a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tales from the Whiskey Rebellion

By Scott Beveridge

Some of the better stories are hidden between the lines of David Froman’s eyewitness account of the infamous Whiskey Rebellion in the late 18th century in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Told in his memoirs, “Sim Greene and Tom the Tinker’s Men,” they reveal wonderful tidbits about the pioneers who settled the Monongahela River valley.

Froman had no idea steel would someday become king there when he first laid his eyes upon the lush forests in his new home. Later, some of his companions would encounter killer pirates downriver on the Ohio River while they traded their goods. Meanwhile, the faithful in these backwoods gathered for endless hours at tent revivals to worship the Lord, while others set about to exploit the natural resources they were discovering.

This author penned the book in a flowery prose, beginning with his following a group over the Allegheny Mountains in 1788 so he could establish the first schoolhouse in Elizabeth, the only town between Brownsville and Pittsburgh that had an established a system of streets at the time.

“Away it stretched until in the misty distance it seemed to merge with some clouds lying low along the western horizon,” he wrote about his first glimpses of the rolling green hills of America’s early wild west. “Long we stood on this farthest rampart of the great Appalachian chain feasting our eyes and feeling the thrilling power of the landscape.”

His party reached its destination from Philadelphia, having witnessed the migration of pack squirrels, averted a mountain lion attack and survived a fast-sweeping forest fire by hugging close to a small stream. He obviously had a fascination for the main character, Sim Greene, a colorful hunter, trapper and Revolutionary War hero who seemed to play a minor role in the tax revolt that became the first major uprising against the United States.

While Froman admitted that rebellion of President George Washington’s tax on Monongahela rye whiskey to pay down debt from the American Revolutionary War was dead wrong, his book leads one to believe he kept his opinions to himself while it took place because he was a good friend of the rebels. Had he been brave enough to speak out against the movement when it was in full force, the anarchists would have surely tarred and feathered him rather than permit him to tag along to their meetings and demonstrations. They had drawn a bitter line between their ranks and those who supported the new government.

While historians have long argued over whether the notorious Tom the Tinker was an individual or the character represented a group of protestors, Froman identified him with certainty as John Hollcroft of the Finleyville area. The farmer sneaked under the cover of night to destroy the whiskey stills of those who submitted to the tax, or posted warnings about how he planned to retaliate against the tax collectors.

After the tax fight was quelled, the men of Elizabeth built from a wood a marvelous schooner capable of carrying 250 tons of local goods down the Mon to New Orleans. Of course the ship, the Monongahela Farmer, was christened with a bottle of local rye whiskey and it completed its maiden voyage.

Froman wrote the book on his deathbed, and requested it to be published 50 years after his death so not to embarrass the farmers who fought the tax or any of their immediate heirs.

In the end, he resurrected the legacy of a friend – Harold Harden - who fled Elizabeth under the threat of arrest by U.S. marshals for his alleged participation in a tax riot. A rumor followed Harden’s escape that he had joined up with the pirates who hid out in a place called Cave-in-Rock that contained the many skulls of their victims. But, Froman eventually reported that the pirate under suspicion back home was actually the man's long-lost twin brother. The good brother, alas, had become a devout minister.

That tale left me wondering if this book, while it was hard to put down after all these years, should have been classified in bold print as a piece of nonfiction.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Happy 170th birthday obscure little bridge

Folks in a badly-decaying town in the upper reaches of the Monongahela River are planning a party for an historic bridge that has an identity crisis. This story, below, about its noble importance appeared last week in the Observer-Reporter, Washington, Pa.

Shucks, I feel the need to be there.

By Scott Beveridge

BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – An outsider driving through downtown Brownsville would never know that under the pavement rests one of the most important engineering accomplishments in America.

The 170-year-old Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, the nation’s first cast iron span, is there – hidden below deteriorating building foundations and behind tall weeds hugging the National Road in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“It has the same designation as the Eiffel Tower and you wouldn’t even know it was there,” said Marc Henshaw, a Brownsville archaeologist who admires the old bridge.

The 80-foot-long span even rates up there with the Statue of Liberty, according to the American Society of Materials International, which designated all three structures landmarks because each represents a breakthrough in technology.

