New Kensington Mural: Updated

Updated: Here are the photos that I took at yesterday’s mural dedication.

Mural Dedication. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 11, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mural Dedication. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 11, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is my blog post from last week:

Mural Creation. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 5, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men`s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever- growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

This quote from the architect Daniel Burnham produces a lot of Google results. However, I learned about this from Adam Selzer’s Mysterious Chicago livestreams. Selzer taught me that Burnham spoke these words at an urban planning conference in London in October 1910.

So, today when my husband came back from his lunchtime walk around Parnassus and downtown New Kensington, he told me something.

He said, “Hey, they’re putting up that mural downtown right now.”

Mural Creation. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 5, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

We’ve known for awhile now that community leaders planned for a mural in downtown New Kensington. In fact, here is the story from the local media that told Jonathan and I almost everything that we knew about the mural.

You will be able to see this mural as you finish crossing the bridge that locals call “The New Kensington Bridge” (technically the C.L. Schmitt Bridge) over the Allegheny River, into downtown New Kensington.

It’s being added to the side of a building right next to the scene of a devastating multi-building fire that happened a few years ago. In fact, my husband worked at the scene of this fire as a volunteer firefighter. In my opinion, the fire seemed to be pretty heartbreaking for so many people. So, I’m happy to see something pretty created here.

I’m so happy that I headed downtown and took photos of the mural-in-progress.

Every single one of you who comes here to look at my photos is fantastic and I love you all. For those of you who dream bigger than I do, “God Bless You!”

Mural Creation. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 5, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mural Creation. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 5, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mural Creation. Downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 5, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I STILL (Heart) Biff; Easter Vigil Mass

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

The New Kensington and Mount Saint Peter folks who read my blog know about the “I (Heart) Biff” graffiti. Just very quickly, an industrial building used to stand across the street from Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. Somebody spray painted “I (heart sign) Biff” on the side of this building that faced the church. So, every time that anybody exited Mount Saint Peter from the front door, they could look across the street and see something that looked sort of like this: I <3 Biff.

The graffiti got removed more than once. Each time this happened, somebody sprayed it back onto the building. This went on FOR DECADES.

In 2018, the I <3 Biff building got demolished. The local news media tracked down the woman who spray painted the original graffiti on the building. We all got to learn the identity of the real Biff. It’s a pretty fun bit of local folklore now.

Just as a sidenote, Jonathan’s mom, Fran, worked at Mount Saint Peter for years. Jonathan and I got married at this church.

Meanwhile, in the past decade or so (weather permitting), Mount Saint Peter’s Easter Vigil Masses (held on the evening prior to Easter Sunday) commenced with a bonfire on the steps in front of the church.

These fires involved New Kensington’s volunteer fire department. Jonathan often volunteered for this bonfire.

I didn’t include this in any of the photos that I have here, but there was actually a fire truck parked on the right side of the building during this bonfire.

I attended these Easter Vigil masses and watched the bonfire. I used to attend with my sister-in-law, my mother-in-law Fran, and other friends and Woytek family members. After Mass ended, Fran usually spent the next hour or so inside the church, talking to people. We all kept up the tradition after Fran passed away in 2016.

Then, we got late night tacos from the Taco Bell drive-thru because Taco Bell was one of the few kitchens still open and serving food in New Kensington that late on the night before Easter.

Last year, the church held no bonfire due to Covid-19. Jonathan and I still went to the Taco Bell drive-thru the night before Easter. This year, I skipped the in-person Mass because I haven’t yet had the privilege to receive any doses at all of life-saving vaccine. Jonathan volunteered at this year’s bonfire because he is already fully vaccinated. We’re still going to get Taco Bell tacos tonight.

So, instead of attending in-person Mass, I played with my new camera that I got for Christmas. I took photos of the Mount Saint Peter bonfire as seen from downtown New Kensington.

Now, I need to mention here that Mount Saint Peter is built on a hill overlooking downtown New Kensington. You can see the downtown and also Parnassus from Mount Saint Peter’s parking lot. However, you couldn’t previously see Mount Saint Peter from the downtown because the I <3 Biff building blocked the view. Now that that building is gone, I can stand behind the fenced-off former site of this building and see the church. Tonight, I could watch the Easter Vigil bonfire and take photos of it.

So, here you go. I posted above a photo of the Easter Vigil bonfire as seen from directly behind the site of the former I <3 Biff site.

Now, to be honest, I drove up to Mount Saint Peter shortly after noon today so that I could show you the prep work for tonight’s bonfire and tonight’s Mass. Here are the pallets which were all stacked up and waiting to go on Mount Saint Peter’s front steps.

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

You see that empty lot behind the pallets and directly across the street? That was the site of the infamous I <3 Biff building.

Here are the floral wreaths waiting to be hung on the door for Easter. It takes a lot of hard work to prep a church for the Easter Masses!

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is a sign on the door reminding parishioners of steps that they can take to prevent Covid-19:

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is a view from the church. The I <3 Biff building used to be directly across the street from this:

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are some firefighters getting ready for the big bonfire:

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 3, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I was sad to skip this year’s Easter Vigil Mass at Mount Saint Peter, but at least I get to eat my yearly Taco Bell tacos tonight.

The April Fools’ Day Spring Flower Show in Parnassus, Pennsylvania

Impromptu Spring Flower Show. Parnassus, New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. April 1, 2021. April Fools’ Day. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Happy April Fools’ Day in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

My husband, Jonathan, and I usually visit Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh a few days prior to Easter (so, during Holy Week). We visit – and photograph – the annual Spring Flower Show.

We didn’t do this during Spring 2020 because Phipps held no Spring Flower Show that year.

As of today – April 1, 2021 – I haven’t yet received a Covid-19 vaccine in the lovely Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, due to circumstances beyond my control.

For this reason and others surrounding this Global Pandemic, my husband and I decided to skip the 2021 Spring Flower Show at Phipps.

Today, on April 1 – April Fools’ Day – snow fell on my neighborhood of Parnassus. Snow accumulated on the ground – and also on the spring flowers.

So, I photographed the snow-covered Spring Flower Show in my own neighborhood.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

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:


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.