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.

“Indentured Slaves” in Pittsburgh?

So, I’ve been trying to blog about this for about a year now. I couldn’t figure out how to handle the topic. I still don’t know how to handle the topic. However, we might all be dead before 2020 ends, so I will give it a shot now.

When I was a teenager, I was super “into” the American Civil War. That is, I was “into” upper class white women’s experiences in the Civil War. (Such as the the fiction of Gone with the Wind.) I didn’t care about the military strategy. Then, I went to college and formed interests in OTHER things. About a year or so ago, I joined a Civil War message board and I started to read about the Civil War again.

I still don’t care about military strategy. I still read about upper class white women’s experiences.

Last year I read most of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant was the widow of American POTUS and General Ulysses S. Grant. (Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in 1865.) President Grant wrote his memoirs to great fanfare shortly before he died of cancer in 1885. After this, Mrs. Grant wrote her own memoirs. Mrs. Grant was actually the very first First Lady of the United States to write her own memoirs. Unfortunately, she did not find a publisher for her own memoirs during her lifetime. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs were published in the later half of the 20th century.

In Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, she wrote that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, grew up in Pittsburgh, attended school in Philadelphia, and then lived briefly in Pittsburgh as an adult. Mrs. Grant wrote that her mother and her father moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis two years after their marriage. Mrs. Grant wrote, “Nearly all Pittsburgh assembled on the river bank to wish pretty Ellen Wrenshall and her brave young husband Godspeed.”

Here’s one part that caught my attention: Mrs. Grant wrote of this journey “The party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father’s, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc.”

Now, the Dent family’s ownership of enslaved workers when they lived in St. Louis is well written about. The reason that I hesitated to blog about this is because on the Civil War message board that I joined last year, some of the posters use Ulysses S. Grant’s connection by marriage to a slave-owning family as support for their arguments that the American Civil War was fought over “States’ Rights” and not Slavery. I didn’t want to give any of the fools such as these more ammunition for their arguments. (Pardon the ammunition pun.)

But, I would like to know more about the “two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob” with whom the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis.

I learned through a Google search that the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis in 1819. How many of their friends who wished them well on the riverbank in Pittsburgh also had “indentured slaves?”

I didn’t even know until I was an adult that people who lived in Western Pennsylvania exploited indentured and enslaved workers in the 1800’s.

Now, in this same section of the memoir, Mrs. Grant mentioned that when she was growing up in St. Louis, several family friends visited them from Pittsburgh: “the Nevilles, O’Hara’s, Wilkinses, Robinsons, Dennys, Ogdens, etc.” I recognize several of these family names from Pittsburgh history. For instance, I blogged before about James O’Hara, who was Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. How many of these families had their own “indentured slaves” in Pittsburgh?

Whenever I had trouble verbalizing a thought to my late mom Shirley, Mom used to say, “Spit it out, Jen.” I don’t know if this is a saying that she learned from her own working class, German-descended Pittsburgh upbringing. But, I think of my mom whenever I am having a hard time expressing my thoughts. So, tonight I “spit it out.” Mom’s advice has actually served me very well!

By the way, I took a “break” from the Civil War message board. I can’t deal with the posters who are more upset about Robert E. Lee’s legacy being tarnished (he actually tarnished it himself!) than about the living Americans that our society failed to protect.

It Started Here: Lochry’s Defeat

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. January, 2010. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

Lochry’s Defeat started in 1781 when Archibald Lochry raised a militia unit in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. About one hundred men set off down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh). A few weeks later, the entire group ended up captured or killed.

Archibald Lochry was a Westmoreland County leader during the American Revolutionary War. The British occupied Detroit. The American colonists in Western PA were at war with the British and their Native American allies. Many of these Native American allies attacked from the Ohio territory west of PA.

(The colonists referred to the British general in Detroit as “Hair Buyer Hamilton” because the British paid for the scalps of American colonists.)

Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the Virginia rank of Brigadier General. In 1781, Clark left Fort Pitt to navigate down the Ohio River into the Ohio territory.

Lochry and his militiamen followed in their own flotilla some time later. Lochry was supposed to meet up with Clark’s expedition downriver. Unfortunately, after a number of issues including supplies, communication, and the threat of desertions among Clark’s men, Lochry missed Clark several times. Lochry never caught up to Clark.

In August 1781, Joseph Brant and George Girty led Native Americans allied with the British. (George Girty was Simon Girty‘s brother.) This group set out looking for Clark.