Brownsville was selected for the bridge experiment because the area had been located on a rich iron seam, which fed two local foundries that produced quality work, Henshaw said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted with the Herbertson Foundry in Brownsville to cast the bridge from 140 tons of pig iron purchased in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Vulcan Iron and Machine Works, owned by John Snowden, produced the wrought iron railings, according to the Historic American Engineering Record on file at the Brownsville Heritage Center.

Corps Capt. Richard Delafield opted to use cast iron because the local sandstone was not strong enough to “resist the thrust of the arch” needed to span the creek.

He didn’t want to use wood, either, because of the threat of fire and timber decay, the record shows.

It amazes Henshaw that the bridge has survived so many years of heavy automobile traffic because its engineers never imaged such vehicles would exist when they designed the structure.

The bridge probably survived because it was built with high-quality iron that remained as pure in 1921 as what could be purchased new at the time, the HAER report indicates.

By all indications, the iron is still in good condition, said Don Herbert, a bridge engineer at the state Department of Transportation, which will build new sidewalks on the span this summer.

Henshaw said the bridge is important because it “represents an achievement of the fledgling industrialization and technological innovation” in the 1830s.

The span also is important to Brownsville because it was designed, patterned and built by local residents, he said.

If only people could see it, said Norma Ryan, a volunteer director for the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., which hopes to demolish the foundations beside the bridge and create a park there.

“To this day, most people think it’s the Inter-county Bridge that joins Fayette and Washington counties,” Ryan said, referring to the nearby gray steel arched bridge crossing the Monongahela River.

BARC will hold the celebration from noon to 3 p.m. July 4. Space is available for vendors. For information, call 724-785-9331 or 412-969-6779, or e-mail info@barcpa.org

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Periodic postcard

The old John McKean mansion at Third Street and Lincoln Avenue in Charleroi, Pa. (Courtesy of Charleroi Area Historical Society)

Monday, June 22, 2009

A great place to shoot the bull, then buy a pig

Art Gatts of Washington, left, sells tack and saddles from his pickup truck at the flea market outside a Greene County, Pa., auction parking lot. Friends like Albert Statler of Core, W.Va., stop by to swap stories. (Jack Graham/O-R)

By Colleen Nelson

WEST WAYNESBURG, Pa. – Trucks loaded with bawling livestock pull through to the weighing station, leaving deep tire tracks in the gravel and grass of the parking lot.

Vendors display their wares while standing beside their vehicles as shoppers pore over tools, toys, plants and odds and ends. Tables are loaded with boxes of fresh produce, and saddles and tack decorate tailgates at this rural flea market in West Waynesburg, Pa.

The area in front of the old wooden building with the silver roof and its name painted in big block letters on the side is filled.

And never mind the gathering clouds. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, it's also auction day at the Pennsylvania Livestock Auction.

Every Thursday, this piece of rural history on the hoof comes alive as it has since the 1930s. That's when the narrow-gauge railroad stopped running between Waynesburg and Washington and trucks and auctions became the way to do business. Rich in tradition and touched with the color of a carnival, the auction continues to draw farmers, livestock buyers, impulse shoppers and those who just stop by for a good home-cooked meal.

"A lot of people come here to eat – businessmen, lawyers, office workers from uptown. We get plenty of take outs, too," waitress Alicia Harry said, pausing by the stout wooden steps that lead to the cozy upstairs restaurant where diners can look down on the auction ring.

A generous half moon tier of wooden benches is where the bidders sit, eyes intent on the action in the ring. The bidding moves to the staccato of the auctioneer's voice. Nodding heads and nearly invisible gestures bring the bidding to an end in record time as animal after animal moves through one gate and out the other. Still, there's always
time to take a break, go upstairs for coffee or lunch and still not miss the animal you've been waiting for.

"You can get a four-course meal for $5.50 and it's all homemade. Every week there's a different special. This week it's creamed turkey over biscuits. When we have fried chicken you can't get in the door," Harry said.

Under the steps, stacks of boxes of farm-fresh eggs and other miscellaneous items wait to be the first lot of products to get the auction day started at noon.

