My TRUE Parade Hero (It’s NOT Who You Think!)

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

This blog is “The Parnassus Pen.” Parnassus is the oldest neighborhood of New Kensington, so here’s a New Kensington update.

Scroll to the end of this post to learn who I nominate as the TRUE hero of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

Super awesome REVITALIZERS – that is, people who poured time and money into fixing up downtown New Kensington – rolled out the first “Fridays on Fifth” this July, which was last month. These super awesome folks intend to celebrate “Fridays on Fifth” on Fifth Avenue on – wait for it – the last Friday evening of each month. Well, each month when we don’t freeze off our dupas from standing outside on Fifth Avenue.

Here are photos that I took of last month’s inaugural Friday on Fifth.

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

When you look at my below photo, you will see a red brick wall directly behind a food truck. You will see that the building to which this wall belongs has a verticle sign that includes in white the letters “EGE.” This building housed the former Bloser’s Jewelers in downtown New Kensington. Fun fact: Crews filmed a scene from the 2019 movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” at this building.

(Confession: I read Maria Semple’s 2012 fiction novel upon which they based this movie adaptation. I haven’t yet watched the actual movie. Have you read the book or watched the movie? Just a heads-up: the story takes place in Seattle and the dad in the movie works for Microsoft. That’s one way that the book lets readers know that this family is FANCY and SPECIAL. The movie producers used Pittsburgh and the towns around Pittsburgh (such as New Kensington) as a stand-in for Seattle. Pittsburgh’s a less expensive city. One can live quite comfortably in Pittsburgh and still maintain an inflated sense of importance. Just saying.)

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

So, now I want to share an observation. I live within walking distance of the blocks where the “Fridays on Fifth” events were held. In fact, my husband walks from our house to downtown New Kensington twice a day. I could have walked to this event from my house. I should have walked to this event.

However, the evening of this event – July 23 – was really hot and muggy. I’m lazy and I’m out of shape. So, I drove to this event. However, I showed up about an hour after the event started. I drove past THREE full, generous-sized parking lots before I found an open parking spot.

As soon as I finally parked, I took a photo of a building because I liked the way that the setting sun hit the building. Here is the photo:

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, had I posted this photo by itself with no context, I just KNOW that I would have received comments to the effect of, “That’s so sad! I remember when downtown New Kensington THRIVED. Now all of the streets are so empty! Just look how empty everything looks in that photo!”

You can’t tell from just looking at this one photo that just one block away, the street was closed and PACKED with people.

So anyway, the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association held its 2021 convention and parade in New Kensington on August 7. Jonathan is a volunteer firefighter in New Kensington, so convention events busied him that entire weekend. I watched the parade and I posted about a hundred parade photos here on my Facebook page.

Now, I want to say something about my parade photos that relates to something that I just said. On more than one occasion, after I posted New Kensington parade photos, a commenter would post something to the effect of, “Look at that empty street in the background! I remember that when I watched parades in New Kensington back in the day, the streets were PACKED with people!”

So, I want to point out several things about my parade photos:

1.) I don’t watch parades near the grandstand. Even pre-Covid, I chose to not be around huge crowds of people. I choose less popular blocks when I watch parades. I usually sit on Fifth Avenue for most of the New Kensington parades. The grand stand usually sits on Fourth Avenue. (New Kensington parade routes often use both streets.)

2.) I burn VERY easily. So, sit in the shade when I watch parades. Fifth Avenue is very narrow. The sun usually hits at an angle so that one side of the street is shady and one side of the street gets all of the sun. I sit on the shady side. So do a lot of other people. Not many people chose to sit out in the sun, on the opposite side of me.

3.) I get paid $0 to take parade photos. The most that I ever made from taking a photo was $15 and a ribbon when I was ten years old and I won second place or something in the juvenile landscape division of the photography competition at the Berlin, Pennsylvania Community Fair. (I look a photo from a scenic viewing platform on top of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh.) So, I don’t sit out in the sun in order to take parade photos that have more people in the background.

So, here’s the thing. You know how I just mentioned that I’m lazy? Well, when Jonathan and I go out and have mini photography lessons, Jonathan tries to encourage me to switch camera lenses during our photo shoots. I usually refuse because I’m lazy. Also, because I’m clumsy and I’m not confident that I can switch out camera lenses “in the wild” and not drop one or both of the lenses.

So, at this month’s parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association, I borrowed Jonathan’s fairly new, fairly expense (for us) special camera lens. I switched camera lenses several times during the parade. I DID NOT drop any camera lenses.

