Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bridgeville in 1940, Part 2 March 30, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 30, 2017

“Downtown” in the 1940s – Part Two

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society “Second Tuesday” workshop for March was a follow-up to the previous month’s project, an effort to document the businesses, institutions, and residences on Washington Avenue during the War Years.

During the February session a suggestion was made that the facilitator refer to the 1940 U. S. Census for information regarding families that lived on Washington Avenue at that time. This was done, and revised copies of the map of the area between Chartiers Street and Station Street were passed on, showing this information.

This was effective for the stand-alone residences, but generated a new collection of questions regarding the large number of persons who were registered as residents of the apartments above the various commercial establishments. The fact that many of the names shown (hand written) on the Census form were either illegible or obviously misspelled continues to be a problem.

We did make some progress identifying commercial establishments. The previously unidentified storefront between Saperstein’s clothing store and Bard’s Dairy Store was determined to be the location of Dr. George Rittenhouse’s office and that of (Dentist) Dr. Carman. Tom Thomas’ Restaurant was located in a storefront between Sarasnick’s Hardware Store and Station Street, by virtue of the Census location of his residence.

One of the persons identified by the Census was Alphaeus Bell, living upstairs over Bard’s Dairy Store. My brother reminded me that the first name of our neighbor on Lafayette Street a few years later, “Bud” Beall, was Alphaeus.

Pat (Mrs. Ron) Otrocelli reported that the residence adjacent to the L & R Bowling Alley was occupied by Bonnie Baird. Ralph Weise reminded us that “Izzy” Miller’s furniture store was next to Weise’s News-Stand. He also reported that Pete Conroy’s Barber Shop was on the other (north) side of Weise’s. In February someone had located it in the L & R Building. Another addition was the West Penn Power Company office next to the Rankin Theater, in the building occupied by Bonnett’s Restaurant.

Nancy LaSota brought in the 2010 Historical Society calendar, which included a photograph of the “Danzibar” night club (identified a month ago as the “Zanzibar”) and reported that the “Dan” in the name of the club was Dan DeBone. The photo, not surprisingly, raised another question. In the background, several storefronts up the street toward Station Street, is a large vertical sign with the letters “R O S S …”. There also is an automobile in the foreground with a visible license plate. One wonders if the original photograph is sharp enough to read the year on the plate.

Once the “old business” portion of the workshop was disposed of, the facilitator passed out a map of “midtown” – the area between Station Street and the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad Trestle. More than a few tears were shed when we discussed Washington Grade School, which most of us still call “the old school”, to differentiate it from Lincoln High School (the “new school”), although both of them have been gone for decades.

The house south of Washington School was shown as the residence of the Bingham family. Larry Godwin reported that the Binghams were related to the Poellotts, and then added the information that that house was one of three identical Bridgeville houses, the other two being on Bank Street and on Elm Street. Another interesting project to investigate!

The final portion, of course, was “Lower End”, and a similar annotated map was passed on showing the available information on businesses and residences in the area between the railroad trestle and the bridge over Chartiers Creek. Here, too, it is remarkable to realize how crowded some of the houses must have been, with three or four families in a single building.

The next step in this process is for the facilitator to morph into a cartographer and prepare a proper map recording the information as we have it today. Based on our experience with Baldwin Street, this must be done in a format that is appropriate for frequent revisions, as more people come up with corrections.

The April “Second Tuesday” workshop will time travel to 1901 and examine the Borough of Bridgeville when it seceded from Upper St. Clair Township and became an autonomous community, with special emphasis on the individuals who were responsible for this momentous event. We will re-convene at 7:00 pm on April 11, 2017, at the History Center.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reader Feedback March 23, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 23, 2017


Feedback from readers of this column continues to be a great source of satisfaction for me, especially when someone I don’t know recognizes me and reports his or her enjoyment in reading the column. Even more satisfying are the unsolicited comments I get from readers regarding things they have read in a particular column.

I recently received an email from Ronald Carlisle regarding my puzzlement with the term “a point near Cowan”s” which was one of the Landmarks in Charles DeHass’ original alignment for the Washington and Pittsburgh (later Chartiers Valley) Railroad. Mr. Carlisle is a legitimate expert on the Woodville Plantation and the Presley Neville House and the author of “The Story of Woodville: The History, Architecture, and Archaeology of a Western Pennsylvania Farm.”