Beyond the steps, long rows of stalls hold the day's assortment of stock to be sold – heifer calves and steers, cows and bulls, ponies, mules, goats, sheep and horses. Highland cattle, llamas, emus, even potbellied pigs make the occasional appearance, but in Greene County, well-proportioned beef cattle, especially black angus, and Hereford crosses are what attract farmers and buyers to the sale ring.

Outside, there are cages of chickens, ducks and rabbits. Horse traders saddle up to put on a show for those who will be bidding later.

"Horses go anywhere from $5 to $500 depending on their age and how well broke they are," owner and veteran auctioneer Joe Friend said, catching an early helping of cornbread and beans and all the fixings before the noon rush.

A big man with an easy smile, Friend also owns auctions in Grantsville and Accident, Md. He bought the Waynesburg business in 1971 and runs them all with the help of his family and an extended family of loyal employees who make the food, balance the books and manage all those animals for sale.

"I've been selling since 1958. My son, Joe Junior, was born and raised in the business. He does the auctioning now, but I can still sell cattle when they need me to. It's a specialty business and it takes awhile to hear what the auctioneer is saying. You learn from being around and listening," Friend said.

His advice to would-be buyers: "Your eyes are your marketplace, your pocketbook is your guide."

The long wooden building started life as the Waynesburg Sheet, Tin and Forge Mills in 1900. A group of local investors, led by Belgium horse breeder and auctioneer Charles Orndorf, bought the site and turned it into a livestock auction in 1936.

Old timers remember "Charley" as a dapper man who used a cane to gesture at the auction podium.

"I hung out with my granddad a lot when I was a kid. He gave up auctioning in 1980 when I was 12. There used to be auctions in Morgantown, Moundsville, Uniontown and West Alexander, and I remember going with him to Scenery Hill. Now only Waynesburg and Eighty Four are left," grandson Corbly Orndorf said. "Buyers come in and buy calves and ship them to feed lots in the Midwest. It's cheaper to ship the cattle than haul the grain. There used to be a wool house in Waynesburg, too, but that's gone now. When there were more dairies, there were always a lot of calves in the spring. But times have changed and auctions change with the times."

Beef cattle now outnumber sheep dotting the hillsides, and the numbers of farmers are declining. But coming to town for auction day is still a powerful draw, even for those who can no longer climb the stairs to dine with friends.

"This pie is good!" retired auction secretary Mildred Phillips declared, sampling the apple pie brought fresh from the auction restaurant to her kitchen table just outside town and just in time for lunch. "When I worked there in the 1950s I baked 25 pies on Wednesday, filled my cream pies on Thursday morning and was at work by 9 a.m. I used to make an apricot pie for George Conners every week. Those were long days and we stayed until the books balanced, even if it took all night!"

Computers have made keeping track of every sale a little easier, but the auction office, upstairs and next door to the restaurant, bustles with activity from the time Joe's sister, Patty Friend, arrives at 6:30 a.m. to greet the milkman until the last animal is loaded and on its way and the last slip is tallied.

Out-of-towners should keep a sharp eye out for the turnoff when on Route 21 in West Waynesburg. Just past Wayne Lumber is the entrance to a bustling, colorful past that will be there as long as there are animals to be sold to the highest bidder.

(Colleen Nelson is freelance writer and artist in Holbrook, Pa. She teachers creative writing at Bowlby Library in Waynesburg, Pa. Reprinted from Living in Greene County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

HOBY kids for literacy

Pennsylvania high school students attending the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership summer program at Washington & Jefferson College perform their community service today by painting the Washington County Literacy Council office in Citizens Library.

Some of the 25 polite, over-achieving kids who reached out to help this nonprofit also stuffed book bags it gives to each new mother at Washington Hospital.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Amanda's Musings: Dear Janice Dickinson

For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off you. And it isn’t because you are the self-proclaimed super model. And it isn’t because of your emaciated, corpse-esque physique.

It is because you are certifiably ca-razy.

Your body is an enigma, though, my dead friend. With the majority of your weight derived from silicone implants and other plastic bodily adjustments, I can’t understand how your collection of cosmetic procedures could make you look a solid 35 years older than you are.

