My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

January. And the Plague. And Ice.

London, 2009. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

So, here’s a fun fact that I found on Wikipedia: In January 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London. It opened between Paddingdon and Farringdon. We call it the “London Underground.”

If you Google “London plague pits underground,” you can read all about the urban legend on this. Local lore claims that the detours that the workers had to dig for the London Underground’s path so that the train didn’t barrel through the mass graves of Bubonic Plague victims from 1665. (One of the articles visible to me on the first page of my Google search questions the “research” used by the author who claimed this as fact in her non-fiction book, but it makes a cool story.)

On this week in January 2020, I went to an author visit for a New York Times bestselling author at a Barnes and Noble near Pittsburgh. The author promoted the release of her newest book, a novel about a prominent person in London during both World Wars.

As I stood in line waiting for the author’s signature, I heard a man identify himself as a reporter from our local Pittsburgh “newspaper.” (I say “newspaper” because it’s not available in print form in many Pittsburgh area locations now; it’s online.) The reporter said that THE AUTHOR had reached out to the “newspaper” and asked them to cover the event.

Again, this was a New York Times bestselling author. She had several successful books under her belt. She had to contact the Pittsburgh media on her own and ask them to cover her event at Barnes and Noble. So, if you dream about writing your own book, and about having your publisher (or Barnes and Noble or whomever) market your book tour for you, think about this again.

I have a final story that mentions London. It has absolutely nothing to do with January, but it involves ice, so close enough. My husband is a huge fan of iced beverages. Before I met my husband, I always ordered “Diet Pepsi with no ice” at Subway or Burger King or whatever so that I could get “more bang for my buck.” Then, I met Jonathan. He turned me on to the joys of drinking beverages with ice.

When we went to London, we learned that we wouldn’t get ice in any of our drinks unless we specifically asked for it. It was a hot-ish week in September. We stayed in a hotel directly across the Thames from the Tower of London. Even better, the hotel had a working ice machine on our floor, directly across the hallway from the elevator!

As soon as we checked in to our room, I grabbed the ice bucket. I headed for the ice machine. As I filled our ice bucket, the elevator opened, and a woman stepped out.

The woman said to me, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”

How did she know? I hadn’t even spoken. Did I make a gaffe that only an American would make? Did I wear the wrong thing? OMG, did I drop my passport on the floor for her to find?

I said, “Yes.”

The woman said, “I could tell because you are getting ice. I’m from Texas!”

“Hamilton” -Adjacent: Friendship Hill

Friendship Hill, Point Marion, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I found an article titled “Who Was Alexander Hamilton’s Real Nemesis: Aaron Burr or Albert Gallatin and the Jeffersonians?” by Christopher N. Malagisi, dated August 30, 2018, on the Townhall website. This article referenced the book “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” by Gregory May.

The idolized and fabled Alexander Hamilton served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton rival Albert Gallatin served as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury.

Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States who appointed Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Aaron Burr was elected as Jefferson’s Vice President in the election of 1800. So, these guys all knew each other.

Now, my brain totally shut off about one paragraph into reading about the subject matter. Just as it did when I had to learn about the Federalists and the Whigs and the Jeffersonians in high school. So, I don’t have my own fully-formed opinion about whether Albert Gallatin was Hamilton’s real nemesis. I do think that if Lin-Manuel Miranda had rewritten the Hamilton musical so that it was just a bunch of guys arguing about whether Hamilton or Gallatin made a better Secretary of the Treasury, it would not still be on Broadway.

Albert Gallatin owned an estate in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, is buried on the estate. The National Park Service now runs the estate as Friendship Hill National Historic Site. There is no admission fee to visit.

Part of me wishes that Miranda had at least written Gallatin into his “Hamilton” musical – even in a tiny role – so that Point Marion could use it to lure tourists there.

If you want to sight-see while also social distancing, you may want to check out Friendship Hill. Here is my prior blog post about Friendship Hill.

Cremation Pioneer on Gallows Hill

The United States’ first crematory is located in Western Pennsylvania. Its first cremation took place in December 1876.

I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.

I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.

I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.

Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?