He very courteously reminded me of something I certainly should have realized – the fact that, by the time of DeHass’ survey, the Christopher Cowan family owned and occupied the Neville House, and that it certainly is exactly the kind of landmark DeHass would have referenced.

This, of course, affects our assumptions on the location of landmarks farther south. The additional mile of right-of-way suggests that DeHass intended his railroad to follow Chartiers Creek’s meander through Presto rather than following the shorter route eventually constructed, through Bridgeville. It also places “McDowell’s factory” in what became Bridgeville’s “Lower End” neighborhood. Perhaps another reader can shed some light on that possibility.

Incidentally, in my more recent researching of Mr. DeHass I came across a newspaper article describing the inaugural trip on the Chartiers Valley Railroad, from Pittsburgh to Washington in 1871. Sure enough they referred to the station at Woodville as “Cowan’s Station”.

Upon reading the same column Dana Spriggs put his considerable investigative talent to work researching Charles DeHass and generated a lot of interesting information. DeHass was born in Somerset, Pennsylvania, in 1792 and served with distinction as an officer during the War of 1812. In later years he was promoted to Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania Militia. By 1815 he was living in Washington County where he laid out Columbia and West Columbia, two communities that eventually became the city of Donora. He also served as Postmaster of West Columbia.

When interest in building a railroad connecting eastern Pennsylvania with Pittsburgh peaked, in the mid-1830s, DeHass was one of three Chief Engineers selected to survey alternative routes. He is credited with laying out the final route selected, through Greensburg and Westmoreland County. He eventually moved into eastern Ohio, dying in 1874.

DeHass’ father was also a military leader. He served in the French and Indian War and again in Pontiac’s Rebellion. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he formed a company and distinguished himself during Benedict Arnold’s campaign in Canada. In recognition of his accomplishments he was promoted to Brigadier General and ordered to report to General Washington and the Continental Army in New Jersey.

Inexplicably he neither reported nor communicated his formal rejection of the promotion. Someone speculated that he returned home because his son was seriously ill. Another speculation was that he was suffering from gout. General Horatio Gates suspected he “was disinclined to serve another campaign”. Nonetheless, when his considerable land holdings in the Wyoming Valley were threatened by the British and their Indian allies, he overcame his disinclination and hurried there to organize a defense.

Both Don Malcolm and Dave Wright commented on our column about the C. P. Mayer excursion to California for the Brick Manufacturers’ convention. Don lives in Clayton, California, and was able to clarify my confusion about the way rail passengers got across the  Bay to San Francisco.

In those days the railroad ended at Port Costa, on the Carquinez Strat in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Rivers delta. At that point the railroad cars were loaded onto ferries and transported to San Francisco.

Don also contributed some information about the Delta Queen, the famous sternwheel steamboat that used to visit Pittsburgh regularly on one of its tours up the Ohio River. The Queen’s history is quite interesting. The Queen and her sister ship, the Delta King, were constructed in Scotland, shipped to California, and assembled in Stockton in 1926. The two ships provided luxurious tours between San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton until World War II, when they were drafted into service transporting wounded service men and women in the San Francisco Bay area.

Following the War the Queen was towed to Dravo Corporation’s Neville Island Marine Repair Yard for renovation for packet service on the Mississippi/Ohio River waterways. She provided that service admirably until 2008 when federal marine safety regulations put her in dry dock. A group called “Save the Queen” has continued to lobby Congress for an exemption to these requirements.  The Delta King is permanently moored in Sacramento, functioning as a hotel.

Dave Wright reported that he did some research after reading that column and determined that the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Mission Inn in Riverside, and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood are all still thriving, ninety years later. The theater has recently undergone a major rehabilitation so it can still show “movies on the big screen as they were meant to be seen.” 

He also reported that the Port Costa Brick Works is no longer in existence, having been demolished in 1951. Dave is a fellow railfan; when I get my time machine working again I will invite him to take the Mayer excursion with me. He has salvaged a large number of old construction photographs of projects in the Bridgeville area from the Allegheny County Engineering Department which I am trying to organize for archiving in the Bridgeville Area Historical Society files. Included are both Washington Avenue bridges over Chartiers Creek, two Bower Hill Road projects, and the initial paving of Painters Run Road.