As a testament to the trashy television shows that so enrapture me, I have been watching your latest venture “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.” I have also watched “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency” and even got my work out on while watching the train wreck that was a “behind the headlines” account of your rise to fame.

From those viewing experiences, I gleaned a few things about you:

1. You are undoubtedly one of the reasons why young women puke up their dinners and work out until they pass out.
2. You are not anywhere near as attractive as you once were (or remotely as hot as you believe you are at this point in your waning career).
3. You are a loud-mouthed, aggressive woman who was inevitably kicked in the teeth and discouraged as a youth. I can only imagine that’s why you treat other human beings like they were put on this earth to give you an impromptu pedicure should such a procedure be so desired.

But girlfriend, I won’t lie: That overzealous, I-could-give-two-craps attitude is the reason why I kept watching. There is a small sliver of my heart that emotes a great love for people like you … people who exude so much confidence that they can’t possible understand how someone could possible be offended.

That sliver went into cardiac arrest last night, though, Janice. As sad as I was to see you get voted out of the jungle in your quest to fight it out with other B-list (or C or D-list) “celebrities,” I think it might be the best thing for you.

As the other “stars” go on to compete in asinine stunts to win food and immunity – and ultimately a sizable donation to the cause of their choice – you will be back in the States, criticizing fatties at your modeling agency (you know, those heifers who can’t fit into a size 2 mini) and berating any number of poor schleps over any number of small gaffs.

I just hope that part of your homecoming plans include a trip to a certified therapist to deal with some issues I’m not even sure you are aware of, one of which must be a deep neurosis.

I’m not a psychologist, but I do have some expertise in the matter. I am crazy myself. The only difference, darlin’, is I’m medicated.

So from one looney toon to another: In the name of all that is holy, please invest what you will spend on your next Botox injection for some mood stabilizing drugs.

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “Thank you, Effexor!” Gillooly

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grand opening of Route 40 Classic Diner

Today takes me to Brownsville, Pa., to write a story about the historic Dunlap's Creek Bridge, which is considered an engineer marvel of its time. Later, this video that captures the spirit of this decaying town catches my eye:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A determined shopkeeper with penny candy

By Colleen Nelson

GREENSBORO, Pa. – Betty Longo's storefront windows are filled with
baskets, crocks, red geraniums and pale African violets.

Step inside her shop on Front Street in Greensboro, Pa. Penny candy, ice cream and fresh milkshakes await you.

This tiny borough along the Monongahela River is well on its way to becoming a tourist destination. Meet the woman who helped make it happen.

"Some people call me the town historian and I guess that's true," Longo, 83, admits, while rummaging on a shelf for a copy of the book she loves to show visitors.

Her book, "Memories of Greensboro, Pennsylvania: A People's History," published in 2007, is full of old photographs of Greensboro in its heyday as a 19th century pottery town. It includes newspaper articles, chapters from old books and federal historical registry listings. But, it is the people's history section, written by Longo from her own life and times, and from interviews of friends and neighbors, that tells what it takes to keep a town alive.

"My husband Jim and I bought the store in 1953. I got interested in history in 1955 when I found a ledger in the attic that belonged to Alexander Van Boughner. He owned this store and had a pottery business, too."

The ledger starts in 1883 and fills hundreds of pages with lists of what people bought, how much Van Boughner paid his workers and what got shipped on the river.

"It fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. So I started asking my neighbors because I saw so many of their family names listed."

Greensboro in the 1950s was full of families whose husbands and fathers worked on Lock Seven, or in nearby mines, Longo remembers. These were good times, when people got together to create Mon View Park, complete with a swimming pool and roller skating rink for the kids.

Longo was in the thick of it and her store became the place to gather.

"Every morning I got up at 5 a.m. and made nut rolls, cinnamon rolls, pies and cake to eat with coffee. At night people came in and drank coffee and talked, sometimes till 11 o'clock. My little one would come over from the house and fall asleep on the magazine rack. I didn't have enough sense to say I was closed."

But times were changing. Mines shut down and families moved. But the Longos stayed to raise three children and the store stayed open.

