a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A library shines in the ghetto

The blighted city of Aliquippa took its name from a mysterious Indian queen who likely never stepped foot in the area 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad liked the name of the Seneca or Mingo tribal leader and used it to christen a train station in Woodland, Pa., before its name was changed to Aliquippa.

The real gem of this community was Elisabeth M. Horne who, on Nov. 9, 1926, gave Aliquippa the gift of an ornate library in the heart of town. Horne was a daughter of Benjamin Franklin Jones Sr., a founder of Jones and Laughin Steel Corp. that built a steel mill that stretched more than four miles and employed 11,000 men along the Ohio River.

The mill was most famous for a labor dispute in 1937 that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ordered the company to reinstate its steelworkers who were fired for attempting to organize a union. The ruling was considered to be the most important on behalf of labor in the United States.

The city in Beaver County, today, is among the bleakest of the old steel towns in America’s Rust Belt that began to crumble from the collapse of the industry in the 1980s. As a result, much of Aliquippa’s downtown storefront buildings and neighborhoods has fallen in disrepair.

However, the B. F. Jones Memorial Library has undergone extensive restorations to remove decades of black soot that covered its decorative interior walls and ceilings.

A larger-than-life bronze statue of Jones, created by New York artist Robert Aiken, is perched atop a Vermont marble base inside the front door. The lobby reveals itself to reading rooms, one of which has a carved entry to the former children’s reading room. That room is graced with a fantastic stained-glass window depicting 10 color portraits of Mother Goose rhymes.

This library at 663 Franklin Ave. survives, thanks to hearty volunteers who cater to underprivileged children, unlike those of immigrant steelworkers who this library was designed to serve.

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