Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bridgeville High School, 1939 through 1941 November 30, 20a7

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

November 30, 2017

Bridgeville High School, 1939 through 1941

This month the Bridgeville Area Historical Society “Second Tuesday” workshop returned to its review of the history of Bridgeville High School, this time focusing on the Classes of 1939, 1940, and 1941. 

The discussion actually began in the middle of 1938. The football team was on the upswing that Fall and celebrated a thumping of Clark High 12 to 0. The Senior dramatists presented a comedy, “The Nut Farm”, with a cast that included Gloria Lutz. Too bad we didn’t have that knowledge to tease her about when she was our teacher ten years later.

The basketball team was quite successful, led by Clair “Tay” Malarkey. They topped Bethel 31 to 25 to win the championship of their section. The star center for Bethel in that game was Robert Hast, who would make history at BHS a decade later. Their run through the WPIAL playoffs ended with a decisive 41 to 32 loss to Springdale.

There were 74 graduates in the Class of 1939. They included Alex Asti, Bridgeville’s first fatal casualty of World War II; future coach and teacher Clyde “Tiny” Carson; and Bob Weise, elder brother of Society President Mary Weise. Their May Queen was Betty Crawford; the Maid of Honor was Mary True. Flower girl Sally Russell would reign as BHS May Queen ten years in the future.

BHS’ football team met a lot of success in the Fall of 1939. They were unbeaten in Class B with a clear path to the WPIAL championship when they met South Fayette in their annual rivalry game. Their opponents, winless in eight games, once again proved the old adage that past records are meaningless in rivalry games by pulling off the biggest upset in the history of this long series, 6 to 0. The result was a series of fights on the sidelines between fans of the two rivals, an event that was recorded for posterity in a newspaper photograph.

Two class presidents, Joe Halloran (Senior Class) and Arthur Spriggs (Junior Class) were honored by the Merit Parade, as was Faust Rosa. Mary Weise pointed out that Rosa had gone on to a distinguished career as a nuclear engineer. Sure enough, a search in turned up a series of articles in 1977 quoting Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Faust Rosa.

The Juniors presented a class play “New Fires” starring Anne Bowman and John Sigmann. We are inclined to forget how popular these plays were in an era when the high school was the social and cultural center of the community.

After a hiatus of several years BHS fielded a soccer team in 1940, one of six schools in WPIAL. There were lots of familiar soccer names on the team including  Sypien, LaSota, and Pawlik.

The facilitator showed a lovely photograph of the 1940 Senior Ball which he found in a scrapbook in the Society’s archives. The gymnasium in the high school is lavishly decorated. The girls all look like May Queens; their escorts, like Lochinvars. Two years later they would be wrapped up in the horrors of war. The Class of 1940 included 108 graduates, by far the biggest group for the high school up to that time.

High School principal Martin Fowler left to become Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Industrial Training School at Morganza, a fancy name for a Reform School. Fowler was shocked at the way the students were treated, so he tore down the fences and initiated a “trusty” policy. Within a week the school’s inmates were scattered all over Western Pennsylvania. Fowler resigned shortly thereafter, citing “policy differences” as his reason for leaving.

The 1940 Fall football team was powerhouse featuring halfbacks “Smiles” Perkins and Perry Hackley. They capped an undefeated season with a 12 to 0 drubbing of South Fayette, avenging the previous year’s loss. BHS and Masontown ended in a tie for second place in WPIAL Class B and were forced to play an elimination game to earn the right to the playoff game, a game that the locals lost, 6 to 0.

The Historical Society is fortunate to have the original scrapbook that Coach Neil Brown kept while he was at Bridgeville. When his wife was a client at the Guild for the Blind, Coach Brown gave the scrapbook to Nancy LaSota, believing it belonged in Bridgeville. The facilitator was able to show a number of photos of individual players that were in it.

Roy Delaney and Peter Calabro were honored by the Merit Parade. According to the newspaper article Calabro was hoping to convert his hobby of recapping automobile tires into a vocation (which he eventually did quite successfully). Don Toney pointed out that Calabro was one of three Bridgeville airman shot down in separate incidents in World War II and ending up in the same Prisoner of War camp. The others were cousins George Shady and George Abood.

The BHS basketball team repeated as Section champions before losing to Sharpsburg in the playoffs 33 to 23. The track and field team fared much better, winning the Class B WPIAL title.  John Pesavento won the 100 yard dash; Bill Camp, the 880. A relay team of Fillippi, Copeland, Adams, and Perkins won the Two Lap Relay: the team of Adams, Phillips, Hackley, and Fillippi took the Four Lap Relay title. In the Field events Smiles Perkins won the Shot Put and Jim Patter the High Jump. Coach John Graham turned out powerful track and field teams in those years.

