Kecksburg UFO Detour

Kecksburg UFO Monument. Nicknamed “The Acorn.” Kecksburg, Pennsylvania. April 10, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I watched a lot of the original series of Unsolved Mysteries this past winter. (This is in reference to the original episodes hosted by Robert Stack.) These are currently available to watch for no additional charge on Amazon with an Amazon Prime membership.

The Unsolved Mysteries episode that covered the Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, UFO is Season #3, Episode 1. It first aired on September 19, 1990.

I remember watching this episode when it aired on network television.

I was so excited because the turnoff for Kecksburg was midway on the trip from our house in Berlin, Pennsylvania (Somerset County) to my grandma’s house in Irwin. So, Unsolved Mysteries finally visited “my” neck of the woods. Sort of.

(Kecksburg is located near Mount Pleasant, and I still get excited when I see the road sign for Kecksburg when I drive from New Kensington to the house where I grew up.)

Anyway, I now live in New Kensington and part of my family still lives in Berlin. I drive through Mount Pleasant on Route 31 on my trips to Berlin. The established route bores me sometimes. So, when the weather is nice, I take various “scenic routes.”

Yesterday, I drove to Berlin and I chose a scenic route that took me through Kecksburg. Except, I took a wrong turn at an intersection in Kecksburg. I pulled into a parking lot to check my directions.

I thought, “Doesn’t Kecksburg have some sort of monument to the UFO incident? Maybe I should see if I can find it.”

So, I searched for the Kecksburg UFO monument on my phone. It turned out that the UFO monument was actually a 4 minute walk DIRECTLY BEHIND ME.

As in, if I had gotten out of my car and turned around, I would have seen the monument in the distance.

So, I drove over the the monument and snapped this photo.

I learned that locals refer to this momument as “The Acorn.”

Here is a newspaper article from the Trib about this monument.

As part of this detour through Kecksburg, I drove on Clay Pike Road. I first tried out this scenic route last fall. The trip is gorgeous in good weather but especially in the fall. I highly recommend it.

My Very First Haunted House

The Allegheny Mountains. Simon Girty crossed the Alleghenies as a child in the 1700’s. I crossed them as a child in the 1900’s.

I’ve blogged in the past about Simon Girty. I don’t feel like linking everything that I’ve ever wrote about him. I created “Girty” as a new category on this blog tonight, so you can just click on this to see what I wrote.

So, I mentioned before that the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission installed a marker along the Susquehanna River to note Girty’s birthplace near Harrisburg. I actually Googled the distance between Girty’s birthplace and my very first childhood home in Perry County, Pennsylvania. Turns out that I spent the first seven years of my life only ten or twenty miles from Girty’s birthplace. We both started out in Central PA and then went on to have new adventures on the OTHER side of the Allegheny Mountains.

I’m a Central PA native because of economics. Both of my parents grew up in the Greater Pittsburgh area. (My mom grew up in Carrick.) My dad’s first teaching job out of college came from rural Perry County. So, he moved there a month before their wedding. Mom moved to Perry County the weekend that my parents got married.

I mean, if you want to get technical about it, the Girty family and all of their fellow colonial settlers of European descent lived in what became of Perry County due to economics, too. They moved into the already-occupied lands along the Susquehanna. They struggled with the indigenous people who already called dibs on that whole place. Girty grew up to see the the non-European point of view on this whole mess. If you want to get even more technical, this land around the Susquehanna wasn’t Perry County back then. The county was later named after the War of 1812 hero Oliver Hazard Perry. Girty was born in the early 1700’s. He was an old man taking refuge with the British when the War of 1812 happened. (Though, I just found out through a Google search that Simon Girty only preceded Oliver Hazard Perry in death by a year and a half. Girty died old. Perry died young. So, I guess that nobody wins in the end? Except for me. I made out well because my husband just made me fresh stove-popped popcorn to eat as I write this.)

I should have warned you about tonight’s history dump. That way, you could have closed out this post to go read a Reddit message board about vaccine shaming or about that physical fight that happened last weekend at a Bath & Body Works store.

Anyway, I spent the first seven years of my live in a pretty rural town in Perry County, near the farm where Simon Girty was born in the 1700’s. I wasn’t born in the 1700’s, but some days I feel as if I am indeed that old. “My first hometown” in Perry County was so tiny that it made my “second hometown” in Somerset County seem like a regular little city.

For instance, back in the Perry County days, we lived next to the town’s elementary school. (The high school was twenty miles away.) It was still light outside when I feel asleep each night in the summer. I fell asleep looking out of the window at cows in a field on a mountain. The other thing that I saw on that mountain each summer night were trees with no leaves or dead leaves. (The area had a gypsy moth infestation in the local forests.) The town itself was only about one mile long or so. I walked and biked the entire length of it many times before we moved away.

