Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mason Dixon Line November 17, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

November 17, 2016

Mason Dixon Line

On another lovely Autumn Saturday I drove to “the Original Mason-Dixon Historical Park”, in Core, West Virginia, to participate in a short hike to the point where surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon crossed Dunkard Creek for the third time, prior to ending their monumental survey at the peak of nearby Brown’s Hill.

The park is jointly owned by Monongalia County, West Virginia, and Greene County, Pennsylvania. This particular event was the 249th anniversary of the termination of their survey; there are plans to have a major festival next year to celebrate the milestone anniversary.

Finding the Park was an adventure. I had no difficulty going down I-79 and getting into Mt. Morris. There are only five ways to get out of the village – it took me three false starts to find the one that led to the Park. The effort was worthwhile.

We have written several columns previously regarding the Mason-Dixon Line survey, but a brief summary is still relevant. The necessity for the survey was a long-standing dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland regarding the location of the border between them.

The misunderstanding occurred because of ambiguities in the charters originally given to the Penns and Calverts, proprietors of the respective colonies. The Crown’s basis for awarding charters was a map produced years earlier (1612) by John Smith, which indicated that the latitude of the northern end of Chesapeake Bay to be forty degrees. The current latitude is about thirty  nine and a half degrees – an error of about thirty five miles.

In 1681 King Charles I granted a charter to William Penn granting him land described as "The said Lands to extend westwards five degrees in longitude, to bee computed from the said Easterne Bounds”. Based on Smith’s map, the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania (Easterne Bounds) was defined as being the intersection of the fortieth parallel and a circular arc with its center in New Castle, Delaware, and a radius of twelve miles.  Since the fortieth parallel is much farther than twelve miles north of New Castle, the two lines never meet.

In fact, when a proper survey was finally made, it turned out that the fortieth parallel actually passed through Philadelphia, the large city that Penns had constructed, assuming it was well within their territory. The dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland continued for many years until the parties settled on a compromise, an east-west line at a latitude fifteen miles south of the southernmost building in Philadelphia.

This line would indeed intersect the arc defining Delaware’s boundary with Pennsylvania, which had never been correctly surveyed. Eventually the proprietors hired Mason and Dixon to bring a kit of “leading edge” astronomical and surveying tools from England and perform a survey that would settle the issue permanently.  They arrived on November 15, 1763 and immediately went to work. My son John reminded me that this journey has been commemorated by Mark Knopfler’s song “Sailing to Philadelphia”.

Mason was the assistant to Royal Astronomer James Bradley at the Greenwich Observatory, a skilled astronomer. Dixon was an accomplished surveyor who had worked with Mason before, on an aborted effort to record a transit of Venus across the sun, in Sumatra. In addition to surveying instruments and astronomical telescopes, their equipment included a precision chronometer based on the clock developed by John Harrison, the heralded winner of Parliament’s 20,000 pounds prize for conquering the challenge of determining longitude.

Their first task was to resolve confusion regarding Delaware’s boundary with Maryland. They then precisely established the latitude of the southernmost point in Philadelphia. Next they surveyed a line due west thirty one miles to Embreeville, Pennsylvania, where they established an observatory and set a reference stone, eventually dubbed “the Stargazer’s Stone”; it is still in existence.

From there they surveyed due south fifteen miles and established the correct latitude of the Mason-Dixon Line (39 degrees, 43 minutes, 17.4 seconds). They then proceeded to survey an east-west line by laying out a series of chords of a great circle comprising ten minutes of arc (about twelve miles long) intersecting the parallel. At the end of each chord, astronomical observations were made to determine the true position of the parallel.

The survey of “the West Line” began on April 5, 1765.By early October they had surveyed about 117 miles and had passed Conococheague Creek in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania. At this point they retraced their route eastward, establishing correct boundary posts on the parallel.

Surveying began again in early April 1766, following the same procedure. They proceeded up and over South Mountain, North Mountain, Sideling Hill, and Great Warrior Mountain, reaching the 165 milepost before returning east to set boundary posts and perform some additional surveying in Delaware. A note in their journal reports that they had passed the narrowest part of Maryland, with the Potomac River only a mile and a half south of the parallel.