On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.

Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.

According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.

I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.

Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.

Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.

Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.

Nor’easter in New Ken?

Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I joked in a prior post that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, I received a new camera for Christmas. The camera arrived on Krampusnacht. I tested it today during our first snowstorm of the winter.

I actually took these photos several hours ago. We have even more snow right now. The snow is still falling.

Alcoa Aluminum Smelter in Voodoo Brewery’s Beer Garden. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

You should see above a photo of the Alcoa aluminum smelter that now sits in Voodoo Brewery’s beer garden in New Kensington.

This relic sat for decades at Station Square in Pittsburgh. (Station Square is a dining and shopping district along the Monongahela River, directly across said river from downtown Pittsburgh.)

The property owner at Station Square no longer wanted it.

Now, Alcoa actually plays a role in New Kensington’s history. HUGE role.

So, a month ago, crews moved this smelter 20 miles to the beer garden on Fifth Avenue, New Kensington.

Pittsburgh’s loss. Our gain.

Here’s an article from the Trib about the Alcoa smelter if you want to read more about it.

To be honest, I have eaten out at Station Square many times. I went there for boat trips on the river when I was in high school. This smelter actually stood next to the dock that we used for these trips. I don’t remember EVER seeing the smelter during my trips to Station Square. I’m sure that this was because Station Square just had so much other things to see. Also, because back in the olden days, I wouldn’t have actually cared about an Alcoa smelter. I never had any interest in industrial history when when I was high school. (The only reason that I remembered Henry Clay Frick was because Emma Goldman’s boyfriend shot him during the Homestead riots.) I never cared about Alcoa until I met Jonathan Woytek and he brought me to New Kensington.

Now that this smelter sits down the street from my house, I am sure that I will have plenty of opportunities to check out the smelter as I sip on my Voodoo beer. Maybe take a few selfies in front of it.

Not now, of course. We are living through a snowstorm and also a global pandemic. But soon.

Catoris Candies, Fifth Avenue, New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
This block is caddy-corner from the Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

The Christmas Concert from Hell

Allegheny West, North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jonathan Woytek

I intended to blog this month about the Revolutionary War soldiers from Western Pennsylvania who wintered at Valley Forge from 1777 – 1778. However, “Winter at Valley Forge” doesn’t radiate sunshine and warmth. A lot of people that I love are pretty sad this month. Anyway, I don’t think that I can tell you much that you can’t just learn from a five second Google search.

Jonathan and I toured Valley Forge once. We watched the movie at the visitors’ center that was basically footage from a 1977 re-enactment. (I could tell because the “soldiers” wore eyewear from the 1970’s.) We walked around the entire National Historical Park. Jonathan photographed Washington’s headquarters. Maybe next winter, I will post some of Jonathan’s Valley Forge photos. My sister K. got married right down the road from it, so this is what we did before the rehearsal dinner.

In the meantime, if you really want to read about soldiers from Westmoreland County who served during the Revolutionary War, go read my blog post about Lochry’s Defeat.

So, Christmas time always reminds me of the music programming at Berlin Brothersvalley School District. My four sisters and I all graduated from Berlin. The entire district consists of three buildings connected by a tunnel. The entire school district has one auditorium that everybody shares. My poor mom and dad sat in this auditorium every December for over three decades, watching their kids perform in various holiday concerts. Sometimes, they attended multiple concerts in the same month!

It’s a really long story, but the school district’s Christmas music programs in this auditorium began in either kindergarten or first grade. Then, all four of my sisters and I were in Christmas programs for either band or chorus for elementary, junior high, and high school. Keep in mind that there is a nine-year age gap between me and E., and a 13-year age gap between E. and O. So, I started elementary school over thirty years before my sister O. graduated from high school. That’s how my parents got stuck sitting in Berlin’s only auditorium every December, for over three decades. (This doesn’t even count all of the spring concerts and musicals, and all of the hours and hours and hours that my parents spent watching K. and I perform in the high school marching band.)

