Dog days: When in Western Pennsylvania, red dog is not necessarily a canine

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August has arrived, and so have the dog days of summer.

As that summer sun beats down on highways of concrete, lanes of asphalt, it might also warm a unique part of Western Pennsylvania heritage, a red dog road – or driveway – actually born of fire.

Here’s a thought. We could call them “red dog days.”

For those who haven’t a clue about red dog, John Harper, retired head of the Pittsburgh Geological Survey office, responded to an emailed request for some information.

In this case, according to Harper, red dog is coal waste that has been subjected to heat. The waste typically is a combination of very low quality coal and “carbonaceous” shale, or, black shale with a lot of carbon in it.

“The coal operators just piled this material up and let it sit. As a result of heat generated within the piles, the carbonaceous material ‘burned’ in a low-oxygen environment, kind of like what happens in a coke oven. Some of the rock turned red as a result.

“Eventually, some enterprising companies began mining the red dog piles to use as inexpensive road paving material. My grandfather used it on the driveway to his farm near the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, as did many others who lived in rural Western Pennsylvania.”

The miners also called this stuff “bony,” a slang term Webster indicates can mean “barren or lean.”

Motorists in the Beallsville area may have driven past a sign that advertises red dog.

People would sometimes stop by the stone yard and ask if they had pups for sale, thinking they were advertising a redbone coonhound, according to Janey West, who answered the phone number posted on the sign.

A small pile of the rocky red stuff is heaped beside the sign.

“Are there still red dog roads out there?” asked Sheila Gombita, executive director of Washington County Transportation Authority.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a red dog road in years.”

Red Dog, with capital letters, is also the name of a brew and several saloons.

Understandably, this is prime time for slaking one’s thirst. As lassitude sets in along with dripping humidity, Sirius, known as the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major, ascends, which actually gave rise to the term “dog days.”

“Pittsburgh has reached or surpassed 90 degrees seven times this year,” tweeted the National Weather Service Pittsburgh location.

“The average number of 90-degree days is 9.5,” it said, calling its observation “a climate tidbit as we are in the dog days of summer.”

And getting back to ruddy pups, the American Kennel Club describes the redbone coonhound as a breed that, like its humans, likes to take a dip.

Swimming or hunting “between long periods of rest is the rhythm of coonhound life,” the AKC website relates.

The redbone is a tracker, too, hot on the trail – with emphasis on the word, “hot,” which brings us full circle from where this tale of summer began.


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