Surveying in 1767 was delayed until July 13, mostly because of concern regarding permission from the Iroquois to proceed west. At this point they were joined by eleven Mohawks, three Onondagas, and interpreter Hugh Crawford. They reached the top of Savage Mountain (Allegheny) at 168 miles and Braddock’s Road at 189 miles.

By September they had crossed the Youghiogheny River, Cheat River, and the Monongahela River, each of which was shallow enough to wade across. On October 9 they were advised by the leader of their Indian escort that they had reached the limit of the area controlled by the Iroquois and that they should now turn back, lest they anger the Shawnee and Delaware Indians who controlled the lands to the West,

Mason and Dixon concluded their survey at the top of Brown’s Hill, just beyond Mile Post 233 on October 15, took astronomical readings there, and made the necessary corrections. They then turned back eastward and concentrated on setting boundary posts at the correct locations. The next summer the two surveyors stayed in the colonies until September, performing research on the dimensions of the earth on behalf of the Royal Society.

The coordinator of the event was an enthusiastic volunteer named Peter Zapadka. He gave a brief summary of the Mason-Dixon Survey, focusing primarily on their activities at its western extremity, then led us on a short walk to the point where the line crossed Dunkard Creek for the final time. We were accompanied by Doug Wood, a Native American re-enactor portraying a Cherokee brave named Ostenaco.

When we reached the meadow adjacent to Dunkard Creek, Ostenaco was hailed by four other re-enactors led by Don Robey, portraying a Delaware chief named Tingooqua. This quickly attracted my attention, as I knew Tingooqua as Catfish, for whom Catfish Camp and the Catfish Path were named. The additional information I gained from this experience will be the subject of a future column.

The encounter with the Delawares was a simulation of a real meeting between the Delawares and the Mason-Dixon party two hundred and forty nine years ago, a meeting which probably contributed to the decision to terminate the survey at Brown’s Hill.

The 250th anniversary celebration next October is a project that deserves our support. It promises to be educational as well as entertaining, featuring re-enactments of the surveying operation as well as their contact with the Native Americans, demonstrations of surveying and astronomical procedures and equipment of the time period, and the usual complement of food and vendor booths,

All told, it was an excellent experience in a lovely setting on a perfect Autumn day. A friend of mine, Norm Voigt, who is a legitimate expert on the history of surveying, had joined me at the Park. Afterwards we drove back into Mt. Morris where we had lunch at a delightful restaurant, Rising Creek Bakery.   



Stephen Collins Foster November 10, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

November 10, 2016

Stephen Collins Foster

The October program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was an extremely entertaining discussion of the life and works of Stephen Collins Foster by Kathryn Haines, Associate Director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.

Foster was born in the Lawrenceville area of Pittsburgh on July 4, 1826, coincidentally the day on which both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. Although his father was a prominent citizen of the city, by the time Stephen, the youngest of their ten children, was born, the family’s economic status was modest, at best.

He was a self-taught musical prodigy, who quickly became proficient playing the clarinet, violin, guitar, flute and piano. He was helped in his effort to become a composer by his contact with Henry Kleber, a classically trained musician who operated a local music store. He was educated at several local academies and at Jefferson College in Canonsburg.

In 1846, at the age of twenty, Foster moved to Cincinnati, where he took a job as a book-keeper at his brother’s steamship company.  There he began to write successful songs, including “Oh Susannah”, which quickly became the theme song for the California Gold Rush. In 1849, one of his songs, "Nelly Was a Lady" was included in a collection he published entitled “Foster's Ethiopian Melodies”.

It had been popularized by the Christy Minstrels, the most successful touring minstrel show of the time. Foster returned to Pittsburgh in 1850 and signed a contract to provide songs for the Christy Minstrels, an effort that produced, among others, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Old Dog Tray”, and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”.

In 1860 he moved to New York where he collaborated with lyricist George Cooper on a series of successful songs until his untimely death in 1864 at the age of thirty seven, from an unidentified fever. Nonetheless he is credited with 286 compositions, an impressive total for such a short career. “Beautiful Dreamer”, published posthumously, was one of his most beloved compositions.

