Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Brand New Borough April 24, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

April 24, 2017

Bridgeville Borough Secedes from Upper St. Clair

The April “Second Tuesday” workshop at the Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s History Center was an exploration of Bridgeville in 1901, at the time the local residents elected to secede from Upper St. Clair Township and be incorporated as an independent borough.

The facilitator began the discussion with an in-depth description of Bridgeville in those days – an ambitious community of about two thousand residents that functioned as the commercial and social capital of an area including the adjacent parts of four adjoining townships, Upper St. Clair, South Fayette, Collier, and Scott.

Located at the extreme northwest corner of Upper St. Clair Township, Bridgeville was indeed the “tail that wagged the dog”. There probably were only four or five hundred people in the rest of the township, primarily farmers and miners in a couple of coal patch towns.  A newspaper clipping from that era reported that “the incorporators of the borough propose to get a police force, a volunteer fire department, a better school building, and a complete system of sewerage”.

Apparently the township residents outside Bridgeville resisted any efforts for modernization. Karen Godwin reported that, as late as 1955, they were unwilling to install indoor plumbing in McMillan School; it still had outhouses when she was a child. It is easy for us to forget how recent the modernization of the township is – their high school didn’t exist until 1957.

Another newspaper clipping reports that ninety eight of the one hundred and thirty three resident freeholders (tax paying property owners) had signed the petition requesting incorporation, including twenty nine of the thirty five freeholders with property on Washington Avenue. Attorney George P. Murray, who was also Solicitor for Allegheny County, presented the petition to Judge Elliot Rodgers and is credited with its successful acceptance.

The facilitator passed out copies of the 1905 G. M. Hopkins map of Bridgeville in an effort to provide a picture of the significant development that had occurred in the community by the turn of the century. He also displayed the list of citizens who had signed the aforementioned petition. It included many familiar names – George Baird, S. H. Collins, Isaac Cox, S. A. Foster, John Hosack, Dr. Kiddoo, Martha J. Lesnett,  Macedonia Maioli, eight members of the Poellott family, and W. F. Russell among others.

A very useful tool in determining who these early leaders were is the 1907 R. L. Polk Directory which lists residents and businesses; the address and occupation of several of the unfamiliar names on the petition were identified in it. The History Center has an impressive collective of these directories, an excellent reference source for all of us. They also have copies of the available census records. The one for 1900 is virtually illegible; we were unable to decipher many of the names on it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the roster of petitioners was the absence of several prominent citizens, including C. P. Mayer, Joseph Lutz, and Amos Fryer. It has been suggested that this episode may well have been the beginning of the political rivalry that has prospered ever since. It has been reported that the petition was sponsored by and heavily supported by Republicans, and it is well known that Mr. Mayer was a passionate Democrat.

The facilitator read several columns from his “Water Under the Bridge, Volume VIII”, which reinforced this premise. The columns were based on minutes from the Bridgeville Borough Council Meetings from the very beginning of the borough, as reported by Clerk J. E. Franks. The Council was reorganized every year, and Mr. Mayer’s presence and frequent dismissals certainly suggest major conflicts between the parties.

To those of us accustomed to the current relationship between Bridgeville and its neighboring townships it is intriguing to examine the situation in 1900. One wonders what might have happened if Bridgeville had remained part of Upper St. Clair all these years.   

Next month’s “Second Tuesday” workshop will be the first of a series dedicated to the history of Bridgeville High School, beginning in its earlies days and moving forward chronologically.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad April 17, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

April 17, 2017

The Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad

During his presentation on the “Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery” last month the speaker projected a map of Castle Shannon in 1917 on the screen. When I realized it showed several railroads, my interest peaked. I am in the process of writing a chapter on local railroads for an upcoming book on the Civil Engineering Heritage of Western Pennsylvania, and I need all the help I can get.

I immediately resolved to corner the speaker after his talk and request a copy of the map he was showing, then realized that this is indeed 2017. I promptly pulled out my trusty I-Phone and took a picture of the screen. I was rewarded by a photo that was sharp enough to provide the information I needed.

Sure enough, the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad was clearly shown, snaking its way through Castle Shannon on the same right-of-way currently used by the Blue Line on Pittsburgh’s Light Rail system. In the heart of Castle Shannon the P & CSRR had a wye, permitting engines to be turned around, and shops for engine repair. The line continued a short distance to Arlington Station, located about where Lebanon Shops are today.