An Amish community farmed in the area. Some of these Amish were teenagers. Some of these Amish teenagers hung out with the teenagers who lived next to us. These teenagers all drove around in a car meant to emulate the jalopy known as the “General Lee” from the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” That is, the neighbor’s car played the song “Dixie” just like the car in the TV show did. Also, the neighbor’s car was orange and I think that it had Confederate battle flags on each side, just like the “General Lee” did.

We all had huge backyards. The neighbor’s teenagers allegedly grew weed in their backyard garden, according to my mom. One day, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter flew low over our little neighborhood in our little rural town.

So, back to the house that became my first childhood home. My parents bought it shortly before I was born. It was an old house. It was a fixer-upper. (I keep ending up living in fixer-uppers in interesting neighborhoods. Story of my life.) Also, somebody was electrocuted on the power lines. Whoever this poor man was, he died right in front of the house. This happened before my parents bought the place. This was all before The Internet happened to us, by the way. Google didn’t exist. After my parents moved into their new home in their little town in Perry County, the neighbors came over and told my parents all about the terrible accident. Caveat emptor!

So, my parents told us kids this story about the electrical accident after we had moved away and we were all adults. And one of my siblings said,

“I used to hear a man’s voice calling out when we lived there. I used to call back “Dad, is that you?” I thought that it was Dad. Except, Dad was at work when this happened.”

This particular sibling was five years old when we moved away from the house.

And that’s how I found out that my first childhood home was haunted.

Overcome by Engagement Photography

Gristmill and Covered Bridge at Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. This is the one-lane road on which we walked from the parking lot. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

So, just as a heads-up, you are not going to see any engagement photos in this blog post.

Yesterday, my husband Jonathan drove to Butler to run an errand. I came with him and we brought our cameras along so that we could take photos if we saw anything scenic.

After Jonathan finished his errand, he drove us to McConnells Mill State Park. The park has a mailing address in Portersville, Pennsylvania. However, the park is surrounded by woods and includes woods and hiking trails. The park features an 1860’s-era gristmill next to Slippery Rock Creek.

The mill sits at a small waterfall.

Next to the mill sits a covered bridge built in the 1870’s. The bridge crosses Slippery Rock Creek at the bottom of the waterfall.

Here is the park’s official website.

A ghost story exists about the gristmill. So, if you want to conduct a ghost-related internet search, there you go.

The park includes very limited parking between the mill and the covered bridge. However, I don’t think that I have ever actually visited the park when any of this parking was available to me. A majority of park visitors have to park on the hill above the park. A one-lane road leads from the two parking lots on the hill above, down to the mill. You can have a shorter walk (instead of walking from the parking lots down the one-lane road to the gristmill) if you use a “multi-floor level” set of wooden steps from one of these parking lots, down the extremely steep hillside, to the mill.

Now, when Jonathan first suggested that we visit the park yesterday, I got nervous thinking about the ice.

Serious accidents happened on the hillside and also on Slippery Rock Creek. In fact, one of my former classmates was involved in a fatal accident at this park shortly after we graduated. For this reason, even though I visited this park with my parents when I was a kid, I get nervous about safety (mainly, falling over the hillside or into the creek) at McConnells Mill.

However, we both brought spikes to wear on the bottoms of our boots. We agreed to not use the hillside steps. We decided that if we could not find a place to safely park, we would give up on the visit.

Also, of course, we brought masks and agreed that we would leave if we weren’t able to social distance. The inside of the mill building is currently closed for the winter and also for Covid-19.

We did park in one of the parking lots at the top of the hill. That parking lot was pretty empty. We walked down the one-lane road to the mill. We saw and heard people “ice climbing” on the steep hillside (which, by the way, is actually a cliff).

I felt more confident about the ice than usual because I wore the spikes on my boots. Still, I stayed pretty close to the mill. I did cross the road in front of the covered bridge at one point for a photo. However, I didn’t walk through the bridge for a look at the mill from the other side of the creek.

Gristmill and Covered Bridge at Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. The covered bridge was directly behind me. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Jonathan trekked more adventurously than I did for his own mill photography. However, he told me that for some of the shots that he wanted, he had to wait for other visitors to get out of the way. Then, he had to get the shots that he wanted and get out of the way of other photographers.

Looking through my photos of our trip, I don’t have that many people standing in my shots. Maybe that’s because all of the people were over with Jonathan, trying to take photos from the same vantage point as him.

Covered Bridge. Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

At the mill, I saw a young woman wearing what looked to me to be a “winter engagement photo outfit.” You know, boots with jeans. But not the type of boots that one wears to shovel a car out of snow. The type of boots that one wears when trying to look cute. A cute top. A cute coat. Red lipstick. The entire look was the look of a woman trying to look cute.

