Parnassus Memoir

Local history buffs are in the planning stages of organizing a historical society for Arnold, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, and Upper Burrell.

I wasn’t able to attend the first meeting this month, but I will be keeping an eye open for the group’s upcoming events.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in New Kensington history, here’s a redux from my older blog:

I live in the Parnassus section of New Kensington. Parnassus is older than New Kensington. It sits along the Allegheny River. It existed as its own place until New Kensington annexed it in the 20th century.

A few years ago, I googled combinations of “Parnassus” and “history” and “Pennsylvania.” I found this link to a Chicago Tribune reprint of a New York Times article that Jeffrey Simpson wrote in 1996 about his family’s experience in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

I posted the link to a Facebook group about local history.

Somebody on the Facebook group responded to the effect of “Oh, yeah, we already know about that article. Jeffrey Simpson wrote a whole book about Parnassus back in 1996. It’s titled American Elegy: A Family Memoir.”

So, I found American Elegy: A Family Memoir on Amazon. It’s out of print now. I bought a used copy pretty inexpensively.

As the title promises, this is a family memoir.

About half of the story takes place in Parnassus, within walking distance from my own current house. The rest takes place at a farm about ten or so miles outside of Parnassus, or else in an upscale suburb on the opposite side of Pittsburgh.

The author changed the names of his relatives and also the names of some of the places. However, I figured out the actual places whose names he changed. Also, he kept the actual names for still other places. (For instance, he kept the name “Parnassus.” I posted at the top a photo of a church that the book actually mentions.)

I found a Pittsburgh-area newspaper article, archived online, that referenced American Elegy. The article listed some of the “real” names of the family members from the memoir. Armed with this information, my husband and I researched the people and places mentioned in the book. For instance, American Elegy references a farm and cottage that was the author’s “family seat” for about two hundred years.  Since Westmoreland County’s property records are online, my husband figured out the location of the old farm – and also the cottage, which still stands.

We actually drive past this farmhouse every time we visit my own family. Each time, I say, “There’s the American Elegy cottage.”

Drop me a line if you want to discuss the book or the research that my husband and I did on the book.

My New Ken Haunted History Walk

Last week, my husband Jonathan and I learned about the history of Brackenridge and Tarentum during Prospect Cemetery’s ghost walking tour.

This tour raised funds for Prospect Cemetery’s upkeep.

Some of the volunteers involved with the cemetery tour have also in past years performed ghost walking tours of downtown Tarentum.

In these tours, guides lead their groups to actors dressed up as local historical figures. The actors tell stories about their assigned figures.

Jonathan agreed to attend past tours of Prospect Cemetery and Tarentum with me because the tour organizers indicated in media posts that these tours weren’t the type of events where people jump out of the darkness to scare guests. (Jonathan refuses to attend scary ghost events.) Nonetheless, we heard true tales of murders, fires, accidents, and illness.

New Kensington could host its own haunted history walk. I didn’t grow up in New Ken (and neither side of my own family ever lived here), so I don’t know many of the old yarns. However, I compiled my own list of historical figures and events based on my knowledge of Western PA history. I welcome anybody with intimate knowledge of New Kensington history to supplement this list. In fact, if you have anything to add, please feel free to tell me in the comments!

Robert E. Lee . . . Just kidding! I don’t have any reason to think that Lee ever came to New Kensington.

Simon Girty  –  Girty  went just about everywhere in Western and Central Pennsylvania. Also, in olden days, Girty’s name was arguably more controversial than Lee’s. (Spoiler: Girty defected from the Americans and fought with the other side.)

Girty was born in Central PA in 1741. During his violent childhood, Seneca warriors raided the Girty family farm and took him prisoner.

Girty grew up learning the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee languages. He lived with (and fought alongside) the Senecas during several battles of the French and Indian War. The Native Americans returned Girty to the British colonists during a prisoner exchange in 1764.

Girty worked as a trader and interpreter. He frequented Pittsburgh and travelled these rivers, including the Allegheny River.  Girty originally served with the American forces during the Revolutionary War. However, he changed his mind after American troops attacked a Native American settlement. (The campaign came to be known as the Squaw Campaign because the Americans killed the women found in this settlement.)

Girty defected to the British in 1778.

Girty was present at the execution of American Colonel William Crawford in 1782 and sources allege that he actually egged on the Native Americans who tortured Crawford.

(See my blog post The Brutal Tale of Colonel William Crawford.)

Girty eventually fled to Canada, where he died in 1818. Some sources list Girty as a Canadian.

I believe that Girty travelled the Allegheny River past present-day Parnassus and downtown New Kensington.

My own grandma in North Huntingdon Township often joked about mischief caused by the Ghost of Simon Girty.

Soldiers of Fort Crawford in Parnassus  – Settlers built Fort Crawford next to the confluence of Pucketa Creek and the Allegheny River in the 1700’s. The remains of Fort Crawford later became the Parnassus neighborhood of New Kensington. A stone marking the fort, and also remembering Colonel William Crawford, now sits next to the grounds of the Presbyterian church and cemetery there. For a history walk, actors could dress up as soldiers and tell the fort’s story.

We could even have an actor dress up as Colonel William  Crawford. In 1782, at the end of the American Revolution, Crawford led American forces into Ohio as part of the Crawford Expedition against Native Americans. Lenape and Wyandot warriors defeated Crawford and his men. They tortured and executed Crawford. Simon Girty was there.

The Frank Alter Family – Frant Alter Sr. was one of the founders of the Keystone Dairy Company in Parnassus. Alter and his family originally owned my present-day house in Parnassus. In fact, an Alter child carved his initials into the woodwork in my attic. The Alter family are now buried in the cemetery owned by Parnassus Presbyterian Church. Here is some research that Jonathan did on the Alter Family.

Johnstown Flood Debris –  We residents of New Kensington live alongside the Allegheny River, downstream from Johnstown. After the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 killed at least 2,209 people, flood debris (and bodies) washed downstream. It washed past our current home and also past all of the other Allegheny River towns downstream from us.  In fact, David McCullough noted in The Johnstown Flood that rescuers pulled a living baby out of the river at Verona.  This happy-ending story is perfect for a history walk.

Here are some more ideas that I blogged about in 2014:

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

The Logan Family 

Aaron Burr

(See my blog post Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.)

Victorian Houses in Parnassus

If you have more stories, feel free to add them to this list. I didn’t grow up here. I would love the insights of those who did.