The history of this line is quite interesting and serves to provide us with an excellent picture of the early development of this general area in the nineteenth century. Beginning around 1825 Jacob Beltzhoover opened a coal mine on the north face of Mt. Washington, then known as “Coal Hill”.  The mine entrance was high on the hill just west of the current Liberty Tunnel.

When it was “mined out”, it was extended through the south face of Mt. Washington and, in 1861 sold to the Pittsburgh Coal Company, to provide access to mines along the Saw Mill Run valley. They built a narrow gauge railroad, the Coal Hill Coal Railroad, to move coal from the new mines to Carson Street via the old tunnel and an inclined plane on the Pittsburgh side of Mt. Washington.  On the south face of the mountain it descended to the Saw Mill Run valley via a long horseshoe curve just east of the current South Hills Junction on today’s light rail system.

In 1871 a group of investors, headed by Milton Hayes, formed the Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad to promote development of communities along Saw Mill Run, including Castle Shannon. They purchased the Coal Hill Coal Railroad and extended it up Saw Mill Run, still as a narrow gage (forty inches) line. In addition to coal cars they began running passenger cars through the old mine tunnel. The cars have been described as similar to those on amusement park trains, to get through the tunnel that had an overhead clearance of sixty five inches.

They quickly realized the potential for passenger business to supplement their coal hauling function and enlarged the tunnel to make it possible for conventional locomotives and passenger cars to negotiate it. At that point the passengers transferred to the incline to be transported down to Carson Street.

As was common in the nineteenth century the railroad constructed tourist attractions to build up its passenger business. First was the Linden Grove, a destination aimed at German picnickers, followed by several other picnic groves. Then came a zoological garden, featuring several hundred birds and animals, and two camp-meeting grounds, complete with overnight cabins and public buildings. By 1877 the railroad was running nine passenger trains a day, each way.

In 1891 a new incline was designed and built by the P & CSRR Chief Engineer, Samuel Diescher. Named the Castle Shannon Incline, its cars were large enough to haul wagons (and eventually automobiles) as well as passengers. The old incline it replaced continued to be used for transporting coal to the Carson Street transfer facilities. It was coupled with a new incline on the south face of Mt. Washington, providing passengers with an easy passage over the mountain. The Castle Shannon Incline operated until 1964.

In 1900 after a long conflict with the Pittsburgh Southern Railroad for a route south to Washington, Pa., the P & CSRR was sold to the Pittsburgh Coal Company. In 1905 Pittsburgh Railways leased the track and added standard gauge rails to permit the use of streetcars. For a few years streetcars and passenger trains used the track during the day, and coal trains operated on it at night.

The coal hauling business ended in 1912, and three years later passenger service using steam locomotives also ceased. Since then the route has been dedicated to interurban trolleys and eventually to the current light rail system.

Once again I wish we could roll back the calendar and take a ride into South Hills Junction from Castle Shannon, and then up and over Mt. Washington via two inclines.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery April 12, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

April 12, 2017

The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery

The March program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was a very entertaining talk by retired Keystone Oaks middle school history teacher Edd Hale, entitled “The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery”. When I first heard the title, I thought it would be more appropriate for a British comedy starring Alec Guinness or perhaps an Abbot and Costello film, rather than for a presentation to an audience of history buffs.

Turns out I wasn’t far wrong. Although the event was tragic – five men eventually died – it was peppered with absurd incidents that did indeed, as Mr. Hale commented, “smack of the Keystone Kops”. His ability to communicate an interesting bit of local (at least to the South Hills) history in a humorous fashion appealed greatly to his audience.

The event occurred almost a century ago, on May 14, 1917. At the time the research was done for this presentation (twenty years ago), there were still a few people around who remembered it, including a lady who had witnessed much of it from a window in her home, when she was a child.

The chief villain in the story is a Russian immigrant named Mikhail Titov who lived in Pittsburgh’s Soho District and worked as a laborer in one of the steel mills. He happened to stop in Castle Shannon one day and have lunch at the Waterman Hotel, a popular watering hole located at the intersection of Castle Shannon Boulevard and Route 88. While there his view included the Castle Shannon First National Bank, on Poplar Street, just beyond the P & WV trestle.

In those days Castle Shannon was a busy little community far enough from Pittsburgh to be considered almost rural. Its principal industry was coal mining, and the bank served a valuable function serving the miners and their employers.