As a youth Foster was influenced by the music of the Scots-Irish, German, and Italian residents of his Lawrenceville neighborhood. His first published song “Open Thy Lattice Love” was released in 1844, when he was eighteen years old. Unfortunately the lack of copyright protection made it very difficult for a songwriter to receive adequate reimbursement for his efforts. Included in the artifacts on display at the Foster Memorial Museum is the purse he was carrying when he died – it contained thirty eight cents!

His output was quite varied. At the same time he was writing drinking songs, he also turned out several supporting the temperance movement. In addition to the minstrel songs, he produced a large number of church hymns. Although his subject matter frequently dealt with life in the Deep South, the only time he ever visited the South was a honeymoon trip on one of his brother’s steamships to New Orleans.

Most remarkable is Foster’s legacy as the first American songwriter. His music has survived and continues to be popular today. In many foreign countries it is considered as America’s true folk music.

His music inspired major classical composers. When Antonin Dvorak made his well-known trip to this country, he was so impressed with “Old Folks at Home” that he wrote his own arrangement of it. Beloved American composer Charles Ives wove Foster melodies into many of his works.

The immortality of Foster’s work is well illustrated by the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” just prior to the running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs each year, an occasion that “brings tears to the eyes” of all present.

A curious revival of Foster’s music occurred in the first ten months of 1941 when NBC and CBS boycotted ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, following a dispute over royalties, and played only music that was in the public domain. Time Magazine reported that “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” was played so many times that “her hair turned grey!”

The speaker also discussed the Stephen Collins Foster Memorial and its history. In 1927 University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman and the Tuesday Musical Club, an organization of affluent female musicians, agreed to collaborate on the construction of a performance hall dedicated to Foster. It was to be located adjacent to the Cathedral of Learning, then in early stages of construction.

At that time retired pharmaceutical businessman, Josiah Kirby Lilly, was busy pursuing his passion – the collection of artifacts from Foster’s career. Learning of the University’s plans in 1932 he decided to house his collection in the new Memorial and provided substantial funding towards its construction. It was completed in 1937 and has been a significant cultural asset ever since.

Designed by Charles Klauder, the architect of the Cathedral of Learning, the memorial is a handsome complement to its famous neighbor. It too is steel-framed and faced with Indiana Limestone. It houses two performance theaters, the Stephen Collin Foster Memorial Museum, and the home for the University’s Center for American Music.

The centerpiece of the museum is the magnificent Lilly collection, which consists of over 10,000 items -- original manuscripts, copies of over 200 compositions, recordings, and several of Foster’s instruments, including his piano. Again we have been blessed with another remarkable historical asset in our area.

The Society’s November program meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at 7:30 PM in the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, Commercial Street. The subject will be Curtis Copeland, Sr., Favorite Son of Bridgeville”, presented by his son, Curtis Copeland, Jr.



Meadowcroft Village November 3, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

November 3, 2016

Meadowcroft Village

We visited Meadowcroft Village and Rockshelter on a lovely autumn afternoon, attracted initially by the fact that they were supplementing their normal programs with a special re-enactment of Native American life in this area three or four centuries ago.    

Our first stop was the atlatl demonstration. The atlatl is a spear-thrower, a custom designed tool that uses leverage to greatly increase the speed and range of a hunter throwing a spear. The thrower rests the spear in the atlatl, then snaps his wrist as he brings the spear forward, effectively increasing the length of his throwing arm fifteen or twenty inches.

We weren’t particularly successful trying to hit a mock deer twenty paces away, but certainly some of the other, more athletically inclined, visitors were able to propel their spears hard enough and straight enough to impale the target.

We then walked down the hill to a reconstruction of a sixteenth century Monongahela People village, a collection of wigwams surrounded by a picket stockade. The demonstrations there included a woman deftly converting cattail leaves into duck decoys, another converting bark into useable cord, and one grilling corn on the cob and raccoon over an open fire.

In another area we inspected a replica of a very early log cabin, watched a demonstration of a trapper constructing a deadfall to kill a deer or bear, and visited a mock eighteenth century trading post filled with trading goods – cloth, tinware, mirrors, etc. – and furs from the Native Americans who traded there.

We then walked through Pine Bank Covered Bridge en route to Meadowcroft Historic Village. Originally built in Greene County in 1871, the Pine Bank Bridge was disassembled in 1961, and moved to Meadowcroft by Albert Miller, where it was extensively rehabilitated. It is a handsome King Post truss bridge, spanning about thirty feet.