Brant and Girty instead surprised Lochry, who had stopped on the banks of the Ohio River in present-day Indiana. Brant and Girty ambushed Lochry and killed him. They killed dozens of his men and took the rest prisoner.

The families back in Westmoreland County didn’t learn about this until a significant time later.

The Wikipedia entry for this event also refers to it as the Lochry Massacre. I chose to not use the word “massacre” because indignenous people were involved in the victory. I explained my choice of semantics in this other blog post.

If you want a much more detailed account of Lochry’s Defeat and Clark’s expedition, by all means go read the Wikipedia entry on this. The Wikipedia page includes a photo of the Lochry’s Defeat site in Indiana. I also saw in this photo some military equipment that I believe came from a 20th century war. To be honest, at first glance I mistook this equipment to be an empty boat trailer. (This is IS along the Ohio River banks.)

I wrote today’s blog post for all of the people who, like me, don’t remember learning about this in high school history class. In fact, I never even heard this story from my Westmoreland County family members who first told me about Simon Girty. I learned about Lochry’s Defeat from the historical fiction novel “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Just to keep this in context with other local history, Lochry’s men from Westmoreland County set off from Fort Pitt in the summer of 1781. Lochry’s Defeat happened in Indiana in August 1781. The Crawford Expedition set off down the Ohio River in May 1782. (William Crawford led this expedition. Most of his militiamen came from Westmoreland and Washington counties.) The British and their Native American allies captured and executed Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Simon Girty was present at Crawford’s execution. Then, the British and their Native American allies attacked and burned Hannastown in Westmoreland County in July 1782. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph Brant allegedly got into a violent, drunken brawl with Simon Girty over the issue of whether Brant or George Girty deserved the credit for Lochry’s Defeat. Brant was a Mohawk military leader and Girty (who was himself raised by Native Americans) has an infamous reputation in frontier America. At least one Canadian monument refers to Simon Girty as a British Loyalist. Keep this in mind when you read such tales.

The Brutal Tale of Colonel William Crawford

Monument to Colonel William Crawford. Dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Monument says, "FORT CRAWFORD ERECTED MAY 1775 THIS STOCKADE WAS USED AS A MUNIITION-SUPPLY AND REFUGE POST FROM 1776 THROUGH THE INDIAN RAIDS OF 1791-1793 NAMED FOR COL. WILLIAM CRAWFORD. PLACED BY MASSY HARBISON CHAPTER D.A.R. 1942)
The Massy Harbison Chapter of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) dedicated this monument to Colonel William Crawford in Parnassus, New Kensington, PA, in 1943. Photo dated October, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I just learned that Parnassus (in New Kensington, PA) shares a man’s brutal life story with downtown Columbus, Ohio. In fact, this story even left its mark on Columbus’ current National Hockey League arena.

I discovered this from an episode of Haunted Talks – The Official Podcast of the Haunted Walk, hosted by Creative Director Jim Dean. In Episode 68 – Columbus Ghost Tours, the host interviewed the Columbus tour co-owner Bucky Cutright.

Cutright shared one ghost story from his tour – the tale of haunted (cursed, even) Nationwide Arena, the home of the Columbus Blue Jackets, an NHL team. Cutright revealed that the arena was built on the parking lot for the former Ohio Penitentiary.

Cutright noted that an indigenous Mingo village (Salt-Lick Town) once stood on this entire property. He talked about the village’s destruction in 1774. He noted the tragic death toll of Mingo families, at the hands of white settlers led by a man named William Crawford.

Wait a minute,” I thought. “Our William Crawford?

See, I live in the Parnassus neighborhood in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Parnassus emerged from the remains of Fort Crawford, at the confluence of Pucketa Creek and the Allegheny River.

Colonel William Crawford’s troops in the Continental Army built Fort Crawford in 1777. This was during the American Revolutionary War. Crawford previously fought with the British in the French and Indian War in the 1750’s. Crawford survived the Battle of the Monongahela (Braddock’s Defeat) in 1755. Crawford knew George Washington!

I Googled “William Crawford” and “Columbus.” I saw the portrait of the man who led the attack on Salt-Lick Town in present-day Columbus. This was indeed “our” William Crawford!

Now, to be clear, I do realize that William Crawford doesn’t “belong” to New Kensington. Crawford was born in Virginia. Connellsville, PA, reconstructed his Pennsylvania log cabin. Crawford County, PA, was named after William Crawford. Crawford County, OH, was also named after William Crawford.