Jonathan and I never actually had our own engagement photos taken. However, Jonathan took the engagement photos for several of our sisters. I acted as his “photographer’s assistant” for these events. That is, I held Jonathan’s lighting equipment where he needed me to hold it. (So, I guess that I was actually a human light stand.) I served this same function for several other photography sessions that Jonathan did for other people’s senior high school photos and engagements.

It’s been several years since Jonathan’s last customer contracted him for a photography gig. At one time, Jonathan looked into the possibility of swapping his day job for the life of a professional photographer. However, then a completely different job opportunity presented itself to Jonathan.

I should also mention here that I took my sister O.’s senior high school photos on my own. On the day that I did this, Jonathan rested from a sprained ankle and thus he wasn’t around to offer assistance. I am flattered that O. asked me to do this.

Here’s the tl; dr to all of this: I like to scout out tourist attractions for spots to take portrait photography. When we visit parks and other attractions, I like to detect which people are part of a high school senior or engagement photography session. Obviously, at least one person in the party has to have at least one camera. Sometimes, the people in the group carry multiple cameras and / or lighting equipment.

So, anyway, I saw this woman at the mill who looked as if she was dressed up to have her engagement photo taken.

Jonathan showed up. Jonathan offered to walk back to the parking lot himself, then drive to the mill and pick me up. I accepted Jonathan’s offer.

I waited at our agreed-up pick-up spot directly across the road from the front of the mill. I saw the “cute engagement outfit” woman, accompanied by two men and a woman with a camera.

The woman with the camera directed the “cute engagement outfit woman” to pose with one of the men. I assumed that the “cute engagement outfit woman” and the man with whom she posed were an engaged couple. The woman with the camera posed them in front of an ice formation.

The woman with the camera then asked the second man to get out of her shot.

Then, the woman with the camera posed the “engaged couple” in front of the mill’s front woodwork.

The woman with the camera again berated the second man to get out of her shot. Actually, I think that her exact words were, “Get the hell out of my shot.”

To be honest, I kinda got the impression that the second man was the photographer’s significant other or else some other man with whom she was extremely familiar. She spoke to him as if he was on this trip specifically to accompany her. Maybe he was even supposed to be her photographer’s assistant. Except, he was a photographer’s assistant who annoyed the photographer.

I heard the photographer say to the engaged couple, “Now, show us the ring.”

Just then, Jonathan drove up to me. I jumped into his truck. I was pretty cold.

“Hey, I think that somebody is getting engagement photos,” I said, pointing to the group.

“I saw them earlier,” said Jonathan.

Jonathan then said, “I think that the photographer brought her guy along as an assistant, and he is in trouble.”

Jonathan explained that he heard the photographer ask the guy, “Did you bring it?,” apparently referring to a piece of equipment. Then, she said, “Oh, nevermind,” as if she were already upset at him.

Then, Jonathan told me that he got the vibe from observing this group that the man in the “engaged couple” was in trouble with his woman as well.

I mentioned before that Jonathan and I didn’t get engagement photos. Jonathan proposed to me on a cold December 22 at night at Pittsburgh’s West End Overlook, on the mountain above The Point- the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Jonathan brought his camera in order to photograph me as he proposed. However, when he went to take my photo, his camera’s batteries were dead. He looked through his pockets for fresh batteries. I was sick with an earache and infection and in no mood to pose in the cold. The morning after our engagement, I visited my doctor and got a prescription for antibiotics.

A few months after our Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve engagement, we road tripped to Toronto for a long weekend. We stopped at Niagara Falls on the way up AND on the way home. We watched the icy Niagara River flow over the icicle-covered ledge of the Falls. I pressured Jonathan to get down on one knee with my ring in front of the Falls for me to take a photo. I intended to tell people that it was a photo of Jonathan proposing to me at the Falls. I don’t know what happened to that photo. I don’t know how I managed to keep from scaring Jonathan away.

I’ve been to other parks where I’ve watched other couples as they pose for photos. Sometimes, the couple seems happy. Sometimes, the couple seems unhappy. For instance, the man seems unenthusiastic about posing for the photo, and the woman seems unhappy about the man being unenthusiastic.

This other time, Jonathan and I picnicked at another park and a bunch of people showed up and held a wedding at a pavilion near our picnic table. We overheard the entire ceremony. The couple wrote their own vows. The bride said to the groom, “I’ve loved you ever since the day that you ran up the wrong set of stairs and knocked on my door.”

On the drive home from our picnic, Jonathan said to me, “Poor girl. She had to marry a guy who couldn’t figure out which stairs to use.”

I am glad that Jonathan put up with me when I made him pose on one knee in front of Niagara Falls.

Redux: Punxsutawny Phil Tribute

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Circa early 1990’s. (Photo: Shirley Gaffron)

Groundhog Day is February 2.

My sister blogged about our family’s trips to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (Punxsy) and about her own meeting with Punxsutawny Phil.