The Historic Village includes an excellent log cabin which had been the home of Mr. Miller’s grand-parents in a location about half a mile from its current location. The docent there very capably gave a description of living quite efficiently in a simple, rustic environment.  Especially instructive was a section of the inner wall in which part of the chinking had been removed to show how it was installed.  Also in the Historic Village are an old one room school, a small church, and a working blacksmith shop, each of which warrants a visit.

Associated with the Meadowcroft facility is the world famous Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which many people believe is the oldest site of human habitation in North America. It is beneath a large overhanging sandstone ledge overlookmg Cross Creek. In 1955 Albert Miller found intriguing Native American artifacts in a groundhog burrow there.

It took him twenty years to find the right archaeologist to investigate his find – Dr. James Adavisio, then a faculty member in the Anthropology Department at Pitt.  Adavasio recognized the potential of the artifacts and the opportunity for the University to use the site as a convenient field laboratory for its archaeological students. Excavation at the site was done in an extremely detailed fashion, at times with razor blades!

Radiocarbon dating of the oldest artifacts discovered at the site indicates their age to be least 16,000 years, and possibly even 19,000. The most valuable find is the Miller Lanceolate projectile point, a spear head that apparently had seen considerable use and re-sharpening. Its value is enhanced by a large collection of related objects, all of about the same age.

The dig site itself isn’t particularly impressive, but the overall experience of viewing the descriptive video while looking at the excavation and the surrounding rocks is well worth the trip there. We are extremely fortunate to have so many historically relevant places in this area.

For us, one of the highlights of the visit was the exhibit of Andrew Knez Jr.’s artwork in the Visitor Center. As soon as I saw it I immediately recognized his style.  Most appropriate of all is “She Claims the Rockshelter”, which shows two Native Americans contemplating a stop at the rockshelter and finding themselves pre-empted by a very large brown bear.

On the way home we stopped to visit the Fall Festival in the Cecil Township Park. It was an enjoyable experience in a very pleasant environment – a large variety of vendors and entertainment. We were pleased to find a booth representing the Cecil Historical Society and had a productive discussion with the ladies staffing it. Their Society has been in existence for just a few years, but they are aware of and committed to preserving the very special history that is unique to their community.

At this stage in my life, an autumn drive in our countryside and the opportunity to rub elbows with some historic is very rewarding. If it doesn’t appeal to you, we suggest you give it a try.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Greenwood Neighborhood October 27, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

October 27, 2016


The second workshop in the Bridgeville Area Historical Society “Second Tuesday” series was focused on the Greenwood Neighborhood.  For purposes of this workshop Greenwood was defined as “a neighborhood in Bridgeville bounded by Dewey Avenue, the back yards of houses on Bank Street, Gregg Avenue, and the woods on the hill leading down to McLaughlin Run Road and Baldwin Street”.

The facilitator followed the format introduced at the Historical Society Open House last August, tracing the development of the neighborhood from its earliest days to the mid-twentieth century.

He began with the original warrants for the land that eventually became the Borough of Bridgeville.

Fortunately Pattie Patton had recently delivered a number of local historical artifacts to the History Center, including a hand-drawn map of Bridgeville with the warrant boundaries superimposed on it, apparently produced by her brother Jimmy in 1938. On it the boundary between Benjamin Reno’s original warrant and that of Thomas Ramsey very closely matches the back yard boundaries of the houses later built on Bank Street.

The first house built in the neighborhood we have defined as Greenwood was “Recreation”, a large summer home built by Judge Henry Baldwin sometime before 1812. Baldwin was a national figure who served as a U. S. Congressman from 1816 to 1822, representing the (Pittsburgh) 14th District. He then was a major supporter of Andrew Jackson in his unsuccessful bid for the Presidency in 1824.

Four years later, when Jackson’s second bid for the Presidency was successful, Baldwin was rewarded by being named Secretary of the Treasury. A year later he was nominated to serve as a U. S. Supreme Court Justice, an assignment in which he distinguished himself with numerous significant opinions that are still relevant today. He died in 1844.