The thing that makes me feel so guilty now is that I NEVER PRACTICED my clarinet on my own. I got away with this because my school was so small that the music teachers basically took every warm body that showed up for all of the rehearsals. I am so sorry that my parents had to sit through so many concerts (and football games and parades) in which I played the clarinet so poorly.

Remember when I said that my parents sometimes watched their kids appear in multiple performing arts events in the same month? Well, that’s because all of the bands and choruses from the elementary, junior high, and high school each had their own separate events. Except for one December.

Berlin sits on top of a mountain in Somerset County. One winter, the weather was so bad all December that everybody’s separate events got cancelled. Multiple ice storms or something.

So, Berlin Brothersvalley School District combined all of the rescheduled holiday music programming (band AND chorus) from grades 4-12 all together on one special evening! Seriously. The entire combined holiday concert was four or five hours long. I wish that I was making this up. I’m not.

Well, what do you think happens when you fit an entire school district’s worth of families into one auditorium to watch every single band and chorus student from grades 4-12 perform? Do you think that the entire audience sits there quietly? Do you think that the audience stays for every single musical group’s entire performance? Do you think that audience members who do need to cut out early take care to be quiet in the hallway?

If this were the game show Jeopardy!, I would say, “What is none of the above, Alex?

My high school band director, Mr. B., was PISSED that this entire school district’s worth of families in grades 4-12 did not sit quietly for the five hour Christmas Concert from Hell.

Mr. B was so upset that on the very next school day, he made the entire high school concert band get into groups and brainstorm lists of concert etiquette. Then, he made all of the groups get together and compile one master list of concert etiquette.

Then, at the beginning of every single performing arts event held at Berlin for the rest of my high school career, a student had to come up on stage and read our master list of concert etiquette to the audience.

Mr. B. also made sure that our master list of concert etiquette was printed inside every paper program for every musical event held at Berlin.

Years after I graduated from high school, I returned to the school to watch a musical in which one of my younger sisters performed. The master list of concert etiquette that I helped to compile after the Christmas Concert from Hell appeared at the very front of that event’s program.

Now, I can’t even go to see something at the Benedum without mentally tsk-tsking whenever I see or hear somebody violating the giant list of concert etiquette that Mr. B. made us create. For instance, one time I went to see the muscial RENT. The woman sitting next to me pulled a sandwich out of her enormous purse and ate it in the middle of the show while the lights were down and people were singing. At the Benedum. The place with the $100+ tickets. (Disclaimer: Maybe she had blood sugar issues. Who am I to judge.)

The concert etiquette disaster at the Christmas Concert from Hell happened long before everybody and their dog owned smartphones. So, maybe the audience’s behavior would have been even worse if the Christmas Concert from Hell had happened (pre-Covid) in 2019.

At the time, I thought that Mr. B. made us band members write the giant list of concert etiquette in order to teach all of us kids a lesson. Now, looking back, I think that the concert etiquette list was directed at the parents, at all of the adults who didn’t set a good example that night.

(But also: a four-or-five-hour concert, featuring every music student from grades 4-12? Really?)

I can’t wait until the Covid crisis ends so that I can go back to judging other people’s concert etiquette behavior at live performances. In the meantime, I sit here and think about the Christmas Concert from Hell. Those days were the good old days.

Bonkers Political Story Out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania

I lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a few years out of college. I graduated from high school in a tiny town about one hour south of Johnstown. After college, the very first job that I found that included health insurance was in Johnstown. So, I stayed there for a few years until I was able to find a much better paying job in downtown Pittsburgh.

I actually went to Johnstown about once a month each month or so while I was growing up. Johnstown had the closest mall and the closest new release bookstore. We couldn’t order books off of Amazon because that’s how old I am. So, my mom drove me to the bookstore in Johnstown every time that a new Baby-Sitters Club book came out. I was in my high school’s marching band. We travelled to Johnstown to perform at football games and at the Halloween parade. My sixth grade class visited a bunch of the famous sites connected with the 1889 Johnstown Flood for our spring field trip. (You know – the site where the South Fork Dam burst, the flood museum in Johnstown, and of course, the cemetery where many of the flood’s over two thousand victims were buried.)