It is reassuring to be reminded that there are numerous history buffs everywhere, each with specific interests which other folks might consider trivia. We are grateful to them for their valuable contributions.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pittsburgh's Bridges March 16, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 16, 2017

Pittsburgh’s Bridges

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s February program meeting was an extremely interesting talk by local Civil Engineer Todd Wilson, entitled “The History of Pittsburgh’s Bridges”, which coincidentally is the topic of an Arcadia “Images of America”  book he recently authored.

The speaker began with a drawing of Fort Pitt which clearly showed footbridges across the moat around the fort, confirming that the topic went back at least two hundred and sixty years. By 1818 the first bridge across the Monongahela River was constructed, at the Smithfield Street location which currently is occupied by the historic bridge with that name,

The first Smithfield Street Bridge was a wooden covered bridge built by a well-known engineer, Louis Wernwag and opened in 1818. It was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1845 which burned a third of the city to the ground. John Roebling replaced it with an eight span suspension bridge with short towers. When a dramatic increase in traffic made it obsolete, it was replaced by a lenticular truss bridge designed by Gustave Lindenthal in 1883, the landmark bridge that is at that site today.

Connecting Allegheny City with Pittsburgh produced a similar story on the Allegheny River side. In 1819 a wooden covered bridge was built connecting the public square on the North Side to Sixth Street downtown. Ten years later Roebling built a wooden aqueduct across the Allegheny, bringing the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal into Pittsburgh. He replaced it with a suspension bridge in 1845.

The Pennsylvania Railroad built a wooden bridge across the Allegheny in 1857 as part of their link to Chicago via the Fort Wayne Division. In 1867 it was replaced by a wrought iron lattice work truss, based on the Ithiel Town design pioneered in covered bridges, and in 1904 by the rugged double deck steel truss bridge still in use at that site.

A particularly interesting story was the role played by the Pittsburgh Municipal Art Commission from 1911 to 1939. The Commission’s function is to foster “excellence in design to City property”. It prospered during the City Beautiful era when city fathers advocated bridges with open designs to permit people using them to enjoy the “beautiful vistas that can be seen from structures like the “Three Sisters bridges” over the Allegheny River.

In the1920s it became necessary to replace the existing Allegheny River bridges at Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Streets, to provide navigational clearance beneath them.

Through truss and cantilever bridges were proposed for their replacements. The Commission however, led by its chief architect Stanley Roush, insisted upon suspension bridges even though there was no suitable anchorage for their heavily loaded cables at either end. The designers, the Allegheny County Engineering Department, responded by utilizing a unique, self-anchored support system which transferred the cables’ loads into massive compressive forces in the bridge deck.

To erect such a bridge would require closing down the river channels and installing falsework to support the deck until the cables were fully strung. The designers countered by utilizing steel eye-bars instead of cable, so the bridge could be erected following the same procedure as a cantilever bridge. The recently completed Oakland Bay Bridge is the latest example of a self-anchored suspension bridge.

In retrospect one must be grateful to the Commission for their stubbornness which eventually produced the iconic Three Sisters Bridges (now renamed for Andy Warhol, Roberto Clemente, and Rachel Carson. Their influence probably peaked with the design of the Sixteenth Street (now David McCullough) Bridge with its grotesque non-functional pillars at each end. Our opinion is that any bridge well designed to perform its required function is inherently artistic.

The Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne, and Birmingham Bridges are examples of the first extensive use of computer analytical capability to design a multiply redundant bridge. Each is a suspended deck, tied arch bridge in which the very stiff deck support trusses accept the large tension forces from the arch members.

The Tenth Street Bridge, connecting Pittsburgh’s South Side with the Lower Hill District via the Armstrong Tunnel is a lovely conventional suspension bridge designed by George Richardson and opened for traffic in 1933. In many ways its design and erection methods were prototypes for the much longer Golden Gate Bridge whose construction followed four years later.

Richardson is also credited for design of the Liberty Bridge in 1928 and the West End Bridge in 1932. The bridge design output of the Allegheny County Engineering Department in the years immediately after World War I is remarkable. In that era Vernon R. Covell was Chief Engineer and A.D. Nutter, Design Engineer.