When Lydia Aston, a nurse advocate for rural health issues in West Virginia, bought the historic Reppert/Gabler House at the river's edge in 1975, Longo recognized a kindred spirit.

"She came into my store one day and asked me if I knew any place where we could build a clinic. I told her to talk to the people at the Monon Center and that got the ball rolling. That's how we got the Cornerstone Care clinics started."

When Lock Seven was removed in 1986, the water level in that stretch of the river rose 15 feet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the riverfront a higher flood plain, and in 1992, it began making plans to condemn all the buildings there, including Aston's historic home.

"We were all upset and had a lot of meetings at the fire hall but people were afraid. They really didn't know what to do. It was Lydia Aston who stood up to the Army Corps of Engineers and refused to let them condemn all those houses. She got me involved with talking to lawyers, going to court, all of that. She knew who to call and she never gave up. Lydia saved a lot of our history. We lost some houses, but the Corps fixed six of them and returned them to the borough and now we rent them. It's a wonderful story. I kept records and it's all in the book."

In 1992, Longo helped found the Nathanael Greene Historic Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the history of Greensboro and funds walking trails, community improvement projects, festivals and conferences.

Longo is still in the thick of it. And she still has an eye for a kindred spirit.

When borough council needed a new member, Longo began knocking on doors. Mary Shine's well-tended house caught her eye and Longo bided her time until Shine retired from teaching.

"I told her, 'If you want to keep this a beautiful town, you'd better get on the council.' Now look at her. She really knows how to get things done. It takes people who are committed to care for a community."

(Colleen Nelson is freelance writer and artist in Holbrook, Pa. She teachers creative writing at Bowlby Library in Waynesburg, Pa. Reprinted from Living in Greene County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Shop, walk and meditate on the battlefield

HOMESTEAD, Pa. – No doubt, the site of the Battle of Homestead is an unlikely location for an artist’s rendition of an ancient meditation circle.

Nevertheless, Lorraine Vullo decided to create her $90,000 labyrinth, funded by grants, along the Monongahela River, where one of the nation’s bloodiest labor fights played out in 1892.

The art installation is hidden over a hillside beside the sprawling Waterfront retail complex on the site of the former Carnegie Steel, the forerunner to U.S. Steel. It's not far from the mill's pump house, which has been restored by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area that was created by Congress in 1996 to preserve sites relating to Big Steel.

It was on this riverbank where striking union steelworkers exchanged gunfire with Pinkerton guards whom Henry Clay Frick dispatched there to reopen the mill with cheaper labor. Seven workers and three detectives were killed before the battle ended, along with efforts to organize Pittsburgh steelworkers.

A steady stream of the curious walked around in circles Sunday at the maze-like walkway lined with rectangular stones. Others took a quick glance and left, seeming confused.

A six-pointed star can be found in the epicenter of the temporary installation. Along the outer edge of the circle are concrete paving stones that appear like rays of the sun. They bear the names of mills that once stood along Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

I obediently followed the path, trying to find some inner steel mojo, but could only wonder why such a garden would cost 90 Gs.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The art of a steelworker

MONESSEN, Pa. – It appears the self-taught artist, Nick Churlig, was playing a crude joke with his sculpture, “Mind Over Matter,” that he created from scraps he picked up at a steel mill.

He plopped a piece of coke used to produce steel directly under a toilet float dangling on a chain, and then spray-painted the items gold.

The rest is left up to the imagination because Churlig died in February at age 86 and didn’t have any descendants to keep alive his story.

He liked to create art from items he recycled from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mills in Monessen, Pa., and nearby Allenport. This is the story volunteers tell at the Monessen Heritage Museum, where a half-dozen of Churlig’s creations are on display in a glass case.

Not visible to the right of his "Owl, shown in the above photo, is a shiny missile-shaped piece he painted black and blue before gluing just one tiny seashell to its side. The sculpture is appropriately titled, “Black and Blue.”

Churlig’s primitive art might be a little weird, but it speaks volumes to the resourcefulness of the clever men who toiled in steel mills that have vanished from the region’s landscape.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A beer garden where I could dance a jig

Sharp Edge in Pittsburgh has enough varieties of beer to choose from to make your head spin.