This story isn’t about all of the people who died in the Johnstown flood. This story is about ANOTHER calamity in Johnstown that killed a bunch of people in the 1800’s. I just learned about this particular calamity this month. I think that this is because Johnstown has just experienced SO MANY tragic mishaps.

This story is bonkers.

Anyway, in 1865, the Civil War ended and John Wilkes Booth assassinated President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, became the new POTUS. Things did not go well for Andrew Johnson.

In 1866, Johnson took a “Swing Around the Circle” train trip. He was trying to convince people to like him better. In September 1866, Johnson’s train stopped in Johnstown, between his route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

Thousands of people showed up in Johnstown to see Johnson and the Civil War heroes whom he (allegedly) pressured to travel with him. Maintenance staff in Johnstown built a viewing platform over an old canal for the spectators.

Hundreds of people stood on the platform.

The platform collapsed. Many spectators fell about 20 feet.

Several spectators were killed.

The train moved on to the next stop WHILE THE RESCUE AND RECOVERY WERE STILL IN PROGRESS.

Now, I don’t have the talent or the patience to write about Andrew Johnson. Especially not for a blog post here. Especially not on Thanksgiving Eve, while I have several shots of whiskey in me. That’s why God created Wikipedia on the eighth day!

When I was a kid, I read a children’s historical fiction novel about Andrew Johnson that I either found in a used book store or else I found in the back of a classroom. I think that it was called “The Tennessee Yankee” or else “The Yankee from Tennessee” or something. The book made Johnson out to be a hero. However, everything else that I ever read about Johnson after this pretty much called him a jerk. People are complicated. The American Civil War was complicated. Reconstruction was complicated.

I never had anything THIS exciting happen to me when I visited or lived in Johnstown. One of my co-workers from Johnstown told me that her ex-husband went to see Sting at the Johnstown War Memorial. Sting – ALLEGEDLY – performed so poorly that night that the crowd threw their beer bottles at him when he sang “Roxanne” for twenty or thirty minutes. So, that’s an exciting thing that happened in Johnstown – to somebody else – during my lifetime.

The Old Stone Tavern Needs to Have Its Own Ghost

So, for a few years now, I’ve casually followed the efforts of local preservationists to purchase and restore the Old Stone Tavern, aka Elliott’s, in Pittsburgh’s West End. Daniel Elliott, or perhaps somebody else, built the tavern / inn during the late 1700’s.

I took an interest in the tavern because it appeared in Agnes Sligh Turnbulls’s historical fiction about late 1700’s Western Pennsylvania. (Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she wrote several books including The Day Must Dawn and The King’s Orchard.)

In The King’s Orchard, the protagonist, James O’Hara (an early Pittsburgh business leader and also philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather) lived for a while at Elliott’s while he established himself as a fur trader. Also in Turnbull’s fiction, the famous / infamous Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty drank at a colonial Pittsburgh tavern that I believe may have been based on Elliott’s. Daniel Elliott himself appeared in Turnbull’s fiction.

Turnbull’s historical fiction also referenced either a Pittsburgh innkeeper or Pittsburgh store owner named Sam Semple. I haven’t yet figured out whether Semple’s establishment later became Elliott’s, or if these were two different operations.

I can’t ask Turnbull about Sam Semple and his connection to Elliott’s because she published The Day Must Dawn in 1942 and The King’s Orchard in 1963. She passed away in 1982. She is buried in her hometown of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

Everything that I know about the preservation of Elliott’s Tavern came from Wikipedia, the preservationist group’s Facebook page, and the first articles that appeared when I Googled “old stone tavern Pittsburgh.”

For instance, here is an article that appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine in December 2019:

Reviving History: The Fight for the Old Stone Tavern

The last post of the “Old Stone Tavern” Facebook page showed a February 2020 date. It detailed a fundraiser held that same month in order to raise money to purchase the building.

Less than a month after this Facebook posting and the fundraiser, Pennsylvania’s governor shut Pennsylvania down due to Covid-19.

So, will Elliott’s ever open as a tavern again? I wonder. If currently open restaurants struggle right now to stay open, who knows what will happen to a tavern that closed years ago?