Any discussion of Pittsburgh’s bridges would be derelict if it neglected the magnificent cantilever bridge which brought the Wabash Railroad into downtown Pittsburgh. With a clear span of 812 feet, it was the connection between a tunnel through Mt. Washington and the gaudy Beaux Art Terminal in the heart of the Golden Triangle. The bridge was erected in 1904 and demolished in 1948.

Mr. Wilson’s knowledge of his subject was especially impressive. Being a fellow Civil Engineer I was thrilled with the topic; the audience was quite complimentary about his presentation.

In March the Historical Society returns to its “last Tuesday” evening schedule. At 7:30 pm on Tuesday March 28, 2017, Edd Hale will speak on “The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery” in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street. The public is cordially invited.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black History Month and Presidents' Day Marcch 6, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 9, 2017

Black History Month and Presidents’ Day

I usually don’t pay much attention to occasions like Black History Month and Presidents Day, but this year I enjoyed special events from both of them on back to back days. On Sunday, February 19, we went to Dormont to the Hollywood Theater to see a classic silent movie, “The Flying Ace”.

The theater is operated by the Friends of the Hollywood Theater, a non-profit organization whose mission is to celebrate cinema and preserve the single-screen theater experience. It began life as a silent movie theater in the 1920s and currently is one of a very few surviving single-screen theaters in this area.

One of their programs is a series of silent movies, with background music specially composed and performed by local pianist Tom Roberts. This month they selected a film made specifically for African American audiences in 1924, directed by an African American director, and featuring an all African American cast. This is an example of a genre completely different from the stereotypical picture of the African American in Hollywood films of that era.

The film itself was completely color blind; it could have been produced with an all-white cast without changing a single scene. It featured a World War I flying ace who had retired to his civilian job as a railroad detective and was presented with a classic case to solve.

Mr. Roberts’ accompaniment was totally appropriate to the plot and complemented the action on the screen perfectly. The music alone was well worth the price of admission. He is indeed a remarkable musician, composer and performer.

If the only objective of the presentation had been to expose a white audience to a hitherto unfamiliar facet of the African American experience a century ago, it would have been a rousing success. Combined with a well-done, entertaining movie, the marvelous musical accompaniment, and the nostalgic neighborhood theater environment, it was an outstanding event.

The next evening we celebrated Presidents Day by going to Carnegie for a very enjoyable concert by the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra, at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. The program, with one exception, focused on Americana and especially on our nineteenth century heritage.

The exception was the opening number, Bizet’s Carmen Suite #1. This obviously is a feature in the orchestra’s repertoire, providing excellent opportunities for flute, oboe, and trumpet principals to demonstrate their skills. The finale, Les Toreadors, was particularly impressive.

The next selection was Morton Gould’s “American Salute”, a rousing piece incorporating variations on the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Local Pirate baseball fans will remember Vince Lascheid playing this melody when second baseman Johnny Ray came to bat years ago.

Mezzo soprano Katharine Soroka then performed five songs from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs”. Her powerful, well controlled voice was shown off at its best on “Long Time Ago” and “At the River”. “Simple Gifts” was well done, but an appropriate vehicle for a singer of her caliber. The audience also enjoyed two novelty songs – “I Bought Me a Cat” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw”.

The Largo from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” featured the English Horn playing the poignant “Going Home” theme, continuing the Americana mood eloquently. At this point Conductor Warren Davidson handed his baton to Patrick Forsythe, to conduct a powerful rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and set the scene for the “piece de resistance”, Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”.

Conductor Davidson returned to the podium and was joined by Andrew Masich, CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, for the finale. Written in 1942, “Lincoln Portrait” is a magnificent orchestral work constructed to accompany a recitation of excerpts from various speeches by Abraham Lincoln, concluding with one from the Gettysburg Address. Mr. Masich is the latest in a roster of famous personages to perform this recitation. 

The music was excellent, just the right background for Lincoln’s pronouncements. Copland quoted bits from contemporary folk songs and from Stephen Collins Foster so tastefully that they seemed to be inherent parts of the composition. Nonetheless the eloquence of Lincoln’s statements overpowered the music and reinforced the exalted opinion we all have of our sixteenth president.