I just read a bunch of Crawford’s top Google search results. I skimmed his Wikipedia page. He incites controversy today. He led military expeditions during a time when colonial America was at war with various Europeans and also with various Native Americans. Carnage resulted. I could write an entire blog just on Crawford’s bloody travels and still not get my hands around his legacy.

For instance, Crawford entangled himself in Lord Dunmore’s War. The white settlers and the Shawnee and Mingo tribes attacked each other in this conflict. Virginia and Pennsylvania also violently challenged each other over their border, including a chunk of Western PA. The Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh has an exhibit about this.

Let me tell you a little bit about how Colonel William Crawford died.

First, keep in mind that the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783. However, in the years before this, the settlers in colonial Pennsylvania and Ohio fought the British and they also fought assorted Native American communities. The settlers killed Native Americans, and the Native Americans killed settlers.

In 1778, Crawford led an expedition of colonial settlers that massacred a village of Native American women in Ohio. (The men who lived in this village were away from home at the time.) This colonial expedition included a guide named Simon Girty.

Girty witnessed the slaughter of these Native American women. He later expressed his revulsion for this violence.

Girty returned to his “home base” at Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh. However, Girty then fled west from Pittsburgh. Girty defected from the colonial settlers and joined the British who were in Ohio and Detroit. (Again, this was during the American Revolutionary War against the British.)

The whole “Simon Girty thing” was a big deal at this time because Girty was a white man from Central PA who had been captured by Seneca warriors as a child. Girty grew up learning the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee languages. Girty built relationships with several Native American communities. He worked as a guide and interpreter. Can you imagine the talent and “institutional knowledge” that he could provide to the British?

(Alexander McKee, of McKees Rocks fame, defected with Girty.)

Then, in 1782, Crawford led the Crawford Expedition against Native American villages along the Sandusky River in Ohio. These Native Americans and their British allies in Detroit found out about the expedition, and they prepared to engage it. These Native Americans and the British troops defeated Crawford and his militiamen. 

A force of Lenape and Wyandot warriors captured Crawford. They tortured Crawford. They executed him by burning him on June 11, 1782.

Simon Girty was there, at William Crawford’s execution.

In fact, witnesses alleged that Girty “egged on” Crawford’s captors as they tortured him. Witnesses even alleged that Crawford begged Girty to shoot him as he burned alive, and that Girty laughed at Crawford.

Girty denied that he encouraged the warriors who tortured Crawford.

Girty settled in Detroit, among the British. Years later, Detroit became part of the United States and Girty fled to Canada. At least one internet source listed Girty as a Canadian historical figure. I learned that Girty’s name appears on an Ontario memorial for “Loyalists” (to the British Crown).

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) dedicated at least two plaques in Girty’s memory. (To my knowledge, the PHMC dedicated one plaque to Girty in Pittsburgh (near the Waterfront shopping district) and another plaque to Girty along the Susquehanna River in the Harrisburg area. This second plaque commemorates Girty’s birthplace in Perry County. I remember this because I was also born in Perry County.)

Now, Hannastown was the first county seat of Westmoreland County, PA. I read that the town lost a significant portion of its able-bodied fighting men in the Crawford Expedition. On July 13, 1782, Seneca warrior Guyasuta and his men burned Hannastown and its crops. Greensburg became the county seat after this.

If you want to read historical fiction in which William Crawford and Simon Girty appear, then I suggest “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

(Postscript, 09/16/20: Per the photo at the top of this blog post, there is a MONUMENT to Fort Crawford AND to Colonel William Crawford still standing in my neighborhood! How surreal, right? The Daughters of the American Revolution (you know, the DAR, the lineage-based social organization featured in the Gilmore Girls?) dedicated it in 1943.)

Haunted History at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh

Last year, I posted here and here about the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. I blogged about my visit to the aviary with my mom and my sister E.

Since it’s fall again and I promised you ghost stories, I want to talk about the aviary’s haunted history.

Per the National Aviary’s own website, the aviary sits on the site where the Western Penitentiary sat from 1826 to 1880. Did you ever hear of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia?  Well, this Western Penitentiary housed inmates in the western part of our state. (Western Penitentiary later moved a short distance downriver.)

If you’re interested in American Civil War military history, you can Google “Morgan’s Raid” and read all about Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s raid of Indiana and Ohio in 1863. Morgan and his regiment were captured only miles from the PA state line. Morgan was imprisoned in Ohio, escaped by tunneling his way out, but died in another raid a year later in Tennessee.

Many of Morgan’s men were imprisoned in Chicago. However, over 100 of his captured soldiers were held as prisoners of war (P.O.W.’s) at the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh.