Pattee Kelley provided a wealth of information on the Class of 1941 by bringing in programs from their Class Night and Commencement that her mother, Margaret “Pat” True, had lovingly saved. Class Night was a series of skits and musical productions performed by the Seniors. A highlight certainly must have been Guy Russell singing “He’s the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”.

There were eighty six Seniors in the Class of 1941. Commencement featured valedictory addresses by Judith Rosa, James Knold, Helen Colton, Frank Rizak, and Nina Whitecap. Their subjects were the various aspects of “Our Part in the American Crisis”. I suspect their advice would still be relevant today.

The next “Second Tuesday” workshop is scheduled for 7:00 pm, December 12, 2017 in the History Center. We will attempt to cover the Classes of 1942, 1943, and 1944.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Rookie Tour Guide November 23, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

November 23, 2017

Rookie Tour Guide

I recently had the privilege of spending some time with a wonderful group of young people – the leaders of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student chapters from universities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.

I originally was recruited to give a talk at their annual Assembly, which was held at Pitt this year, hosted by our student chapter. Then, at the last minute I ended up pinch-hitting for a much more qualified expert, as a tour guide/narrator for a Friday night cruise on the Gateway Clipper.

Actually it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to take on this assignment. I am always impressed with the folks who narrate train rides or boat trips, not to mention docents at historical sites. Much too often I find fault with them and tell myself I could do better.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that this is a lot harder than it looks. I have taken this trip several times and had a rough idea what we would be able to see from the boat. I assumed the biggest focus for a group of Civil Engineers would be on the bridges we went under, supplemented by the tall buildings in the Golden Triangle and the tunnels, inclines, and railroads that we could see.

Somehow I always have trouble finding the parking lot for the Gateway Clipper. This time I decided to approach it from the West, via the West End Bypass. I nearly botched the turnoff from the Parkway, sorely tempted to take the exit that leads up Route 51 to the Liberty Tunnel. I made up for by missing the exit for Carson Street and found myself on the West End Bridge. Back across the Fort Bridge and heading the wrong way on Carson Street. Eventually I found a place to turn around and was able to limp into the parking lot.

Once on the boat, we explained to the crew what I was supposed to do. They provided me with a wireless microphone, which functioned satisfactorily most of the time. I had prepared a detailed set of notes, mostly related to dates and people associated with the design and construction of the things we would be passing.

I concluded my best location would be on the top deck. That worked well until we set sail and I realized the deck was completely dark. I might as well have thrown my notes into the Mon for all the good they did me.

My opening quip was to describe the features of our vessel, including the “plank” on its bow, which I explained was used to get rid of undesirable passengers. I then instructed all the fans of the Philadelphia Flyers, Baltimore Ravens, and Washington Capitols to report to the plank and form an orderly line.

Much too late I remembered the story of the Pitt Stadium P. A. announcer who interrupted a Pitt-West Virginia game with the statement that there was a car in the parking lot with its lights on and motor running, West Virginia license plate E-I-E-I-O. I missed a chance to tease our WVU visitors.

In addition to frequent sound system malfunctions and my inability to read my notes, I had misjudged the route we would take. When we passed under the Tenth Street Bridge I heaved a sigh of relief because I had a lot to say about the next bridge (Birmingham) and the mystery of the B-25 that crashed into the Monongahela River in 1956 and has never been found. Much to my dismay the Captain did a “one-eighty” and headed for the Point.

Fortunately it was a beautiful evening with a nearly full moon directly over the fountain when we made the turn to head up the Allegheny. I announced “photo opportunity”, which immediately initiated a rush to the railing of folks armed with Smart phones. My colleague Tony Iannichione produced the best photograph.

The Allegheny leg was also disappointing as the combination of high water and scaffolding under the Warhol Bridge made it impossible for the Clipper to negotiate the “Three Sisters Bridges”. Here too I had a lot to say and had to compress it into a few statements.

No complaints about the Ohio leg, thanks to the Duquesne Heights Incline, the U. S. S. Requin, and the West End Bridge. It also provided us with another opportunity to marvel at the view of the fountain and the towers in the Golden Triangle, with the moon directly above them.

In retrospect the experience wasn’t as bad as it sounds. My friends were courteous about my performance and many of the visitors didn’t know enough about Pittsburgh to recognize my errors and omissions. I would like to take another crack at it, now that I realize what the problems are.

The subject of my talk the next day was “The Civil Engineering Heritage of Western Pennsylvania”. This is a topic that really excites me. I decided to do it by discussing, chronologically, the ten Civil Engineering achievements in this area that have been awarded “Landmark” status by ASCE. In order they are the Mason-Dixon Survey, the U. S. Public Land Survey, the National Road, the Allegheny Portage Railway, the Dunlap’s Creek Bridge (Brownsville), the Horseshoe Curve, the Smithfield Street Bridge, the Davis Island Dam, the Kinzua Viaduct, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

These were easy to discuss, primarily of my involvement in the nomination of many of them and my personal interest in each of them. It is interesting that discussing them chronologically is automatically a review of the way the Civil Engineering profession evolved in the past two and a half centuries.