All told, it was a fine way to spend a Presidents Day evening. The Civic Orchestra is outstanding – it is difficult to realize that the performers are all volunteers. Ms. Soroka and Mr. Masich each added significantly to the overall event. Maggie Forbes, Executive Director of the Free Library and Music Hall, and everyone else involved in it are to be commended for “a good job, well done”.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend events like these in local community venues. Both of them managed to provide relevance for the holidays they commemorated.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Downtown" Bridgeville in the 1940s March 2, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 2, 2017

“Downtown” in the 1940s

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society “Second Tuesday” workshop for February focused on “downtown” Bridgeville in the 1940s, an effort to document the businesses, institutions, and residences on Washington Avenue during the War Years.

The facilitator established the mood for the program by reading an eloquent document written by Jane Patton for the Bethany Church Servicemen’s Newsletter in August, 1944. The Newsletter was sent monthly to Bridgeville area servicemen all over the world in an effort to let them know the folks on the Home Front were thinking of them.

In this issue Jane recorded a hypothetical walk up Washington Avenue on a summer Saturday evening, identifying places (Weise’s, the Rankin Theater, etc.) and people (Sam Fryer, Chief Myers, etc.) whom one was apt to encounter on such a venture. Many of the places and people she mentioned were remembered nostalgically by members of the audience.

The format for the discussion was a detailed map of Washington Avenue in 1931, derived from the Sanborn Fire Insurance map for that year. The west side of “Main Street” between Chartiers  and Hickman Streets was easy – the Presbyterian Church, the Manse, Dr. Fife’s house, and the Post Office.

The east side was more difficult. Miss Patton had mentioned Ray Trimmer, and we concluded that his family lived in one of the first two houses close to Chartiers Street. It was agreed that the historic duplex at 745 was occupied by a Franks family in those days. With the exception of Fryer’s Funeral Home, the next five houses remained unidentified. Don Toney suggested we dig out the 1940 Census for help on them. A good suggestion and a project to be implemented before next month’s workshop.

Sam Capozzoli reported that the Socony Mobil gas station on the corner of James Street was owned by John Miller. My brother reminded us that Louie Dernosek’s produce store was in the first building on the other side of James. Then came an electrical repair shop operated by Joe Sarasnick. Then came a small bar run by Al Ross. The L & R Bowling Alleys occupied the large building next door to it. Dr. McGarvey’s house was next, on the corner of Bank Street Extension.

Back on the west side, the original location of E A Motor Company was on the north corner of Hickman Street. We were unable to identify the occupant of the building next to it. Bernhart Motor Company occupied the next building at some point. Then came the large building that eventually housed Capelli’s; in the early 1940s someone reported it was a night club called the Zanzibar.

Pepe’s Bar and Grill was in the next building. Saperstein’s haberdashery was in one of the next two buildings; Bard’s Dairy Store was probably the other one. Then came Weise’s News Stand – a popular hangout for the younger set. Between Weise’s and the Central Restaurant was a small shop that someone suggested handled ladies’ clothing. That took us up to the bridge over the B & M branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Back across the street Bonnett’s Restaurant occupied the building on the north corner of Bank Street Extension. Then came the Rankin Theater, followed by two Harmuth establishments, a ladies clothing store and a butcher shop. I remember Pete Conroy’s barber shop being in that area at some point, but am puzzled about its specific location.

On the other side of the bridge was the C. P. Mayer Building. The Lutz Lumber Company office was in the first storefront, followed by Pete Strasser’s Jewelry Store, and Wilson’s Drug Store, on the corner. On the other side of Washington Avenue, Sarasnick’s Hardware Store was at the bridge; the next five storefronts, up to Station Street are mostly a mystery.

There is general agreement that the store on the corner was originally Butler’s Grocery and eventually Isaly’s. Some folks believe there was an A & P next door to Butler’s, and that Tom Thomas had a restaurant in one of the storefronts.

Time ran out before we were able to cross Station Street – we will pick up there next month, at 7:00 pm on the “Second Tuesday”, March 14. Perhaps some of the questions we uncovered in this first session will have been resolved.