Several of Morgan’s soldiers passed away at the Pittsburgh prison, where the aviary now sits. One of these men died trying to escape.

Local folklore says that these soldiers still haunt the aviary. I didn’t notice any ghosts when I visited the aviary last summer. However, you may visit the aviary and decide for yourself.

“What Did the Romans Ever do for Us?”

The English language is inane. I just Googled the capitalization rules from three different style books in order to type the title for this blog post. I’m still not sure if I have the capitalization correct. I couldn’t just Google the phrase itself because this phrase comes from a much longer sentence in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian.”

Anyway, the ancient Romans engineered arch bridges.

You can picnic underneath the pictured stone arch bridge at Tunnelview Historic Site in Western PA (near Saltsburg).

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) built the stone arch bridge in 1907.

This bridge crosses the Conemaugh River on the side of Bow Ridge. This bridge replaced two other bridges and aqueducts at this river crossing. The bridge survived the Johnstown Flood of 1936. The Army Corps of Engineers built the Conemaugh Dam nearby in 1952 for flood control. This stone bridge no longer holds railroad tracks, but it now provides access to the dam’s east side.

The iron bridge that passes over the stone arch bridge IS a currently active railroad bridge. I took the above photo as a freight train carrying crude oil crossed the bridge and also crossed the Conemaugh River. Keep in mind that the Conemaugh feeds the Kiski River. The Kiski feeds the Allegheny River. The Allegheny feeds the Ohio River. The Ohio feeds the Mississippi River. Think about this as you watch a train full of crude oil traverse the Conemaugh.

Both of the bridges at Bow Ridge cross the Conemaugh River downstream from the dam.

If you cross the stone arch bridge to access Bow Ridge, you will see the remains of the Bow Ridge Tunnel. The ghost town of Livermore, Pennsylvania sits beyond this tunnel, on the other side of Bow Ridge. (The government partially flooded Livermore when they built the Conemaugh Dam and created Conemaugh Lake.)

This is very close to the boundary between Indiana County and Westmoreland County. You can reach this by driving through the Conemaugh Lake National Recreation Area, or from the West Penn Trail.

If you access the Tunnelview Historic Site through the entrance to Conemaugh Lake National Recreation Area, you will see this fantastic sign:

Drunk Elephant

Here- at the Tunnelview Historic Site – you will find a small pavilion, primitive restroom, parking lot, and canoe put-in. You will also see remains of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal.  This is where Jonathan and I put-in when we kayaked to Saltsburg twice.

Oh! I have to tell you about the FIRST time Jonathan and I kayaked from here:

We parked here at the Tunnelview Historic Site. We paddled downstream six miles, almost to Saltsburg. We stopped for lunch. It was June, and the current didn’t “seem” all that strong. As per our plan, we set off to paddle upstream back to our car.

Hey, I think that we have been paddling next to that same rock for the past ten minutes. What the – when did the current get that strong?

That’s right – we couldn’t paddle upstream. We portaged our kayaks upriver for a good part of the return trip. We smelled a dead animal rotting in the water. Jonathan didn’t tell me about the snakes that swam past us because snakes scare me.  I worried that we wouldn’t get back to our car before the sun set, that we would have to spend the night in the woods, and that somebody would find our car and report us as missing on the river. As I pulled my kayak over the stones on the riverback, I fantasized about the search party that would be sent after us, about our faces all over the news. (We did get back to our car and get the kayaks loaded right before it got dark.)

In hindsight, we should have paddled to Saltsburg, then hired the canoe outfitter in Saltsburg to take us upriver to our car. We talked about doing this when we realized that we couldn’t paddle against the current.  Why didn’t we? Because we’re stubborn.

On our second trip, we parked in Saltsburg and let the outfitter drive us to the put-in at the Tunnelview Historic Site. Then we paddled downriver to our car. Much better.

Life is easier when we aren’t stubborn.

Here is the sign that SHOULD have tipped us off that the Conemaugh River’s current “might” be sorta strong at our put-in spot:

Here’s another important sign:

(Here is a close-up of the artist names:)

We haven’t picnicked at Tunnelview or kayaked on the Conemaugh River for a while because we’ve spent so much time this year with the “new” sailboat. However, I really think that you would enjoy your visit to Tunnelview.

As I noted, the remains of the canal and aqueduct at this site were part of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, which worked in a system with the Allegheny Portage Railroad. From the 1830’s – 1850’s, this system hauled boats over the Allegheny Mountains. Pennsylvania paid to construct the entire thing. Then, after about only two decades, the system became obsolete! I WILL blog about this on some future day.