However, I lost the the screw-on plastic hood for Jonathan’s special camera lens. I figured this out about an hour after I got home from the parade. I drove back to the parade route and I retraced my own walking route, looking for said hood.

I did this during a thunderstorm and a torrential downpour.

I did not find the hood.

I jumped on the internet. I found a replacement hood from a photography supply shop for $29.99 and free shipping.

So, it actually costs me money to take photos at parades.

I was really excited to see Somerset represented in this parade. I grew up in Somerset County. My dad retired from teaching at Somerset Area High School. I grew up in the next school district over, Berlin Brothersvalley. I belonged to Berlin’s high school marching band for four years. I marched in Somerset’s own Summerfest parade every July for four years. The Summerfest parade always happened the same week as my birthday. So, here’s Somerset’s fire truck as it appeared in New Kensington’s parade.

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for:

Here’s my personal HERO of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

It’s this woman:

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I don’t know this woman’s name. She pushed a wheelbarrow behind the parade’s horse partcipants. I didn’t personally witness this woman shovel horse dung off of Fifth Avenue. However, I assumed that she shoveled horse dung off of Fifth Avenue and into the wheelbarrow that she pushed.

Now, all of the men and women who volunteer for the fire service are heros. My own husband belongs to New Kensington’s volunteer fire department. I know that he worked off his butt during convention time.

However, I nominated the horse dung shoveler as my personal parade hero for this reason:

As I mentioned above, I marched in Berlin Brothervalley High School’s marching band (the Mighty Marching Mountaineers) for four years. I marched in many a parade BEHIND horses. On streets COVERED with horse dung. Apparently, cleaning horse dung off of streets during parades wasn’t a thing when I was a teenager in Somerset County? (Were the parade organizers in Berlin, Meyersdale, and Somerset a bunch of uncouth barbarians?)

For instance, I mentioned above that I marched in the Summerfest parade in Somerset every July for four years. It happened the same week as my birthday. One year, the parade happened ON my birthday. I marched on a horse dung-covered street in downtown Somerset on my fourteenth birthday.

So, as a former marching band kid, I’m really happy to see that New Kensington parades include horse dung shovelers.

My runner-up for parade hero is the New Kensington parade organizer who made sure that the horse group brought their own horse dung shoveler.

Did Confederate Soldiers Climb That Haunted Circular Staircase? Also, Watch Me Use the Phrase “Convicted Polygamist” in a Blog Post

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s residence on Pittsburgh’s North Side. This particular neighborhood is now branded as Allegheny West. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” at this residence. (Photo: Dennis Woytek)

Confederate soldiers climbed the circular staircase that inspired “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery novel about a haunted house.

Maybe?

Who is Mary Roberts Rinehart? And who cares?

Well, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was a mystery fiction novelist born and raised in Pittsburgh. I care because my late mother-in-law, Fran, enjoyed reading Rinehart’s books so much that she read excerpts of them to me shortly before her own death in 2016. Fran and I actually got to tour the Pittsburgh house where Rinehart wrote her novel “The Circular Staircase.”

Also, in full disclosure, I am a dues-paying member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of “Sisters in Crime,” a club for writers (and readers) of crime fiction. The Pittsburgh Chapter is officially the “Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter,” in honor of this local mystery writer. (Also, pre-Covid we met at the Carnegie Library in Oakmont, not in Pittsburgh.) But the true reason that I cared enough about Mary Roberts Rinehart to blog about her several times was that Fran was a true fan of Rinehart’s work.

One year, Fran took “The Circular Staircase” with her on vacation. Then, she downloaded a Rinehart travel memoir onto her tablet and read that during the same vacation. She paused multiple times to tell my husband and myself about the her favorite parts of the Rinehart memoir.

Fran read us a page in which Rinehart talked about the household staff that Rinehart brought along on an African safari.

Fran said, “Can you imagine? Bringing servants with you? To go camping?” She laughed. She got quiet and read more for a little bit. Then she told us about another story in the Rinehart memoir that tickled her fancy.

(I do the same thing every time that I blog here about something that I just read that excites me. You are all excellent people for reading the little tales that I recount from other people’s books.)

Oh, let me mention this again – “The Circular Staircase” took place in a haunted house!

So, as I just mentioned a few paragraph’s ago, Rinehart grew up on Pittsburgh’s North Side. For those of you from out of the area, the North Side is the part of Pittsburgh on the North Side of the Allegheny River. Rinehart trained as a nurse in a Pittsburgh nursing school. Through this profession, she met her physician husband. They lived together on the North Side in the house pictured at the top of this blog post. This house sits in the portion of the North Side now branded as Allegheny West. (The neighborhood even has its own website!) Now, Heinz Field – the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home stadium – sits on the North Shore of the Allegheny River. Allegheny West sits behind Heinz Field.