It was appropriate for me to add a handful of other achievements that I believe warrant consideration as Historical Civil Engineering Landmarks – the U. S. Steel Building, the George Westinghouse Bridge, the Cathedral of Learning, ALCOSAN, and George Washington Ferris’ Observation Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Each of them is a worthwhile project.

I ended the talk with a short sermon I have given to our Pitt students on a number of occasions. Entitled “Cream of the Crop”, it is a plea to them to take advantage of the education they have received, their unparalleled access to tools and information, and their inherent intelligence to tackle the massive problems that face Civil Engineers today – the design, construction, and maintenance of our infrastructure, for the benefit of society, while minimizing its impact on the environment.

This was an appropriate audience; they are the leaders of an already elite group of young people who have survived the “weeding out” of those who are not outstanding, and who are now approaching the point where they will begin to make their mark in the “real world”.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Picaresque Novel November 16, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

November 16, 2017

My Picaresque Novel

Long time readers of this column will remember that I am a member of a group of chronologically challenged (elderly ?) men whom my daughter Elizabeth calls “The Dirty Old Men’s Book Club”. We meet once a month and discuss a book we have all read and then negotiate the choice of the book for next month.

Last month we ended up compromising on Saul Bellow’s highly acclaimed novel, “The Adventures of Augie March”. It unfortunately is much too long for me to read in my normal fashion and properly enjoy it. I managed to get through it and then fell back on Wikipedia to get insight into why critics are so impressed with it.

Turns out it is a “picaresque novel”, at least according to the committee who awarded Bellow the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. I felt I knew what that meant, but decided to check it out anyhow. Wikipedia thinks it is an “episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road”. Sounds a lot like my autobiography!

Consequently this week I feel obligated to report on my recent long weekend trip to Colorado to visit my daughter Sara and her family. I have become too frail to handle air travel that involves anything other than non-stop flights; fortunately United still provides this service between Pittsburgh and Denver.

The flight west leaves in the late afternoon and arrives in Denver in the early evening. Elizabeth and her husband Mike wanted to borrow my minivan for the weekend to move some furniture, so in recompense she picked me up and delivered me to the airport.

I had carefully organized my belongings to fit in one small gym bag, a very practical one that we got from the Penguins years ago when my wife and I went on a weekend bus trip to Wilkes-Barre they sponsored the year of the hockey strike in the NHL.

Sure enough the lady in security confiscated my bag and told me she had to open it up and inspect its contents. I immediately blurted out “Bran muffins!”. And of course I was correct. One of my numerous eccentricities is an obsession with fiber. I originally satisfied this by buying bran muffins at the Big Bird and enjoying one every morning.

When they quit selling bran muffins I reverted to Plan B and began to bake my own “from scratch”. By now I suspect my obsession for a bran muffin every morning is more superstition than science, but it does work. Not knowing if we could buy bran muffins in Colorado I put two of mine into a plastic container and stuck them into the bag.

I can’t believe the inspector saw anything that looked like a weapon in my bag; I suspect she was just curious about this strange object. At any rate my careful packing was completely disrupted but I did manage to get everything back inside and zipped up tight.

I had expected to spend the time on the plane working on “Augie March” but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my I-Phone was working on this specific flight and, better yet, that I could access a movie if I wished. There was a nice collection of films available, but as soon as I saw “Singing in the Rain” there was no competition. I was surprised how easy it was for me to enjoy watching a movie on the tiny phone.

Sara and Nora met me at the Denver Airport. Nora was scheduled to play in an early soccer game the next day at a field fairly close to the airport so we checked into a nearby hotel, went out for dinner at Chili’s, and then settled in for the night.

The game the next morning was fun to watch, even though our team lost 2 to 1. Nora is a goalkeeper and is working hard to become a very good one. I consider myself a student of the game of soccer and must admit I was extremely impressed at the level of play for a group of seventh graders. Both teams played a disciplined, well executed game.

After the game we drove up to their home in Fort Collins in time for lunch before taking off for another athletic contest – this time a basketball game. It was played in an impressive modern complex in nearby Windsor, a facility someone is operating as a for-profit business. And business appears to be booming. All six basketball floors were in use, with other teams lined up to take over at the end of each game.

Here too the level of play was outstanding for seventh graders. Nora’s team was outclassed but still played very well. In general I am not a fan of organized sports for young children, but I must admit the programs in the Fort Collins area are highly commendable. They have numerous levels in an effort to make sure that any child who wants to play in a competitive sport can do so regardless of his/her ability.