(This is a redux from the blog that I created with my husband Jonathan, www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com. I will shortly pull more of my favorite stories out from the crypt. I want to share more of my favorite moments and places with you fantastic readers.)

Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber

Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber Induction Ceremony, June 2015, Downtown Pittsburgh

This is a photo of the induction ceremony for the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber at the 2015 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. The ceremony and the festival occurred in Point State Park (at the Point) in downtown Pittsburgh in June 2015.

See, the festival occurs each year during the week of my husband Jonathan’s birthday. So, we usually spend Jonathan’s “birthday weekend” at the festival. We plant our camp chairs at the festival and view whatever programming appears.

In 2015, we showed up at the festival about noon on “birthday Saturday” and looked at the schedule. We actually arrived a few minutes before the start of this “induction ceremony,” which happened directly in front of our chairs. So, we watched this ceremony.

Now, the festival commissioned Rudy Shepherd to create this artwork. At this “induction ceremony,” a performer spoke about all of the negative energy that the artist designed this artwork to absorb.

This ranks among my favorite artwork from the festival!

Now, if you’re not familiar with Western Pennsylvania, know this: downtown Pittsburgh marks the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, and the mouth of the Ohio River. That’s why Pittsburgh exists. George Washington served in two military campaigns in the 1750’s to claim this land for the British.

After the second campaign, the very piece of land in my photo became the British Fort Pitt.

A lot of blood spilled over this piece of land.

If you want to read a bunch of depressing stories about Fort Pitt and the founding of Pittsburgh, you don’t have to work too hard on your Google search. There’s even a Lore podcast shout-out to the Fort Pitt smallpox blankets.

If you want to read “upbeat” historical fiction about this, then I recommend the novel The King’s Orchard by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Anyway, I have a rock that I took from the Great Lakes that I can use as my own negative energy absorber.

She Finished the Oregon Trail: Abigail Scott Duniway

I have a confession.

This month, I committed to “inundating” my blog with posts about women writers before I had a complete list of blog subjects.

I have certain women that I will name by the end of the month.

In the meantime, I brainstormed a list of places and events that interest me so that I can develop more blog post topics for you readers.

I wrote on this list “Oregon Trail.”

The Oregon Trail existed in the 1800’s to connect Missouri to Oregon. The over 2,000-mile trail served wagon travelers as they journey from the American Midwest to the Pacific Northwest.

Now, once upon a time, developers created a computer game titled . . . The Oregon Trail. This game intended to teach school students about the real Oregon Trail. From what I understand, developers released several versions of this game.

Now, keep in mind that when I was a kid, I didn’t know anybody who had internet access in their own homes. My own family owned no video gaming system or computer except for a Texas Instrument TI 99/4A.

My dad taught high school. Each summer, he brought home the Apple IIc from his classroom. He permitted us kids to “work” on this computer.

Well, my sisters and I spent hours using this Apple for two particular programs . . . Print Shop and The Oregon Trail.

(I shall henceforth refer to The Oregon Trail computer game as “OC.”)

Here’s a brief explanation of OC for those not familiar with the game:

From what I remember, OC competitors played as a fictional family traveling in a Conestoga wagon from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. At the beginning of the journey, the family received a budget of “points” and used these points to purchase supplies. The family made decisions on when to cross rivers (such as the Burnt River) based on river depth, and how fast to travel based on family health. Incorrect decisions could result in family members dying on the trail. If the competitors didn’t reach Oregon by winter, the family faced starvation in the mountains. Incorrect decisions resulted in the deaths of family members. Family members could die from cholera, snakebite, typhoid fever, dysentery, diptheria, measles, and broken bones. Competitors could purchase more food at such places as Fort Laramie and Fort Walla Walla. Competitors attempted to leave Missouri in the spring and reach Oregon before December.

If we competitors lost every single family member before the wagon reached Oregon, then we got to create a tombstone for our family along the trail. During future game attempts, we could travel past the tombstones that we created during prior games.

We played OC so often that we learned how to get our entire family to Oregon alive, and receive high final scores. We played OC so often that I got bored with bringing my entire family to Oregon alive.

So, then I purposely played OC with the sole intent of killing off my OC family as quickly and efficiently as possible. I created a series of tombstones along the trail on my dad’s classroom copy of The Oregon Trail.

Since I have such fond memories of playing OC, I decided to see if I could discover any women writers who actually travelled on the real Oregon Trail.