Allegheny West’s neighborhood preservation group sells tickets to various tours throughout the year in order to raise money. Jonathan and I toured Allegheny West during several of its Victorian Christmas-themed house tours. Jonathan’s parents joined us during several of these tours.

I personally cannot afford to live in this particular neighborhood. It’s directly across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. One year, one of the homeowners featured on the tour told our group that he walks to Pittsburgh Steeler games because he lives so close to Heinz Field. However, I enjoy seeing all of the loving work that the homeowners put into preserving these homes built in the 1800’s.

The houses featured on the Christmas house tours change each year. One year, the featured houses included the house photographed above – the one where Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase.”

So, that’s how Fran and I and our husbands got to tour the house.

Now that I’ve toured the North Side house, I can tell you that this particular house DOES NOT have its own circular staircase. We were told that a completely different house – a house somewhere in a rural area, a house where Rinehart stayed once on a vacation – possessed the circular staircase that inspired the novel.

Which begs the question:

Where is the haunted house with the circular staircase?

So, I have in my possession a self-published book titled “History of Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg” by Rev. Reid W. Stewart, Ph.D., Point Pleasant Ltd. Lower Burrell, PA 2005.

Just to clarify any confusion, the word “Allegheny” in reference to place names comes up A LOT in this blog post. The reference to “Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County” in this particular book title has NOTHING to do with the Allegheny West neighborhood of the North Side of Pittsburgh – except that both of these are on the Allegheny River. I wanted to clarify this because the North Side of Pittsburgh ALSO includes a section that was called “Old Allegheny” because, again, ALL of these are located on the Allegheny River. (Also, to make things even more confusing, the “Old Allegheny Township” referenced in the book title is in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, including the North Side where Rinehart lived, is along the Allegheny River in Allegheny County.)

Now, the North Side of Pittsburgh (in Allegheny County) – where Rinehart lived – is VERY CLOSE to what Pittsburghs call “The Point” – the Allegheny River’s confluence with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River.

On the other hand, the geographic area referenced in this book title – Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg – is actually the area where I live. (Again, this is along the Allegheny River in Westmoreland County.) This referenced geographic area is a pretty large area. The places mentioned in this book title are approximately 20 – 40 miles UP RIVER from Pittsburgh’s North Side where Rinehart lived.

Jonathan and I live in New Kensington because this is where he grew up from the age of 12 onward. Fran – Jonathan’s mom – also grew up in New Kensington. This self-published book copy that I just referenced came from Fran. She lent this copy to me. Or, somebody gave this copy to me after she died and they cleaned out her book collection. Anyway, I have no idea where Fran acquired this copy of this book. Local fair? History talk? Booth at a parade?

Anyway, this history book includes a “Chapter 9 – Legends and Stories of the Area – Ancient and Modern.” The second story in this chapter cites a “local tradition” that a local mansion included “divided staircases” which inspired “The Circular Staircase.”

Per Stewart’s History of Old Allegheny Township, this house “stood toward the southern end of River Forest Golf Course.” Stewart noted that Duncan Karns built the mansion in the 1870’s. Stewart also noted that Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” in 1908. The mansion later burned down. Per Stewart, Rinehart visited the house as a young woman.

This history book provided no citation for the claim except for “local tradition.”

In full disclosure, my sister-in-law – Fran’s daughter – got married at the banquet hall at River Forest. I pedaled past River Forest on a bike trail once. Also, Jonathan and I drive past it several times a month during each of the summer months. River Forest is near Freeport, PA. I had never heard of the former Duncan Karns mansion until I read this chapter in Stewart’s book. I figured out the approximate location of the Duncan Karns mansion based on my (limited) knowledge of River Forest. The site of the former mansion is near a four-lane highway and a major intersection. I mention all of this because – in my opinion, at least – the former Duncan Karns mansion does not live on in regional memory as a beloved landmark.

By the way, the site of the former Duncan Karns mansion is approximately 35 miles up the Allegheny River from the North Side of Pittsburgh where Rinehart lived.

This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.
This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.

Steward also claimed in his book that Duncan Karns never got to live in his mansion because he lost all of his money in speculation. So, if the Duncan Karns mansion wasn’t haunted, I guess that at the very least, it was cursed.

What does this all have to do with Confederate soldiers?