In 1812 Baldwin sold Recreation and a significant block land extending to McLaughlin Run to Moses Coulter. Coulter was an early entrepreneur who constructed the woolen mill on the Washington Pike, that later was operated by the Sheaffer brothers. He also at one point owned the grist mill on McLaughlin Run near the east end of what is now Baldwin Street.

Walter Foster acquired the property in 1844, living in Recreation until 1879, when he sold it and the adjoining acreage to David Gilmore. Upon Gilmore’s death the property was inherited by his daughter Capitola and her husband Ulysses Donaldson. Various Donaldsons occupied Recreation until 1948, when it was purchased by Peter Dreon. The Donaldson family was involved in the development of Baldwin Street in the early 1900s and retained ownership of some of the homes there for a number of years.

The facilitator relied upon a series of old maps to illustrate the evolution of Greenwood from a large, forested area with only one house to the current neighborhood. The map of Bridgeville in the 1876 Allegheny County Atlas shows only Recreation (identified as W. Foster) in the Greenwood area. The official map of Bridgeville when it was incorporated as a borough shows the block of land bounded by McLaughlin Run, Railroad Street, Station Street, and the line designating the Bank Street back yards as “Sarah Gilmore”. The land south of it as far as McMillen Street was designated “Mary Wright” (the widow of Joseph Wright, the developer of the Norwood Hotel).

The 1905 USGS (Geological Survey) map also shows only one house (Recreation) in Greenwood. However the G. M. Hopkins 1905 map shows an additional house on what is now Greenwood Place. Recreation is identified as “Mrs. U. L. Donaldson” as is a development on the north side of Baldwin Street that includes four houses.

By 1917, according to the Hopkins map for that year, there were five houses in Greenwood in addition to Recreation, and the area was identified as “Capitola Donaldson”.  At this point the facilitator showed the well-known “Bridgeville from the Clouds” 1922 aerial photograph. From the vantage point of one of Mayer Airport’s first planes, Greenwood certainly looks more like a forest than a settled neighborhood.

Information on a 1938 Bridgeville map indicates that the Donaldson tract had shrunk to 10.55 acres as various developments and individual lots were sold off. By 1940 Greenwood was fairly well populated. The facilitator showed a hand-drawn map showing a number of houses that were candidates for being there that year.

The map generated a lively discussion among members of the audience, including two – Alfred Barzan and Mell Dozzo – who were living there as children in 1940. The current consensus is that the following families lived in Greenwood in 1940 – Barzan, Bower, Collins, Colussy, Connor, Donaldson, Fillippi, Graham, Hurlinger, Lough, Mann, O’Donnell, Patton, Poellott (3 - Dave, Tola, and William), and Wilcox, We are sure these will change as we get more feedback from ex-Greenwood residents.

Several people pointed out that the Dewey Avenue entrance to Greenwood was at the end of Station Street, between two pillars that still exist. It then curled to the right to meet the street currently named Greenwood Place, the street that today connects directly to Dewey Avenue. In 1940 all the streets in Greenwood were “red-dog”, a product of uncontrolled combustion of low quality coal in refuse piles.

The involvement of members of the audience was very much appreciated. One of the goals of this series is to get as many people involved in discussing local history as possible. For me the most important thing I learned was from Shawn Wolf, who suggested we reference an aerial photograph from 1938 that he had found on the Internet.

He led me to a remarkable website,  This site archives a large number of aerial photographs covering Pennsylvania resulting from north-south flights as early as 1937. It contains remarkable information that is relevant to a large number of historical questions that we have investigated in the past – the route of the Pittsburgh, Chartiers, and Youghiogheny Railroad, for example.

Now that we have established the routine of “Second Tuesday” for this series of workshops, we are going to prove the exception to the rule by scheduling November’s workshop a day after the second Tuesday, to avoid a conflict with Election Day. On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, we will host a workshop dedicated to the Greatest Generation and Veterans Day, focusing on the World War II experiences of a B-24 ball turret gunner, Santo Magliocca.  His story provides an excellent opportunity for us to relive those exciting days seventy five years ago.



Covered Bridges October 20, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

October 20, 2016

Covered Bridges

I suspect most of us are fans of covered bridges; being a Civil Engineer I have no choice. Last month I decided to take advantage of the Washington and Greene Counties’ Covered Bridge

Festival and visit a couple of bridges I had not seen before – Krepps and McClurg.  Both bridges are in western Washington County and are of similar size.