So this week, I Googled “Oregon Trail,” “woman,” and “writer.”

I found . . . Abigail Scott Duniway.

Duniway was born Abigail Scott in Illinois in 1834. In March 1852, when Duniway was a teenager, she travelled with her parents and eight siblings along the real Oregon Trail. Her mother died of cholera near Fort Laramie. Her younger brother, three-year-old Willie, died along the Burnt River. Duniway’s remaining family reached the Willamette Valley in October.

Duniway’s Oregon Trail diary now resides with the University of Oregon.  Duniway later wrote several fiction novels about pioneers, including pioneer women.

Duniway married Benjamin Duniway. Through a series of misfortunes, Abigail Duniway ended up as the breadwinner in a family that included her disabled husband and several children. She learned the struggles of trying to make ends meet on an uneven playing field. She published her own weekly newspaper, The New Northwest, that addressed women’s issues, including women’s suffrage.

Now, Duniway’s own brother, Harvey W. Scott, worked as the editorialist for The Oregonian newspaper.  I learned that the brother and sister butted heads through their respective newspapers on the issue of women’s suffrage.

I found a website, the Oregon Encyclopedia, A Project of the Oregon Historical Society, that includes an entry on Duniway. This website includes the following quote:

“Writing always was our forte,” Abigail Duniway announced in her first issue of The New Northwest. “If we had been a man,” she added, “we’d have had an editor’s position and handsome salary at twenty-one.” 

Touche.

I’m sure that students in Oregon know all about Abigail Scott Duniway.  However, I’m from Pennsylvania. I just learned about Duniway this week.

I’m glad that I did a five minute Google search to learn about a woman who actually lived The Oregon Trail!

This blog has kept me motivated ever since I learned last summer that my mom was sick. I’m glad that you readers have reached out to me with kind words. Please continue to reach out.

Mary Schenley’s Irish Family

The King’s Orchard by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

If you spend time in Pittsburgh, then you heard of Schenley Park and Schenley Plaza. You heard of their benefactor, Mary Schenley. You probably know more than I do about Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather, James O’Hara. This first part of my blog post is for all of the other fantastic, generous folks who read my blog.

I’m well aware that you can read all about James O’Hara on Wikipedia. I typed the first half of my post from memory specifically so that I don’t regurgitate Wikipedia.

James O’Hara was born in Ireland in the 1700’s. He sailed to colonial America in the 1770’s, after the French and Indian War and shortly before the Revolutionary War. Now, from what I understand:

1.) O’Hara did NOT land in Philadelphia as an impoverished immigrant.

2.) He grew up privileged and highly educated.

3.) He sailed to the New World shortly after he received an inheritance.

4.) So, he arrived in Philadelphia with a nest egg that he was eager to invest and grow.

Now, back in the 1770’s, nobody had the internet. Suppose that you were a Philadelphia businessman. One day a man showed up on your doorstep and introduced himself as James O’Hara. This man who claimed to be “Mr. O’Hara” announced that he came from a wealthy family and that he had a bunch of capital that he wanted to invest in colonial Pennsylvania. Furthermore, “Mr. O’Hara” advised that he wanted YOU to introduce him to your fellow Philadelphia businessmen. Well, you couldn’t just Google “James O’Hara” in order to vet him. You couldn’t check his social media to make sure that his network included the “correct” people back in England or Ireland.

Since the internet didn’t exist, James O’Hara arrived in Philadelphia with several “letters of introduction” from prominent men in England and / or Ireland. He presented these letters to Philadelphia leaders as “proof” that he, James O’Hara, was good enough to be received into their social circles. This is how O’Hara met the members of Philadelphia’s elite families. I’m under the impression that O’Hara met Robert Morris, a Philadelphia financier, this way.

O’Hara decided that he could make money in the fur trade in Western Pennsylvania. At that time in history, the British had just won the French and Indian War. They established Fort Pitt at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio River. They called this location the “Forks of the Ohio.” This spot later became downtown Pittsburgh.

O’Hara travelled to Fort Pitt. He purchased beaver pelts from Native American trappers, and he resold them to East Coast merchants who shipped them to the Old World. In England and Europe at that time, fashionable dressers wore hats made of beaver fur. O’Hara profited from the fur trade.

The Revolutionary War started. O’Hara served in the Continental Army as one of George Washington’s quartermasters. The United States won its independence. The war ended.

O’Hara went into more business ventures. From what I understand, O’Hara was really good at getting richer. O’Hara obtained large amounts of land that later became Pittsburgh, including portions of downtown Pittsburgh.