The big event of a busy weekend for the McCance family was fifteen year old Ian’s participation in the Rocky Mountain High School play, “Alice in Wonderland”. This is the third time Ian has had a significant role in a major play, and it appears this is something at which he is especially accomplished.

I suspect part of his acting talent comes from my wife, who excelled at such things when she was young. There must also be some good genes in that area from Ian’s father’s family; I will have to investigate that.

The play itself was quite clever and well done. Whoever wrote the script did an excellent job handling some of the fantasy things that were difficult to portray and at the same time incorporated the familiar bits of dialogue from the story into the play.

Ian portrayed the Carpenter in the Walrus and Carpenter episode. In case you have forgotten, the Walrus and the Carpenter succeeded in persuading a horde of oysters to join them for dinner without telling the oysters they were the main course on the menu. They carried this off quite well.

I was surprised to learn that the sets had all been constructed by students. They certainly appeared to be professionally made; perhaps my perception that children today cannot do anything “hands-on” is wrong. I was also pleased that the students responsible for this work came out on stage during the curtain calls and were properly rewarded by enthusiastic applause.

My grandchildren are extremely lucky to be growing up in a loving, nurturing family and in a community that provides opportunities for children to exploit their interests in a variety of areas ranging from athletics to music and drama.

Sunday morning was dominated by Halloween preparations. Claire (ten years old) decided to be the Red Queen from Ian’s play. Nora was going to be Spider Woman. Ian found an idea on the Internet which initiated frantic activity by him and his father. They put swatches of red paint (blood) on a white tee shirt and then attached cereal boxes to the shirt. Cereal Killer!

Sara and I took their black Lab, Porter, for a long walk in the neighborhood. She wanted to show me a display of exhibits related to storm water remediation in a nearby park. They demonstrated detention, settlement into the water table, and pollutant removal by vegetation. An excellent illustration of solving an environmental problem.

Sara and the girls took me back to the airport in the afternoon. No problems with my bag at Security, just the long lines that are always evident at this very busy facility. No I-Phone capability on this flight, so I did manage to get through three or four chapters of “Augie March” on the way home.

Mike met me at the Pittsburgh Airport and had me home in forty five minutes, an unprecedented occurrence. Certainly an improvement over waiting for a shuttle and hunting for a vehicle in the parking lot.

As always I had a warm feeling when we passed under the overpass at Rosslyn Farms and dropped down to the Carnegie exit on the Parkway. It reminded me of my father’s custom of honking the horn and declaring “Now we’re home!” whenever we crossed the Allegheny County line on the way home from a long auto trip.

The Origins of World War II November 9, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

November 9, 2017

The Origins of World War II

The October program meeting of the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was moved up a week this year to avoid a conflict with Halloween. The speaker was Glenn Flickinger; his subject, “The Origins of World War II”.

Mr. Flickinger is a highly successful business consultant who is a passionate history buff with the ability to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with the rest of us. World War II is his favorite topic, probably because numerous members of his family were directly involved in it. In fact, his mother was a nurse in Honolulu on December 7, 1941.

He very effectively traced the evolution of the root causes of the war by drawing three parallel timelines that intersected at the point where Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.

The top line represented the Far East, and especially Japan. It began in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of United States Navy warships steamed into Tokyo Bay and presented a letter to officials of the Shogunate demanding trade negotiations to be conducted the next year.

In 1854 the fleet returned to Tokyo Bay and initiated a three week series of meetings culminating in the Convention of Kanagawa. Signed by Perry on behalf of the United States and Daigaku-no-kami Hayashi Akira on behalf of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it granted access for trade at two ports – Hakodate and Shimoda.

Perry’s mission was twofold – to initiate trade with Japan and to demonstrate to the world that the United States was well on the way to becoming a world power. In some respects it backfired. Once the medieval Japanese were introduced to western technology, they modernized at an unanticipated rate. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for”. A key date in that period is 1868 when the power of the shogunate was overcome and the Meiji Emperor restored in its place.

The Japanese proved to be adept students of their western teachers. They modelled their navy after the British navy and their army after ours. By1894 they began to expand by demonstrating their military power. They defeated a larger Chinese army in Korea and were granted dominion over Formosa (Taiwan).

In 1905 they ended the Russo-Japanese War with an impressive naval victory at Tsushima and claimed Korea as spoils. They astutely joined the Allied cause in World War I and were rewarded with the German Pacific Island colonies for their support.

In 1931 the Japanese Kwantung Army invaded Manchuria and overran it rapidly. It was renamed Manchuko and became an important source of raw materials for the growing Japanese heavy industries. In 1937 they began the second Sino-Japanese War and soon took control of the eastern part of China. The Nationalist Chinese retreated to the west and continued to fight fiercely for the next eight years.