Here you go: Happy Groundhog Day! My Brush With The Prognosticator of Prognosticators (Updated)

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.

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.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy Feast of St. Nicholas

My husband’s co-worker once told my husband that our Married Life blog (www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com) was the most G-rated thing that he ever read. The Parnassus Pen might or might not be G-rated. I just want to keep my readers entertained.

I’m going to type today’s blog post from memory. If you want to read the actual stories, you can go to Wikipedia.

Today (December 6) is the Feast of St. Nicholas. St. (Saint) Nicholas was a European bishop. According to one legend, St. Nicholas travelled past the home of a very poor family. The family had no money to afford dowries for their three daughters. Since the daughters would have no dowries, they would not be able to secure husbands. The girls’ only career option at this point was sex work. The daughters hung their stockings outside of their house at night. St. Nicholas placed gold coins in each stocking. Thus, the girls could now afford to purchase husbands. The girls would not have to become sex workers after all.

The college that I attended, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, was founded by Benedictine monks from Bavaria. On the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, we dorm residents placed our shoes in the hallway outside of our doors overnight. The dorm prefects filled our shoes with bags of candy.

(I used to explain to people that a “prefect” was St. Vincent’s version of an R.A., or Resident Assistant. Then, the Harry Potter books introduced the concept of prefects to its readers. So, now I don’t have to explain this so often.)

The night before the feast of St. Nicholas, December 5, is Krampus Night or Krampusnacht. Krampus is a demon who drags poorly behaved children off to Hell. You know how some parents use Elf on a Shelf to try to convince kids to be good in December? Well, in olden days, parents used Krampus for this purpose. Folkore describes Krampus as half-goat, complete with cloven hooves and horns. Some versions of the Krampus story are super racist.

I’ve joked with Jonathan all weekend that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, Jonathan ordered me a new Nikon for Christmas. The camera just happened to arrive on December 5. I already owned a Nikon. However, this is a newer, much more lightweight Nikon model. You see, pre-Covid, I commuted almost every day to my employer in downtown Pittsburgh. I sometimes brought my camera to work with me so that I could photograph anything that I found interesting. I didn’t do this every day because I found my camera to be a bit heavy when I also carried my purse, my laptop, and my lunch.

Usually, whenever Jonathan or I get a new piece of photography equipment, we take it to Phipps Conservatory to experiment with it. I don’t think that we will make it to Phipps this year. So, here is a winter scene that I took in early April 2013 in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy St. Nicholas Day!

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.

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.

This is How Ghost Stories Get Started

For this tale, I changed almost all of the specific details, including names and places, in order preserve the magic of a small town’s ghost story.

Dad taught high school for about four decades before he retired. During this time he also worked a second and sometimes third job on evenings, weekends, and summers.  Spread over four decades, the jobs included: ambulance driver, chimney sweep, youth counselor, and seasonal law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). 

For this story, my family lived near a Central Pennsylvania farming town I shall call “Random Woods.”

Dad taught at Random Woods High School. He also held a part-time law enforcement job patrolling for illegal spot-lighters (poachers – you know, illegal hunters) in the woods outside the town. Now, dad worked many nighttime shifts. For these shifts, he often parked his patrol car in this little gap between the edge of the woods and Random Woods’ Civil War-era cemetery.

Then he shut off the car lights and sat for hours in the dark.

Whenever the topic of ghosts comes up, Dad says that he doesn’t see things that he can’t explain. One time he saw a glowing red disk in his mother’s backyard – which turned out to be a glow in the dark frisbee.

His countless nights spent next to a cemetery didn’t scare him. Ghosts did not matter. Physical, living humans mattered. In his job enforcing hunting regulations, just about every person that Dad approached also carried a gun.

So, on the night of this “ghost story,” Dad worked his law enforcement shift. He parked in his usual spot between the woods and the cemetery.

He sat for hours in the dark.

Crack!

He heard a noise.

He jumped in his seat and as a reflex he hit the patrol car’s headlights switch.

He saw a figure in the cemetery.

The figure crossed the cemetery, and then disappeared.

Dad thought all weekend about the “apparition” in the Random Woods cemetery.

Why did he see a figure appear and vanish in the cemetery late at night? A figure that did not present itself as being an illegal hunter?

Dad walked into Random Woods’ only grocery store a few days later.

He ran into his former student, Kurt.

My dad and Kurt chit-chatted.

Then Kurt said, “Mr. G, the graveyard is haunted!”

Dad said, “Really, Kurt? Haunted?”

Kurt said, “Yeah! I spent Friday night at my girlfriend’s house. On the way home, I cut through the graveyard. All of a sudden a huge glowing light shined on me. Oh my god, Mr. G., I hauled ass out of there!”

And that’s how my dad became a ghost story.