O’Hara also established Pittsburgh’s first glass factory.

O’Hara and his wife Mary Carson had six children. One of their daughters married a man named Croghan, and this union produced Mary Croghan.

Mary Croghan’s mother died young. Mary was an only child. She became the wealthy heiress to part of James O’Hara’s substantial fortune when she was a young child. Mary’s father sent Mary to boarding school. The teenaged Mary fell in love with her significantly older British teacher, Mr. Schenley. Mary Croghan eloped with Mr. Schenley and she became Mary Schenley. She moved to England with her new husband.

This union caused such a scandal that, from what I read, Queen Victoria refused to receive Mary Schenley socially.

Now, while this happened, Pittsburgh developed into a manufacturing hot spot for the Industrial Revolution. Mrs. Schenley owned some of Pittsburgh’s prime real estate.

Andrew Carnegie visted Schenley in England. He asked her to donate land in Pittsburgh for a public park. Schenley donated the land that became Schenley Park.

I learned about the “James O’Hara” part of this story from the 1963 historical fiction novel The King’s Orchard by New York Times best-selling author Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Here is a curious thing that I discovered from reading The King’s Orchard :

James O’Hara had an Irish Catholic father and a Protestant mother. O’Hara’s parents lived apart. His mother raised him. However, O’Hara attended a prestigious Catholic boarding school in France. Turnbull mentioned O’Hara’s Catholic background in passing about five times in the entire several-hundred page book.

From what I understand, O’Hara married a Protestant and he and his wife raised their children in a Protestant faith.

I learned from the last chapter of The King’s Orchard about O’Hara’s generosity to Pittsburgh’s early Presbyterian church. I learned through a Google search about O’Hara’s generosity to to Pittsburgh’s early Catholic church.

Now, Turnbull (the author of The King’s Orchard) grew up in New Alexandria, PA (in Westmoreland County) in a family with Scottish and Presbyterian roots. (New Alexandria is near Greensburg and Latrobe.) Turnbull moved to New Jersey after World War I, but she wrote several novels about Western PA. Almost all of these explore the adventures of Presbyterians of Scottish descent. I read some of these other books. So, I speculated that Turnbull “glossed over” James O’Hara’s Catholic background.

I personally think that Turnbull’s novel The Day Must Dawn, about Hannastown’s destruction (and the failed Crawford Expedition) during the Revolutionary War, is a better novel.

However, I think that you will enjoy reading about the following in The King’s Orchard:

1.) Fort Pitt originally had a moat.

2.) When workers dismantled Fort Pitt in the 1790’s, James O’Hara purchased most of the fort’s brick. He also purchased an original Fort Pitt block house. (Schenley inherited this block house from O’Hara. Schenley donated this block house to the Daughters of the American Revolution. This Fort Pitt Block House is now a public tourist attraction, located inside Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh. This is the oldest existing structure in Pittsburgh and also the only remaining part of Fort Pitt. )

3.) One of James O’Hara’s friends, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, founded the school that became the University of Pittsburgh.

University of Pittsburgh

4.) Brackenridge grew up poor on a New England farm. Brackenridge borrowed books and put himself through Princeton. A cow ate one of the borrowed books.

5.) The first time that Hugh Brackenridge saw his wife Sabina, he was a lawyer headed to the courthouse in Washington, PA and she was a farmer’s daughter chasing after a runaway cow. He watched her vault over a fence without touching the fence, and he told the other lawyers that if she did it again, he would ask her to marry him. She did it again. Her father said that Brackenridge couldn’t marry her because he needed her to shrub the meadow. Brackenridge paid her father $10 to hire somebody else to shrub the meadow.

6.) After Brackenridge married his wife Sabina, he sent her off to a Philadelphia finishing school for a year so that she would learn how to be a suitable wife for his political career.

7.) Angry protestors almost burned down James O’Hara’s house during the Whiskey Rebellion. Brackenridge talked them out of it.

8.) When O’Hara first arrived in Pittsburgh in the 1770’s, he lived in the inn section of Elliott’s, aka the Old Stone Tavern. I learned that many of Pittsburgh’s earliest historical figures, including Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty, drank in Elliott’s bar. I found this notable because this building still exists in Pittsburgh’s West End. A local preservation group seeks to restore it.

9.) Finally, in the introduction to Turnbull’s 1963 book, she thanked several parties, including the Denny family, for their assistance with her research. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. Ebenezer Denny also appeared as a character in The King’s Orchard. Now, I mention this because I just read a memoir written by public figure with a notable connection to the American Civil War and also to the White House. This memoirist referenced “the Dennys” in her tale about her own parents’ journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Missouri. I intend to blog about this mystery memoirist in the future.

