I walked to the Springdale Library, a frequent haunt of mine, to see if I could learn more of the island.  There were Google close-ups and Army Corps dimensions, but not much substantive information about the local islands.  I was not deterred, though, determined to discover from my own empirical experiences more about my island. 

That evening, I sat with a granola bar on the edge of the river, watching the island.  I brought my camera, too, and photographed the alluring place as the sun sank, sending golden and flame hues to dance among the waves, transforming what had become a muddy river after an afternoon rainstorm into a seeming fairyland.

When I later looked at the images that I’d captured, I was flabbergasted, though, and certainly confused.  There on the island seemed to be the outline of a woman, dressed in a white gown like a bride, with an enormous hat perched upon her head.  I did not see her when taking the photos, but perhaps I’d been too distracted by the sunset to notice.  Perhaps she was a bride, having an exotic photo shoot, though I’d never before heard of such a locale being used for this purpose, and I could not see any evident boat that conveyed her.  Plus, I could not recall another human to take the photos.  The boat could be on the other side of the island, though, and I did not notice the bride, let alone anyone else, since I was apparently preoccupied by the play of the lights upon the water.

In the early morning, I again set out with the sunrise to the island, my oars making very little sound as I sped toward my destination, the enthusiasm of Holmes on a new case filling my being.  The presence of even one person would be obvious in the press of the vegetation.  Here was a clue to a happening on the mysterious island, and I felt proprietary about “my island.”

My surprise and confusion were pronounced when, upon my arrival, there was not a single shoe print or trampled plant in evidence, though I conducted a thorough search of the area.  In what must have been the proper place, though, moist from the plentiful rainfall of the late spring season, a dragonfly sat upon a popper plant.  It hovered and landed repeatedly on the plant, flying away only when I came too close for its comfort.  Then I snagged my sneakered foot on some root or tangled plant and fell face forward.

Being young and athletic, it was easy to catch myself, though, finding under my fingers mired in the vegetated earth something hard and circular.  It was a coin, quite old, and I found when I washed it within the river water that it was dated 1849.  My heart doubled its excited pounding.  I’d found a genuine treasure!

It was with hesitation that I left my island to paddle back to the shore, but the hour was later, I was quite a mess, and my parents would wonder about my antics if I lingered.  There was a gun dealer who also sold antiques in a little shop along Freeport Road in town, and after stashing my wet kayak in the shed behind our house and changing into a fresh t-shirt, I made my way there for an assessment of the coint that I’d found.

Noone paid much attention to me, a young teen in muddied jeans and tennis shoes, despite my clean shirt and combed hair, and certainly they did not seem eager to appraise my treasure.  Thus, my attention was turned to some of the many old pieces housed within the glass counters and display cases.  The guns were mostly modern, but there was a front-loading musket and a flintlock rifle that I found interesting.  One display case held military awards from all of the branches of the military, mostly from WWII.  Within the counter closest to the cash register where I conspicuously placed myself in the hopes of some service, were household and personal items in silvers and golds.  A cigar box engraved with the name Frick, a woman’s hatpin with an enormous, enameled songbird cresting it, and a tiny picture frame with a solemn-faced family were prominent in the center, surrounded by lockets, pocket watches and fobs, and the like.

I bent to look at the lower rack when I snapped to standing like a soldier.  The woman in the silver-framed depiction seemed familiar.  Her silhouette, her clothing, with the large, white hat, the stiff way that she stood, reminded me of the bride that I found in my own photography.  There was a curvature of the spine that corseting could not entirely correct that was extremely distinctive.  She was the tallest in the photo with her hat framing a gentle but resolved face.  To her right were three girls, the eldest a teen a head shorter than her mother.  Seated regally in a chair at her left in the foreground was the only man, the only person wearing a dark colored outfit, with the other ladies all wearing light-colored clothes, stiff corsets, high necklines, and full bell-type hoop skirts.  The woman to her immediate left was a black woman who was also nearly a head shorter than the hatted woman, this lady dressed as the other ladies in pale colors, but with a shawl around her strong shoulders.  All five of the ladies had elaborate braids pulling up their hair, though the hat on the tallest lady obscured her hairstyle.

When a clerk finally came to help me, I blurted out, “who is this family?” rather loudly and vehemently, startling myself and the clerk with my urgency.  After a short second appraising me, the clerk, whose nametag read “Bob,” opened the cabinet and turned the sturdy, intricate frame over to read from a sticker on the back.  “circa 1851, the Floyd family.  Sterling silver, hand crafted frame.  Coppertype.”

It seemed too little information, so I asked, “Were they a local family?”  The clerk shrugged and made a dismissive gesture.  I forgot my coin and hurried to the library.  There, I could always find at least some of the answers that I sought.

After a number of false starts, a search of the internet yielded a bit of information.  Eleanor Floyd (nee Radcliffe) was the daughter of a progressive-thinking physician from Washington County.  She was educated and liberal in her thinking. She married a student of her father’s, Benjamin Floyd, and bore three girls, Helene, Elizabeth, and Florence, as well as a boy, Henry, but  the boy did not surviving past infancy.  Within their household they had a loved household servant, Gemma, the woman depicted in the family photograph that I’d seen at the antiques and gun shop. 

Eleanor was a quiet participant in the Underground Railroad.  Frequently, Gemma would alert Benjamin and Eleanor of escaped slaves so that these refuges could seek shelter at the Floyd’s home.  There was a large, walk-in cabinet within Eleanor’s room for them to hide within, and Eleanor would fain illness to discourage thorough searches of her premises.  There are not accurate records of this secret business, but it is estimated that a good number of escaped slaves continued through Pittsburgh to the North and freedom. 

My brain labored to make connections between the coincidental finds.  I walked from the library to follow the still-used freight railroad tracks that paralleled the river, lost in my thoughts as I made my way to a patch of dense greenery and trees from which I could reflect and watch the island uninterrupted, save by birdsong and the occasional train whistle.  I settled in a comfortable position, long adolescent  legs stretched out in front, my coin heavy in my left front  jeans pocket , the mysterious sunset photography in my right, a furrow to my sun freckled brow.   

A white-cabined tugboat trudged its way toward the point at downtown Pittsburgh where the three rivers joined, pushing a heavily laden flat of coal.  As it passed my island, I noticed a person duck down in the concealing bushes on the island.  Observing closely, I could see that the black man was roughly clothed in loose tan slacks and an oversized brown, long-sleeved top.  He poked his head up and looked straight at me.  Though there was a considerable distance between us, the look of desperation was obvious.  Suddenly behind me, the sound of the road traffic from Freeport which also ran parallel to the river became pronounced, with a cacophony of screeching breaks and blaring horns.  I glanced over my shoulder but momentarily, but I no longer saw the desperate stranger on the island.

Nor have I ever met him since, though now and again, I do catch an occasional glimpse of the mysterious woman in white, standing so quietly in the sunset, sometimes with another, darker woman at her side.  I am not at all frightened when I see them, though I am certain that they are either products of my overly active imagination or phantoms overlooking an heroic past.  They seem somehow a part of the island on which I believe they hid escaped slaves as they continued their way North along the Underground Railroad to safety.  The island is a part of the Army Corps and protected from the occasional fire by the Harmar Fire Company, yet I still claim it as I believe did Eleanor Floyd and those lucky enough to find temporary sanctuary in its miniature forest.  Certainly it has long been a safe, solitary place for my thoughts, a home to many animals and birds.  That is why, although it is just one of the many numbered “mile this and such” islands in the Allegheny River, I call it Sanctuary.