One day in the mid-1890s, a boy playing baseball with his buddies in McKees Rocks looked down and saw what he thought was a tree root sticking out of the ground.
The boy had a bat, and so he took a swat at the root. What bounded out of the ground, however, was a shin bone, not part of a tree. He and his friends did what every other American kid would do — they dug further. Eventually, they unearthed a human skeleton.
That’s one story of the discovery of the ancient McKees Rocks Indian Mound. We’ve also read that early farmers in the area sometimes plowed up skulls of those buried in a sitting position.
Few people talk about the mound anymore. But at one time it was one of the area’s most striking features. It rises above the Bottoms neighborhood of McKees Rocks and overlooks the Ohio River near Brunot Island.
In 1896, an Andrew Carnegie-funded excavation turned up the remains of up to 39 people, along with some pottery, beads, an axe and other artifacts of the Adena people who lived thousands of years ago.
Since then, the mound has been mauled and otherwise mistreated. As early as 1926, The Pittsburgh Press worried that “the public is standing by in utter apathy and indifference while the mound is being hauled down and destroyed.”
During the Depression years, the WPA quarried rock from the mound. Kids climbed over its heights in search of arrow heads. People picnicked there. Later, an oil company and other industrial firms chopped into the mound and the once-imposing cliff at its eastern edge.
In May 1951, newspapers made a big deal out of spirits rising up in revenge after two boys nearly got killed while digging a cave into the mound. The roof collapsed, burying the boys, ages 9 and 10. Two pals ran for help. The boys were uncovered after several minutes and, though unconscious, were revived.
A marker on the site calls the McKees Rocks mound the largest Native American burial ground in Western Pennsylvania.
But the years — and development — have taken their toll. We glimpsed the mound yesterday while driving across the McKees Rocks Bridge. It’s mostly covered in trees now and looks like any other rise in the Western Pennsylvania landscape.