Well, here’s the thing. I wrote this blog post in April 2018 speculating on the “true” location of The Circular Staircase inspiration. I included much of the information that I just included here.

Crickets.

Yesterday, I received a comment on my blog post about the claim that the Duncan Karns mansion inspired “The Circular Staircase” from a “Mary.” Mary’s comment read in part:

This is not that house. Melrose Castle Estate in Casanova Northern Virginia is the house that inspired Sunnyside the haunted mansion in The Circular Stair.

Well, I had never before heard of Melrose Castle Estate. So, I Google researched the place. Here is part of my response to Mary’s comment:

I see that the Wikipedia entry for this structure claims that it inspired “The Circular Staircase.” Wikipedia includes the following source for this claim: Heincer, Amanda (May 24, 2017). “Historic castle for sale in Warrenton”. Fauquier Times. Retrieved 2018-10-13. However, the article as it is currently available online doesn’t actually provide any sources to cite this claim.

When I Googled this today, the first page of results include a link to this article on http://www.virginialiving.com. This article also claims that Melrose Castle is the inspiration for “The Circular Staircase.” But I don’t see any information in this article to back up that claim.

Per my quick Google research, it appears to me that Melrose Castle is in fact a beloved local landmark for the people of Casanova. I even located a Facebook page for “Fans of Melrose Castle.” I have a sibling who currently lives in Northern Virginia. Perhaps I will visit Casanova when I visit my sibling. Per my Google search, it doesn’t appear to me that Melrose Castle is currently open to the public. Do you know if the building is viewable (and photographable) from a public street?

In my reply to Mary, I listed two media sources that claimed (without citation) that Melrose Castle in Virginia is actually THE INSPIRATION for “The Circular Staircase.”

Here are the other claims that these two sources made for Melrose Castle:

Confederate Hospital during the Civil War

Union Headquarters during the Civil War

Home to a Large Angus Cattle Herd

Thoroughbred Horse Farm

Home of the Racehorse “Noble Quest, who won multiple French prix before being retired as a highly sought-after stud

Site of Many a Breakfast (Fancy Society Breakfasts, I Guess)

Site of Garden Tours

Site that Still Needs a “Final Phase of Renovation” (Note: Since I own and live in a house built in the 1890s’s, whenever I learn of an old house that “needs work,” I yearn to run screaming in the opposite direction.)

Home of William Weightman III, a “Polo Player” and also a Convicted Polygamist

So, it looks as if Melrose Castle in Northern Virginia, former home of the “Convicted Polygamist” William Weightman III, might have actually inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart to create her haunted house in “The Circular Staircase.”

Maybe MULTIPLE houses inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart. Finding the Muse is not a zero sum game.

*********************************************************

Since it’s almost my birthday, I’m going to end this blog post with a little rant. I really wish that the settlers who named everything for their settler maps hadn’t given everything the same name. I got exhausted just trying to explain the differences between all of the places that all had “Allegheny” in the title. Also, I grew up about 70 miles west of the Pittsburgh area in the Allegheny Mountains. My mom graduated from a community college that had a branch in our area (Somerset County, Pennsylvania) called Allegany College of Maryland (yes, different spelling), but there is also a very expensive, private liberal arts school called Allegheny College about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Sunset at Mount Saint Peter

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. May 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Eight days ago (so, on April 29), Jonathan and I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. We were married at Mount Saint Peter in New Kensington. Jonathan’s late mother, Fran, worked at the parish at that time. So, I have a special place in my heart for Mount Saint Peter.

I look for opportunities to develop my skill at sunset photography. So, I took my camera to Mount Saint Peter for this evening’s sunset. This almost didn’t happen because clouds frequently covered the sun this afternoon! In fact, clouds covered the sun WHILE I waited at Mount Saint Peter for the sun to set.

The clouds moved just in time for me to witness the sunset.

Now, you will see a bridge in the background of the first photo that I posted. This bridge crosses the Allegheny River in downtown New Kensington. The bridge sits in the river valley. Much of New Kensington sits in this same valley. However, Mount Saint Peter sits on a hill overlooking downtown New Ken.

I mention all of this because I like to think of the Allegheny River as “my river.” The Allegheny River is obviously NOT merely “my river.” I was actually born directly across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. I grew up near the Susquehanna and in the Allegheny Mountains. However, ever since I was a child and I visited my grandparents in Pittsburgh, I felt as if I belonged with the Allegheny River. Perhaps I lived along the Allegheny in another life? Perhaps I was always destined to return to the Allegheny?

Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. May 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. May 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Mount Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church. New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. May 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

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.