I’ve never looked into becoming involved in the tavern preservation group’s fundraising efforts. My husband and I have enough frustration trying to preserve our own 1890’s house. For instance, this past weekend, Jonathan transplanted a baby Japanese maple tree that was growing into our house’s foundation over to a different part of our yard, and the tree didn’t get blown over in the next day’s giant windstorm. This was a major accomplishment in our house restoration. I don’t need to get my heart broken over a 1700’s tavern.

That said, I’ve thought about Elliott’s and compared it to what I know about the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. I’ve come to the conclusion that Elliott’s needs to have its own ghost. Or ghosts. Or, at least, ghost stories.

I’ve heard that you can purchase “ghost in a bottle” kits on the internet. I think that these are all Caveat Emptor deals, though. What if the ghost that you ordered turned out to be a woman who had unpopular opinions about things?

On a more serious note, what if the ghost was one of the Native Americans slaughtered in the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, or else one of the Native Americans slaughtered by Colonel William Crawford’s men, or else one of the Native Americans who received a smallpox blanket from the soldiers at Fort Pitt?

You never know what you’ll actually get when you order a ghost online. Also, a preservation group can’t purchase ghosts for a building that it doesn’t currently own.

Most of the articles that I read emphasized the tavern’s role in colonial and very early American history. I read about more recent (1870’s and Roaring Twenties) history that happened there; I’d love to blog more about that later.

Thanks for sticking by my side on this blog. I’ve blogged before about the tavern, but I owed you an American history post.

Stay healthy, and talk to you later.

Salisbury Steak and Political Swag

When my husband’s mother and grandmother were both still alive and healthy, they and my husband’s father all lived together up the hill from us. They invited us over to their house for a dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, twice a year , on Election Day.

Every single year, I said something to the effect of, “It’s fantastic that you guys celebrate the democratic process this way!”

Then, my husband and his mom, Fran, reminded me of the dinner’s true origins.

See, my husband’s grandmother – Babcia, as the family called her – worked for the City of New Kensington. She received a day off of work from the city on each Election Day. She used her “day off” to cook a dinner which ordinarily took her too long to prepare on normal work days – Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

(I know – I just know – that somebody out in cyberspace is going to read this and either think or say, “Look at those lazy public servants, getting Election Day off on the taxpayers’ dime.” I don’t care. I’m a taxpayer myself. If the City of New Kensington once paid my husband’s grandmother so that she could stay home and cook dinner for her family twice a year, whatever.)

After Babcia retired from the city, she and her daughter continued the Election Day tradition.

They passed away in 2015 and 2016. We were all heartbroken. Jonathan’s dad outdid himself in trying to keep up all of the family traditions, including the Election Day dinner. I give him a lot of credit.

Then Covid happened. We stopped the big family dinners.

Jonathan and I will eat dinner alone together today on Election Day. Then, Jonathan will spend the evening at a volunteer fire department training. I will write as I listen to music and try to not watch the Election Day news coverage.

Jonathan and I both voted this morning. I joked to Jonathan, as we left our polling place – the basement of a Presbyterian Church that sits on our street – that now we had to jump in our car and drive north to Rochester, New York. This way, I could attach my “I voted” sticker to the sticker guard that protects Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone. We didn’t actually drive to Rochester. We returned to our house to do laundry and telework at our day jobs.

My sister, E., texted me to tell me that she walked around a Civil War battlefield after she voted in Northern Virginia today.

E. and I – and our other three sisters – all grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In late August each year, we walked around the Somerset County fair. I picked up every bit of “free” political swag offered to me in the exhibition tent. Pens and notepads and wooden rulers and, of course, bumper stickers. I asked my parents if I could put the “free” bumper stickers on their car and truck. They always said no. My dad told me that we couldn’t ever put bumper stickers on our family autos because this would affect the resale value. I figured out later that most of these “free” bumper stickers listed the names of people for whom my dad would never vote.

When I was in the sixth grade, our social studies class held a mock presidential election to model the actual presidential election that fall. We each wrote down our choice of candidate on a piece of paper, folded the paper, and placed it in the “ballot box.”