McMURRAY, Pa. – A stranger to Sharp Edge Brasserie shouldn’t expect its décor to be about anything other than beer.

Hundreds of expensive bottles of brew line a wall in a jail-like cell at the entrance to the business at the end of a dying strip mall in the otherwise-wealthy Peters Township section of Washington County, Pa.

Further ahead, behind the bar, are more than 50 different draft beers to choose from, as well as 350 other varieties, selections that spin my head well before any alcohol reaches my belly.

“How do you keep track of that much beer?” I ask the young female bartender.

“It can be a challenge,” she responds, before recommending a cold glass of Bavik, a Belgian Pilsner of the lighter variety.

This bar is among four in the Pittsburgh region of the same name and owned by Jeff Walewski, whose flagship location can be found in the city’s Bloomfield section.

The mood is welcoming and calm tonight inside the Peters pub off Route 19. A distinguished man is talking to a complete stranger about the history classes he teaches at a public school. Two nearby rows of high-backed, oak booths are filled with customers quietly drinking dark beers in fancy glasses. The air is pleasantly free of cigarette smoke. The location is exempt from the unwelcoming, costly and controversial drink tax in neighboring Allegheny County.

The bartender announces that Comcast TV will be filming a show here as part of a story about places with good beer and grub, beginning at 5 p.m. Friday.

The Buffalo chicken bites and personal pan pizzas are half price tonight, as are the Belgian drafts. That’s good news because the Bavik normally sells for $6.10 a glass. It has nothing on the Chimay, which will set you back $11.10 per goblet after happy hour expires.

Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album is streaming from the speakers when my cheese pizza with a bit too much garlic arrives on my plate. The crust is so wafer thin that it could double as a tortilla, but the pizza is not bad washed down with two lagers that were brewed for only the finickiest of Pils connoisseurs.

The meal ends when the British progressive rock band’s mellow tune, “Goodbye Blue Sky,” fades to the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” a song about death and rock 'n' roll in hillbilly country. It’s time to leave.

I never cared much for Jerry Garcia.

But, there is reason to smile. The tab comes in at just under $10, a bargain during happy hour that is enough to make me think for a passing second about putting on my clogging shoes. Heck, that price can’t be beat by the string of grimy, smoke-filled joints in southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This old brush truck is a keeper

Charlie Ward admires his 1955 Willys Jeep fire truck.

Members of a tiny fire department in Webster, Pa., didn’t want to forever part with their 30-year-old Willys Jeep brush truck when they retired it in 1985.

So they stored the 1955 1-ton truck in a garage until the right person came along to put the tiny vehicle back on the road.

Vintage fire truck enthusiast Charlie Ward, who lives nearby, took possession of the Jeep for a dollar after it sat under roof for 18 years. Part of the deal requires him to offer the truck back to the Rostraver Township Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 in Webster for the cost of his repairs should he ever decide to put it up for sale.

“It’s one of America’s first brush trucks,” Ward says. “It’s the oldest fire truck still in operation in Rostraver Township.”

The fire department purchase it for $8,700 from Buck’s Garage in Webster at a time when fires often swept through Buffalo grass that had spread across the hills above the village about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. The grass was the first vegetation to reappear on the hillsides after a heavily polluting zinc mill closed in nearby Donora. Webster needed such a 4-wheel-drive pumper truck to reach those fast-moving fires on the steep hills above the Monongahela River.

The truck was equipped with a 226 cubic inch super hurricane engine and a 200 gallon water holding tank. When connected to a larger water source, the pump had the ability to spew 500 gallons a minute.

The pump no longer works because it cracked from frozen water that was left inside the assembly over a winter. Ward said he chose to keep the pump as is rather than replace it with a modern version that would not match the truck’s original appearance.

Most of the green paint and hand-painted lettering on the vehicle is original. There were just 50 vehicles of this model produced, and Ward surely has one of the sharpest of them still moving.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Saturday afternoon at Three Rivers Arts Festival

This video from the 50th annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh, Pa., features Caribbean Intercultural Vibrations, a snake, a skip-dancing dude, ketchup dinosaur, other weird art and more.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lincoln slept here, well maybe

The so-called Lincoln bed on display at a new Sen. John Heinz History Center exhibit on the former president.

