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.

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.

Rachel Carson Graduated Here From Parnassus High School

I spent a day on Chatham University’s main campus in Oakland (Pittsburgh) for an event last fall. I grabbed lunch at Cafe Rachel, Chatham’s coffee shop.

Chatham named the shop after environmentalist Rachel Carson. Carson graduated from Chatham in 1929 when the school was called Pennsylvania College for Women. She wrote Silent Spring in 1962.

One wall of Cafe Rachel detailed Carson’s life. This wall noted that Carson was born and raised in Springdale. (Springdale is across the Allegheny River from New Kensington.) The wall told me that Carson graduated from Parnassus High School in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

(I already knew this. Wikipedia already knows this. However, I was psyched to see the Parnassus reference on a wall at Chatham University.)

Do you have any fun facts to share? Post them here.