Krepps Bridge is located about five miles north of Hickory, on Covered Bridge Road, very close to its intersection with Waterdam Road (Legislative Route 4018). It is still in use, carrying Covered Bridge Road over Cherry Creek, a small tributary of Raccoon Creek.  The bridge is about twenty four feet long and thirteen or fourteen feet wide.

The McClurg Bridge is located in Hanover Township Park, on the south side of State Route 4004, about a mile west of Florence. Unlike Krepps, it is a museum piece, spanning a dry ravine and used only by people on foot using the park. Both bridges are painted barn red and have window openings on each side – two for Krepps and four for McClurg. McClurg’s original location was northwest of the hamlet of Paris, spanning King’s Creek.  It was moved to the Park in 1987.

Both bridges are of a type I would designate as a braced King Post truss. The deck is constructed of planks supported by transverse floor beams at midspan and quarterpoints. These beams are hung from the trusses by rugged wrought iron rods. The trusses consist of heavy vertical posts at midspan intersected eight or ten feet above the deck level by massive sloping diagonal members.

To visualize a King Post truss, imagine a huge arrow pointed upward with its shaft being the vertical post at the mid-span of the bridge and its wings being the large diagonal members sloping down to the piers at each end. Then add a horizontal member at deck level, connecting the bottom ends of the diagonals.

It is very easy for a Civil Engineer to stand at the middle of the bridge and imagine the way a heavy load at that point is transferred to the abutments at either end of the bridge. The weight of a hay wagon, for example, in the middle of the bridge is transferred laterally through the deck’s floor beam to the bottom of the King Post, which then acts as a hanger. Because the top of the King Post is restrained by the diagonals, the load is transferred to them; they in turn, transfer it through a compressive thrust to the abutments.

The horizontal member then keeps the bottoms of the diagonals from sliding outward. To support the floor beams at each quarter-point another wrought iron rod is suspended from the diagonal at mid-height, and a short diagonal leading to the bottom of the King Post added as a brace.

Simple, but remarkably effective, the King Post truss is the ancestor of a large family of truss types, each conceived to achieve a specific goal. We engineers today have the tools and technology to analyze these classic bridges and can only marvel at the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the people who built them two centuries ago.

The covered bridges that have survived have outlasted many of the more modern ones that followed them. We are happy that Krepps is still going to work every day and hope that McClurg is enjoying her well-deserved retirement. We suspect she winks her eye and grins every time a pair of lovebirds pass through her and steal a kiss when no one is looking.

Getting to Krepps was easy, because the directions were well presented.  McClurg was a different story. The directions on the Washington County Tourism website were vague and confusing.  Eventually I searched for Hanover Township and sorted out where I should go.

Both festivals were fun. The one at Krepps was in a field adjacent to the bridge. I didn’t care much for the music there, but did invest in a decorated coin purse at one booth and a funnel cake at another. Praising the funnel cake is probably inappropriate – was there ever a funnel cake that a Pennsylvania Dutchman didn’t like?

The McClurg festival was in an established park which already had all the necessary infrastructure. I did like the music there, especially when the five piece band performed a very respectable “Margaritaville”. At this point I was hoping to find an Amish booth and purchase some baked goods. Bad news was the absence of an Amish booth; good news was an excellent Greek bakery booth. I ended up with olive bread, baklava, spanakopita, and pepperoni rolls; all of which were good.

I was surprised to learn recently that pepperoni rolls originated in West Virginia as a major component in the coal miner’s lunch bucket and that their popularity is still limited to the Tri-state area. My wife used to make them for our kids’ school lunches; I assumed they were a universal food.

All told it was an enjoyable afternoon. I was originally disappointed that the bridges were so short, but since then I have appreciated the advantage that opportunity gave me to inspect true King Post trusses. We are fortunate these historic artifacts have survived.


The Election Process October 13, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

October 13, 2016

A History of the Election Process

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society kicked off its 2016/2017 program season with a presentation on the evolution of the election process in our country, by Todd DePastino.  Mr. DePastino’s annual appearance in their series is always a treat – this specific illustrated talk was not an exception.  It seemed particularly relevant this year.