The United States responded to the invasion of China by imposing severe economic sanctions upon Japan. This resulted in Japan’s signing the Tripartite Agreement with Germany and Italy. In 1941 they invaded French Indo-China, causing Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States to freeze all Japanese assets. The stage was set for an even bigger confrontation.

Mr. Flickinger began the United States timeline in 1898 with the Spanish-American War and our acquisition of possessions in the Pacific. One could make the argument that Perry’s intervention in Japan forty five years earlier might have been more appropriate. He then discussed our involvement in World War I and in the peacemaking process at its end.

He highlighted the unrest in this country following the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Although he did not imply that this gave us any incentive to go to war, he did acknowledge that the buildup of our manufacturing capability for planes, tanks, and naval vessels was the primary reason the Depression finally ended.

He began the European Timeline with the Franco-Prussian War and the consolidation of the numerous German-speaking principalities into one country, primarily under the control of Otto von Bismarck. The German victory in that conflict and their acquisition of the Alsace Loraine region initiated a feeling in the French people that made World War I almost inevitable.

By 1914 Europe was filled with countries eager to pick a fight and to acquire assets for their respective empires. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that set off the resulting conflagration, an incredibly horrible war that ended with the complete destruction of four empires – the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg), the German (Hohenzollern), Ottoman, and Russian.

Many historians believe that the decisions made and implemented in the Versailles Treaty following World War I, the emergence of Communist Russia, and the Great Depression produced the root causes for the Second World War. Germany was punished so severely that its people were driven to extremes – either Communism or reactionary nationalism. The Nazis prevailed, barely, in the 1932 election and quickly took over and prepared to regain their nation’s position as a world power.

Economic stability was established by massive investment in infrastructure (the Autobahn system) and the manufacturing of armaments. In contradiction to provisions in the Versailles Treaty the German army, navy, and air force were re-established as major fighting forces.

In 1935 the residents of the Saarland, administered by the League of Nations since 1920, voted to rejoin Germany. The next year Germany moved troops into the Rhineland and returned it to their sovereignty.  The same year they signed agreements of cooperation with Italy and Japan.

In 1938 the Nazis took over Austria and Czechoslovakia by intimidation, moves wildly supported by German-speaking citizens of both countries.

The Communist experiment in Russia survived numerous crises before becoming strong enough to initiate its expansion agenda in the Baltic and in Eastern Europe. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 France and Great Britain declared that a state of war existed. Russia invaded from the east and within a few weeks Poland had been divided up between Germany and Russia.

England and France responded with economic sanctions and minor naval engagements. In April 1940 the Germans invaded and conquered Norway and Denmark. A month later they attacked France through the “Low Countries” and by June 20 France surrendered. The air war over Great Britain dominated the remainder of the year.

Early in 1941 the Germans sent troops to North Africa to support their Italian allies in Libya. They also invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and then, inexplicably, Russia on June 22. The war in Russia would ultimately prove to be Hitler’s downfall.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was drawn into war with them. Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States four days later, Mr. Flickinger believes, was the official beginning of World War II.

The consensus of opinion of the audience for this discussion was that World War II occurred because of the expansionist, nationalistic ambitions of all the major powers, exacerbated by the complications of the Great Depression world-wide. The speaker’s timelines tracing some of these developments were particularly effective in developing this conclusion.

The November program meeting for the Historical Society will feature Edd Hale, discussing “The U. S. Brig Niagara”. The meeting will be held at 7:30 pm, Tuesday, November 28, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street. As always, the public is cordially invited.

Mason and Dixon Celebration November 2, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

November 2, 2017

Mason and Dixon Celebration

Two hundred and fifty years ago this October Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon ended their survey of the southern border of Pennsylvania, built a modest monument on top of Brown’s Hill, and then turned around and retraced their steps back to the eastern seaboard. Largely through the efforts of one man, Pete Zapdka, this historic event was celebrated this year by a festival at the Mason Dixon Historical Park in Core, West Virginia.

Zapadka is the type of person who decides something should be done and then proceeds to make it happen. Four years ago he attended a ceremony in eastern Pennsylvania commemorating the initiation of the survey and concluded that something similar should occur at our end of the Mason Dixon Line.

The western terminus of the survey is a monument on top of Brown’s Hill, located within the Mason Dixon Historical Park. The surveyors’ original assignment was to lay out the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, a border which terminates far east of this point, at the headwaters of the Potomac River. Since the southern border of our state, shared with Virginia, extended farther west they decided to keep going as far as was practical.

It turned out that the practical limit was an Indian War Path close to the point where the survey crossed Dunkard Creek for the third time. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1767 the survey party had been accompanied by a contingent of Iroquois Indians as protection against potentially hostile Native Americans west of the Alleghenies.

The chief of their escorts advised the surveyors that the War Path was the boundary between their jurisdiction and that of the western tribes – Delawares, Mingos, Shawnees, etc. – and announced that they would go no farther. At this point Mason and Dixon spent a week taking star shots to determine their precise latitude and established the final milestone of their survey on top of Brown’s Hill.