I actually learned about Turnbull when I worked as a student at St. Vincent College Library in Latrobe. One of the librarians discovered that I liked historical fiction. He told me that I should check out Agnes Sligh Turnbull, “a local author,” as he put it.

Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). My sister, herself an IUP graduate, told me that IUP used to have a Turnbull Hall. “But,” my sister said, “they tore it down a few years ago. The site is now a parking lot.”

Turnbull passed away in the early 1980’s. Turnbull is buried in New Alexandria.

I, personally, visit Schenley Park and Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh several times each summer.

I purchased The King’s Orchard and The Day Must Dawn used on Amazon since both are out of print.

The Most “Pittsburgh” Part of Pittsburgh?

The Pennsylvania Shelf at my favorite used book store.

Here’s a Monongahela (Mon) River secret: I believe that one of the most “Pittsburgh” things about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania isn’t actually within Pittsburgh’s city limits.

By this, I mean the stretch of the river about ten or so miles upstream from where the Mon meets the Allegheny to form the Ohio River in downtown Pittsburgh.  By this, I mean the communities of Braddock and North Braddock, PA. The Mon flows south to north here.

Here are my reasons:

1.) Every Pittsburgh “origin story” includes the Battle of the Monongahela during the French and Indian War. In 1755, the French and their indigenous allies ambushed British General Edward Braddock’s army and his indigenous allies at Braddock’s Field (this land is now present-day Braddock and North Braddock, PA). A young George Washington served as an aide-de-camp to General Braddock. Braddock died from his wounds during the retreat. Washington lead the retreat and he oversaw Braddock’s burial.

Marker on General Edward Braddock’s grave. General Braddock was mortally wounded in Braddock’s Field during the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755.

Any internet search on “Braddock’s Defeat” and “folklore” will overwhelm you. For fun, throw in these search terms: “Simon Girty,” or else, “missing gold.” One legend even claims that divine intervention saved Washington from death. Another alleges that one of Braddock’s own soldiers (intentionally) shot him.

This re-enactor portrays a British soldier during the French and Indian War.

2.) In 1794, rebels of the Whiskey Rebellion gathered in this very same Braddock’s Field before they marched into Pittsburgh to protest the U.S. government excise tax on whiskey. President Washington sent federal troops to put down the insurrection. In the fiction novel The King’s Orchard by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, angry frontiersmen threatened to burn down the houses of Pittsburgh’s leaders during this rebellion. 

My copy of “The King’s Orchard” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull

(My own hometown in Somerset County, PA later celebrated the Whiskey Rebellion with a festival out of memory for rebellion leader Robert Philson. Another rebellion leader, “Whiskey Dave” Bradford, fled to Louisiana and established the famously “haunted” Myrtles Plantation.)

3.) Braddock’s Field sits very close to the present-day Edgar Thomson Steel Works. 

Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Braddock, PA and North Braddock, PA

In 1872, Andrew Carnegie and his business associates built this steel mill. They named the plant after J. Edgar Thomson, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. They equipped the plant for the Bessemer process. 

U.S. Steel owns this working steel mill today.

I found one travel blog in which the writer (a military history enthusiast) visited the Braddock community and attempted to retrace the Battle of the Monongahela. The blogger recounted the battle (in great detail) and provided maps. The blogger complained that later “progress” corrupted this land to the extent that he couldn’t actually view the battlefield in its pristine state from 1755.

The blogger’s complaint stuck with me. Just think about the tragedies and injustices (including labor disputes and the Johnstown Flood) that some blame on Pittsburgh’s Industrial Revolution leaders. If the blogger wants to complain about Andrew Carnegie and his business associates, he needs to take a number!

Al Roker spotlights Pittsburgh Guilded Age leaders such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. Edgar Thomson in “Ruthless Tide,” his book about the Johnstown Flood. Roker’s book also taught me about the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

What do you consider to be the most “Pittsburgh” places in Pittsburgh?

These re-enactors portray French settlers in North America during the 1700’s. In the 1750’s, the French and British fought for control of the mouth of the Ohio River (present-day Pittsburgh) during the French and Indian War.
My view of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works and of the Monongahela River as I sat on the opposite side of the river, behind Kennywood Park in West Mifflin.

This was my Part 3 of my Secrets of the Mon.

Here is Part 1 and Part 2 of my Secrets of the Mon.