The speaker began by reminding the audience that the U. S. Constitution contains very few specific requirements regarding the popular election of our officials.  The members of the House of Representatives were the only ones initially chosen by the voters, Until 1913 U. S. Senators were selected by the State Legislatures.

Initially the Legislatures also selected members of the Electoral College, who then decided who should be elected President and Vice President.  Early in our country’s life it became customary for the electors to be chosen by popular vote, then confirmed by the Legislatures.

Eligibility to vote was quite limited in the early years. In the original thirteen states the privilege was restricted to white male property owners. One reference indicates that this limited suffrage to about fifteen percent of the free adult population. Andrew Jackson is credited with expanding the voting base to include the common man by eliminating property and taxpaying requirements. Jackson also advocated direct election of U. S. Supreme Court Justices.

It was interesting to learn that New Jersey originally allowed women and African-Americans to vote, a privilege that was removed in 1807.

Mr. DePastino interposed an interesting story about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island in 1841. Rhode Island was a reluctant member of the original thirteen states, choosing to continue to operate under its Royal Charter granted in 1663, which limited suffrage to landowners and their eldest sons. Attorney Thomas Dorr attempted to overthrow the existing state government by rebelling, unsuccessfully.

Dorr was defeated, arrested, convicted of treason, and incarcerated.  Nonetheless in 1843 Rhode Island commuted his sentence and adopted a new constitution which extended voting rights to all native-born adult males (including African-Americans), but imposed onerous residence and property requirements on immigrants.

The speaker discussed the seemingly non-normal practice of selecting the President by the vote  of Electors, rather than by popular vote. He cited the four examples where a candidate with fewer popular votes than his rival was elected – John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1924; Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888; and George W. Bush over Albert A. Gore, Jr. in 2000.

The power small states have because of their apparent over-representation in the U. S. Senate and the Electoral College is a consequence of a compromise effected during the Constitutional Convention, an effort to provide them with some leverage in return for their agreement to join the Union.

Mr. DePastino cited the 1840 election as the first one that was truly political, in today’s context. Sitting President Martin van Buren, Jackson’s chosen successor, was opposed by Whig Party candidate William Henry Harrison.  The Whig Party had been founded in opposition to Jackson’s philosophy of constitutional conventions and majority rule, espousing instead the rule of law, unchanging constitutions, and protection for minority interests against majority tyranny.

This election reached a new peak in negative campaigning. Van Buren was vilified for his Dutch accent, his alleged profligate expenditures while President, and for the Panic of 1837.  Harrison was characterized as a crude frontiersman, drinking hard cider in a log cabin.  The Whigs capitalized on this characterization and ran him as the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate, appealing to the common man. His exaggerated war record (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too) added to his attractiveness to John Q. Public.

The excitement of this campaign produced the highest percentage of voter participation to date – 80.2% (compared to 57.8% four years earlier), a figure exceeded only by the 1876 election (81.8%). For reference, the comparable turnout percentage in the 2012 election was 54.87%. It is interesting that the same data source reports that nearly sixty nine million votes were counted in 1960 although only sixty five million voters were registered that year

Harrison, of course, died after thirty days in office, to be succeeded by John Tyler. Although Tyler did little in his presidency to generate a legacy, Mr. DePastino interjected some trivia which we found interesting.  Tyler was born in 1790; two of his grandsons are still alive! His legacy is large families and procreation at advanced ages.

Our current practice of secret balloting wasn’t introduced until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The founding fathers believed that restricting the vote to property owners would automatically produce votes that were for the benefit of the general public; consequently there was no necessity to keep them private. Votes were made orally and announced to everyone within earshot.

During Jackson’s regime paper ballots were produced, but still were filled out in the presence of outsiders. This practice eventually led to corruption and intimidation. In 1880 the election caused over one thousand murders in Louisiana alone. At about this time Henry George returned from a trip to Australia impressed with their use of secret ballots and was influential enough to persuade most of the states to adopt that practice here, beginning with Massachusetts in 1888.

It was indeed fascinating to hear an expert trace the evolution of our voting system and contrast its current version with the practices two centuries ago. Apparently some of the characteristics of this year’s Presidential campaign aren’t as unique as they seem to us today. One sometimes wishes we had a “No confidence” alternative that would void the election if enough voters chose it, requiring the parties to try again, with different candidates.