For several recent years there has been an annual event in the park in the middle of October celebrating the completion of the survey, sponsored by the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association. This year it was expanded into an impressive festival, complete with vendors’ booths, astronomy demonstrations, eighteenth century surveying equipment, re-enactors, a quilt show, and historical presentations.

I was well aware of this because I had visited the event last year and made a point of reserving the festival date for this year. Pete Zapadka was scheduled to give a talk about the survey at 11:30 Saturday morning, so I left early enough to be sure I would arrive in time to check out some of the exhibits before his presentation.

The intersection where I-79 south and I-70 east separate has been improved dramatically in recent years and I was quite pleased at the ease with which I negotiated it. Before long I began to notice things that seemed strange to me – abutments of a ridge that has been removed, a lovely old barn ready to collapse, etc. Eventually I realized I was on the wrong road and had to do some clever recovery work to get back on I-79 South.

When I mentioned this to one of my friends, I got the anticipated response – Creeping Alzheimer’s! My response was to immediately recall half a dozen similar incidents, some dating back forty or fifty years. At any rate I did arrive shortly after 11:00 in plenty of time for the presentation.

I have done quite a bit of reading about the surveyors recently, including Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent novel, “Mason and Dixon”. Nonetheless I was happy to hear Zapadka’s talk, especially since he included a lot of information about the completion of the survey to the Ohio line in the years after Mason and Dixon left for home.

During the talk the speaker introduced Todd Babcock, another remarkable person. He is heavily involved with the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership (MDLPP), an organization dedicated to inventorying all the original markers on the Line and finding ways to preserve them. A major tool in this effort is the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to locate them.

Mr. Babcock commented on the accuracy of the original survey as compared with their actual latitude and longitude as determined by GPS. The variances average several hundred feet, with a maximum of nine hundred feet at one point. The MDLPP believes that gravitational attraction of nearby mountains, affecting the plumb bob during star shots, is the cause of them. I am not yet convinced – one more project for me to investigate.

The surveyors’ exhibit was interesting although the folks there were much more interested in demonstrating modern, high technology equipment than in discussing the circumferentor and Gunter’s chain that Mason and Dixon used. Nonetheless it was neat to actually see the antique equipment “in the flesh”.

To get to the actual location of the Mason and Dixon survey line from the Park buildings is a lovely walk along the edge of Dunkard Creek. According to a sign at the headquarters the walk is 1110 steps. The pedometer on my I-phone counted nearly 1900. I suspect that is the difference between octogenarian steps and those of normal red-blooded American boys.

Anyhow it was a delightful walk to take on a lovely October afternoon. The Festival provided golf cart shuttles as an alternative to walking; I was disappointed to see how popular they were. I asked one of the shuttle drivers to let me take a photo of him and his passengers, then told him I would entitle it “West Virginia Hiking Trail”.

There was an encampment of re-enactors at the end of the trail. First was a tent replicating the surveyors’ camp. The best thing in it was a full size copy of the map Dixon made recording the survey.

Next to it was an Indian encampment. As I walked by a group of natives cooking a groundhog over an open fire, a lovely young maiden called me by name. I immediately recognized her as the associate of Anderw Knez Jr., my favorite local artist. Much to my surprise she was impersonating the wife (squaw?) of Tingooqua (our old friend Catfish). When I saw him here last year he was dressed as a Native American; this year his costume was similar to that of the surveyors. When I questioned this, he advised me that Mason’s Journal reported that Catfish was “dressed much like the Europeans”, so he had changed his costume accordingly.

I have a soft spot in my heart for re-enactors. They make a conscious effort to research the characters they impersonate and the good ones really enhance our understanding of times past.

It was a great way to spend an autumn day. I certainly hope that Pete Zapadka and the Dunkard Creek Preservation Association folks found it sufficiently rewarding for them and that they will continue this event in future years.

Who Killed John Franks? October 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

October 26, 2017

Who Killed John Franks?

For its October “Second Tuesday” workshop the Bridgeville Area Historical Society interrupted its study of the history of Bridgeville High School to focus on the community’s most famous “cold case”, the murder of Pennsylvania Railroad Station Agent John C. F. Franks attempting to prevent a robbery one hundred and two years ago.

On a peaceful Saturday evening, October 16, 1915, a pair of strangers, whose presence in Bridgeville had been noticed for several days, entered the Norwood Hotel bar-room and enjoyed several drinks. A few minutes before 8:00 they paid their bill and left. They crossed the railroad tracks and were loitering in the lumber yard when the whistle of the 8:00 passenger train from Pittsburgh announced its imminent arrival.