Back in the city Titov began to discuss the idea of robbing this specific bank with three other Russian immigrants – Sam Barcons, John Tush, and Haraska Garason. They concluded it was a good idea, but that they needed an automobile to pull it off. Their landlady, who may well have been in on the scheme, suggested they contact Nick Kemanos, an acquaintance of hers who had just purchased a new Maxwell. One of its luxury accessories was an electric starter. The elimination of the necessity to crank the vehicle to get it started made it an ideal getaway car.

The gang hired Kemanos to chauffeur them all day for seven dollars. He claimed, later, that he had no knowledge of the plan and was just an innocent bystander. On the appointed day he picked up the four desperadoes and headed for Castle Shannon. Not wanting to arrive until some predetermined time the gang stopped at a bar and imbibed enough alcohol to measurably impair them.

They drove into Castle Shannon through Mt. Lebanon, parking the car (headed away from Castle Shannon) at the end of the paved street. All the Castle Shannon streets were still dirt at that time. The parking spot was in front of “Dr. Brown’s house”, about where the Ice Castle is today. The gang piled out of the car, leaving Kemanos behind. The bank was about two blocks away, down Washington Avenue (now Castle Shannon Boulevard), then up Poplar Street.

Each member of the gang was carrying a 38 semi-automatic pistol. When they entered the bank they found one customer in it, a gentleman named Stanley Rawa, who coincidentally spoke Russian. He was engaged with teller Frank Erbe. Also coincidentally Erbe had had a premonition that morning and had brought his pistol with him when he came to work.

The robbers announced the purpose of their mission and instructed Rawa, in English and in Russian, to leave the teller’s window and retire to a chair in the corner. Tush magically produced a piece of rope and tied him up. Erbe took advantage of the interruption to dive behind a desk and begin shooting at the intruders. Although they reportedly were inebriated, they returned the fire and hit him five times, rendering him “hors de combat”.

At this point Head Cashier Daniel McLean came out of the vault and was startled at the uproar. He raised the large ledger he was carrying in front of his face; a single shot went through it into his forehead, killing him instantly. With both adversaries out of the way the robbers then proceeded to empty the vault and attempt their getaway.

In the interim all the citizens in the immediate vicinity responded to the gunfire in the bank by digging out their personal hardware and ventured out into the streets to investigate. The local justice of the peace, “Squire” George Beltzhoover, appropriated someone’s shotgun and advanced toward the bank, arriving there just as the robbers were leaving. When they ignored his command to stop and throw up their hands, he pulled the trigger and was shocked to realize the weapon was unloaded.

The Squire threw down the gun and ran around the bank. Two of the desperadoes, Barcons and Tush, ran around the other side and immediately encountered him at the bank. One of them hit him in the face with a bag full of silver dollars, breaking his nose and seriously impairing his motivation to arrest them. Not knowing for sure where the car was, they set off on foot toward the Castle Shannon Golf Course, with several armed civilians at their heels.

Realizing they were eventually going to be apprehended both robbers decided to commit suicide. Tush was successful; Barcons, despite having the muzzle of the pistol in his mouth, missed his brain and only blew off part of his face. He was taken into custody by the posse, who had a difficult time protecting him from irate Castle Shannonites who wanted to lynch him.

Meanwhile Titov and Garason were high-tailing it back to the getaway car. Eventually they were able to awaken the sleeping Kemanos and get the Maxwell onto the highway, heading for Pittsburgh. Their pursuers immediately looked for cars to chase them and eventually settled on Laughlin Funeral Home’s hearse. After several slapstick moments eleven of them piled into the hearse and zoomed down Washington Avenue in hot pursuit.

With the horn honking and other vehicles scattering out of their way they sped through Mt. Lebanon and onto Greentree Road. Lo and behold, they spotted the Maxwell in the distance, chugging along at a normal speed. When they caught up with it, they were dismayed to learn that Kemanos was alone in it. He reported that his riders had gotten out two or three miles back. He was arrested, as an accomplice, and the Maxwell appropriated.

About half of the $17,000 stolen from the bank was recovered with Barcons and Tush; the remainder and both Titov and Garason were never heard from again. Barcons was convicted of murder and died in the electric chair. Kemanos was acquitted of one murder, then convicted of the other (Erbe died from his wounds two days after the robbery). While in jail awaiting appeal of the second conviction, on double jeopardy grounds, he died during the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

The speaker reported several conjectural theories that the two escapees had managed to find their way back to Russia with enough stolen money to live comfortably. An interesting theory, but did anyone manage to live comfortably in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution?