The next Historical Society program meeting is scheduled for 7:30 pm, Tuesday, October 26, 2016, in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Department. The speaker will be Kathryn Miller Haines, Associate Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music; her subject is “Stephen Foster and the Making of a Memorial”. As always the public is cordially invited.


Walker-Ewing Log House October 6, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

October 6, 2016

The Walker-Ewing Log House

I recently had the pleasure of attending an Open House at the Walker-Ewing Log House, on Noblestown Road, between Oakdale anf Rennerdale. Thanks to Loraine and Rich Forster, I was familiar with the house although I had never previously had the opportunity to visit it. Loraine and Rich have discussed it several times at meetings of the Bridgeville Area Historical Society; I was not surprised to run into them at the Open House.

The house is currently owned and lovingly maintained by Pioneers West Historical Society, a non-profit organization with the sole purpose of preserving this magnificent example of frontier life in Western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. The exact date of construction of the log house is not known although it certainly was much earlier than 1800.

It is believed that the first settler in this area was John Henry, a Scots-Irish immigrant who came to the Robinson Run region in 1760 as a fur trader. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in 1768, opened up southwestern Pennsylvania for settlement. In 1770 James Ewing arrived from Cecil County, Maryland, on the east shore of Chesapeake Bay. His warrants for “Ewing’s Delight” and “Mill Mount” totaled 668 acres and extended from Walker’s Mill to Carnegie.

West of Ewing’s land, along Robinson Run, was Robert Boyd’s claim, “Blanford”, consisting of 322 acres; then Isaac Walker’s “Dragon”, 399 acres; and Gabriel Walker’s “Richland”, 361 acres. Isaac and Gabriel together also warranted 437 acres north of “Richland”, which they called “Partnership”. They had migrated to the Robinson Run area in 1772, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The log house is located on the southern end of “Partnership”. It was originally used as a place to stay temporarily while hunting or during harvest, not as a residence. We know that that the two brothers had farms a mile or two east of its location and that Gabriel’s farm was the site of the only documented Indian raid in this area, in 1782. The Indians killed two of Gabriel’s sons and abducted his two daughters and another son. The children were repatriated twenty one months later and returned to their parents.

According to the Collier Township website both Isaac and Gabriel Walker were heavily involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, were arrested by the Federal troops and taken to Philadelphia. Only after agreeing to pay the onerous tax on whiskey produced in independent stills were they released and allowed to return home.

“Partnership” was eventually patented to William Ewing, in 1817. He was the husband of Isaac Walker’s daughter Jane and a nephew of James Ewing; it is believed that the log house was given to her as a wedding gift by her father. Various Ewing descendants lived in the house until 1973 when one of them, Mrs. Robert Grace, donated the house and the land on which it stands to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF).  Twenty five years later she purchased it back and deeded it to Pioneers West Historical Society.

The house is in excellent condition despite its age. Its signature feature is a single chimney which serves six fireplaces, two on each floor and two in the basement. On each floor the two fireplaces are arranged in herringbone fashion, each serving one of the two large rooms on the floor. It is assumed that the fireplaces in the basement were used for cooking, with the meals being carried up a steep ship’s ladder to the first floor.

There originally was access to an attic beneath the gable where children could sleep in a loft. The attic was high enough for an adult to stand erect in it. The house is tastefully furnished with appropriate period pieces. The overall effect is that the house was quite liveable, especially for the era in which it served as a residence.

The exterior consists of hand hewn timbers, squared off and notched to interlock with mating timbers on the neighboring side of the house. The spaces between timbers are filled with chinking. In the early days the chinking was a mixture of fine clay, fireplace ashes, and some fiber, plant or animal.

The classic local reference book, “Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania”, written by James D. Van Trump and Arthur Ziegler, Jr. and published in 1967 by PLHF, includes the Walker-Ewing Log House and describes it in rather unflattering terms. Apparently PHLF’s acquisition of it six years later automatically converted it into something to be treasured.  In 1970 it was designated a PHLF Historic Landmark, and in 1976 added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Walker-Ewing Log House is a valuable cultural asset for this area. Pioneers West should be commended for their stewardship in preserving it; they deserve our enthusiastic support. The log house is open infrequently but can be seen by appointment. Their website is