At this point Station Agent Franks came out of the station, probably to determine if the train’s conductor had any mail for him. The two strangers came back across the tracks and entered the station. The westbound train pulled to a stop, blocking the crossing, and discharged its passengers, some of whom proceeded up Station Street toward Washington Avenue. A dozen or so waited patiently for the train to pull out.

At this point Mr. Franks realized that something was wrong and hurried back into the station, where he found one of the strangers rifling his cash box. He immediately attacked him and fell to the floor on top of him. In the meantime the passenger train and left, but before the passengers could get across the crossing an eastbound freight appeared, preventing them.

Two young boys dashed across the tracks in front of the freight and found themselves in the middle of a confrontation. The stranger standing guard at the station door grabbed fourteen year old John Schulte, threw him on the floor, then proceeded to shoot Mr. Franks and rescue his partner. Franks was mortally wounded. Thirteen year old Walter Der observed this from the platform.

By the time the freight train had passed and the passengers had come rushing across to investigate, the two burglars were leaving the station. They threatened the passengers with their handguns, then ran down the tracks and onto Baldwin Street. The shocked passengers found Mr. Franks’ dead body close to the ticket office he had tried to defend. George Moulton had also been outside the station, with Walter Der, and got a good enough look at the burglars to become one of the three witnesses who later were asked to identify suspects.

As soon as news of this tragedy spread, sightings of suspicious characters began to come in from all directions – the Washington Pike headed for Canonsburg, McLaughlin Run Road headed to Clifton, Bower Hill Road headed to Mt. Lebanon, and Carnegie boarding a trolley. A massive manhunt supported with bloodhounds focused on the area south of Bridgeville.

The first suspects proposed were the Wendt Brothers, Walter and Alfred. Afred had killed a constable in Altoona two days earlier, and it was believed the brothers were heading west. The constable’s watch was discovered in a pawn shop in Western Pennsylvania. However when the description of the burglars, one tall and one short with a mustache, was circulated, local police concluded it didn’t match the Wendts.

Every suspicious person who ran afoul of the law in this general area immediately became a suspect, especially if he were either tall or short. Mr. Moulton and the two boys were kept busy visiting lockups and taking the heat off suspects when they couldn’t identify them as the miscreants.

The first real break in the case occurred a week after the murder. John Mokati, a resident of Braddock, was arrested in a Roman Catholic Church in Castle Shannon for causing a disturbance when he refused to leave after praying in the sanctuary for several hours. His erratic behavior and the fact that he was indeed tall moved him to the top of the list of suspects for the Franks murder. Two of the eye witnessed declared that he was indeed the murderer; he was arrested and charged.

The next day a Catholic priest reported that he had seen Mokati in Braddock at 5:00 pm the day of the murder; nonetheless Mokati was held for trial, a trial that never transpired. On November 4, 1915, he had a mental breakdown in prison, was declared insane, and was taken to Woodville in a straitjacket.

On January 5 1916, a potential accomplice for Mokati turned up in the person of William Sanders, a short man who had attracted attention during an overnight stay in the “drunk tank” in the Canonsburg lockup. The plot against him thickened when a railroad ticket agent identified him as one of two men who had bought tickets to Bridgeville the day of the killing and had inquired about the duration of such a trip.

Sanders however claimed to have been a prisoner in the workhouse in Columbus, Ohio, under the name of Fred Scott, the day of the murder. At the same time the ticket agent backed off a little in his identification of Sanders as being the ticket purchaser. The warden in the Columbus prison confirmed that his prisoner Scott resembled the photograph of Sanders that was sent to him. Sanders was released, and never heard of again.

At this point the case was indeed cold and cold it remained for nineteen years. In late October 1934 Thomas Talbott, recently arrested in Pittsburgh, shocked local authorities by reporting that a former colleague of his, James McDonald, alias James Dillon, alias James Dinwiddie, had told him years earlier that he indeed had killed John Franks.

At this point McDonald was in prison in Illinois, about to be deported to his native Canada as an habitual criminal. When the eyewitnesses, all now nineteen years older, were unable to identify him from photographs, the local officials elected to pursue this lead no further; McDonald returned to Canada.

When Mrs. Annie Shusler read about the accusations made against McDonald, she decided to break a nineteen year long silence. She wrote to the County Detectives and informed them that she believed a man named Andrew Wanko was the murderer and that she had seen him running from the crime scene the evening of the murder. Adamantly denying any knowledge of the affair, he was brought to Pittsburgh from his home in Lewis, West Virginia, and identified by Mrs. Shusler. Two days later he was released when the detectives concluded there was insufficient evidence to hold him.

Having presented all this information to the workshop members, the facilitator now asked them to come to their own conclusions and decide whom they thought was guilty. Mokati, possibly allied with Sanders, got the most votes; followed closely by “I haven’t a clue”.