PITTSBURGH – The bed where President Lincoln rested his head in the Monongahela House hotel was surely comfortable, but whether or not it survived has become an awkward story in Pittsburgh.

A fancy bed now featured in a special Lincoln exhibit at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh made local headlines in 2004, when it was discovered in a secret room in a storage warehouse. The bed was quickly identified in news accounts as having been taken from the celebrated Lincoln Room at the hotel before the building was demolished.

Then, the dedicated staff at the history center’s museum did some digging and found enough evidence to cast doubt on the validity of that claim.

Researchers found an 1889 newspaper report about a devastating fire at the hotel that once stood at 1 Smithfield St. Firefighters flooded the entire building to douse the blaze, rendering “every destructible article ruined,” the newspaper reported without any mention of the Lincoln bed.

That president did spend Feb. 14-15, 1861, in the hotel while en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. Soldiers need to use their bayonets to clear a path for him through the nearly 4,000 people who packed the streets outside the hotel upon his arrival about 9 p.m. during a pouring rain, according to “The Lincoln Train in Pennsylvania,” by Bradley R. Hoch. Once inside, Lincoln stood on a chair and said, “that if all the people were in favor of the Union, it can certainly be in no great danger – it will be preserved,” Hoch noted in his book.

Lincoln gave another speech the following day from a hotel balcony before continuing his journey. And then, nearly every hotel guest in the years that followed requested to sleep in the hotel bed used by the president.

The original Monongahela House was leveled in Pittsburgh’s Great Fire of 1845, only to be rebuilt in a more-luxurious style two years later. The hotel then became a favorite among actors, presidents and such writers as Mark Twain before it was torn down in the 1930s.

An earlier article in the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph stated the Lincoln bed was going to be preserved by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The society since has been absorbed by the Heinz museum, whose staff found yet more information that makes it difficult to even confirm that report.

It seems former Castle Shannon Borough Councilman George Dietrich claimed he crafted a hammer and gavel from the same Lincoln bed before he donated those instruments to his council president in November 1937.

Even so, three blueprints – including one of the Lincoln Room at the hotel – accompanied the bed, shown in the exhibit, when Allegheny County workers found it bug eaten and under burlap in a maintenance shed at South Park. A headline followed the find in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette declaring: “Bed found in shed is the one used by Abe Lincoln here.”

The museum since has only been able to confirm the bed in the shed was made from walnut and poplar, woods that were commonly used for furniture during Lincoln’s lifetime. It’s also typical of the Renaissance Revival style that was fashionable when Lincoln visited the city.

Regardless, it looks presidential.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A town hotel is just a memory

It isn’t the trolley car that catches my attention in this old photograph of another era in downtown Charleroi, Pa.

The art-deco façade of Hotel Charleroi jumps out of the image, sparking memories of better times in what was once one of the most prosperous retail districts in Pennsylvania.

When I was a kid, our family made regular trips to the hotel dining room when dad had a few bucks left in his pocket on his paydays at Page Steel and Wire Co. in neighboring Monessen.

His good friends, Ed and Eunice Hank, ran the place after they got out of the butcher shop business in North Charleroi. It also was a big deal at the time to be seen in this hotel at the intersection of Fifth Street and McKean Avenue in the vicinity of shoe shops and fine clothing stores.

When you walked in the door, there was a well lit bar hugging the wall to the immediate right. It seemed there was always a craggy woman who had one too many drinks sitting at a bar stool. Further ahead was the lunch counter and an expansive door that opened to the large dining room. Popular items on the menu in the 1960s were the shrimp dinner, and a hot turkey sandwich between two thin slices of Wonder Bread drenched in gravy.

The upper floors remained true to the hotel’s Victorian redbrick construction style, reached by a grand oak stairway hidden from view by a odd remodeling project. By the 1970s, the rooms had been rented too often to drunks, drug addicts or prostitutes.

That was before a fire turned the building into a parking lot, leaving the town without one of its central hotels that helped to give it a sense of place.

(Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Trolley Museum)