Horne’s Department Store

Horne's Department Store Christmas Tree. Highmark building. Downtown Pittsburgh.
Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 28, 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Pittsburgh had a department store chain called Joseph Horne’s, or Horne’s Department Store, or simply Horne’s.

An electric Christmas tree decorated the building’s corner each holiday shopping season.

Horne’s merged with another chain in 1994. Then, the building which housed Horne’s downtown flagship store became offices for an insurance company (Highmark).

However, this tree still graces the building each year from the week before Thanksgiving until New Year’s.

Here is a photo of the building and its tree.

Horne’s Department Store. Pittsburgh, PA. December 18, 2014. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Everything that I know about Horne’s Department Store came from “American Elegy: A Family Memoir” by Jeffrey Simpson. This particular book detailed the author’s family’s experiences in Parnassus, a sort-of Pittsburgh suburb. In the Chapter titled “Parties (Quint and Ruby),” the author wrote the following about his step-grandmother Ruby’s affinity for shopping at the downtown Pittsburgh Horne’s:

When my mother and Ruby were young women in the late 1920s and 1930s, there was a lounge on Horne’s mezzanine where you could wait for friends. The lounge had a book in which you could leave messages for your chums if you had to leave early or had dashed up to Lingerie for a quick purchase while you were waiting; it was an amenity that seemed to belong to a period of orange minks and nose-tip veils, when girls fresh from college, eager with their first salaries, met “in town” for lunch on Saturday.

Simpson wrote that Ruby grew up “poor” and thus as soon as she received her first very own paycheck, she spent it at Horne’s. Ruby referred to Horne’s as the “good” store. She relished the chance to be seen shopping there. Simpson noted that the Parnassus community and Ruby herself thought that Ruby had married up (to a widower with a good family and a good job). That Ruby’s clothes, purchased from Horne’s, helped her to achieve this marriage.

Simpson concluded:

The Horne’s boxes, cream-colored pasteboard with Jos. Horne Co. in light, bright blue on the lid, represented for Ruby the life she had made for herself.

My own maternal great-grandma worked for Horne’s. However, I don’t have any stories about her retail career.

I myself work directly across the street from the old downtown Horne’s building. I never shopped for clothes there. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I started working in Pittsburgh years after Horne’s closed.

When I interviewed for my job, the building housed an Old Navy store.

By the time that I started my job, the Old Navy was a Rite Aid.

Review: “Ghost” History Walk at Prospect Cemetery

Prospect Cemetery. Brackenridge. Graves. Headstones. Full moon.
Prospect Cemetery, Brackenridge, PA. October 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I attended a “ghost” history walk in Prospect Cemetery last week.

The people of Brackenridge, PA, established Prospect Cemetery in 1864.

This cemetery includes markers from as far back as 1817. (The Victorians moved graves to Prospect from other local burying grounds.)

The remains of Brackenridge’s founder and namesake (Judge Henry Marie Brackenridge) and his family rest here.

The 13 acre cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the Allegheny River, upstream from Pittsburgh.

A few years ago, the cemetery met financial troubles. A local newspaper covered the issue in several articles.

Later, volunteers organized annual “history ghost walks” to raise money for cemetery upkeep.

Jonathan and I attended the walk each year. (We paid $10 per ticket this year.)

Each year’s ghost walk featured Judge Brackenridge and his wife. The other featured cemetery residents varied each year. Volunteers dressed in period costumes as “ghosts” – the people featured on that year’s tour- and reenacted that person. The “ghosts” featured included deceased community members from both the 1800’s and the 1900’s.

This year’s featured “ghosts” included TWO Civil War veterans. One of these veterans was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga and taken to Andersonville Prison. He later wrote a book about his wartime experiences. This year’s tour also included a World War I veteran who later served as a police officer for decades.

In my opinion, the “history ghost walk” is a creative solution to the cemetery’s situation.

This year’s walk occurred under a nearly-full moon.

(I’m not aware of any historical fiction that included Henry Marie Brackenridge. However, his father, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, appeared as a character in the novel The King’s Orchard by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. Hugh Henry founded the University of Pittsburgh. Here’s another blog post that I wrote about the Brackenridge family.)

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.

Allegheny Arsenal Explosion

Today marks a grim anniversary.

On September 17, 1862, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Arsenal exploded.

Most of the 78 arsenal employees killed were young females (teenage girls). The arsenal manufactured munitions for the United States for the American Civil War.

Here are the photos that I took of the marker in Allegheny Cemetery for these industrial accident casualties.

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.