It is a remarkably convoluted story, one that doesn’t paint a favorable picture of the County Detective Department in that era. The fact that the incident occurred in the very building in which the workshop was conducted was particularly intriguing.

The next “Second Tuesday” workshop will return to our review of the history of Bridgeville High School, picking up with the Class of 1939. We hope to get as far as 1942 or 1943. It will be at the History Center at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, November 14.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Flannery Brothers October 19, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                        John F. Oyler

October 19, 2017

The Flannery Brothers

The Jefferson College Historical Society has a long and distinguished record celebrating the history and heritage of the Canonsburg area. They recently invited me to speak at their Fall meeting. With the subject of the talk left up to me, I decided to discuss the impact of the Flannery Brothers on the Chartiers Valley region, knowing that their involvement with the Standard Chemical Company in Canonsburg was historically significant.

James Flannery began the family’s successful business career by opening a funeral parlor in Homewood. By the time his younger brother, Joseph, graduated from Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University), there were three Flannery mortuaries in Pittsburgh,

In 1904 the brothers decided to diversify. They acquired rights to a patent for staybolts, a key component in the manufacture of locomotive boilers, and incorporated the Flannery Bolt Company. Their manufacturing facility was constructed in C. P. Mayer’s industrial park, on the Pennsylvania Railroad just north of Bridgeville.

Once they began manufacturing staybolts they realized the advantage of using “vanadium steel”, an extremely strong grade of steel that had a tiny amount of vanadium alloyed into it. The vanadium was also extremely expensive. Joseph Flannery convinced his brother they should enter the vanadium production business.

In 1906 they established the American Vanadium Company and began researching vanadium production in their Bridgeville facility. They were able to acquire a mine in Peru that could produce vanadium ore economically. This ore was shipped to Bridgeville by a transportation system which included llamas, a steamboat on a Peruvian lake, railroads, and ocean-going steamers.

By 1909 the Flannerys were successfully operating both companies, as well as four or five subsidiary firms producing specialty products from vanadium steel. They built a magnificent five story building, the Vanadium Building, at the corner of Meyran and Forbes Streets in Oakland, with a large stained glass window celebrating the vanadium production process.

That year they learned that their sister had been diagnosed with cancer. After researching all the possible cures for it, they concluded that radiation treatment, with radium, had the best chance of helping her. Unfortunately she died; the scarcity of radium had prevented her being treated.

At this point Joseph Flannery resigned his positions with the family firms and decided to find a way to produce radium on a commercial scale in a large enough volume to ensure that future cancer patients would have access to radiation treatment. The two brothers incorporated the Standard Chemical Company.

They found a source of carnotite ore in western Colorado that contained potassium, uranium dioxide, and vanadium tetraoxide. By now it was well known that radium existed in uranium deposits as a product of radioactive decay.

The radium production process was complicated. In an average month they mined 2500 tons of rock containing carnotite. In western Colorado they separated the ore from the rock in a concentrator, producing 500 tons of carnotite. This was then bagged in sixty pound bags and hauled on burros to a Denver and Rio Grande railhead.

The ore was then transported by rail to Canonsburg where a new processing facility had been built. At Standard Chemical the ore was treated by 500 tons of chemicals (probably hydrochloric acid) and reduced to one thousand pounds of salts, mostly barium chloride with a trace of radium chloride.

Once a day a messenger would board a streetcar in Canonsburg with a pail full of glass bottles containing the salts and travel into Pittsburgh, where he would transfer to a Forbes Avenue trolley and ride to Oakland to deliver his valuable cargo to the Vanadium Building.

The final step in the process was the subjecting of the salts to twenty five or thirty cycles of fractional crystallization, eventually producing one gram of radium. By 1920 more than half of the radium produced in the whole world had been produced by Standard Chemical.

Both Flannery brothers had died by 1921 when Madame Marie Curie visited Canonsburg as part of a grand tour of North America honoring her scientific achievements, a tour that culminated in a visit to the White House where President Harding presented her with a gram of radium.

It is reported that the highlight of her tour was the visit to Standard Chemical and the observation of her laboratory techniques being practiced on a commercial scale.

Standard Chemical operated until the early 1930s when it was replaced by a mysterious company, the Vitro Manufacturing Company. Vitro’s business was the reclamation of uranium from the waste piles left by its predecessor. 

The motivation for this activity became known years later when it was learned that Vitro’s customer was the Manhattan Project. In 1957 the Atomic Energy Commission took over the site. In 1978 it became a subject for reclamation under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act.

A large pile of radioactive debris was collected on the site and from neighboring buildings and has been encapsulated in a containment cell that is regularly monitored. Although there certainly were many serious health issues in the Canonsburg area during operation of standard Chemical and Vitro Manufacturing, it appears that long term consequences have been avoided.

Thanks to the Jefferson College Historical Society for entertaining me, and for their continued contribution to preserving local history and heritage.