The election was meant to be “anonymous.”

Unfortunately, the teacher picked two fellow students to count up all of the ballots.

I had “voted” for the same presidential candidate that I knew that both of my parents favored. I was the only person in my entire class – perhaps the entire sixth grade – who voted for this candidate.

Everybody in my class wanted to know which student had voted for this candidate.

The students who had been selected to count the ballots figured out that the unpopular vote came from me based on my handwriting.

The students who counted the votes snitched on me. They ratted me out as the person who had cast the lone vote of dissent.

My entire social studies class made fun of me for this.

My classmates did me a favor. They warned me back in the sixth grade about the way that people behave when they get caught up in groupthink. They warned me at the age of twelve that politics is a dirty game.

Happy Election Day, y’all.

Six Degrees From the Serial Killer H.H. Holmes

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phipps Conservatory was constructed in 1892-1893. The first exhibit at Phipps consisted of plants purchased from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

My sisters and I used to play “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon.” If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s based on the theory that everyone in the world can be linked by six or fewer relationship connections. So, when you play “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon,” one player picks a famous person from Hollywood, and then the other players try to link that person by six connections or fewer to Keven Bacon.

So, since Halloween was coming up, I thought that it would be fun to play “Six Degrees from H.H. Holmes.”

Very briefly, H.H. Holmes was a serial killer (as well as a medical school graduate, body stealer, and con artist) active in the Eastern United States, Chicago, and Canada in the late 1800’s. He was executed in Philadelphia in 1896. He confessed to 27 murders, but some writers speculate that he actually killed hundreds of people.

Holmes owned a building located three miles from the location of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The building came to be known in popular culture as Holmes’ “Murder Castle.”

Writers theorized that Holmes took advantage of the large crowds in Chicago for the fair in order to pick out new victims. They conjectured that Holmes pretended to be a hotel owner and brought these victims to his Murder Castle under the guise of providing lodging. Then, he allegedly killed these out-of-towners.

Erik Larson’s novel “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” ran with this particular narrative. In 2017, I took an architecture boat tour of the Chicago River. My tour guide referenced “The Devil in the White City” several times. I left the tour with the impression that this was a non-fiction book. I learned later that the book is NOT non-fiction. Larson even conceded in his remarks at the end of the book that many of the things that he wrote about Holmes’ murderous activities were conjecture.

If you want to learn about H.H. Holmes based on documentation and research, then I recommend Adam Selzer’s “Mysterious Chicago” Facebook page. Selzer has posted several “virtual tours” exploring Holmes on this Facebook page. He also wrote his own non-fiction book about Holmes. I didn’t read the book, but I watched all of Selzer’s Facebook videos.

Some writers claim that H.H. Holmes was also Jack the Ripper. However, Selzer discovered documentation that showed that Holmes was in the United States at the same time that the Ripper murders occurred in London.

So, back to the “Six Degree”thing.

Henry Phipps (a businessman who belonged to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose dam caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889) had Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh erected in 1892 – 1893. The conservatory lists this history on its website. (The Phipps Conservatory website does NOT include that part about the Johnstown Flood.)

During one of my visits to Phipps Conservatory, I learned through an exhibit that representatives from the conservatory travelled from Pittsburgh to Chicago in order to acquire the plants that were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. The Phipps representatives purchased these plants (they outbid several other parties), then had the plants shipped by train from Chicago to Pittsburgh. These plants from the 1893 World’s Fair became Phipps Conservatory’s opening exhibit in 1893.

So, maybe the original plants at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh were originally viewed – possibly even enjoyed – by the serial killer H.H. Holmes. Maybe H.H. Holmes lured one or more of his victims among these plants. Maybe H.H. Holmes attempted to prey on the people who travelled from Pittsburgh to Chicago, looking for Phipps Conservatory’s first flowers. Maybe these plants are the ancestors of plants that I now enjoy when I visit Phipps.

You see, Erik Larson, I too can speculate about H.H. Holmes and his activities at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Here’s my call to action: If you enjoy (or hate read) my blog, please share it with others would would also enjoy (or hate read) it.