In retrospect, despite the tragedy of five deaths, the combination of four inebriated, bumbling robbers encountering a community full of equally bumbling civilians armed with deer rifles and handguns did manage to produce a drama filled with comedic episodes.

Next month’s program dealing with “The Clemente Museum and the Memorial to Roberto Clemente” will be presented by Vince Mariotti, a docent at the aforementioned museum. It will occur at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department on Commercial Street. The public is cordially invited.

Historic Maps, Part 2 April 5, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

April 5, 2017

Historic Maps, Part 2

Two months ago we wrote a column on the first of four historic maps of Pennsylvania that Dana Spriggs recently donated to the Bridgeville Area Historical Society, and promised to discuss the others in future columns.

The second map is entitled “Pennsylvania, entworfen von D. F. Sotzman” with a subtitle “Hamburg bey Carl Ernst Bohn, 1797.” Daniel Friederich Sotzmann was a prominent German mapmaker in the late 1800s; Herr Bohn ran a publishing firm in Hamburg. This map was one of their best-known products.

It is indeed a beauty. The legend (explanation or “erklarung” in German) is full of interesting detail. Roads varying from “Bridle Road” to “County Line” are each shown differently. All manner of colonial era industrial facilities are shown – forge (eisenhammer), grist mill (kornmuhle), saw mill (sagemuhle), etc., as well as Indian towns and Indian paths.

By 1797 Pennsylvania’s boundary disputes had all been resolved; the map shows the boundaries as they exist today, including “the Erie Triangle”, the portion of New York containing Presque Isle that we acquired in return for renouncing our claims to northeastern Ohio. In effect, we traded Cleveland for Erie.

In this part of the state the counties have been organized; the mapmaker calls them grafschafts, the German name for regions that have been the property of counts (grafs). The border between Greene (“Green” on the map) and Washington Counties is an east-west line, close to the irregular border that exists today. “Alleghany” County includes all the land north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny, all the way to Lake Erie.

The portion immediately north of the Ohio River and bounded by an east-west line several miles north of Butler is designated “Depreciation Lands”. The Depreciation Lands referred to tracts that were sold to raise money to underwrite depreciation certificates given to Revolutionary War soldiers who had received depreciated currency for pay, primarily men who had served in the Pennsylvania Line or the Pennsylvania Navy.

The rest of northwestern Pennsylvania was designated “Donation Lands”. These were tracts of land ranging from 250 acres to 500 acres that were awarded to Pennsylvanians who remained in the Continental Army or the Navy until the end of the Revolutionary War. Both the Depreciation Lands and the Donation Lands had been acquired from the Iroquois (Six Nations) as a result of the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. It is interesting that the area currently occupied by the (Seneca) Cornplanter Reservation is outlined on this map.

In this area, Chartiers Creek is well mapped, along with its major tributaries – Millers Run and Robinson Run. Both Neville mansions – Bower Hill and Woodville – are shown, although Bower Hill had been destroyed in the Whiskey Rebellion a few years before the date of the map. Also shown is a house on Thoms Run with the name “Craig”, probably referring to Isaac Craig. He owned property in this area and eventually married John Neville’s daughter Amelia. In 1802 he became Burgess of Pittsburgh.

The Black Horse Trail is shown, crossing Chartiers Creek twice at Bridgeville and again at Woodville, before heading up through Greentree to Pittsburgh’s West End. Another trail is shown to the east, approximately along the route currently followed by Route 19. A grist mill is shown on Robinson’s Run with the name “Nobles”; we can assume Colonel Noble’s complex there had been established. However, there is no indication of Noble’s Trace leading east to McKessport, through Bridgeville; apparently it was laid out later.

At this time St. Clair Township occupied the area bounded by the Monongahela and Ohio rivers on the north; Chartiers Creek to the west; Washington County to the south; and a southwest to northeast line generally following Streets Run, to the east. Moon Township was west of St. Clair; Mifflin Township, to the east.

As happens frequently, this map introduces another puzzle. The name “Fowler” is prominently shown, roughly where Upper St. Clair High School is located. We have been unable to find any mention of a family by that name so far. Perhaps some reader of this column can solve this riddle for us.

All maps are interesting; old maps are fascinating. The 1797 Sotzman map of Pennsylvania is a classic. Our thanks to Dana for his thoughtfulness.