I took a little break from blogging to focus on other interests. My sister K. still blogs actively. You can read up on her adventures raising two active boys, training for races, and learning to play the guitar here on her blog. My sister and her family also travel for fun adventures. In fact, K. and her husband (Mr. K.) both finished the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia last month! Our family is very proud of them.
In the meantime, let me tell you about a novel that I read about a month or so ago. Jonathan gave it to me last Christmas (I think). This novel is “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles.
The actual Lincoln Highway is the first transcontinental highway in the United States. Here in Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Highway is Route 30. I graduated from college at Saint Vincent along Route 30. Tourists can drive to both the Flight 93 Memorial and Gettysburg by choosing Route 30. Jonathan and I travelled home from my sister’s wedding in Eastern PA back to Western PA by driving Route 30 to Greensburg. My parents used to travel Route 30 from our our home in Central PA to visit our family in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve blogged here before about interesting and reputedly haunted places along Route 30 in Pennsylvania.
Absolutely nothing in the fiction novel “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles takes place in Pennsylvania.
The novel begins in the 1950’s in the Midwest. (Rural Nebraska.) The story jumps from several different points of view. I’m not completely sure who the protagonist is. At the beginning, I thought that the protagonist was 18-year-old Emmett Watson. Then, I decided that the protagonist was his eight-year-old brother, Billy. Now, I think that the novel has several protagonists.
Anyway, the first chapter begins when Emmett is released from a prison farm after an encounter with the town bully that turned deadly. Emmett and Billy’s father has recently died of cancer. The bank has foreclosed on their bankrupt farm. Emmett initially planned for the brothers to start over in Texas. Billy convinces Emmett that they should instead travel west along the Lincoln Highway – to start over in California, and also to look for their mother in San Francisco. (She walked out on the family when Billy was an infant.) Okay, California it is!
Some adventures happen before the brothers can leave Nebraska and all of its terrible memories. Some additional protagonists appear. The brothers are finally on their way to travel the Lincoln Highway west – or so they think. Something happens to cause them to travel east instead. Some of the protagonists have an adventure in Illinois involving an Abraham Lincoln statue. After several chapters or so, everyone arrives in New York City.
Several more adventures happen. Finally, a bunch of the protagonists set off to travel from Times Square (the eastern beginning of the Lincoln Highway), through the Lincoln Tunnel, west on the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco (the western end of the Lincoln Highway). They are actually ready to go this time, guys! Or so they think.
This novel is all about the Hero’s Journey. The author gave us several pretty big clues to help us figure this out. Billy carries around a book of stories about heros and their journeys. One of the characters is even named Ulysses. It’s fun to pick out all of the Easter eggs about Greek Mythology.
Also, even though the book takes place over the span of a few weeks in June 1954, several of the protagonists have flashbacks to stuff that took place in the 1930’s and 1940’s. So, even though it’s postwar America, the protagonists are still dealing with trauma from the Great Depression and World War II.
This was a fun book to read. Pennsylvania readers, don’t be disappointed that none of “The Lincoln Highway: A Novel” took place in the Keystone State.
The Trib article did not mention Arthur St. Clair’s 1791 military defeat in The Battle of the Wabash. I had to learn about this defeat by reading, first, The Red Heart (a fiction novel by James Alexander Thom) and later from Wikipedia.
The Trib article also did not mention that St. Clair faced a court martial after he retreated from Fort Ticonderoga – and left it in the hands of the British – in 1777.
From what I read about General St. Clair, his supporters argued that St. Clair didn’t have adequate resources to succeed at Fort Ticonderoga (which is in present-day New York) or at the Wabash (which is in present-day Ohio).
The road sign on Route 30 commemorates the Westmoreland County home where St. Clair lived at the very end of his life. The location of St. Clair’s grave a few miles away in Greensburg became a prominent public park named after him.
I myself travel on Route 30 between my current home and my hometown in Somerset County. I’ve never actually noticed the PHMC marker, or the monument installed by the county. That section of Route 30 is sort of tricky to safely drive, so I’m glad that the Trib notified me to the presence of this sign.
If you want to learn more about Arthur St. Clair without leaving Route 30, you can head on over to the museum at Fort Ligonier. The museum has pieces of Arthur St. Clair’s parlor installed in it. From what I read, the United States failed to repay a substantial debt owed to St. Clair. St. Clair lost most of what he owned, including the residence that contained this particular parlor. His possessions were sold to repay his own creditors. According to local folklore, General St. Clair’s ghost and his wife’s ghost haunt the fort’s museum. My fourth grade class visited Fort Ligioner several decades ago. I didn’t see any ghosts. I re-visited the museum in 2018. I still did not see any ghosts.
Just as an aside, I’ve previously blogged – several times – about Simon Girty. I learned from Wikipedia that Girty fought with the Native Americans at St. Clair’s defeat.
If you want to learn more about General St. Clair (or about Simon Girty), I recommend the website for the Heinz History Center.
Here is a photo of the mural “Shine” by Ashley Hodder.
I wanted to shoot this mural against a blue sky with no cars in the foreground. Maybe I’ll still get to this. However, every time that I drive down this street with my camera, the sky refuses to cooperate. Cars line both sides of the street. I’m lucky that I found a decent place to park today. I won’t complain about a thriving downtown.
I shot this mural once before. As the artist painted it. Here is the work-in-progress on the evening of September 24, 2021, during the September edition of New Kensington’s “Final Fridays.”
The building to which this wall belongs housed the former Bloser’s Jewelers. Crews filmed a scene from the 2019 movie adaptation of Maria Semple’s fiction novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” inside this building.
The story actually took place in Seattle. 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. (New Kensington is even less expensive.)
I read the book. The book underwhelmed me. I guess that that whole story was kinda tongue-in-cheek. Most of the humor went over my head.
I didn’t see the movie yet. I kinda want to watch it just to see the scene that was filmed inside of this building. But – the release date kept getting pushed back. Then, I found too many other ways to waste my time than to watch a movie adaptation of a book that I didn’t enjoy.
My Call to Action: Did you watch the movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” What did you think of it?
I picked out a bunch of ghost story books that I believe certain of my family members should read. I have these books in my possession already. Nobody has to go out and buy anything. I won’t be able to tell my family in person that these books are really great – because when I see my family in person, everyone talks at once. Hence, this blog post.
I don’t actually benefit financially if anyone else out there purchases any of these books. I’m a huge fan of some of the people that I mention below. I might possibly stalk some of these people if I lived closer to them. Nothing more.
I blogged before that after the 2020 Covid lockdown started, I got hooked to Adam Selzer’s work. Selzer posts daily virtual tours on his “Mysterious Chicago” Facebook page. I discovered Selzer when I searched for “virtual ghost tours.”
Selzer himself wrote Young Adult fiction. He also wrote adult non-fiction and established a Chicago “ghost” and “True Crime” tour company. Because writing Young Adult fiction doesn’t actually pay the bills. Selzer himself alluded to this. Selzer and I are almost the same age. I am impressed by all that he accomplished. I might blog about Selzer’s own books in a future post. However, I actually blog today about the YA books that he promoted for another author: Lindsay Currie.
Selzer posted last year that Currie’s new YA book, Scritch Scratch, featured a ghost tour guide based on Selzer. The book described a Chicago ghost tour of locations and stories that Adam featured during his own real ghost tours. Selzer promoted the release of Scritch Scratch by posting his own virtual ghost tour of the places and stories featured in Scritch Scratch.
Plus, R.L. Stine wrote a quote for Scritch Scratch‘s cover.
R.L. FREAKING STINE!
R.L. Stine wrote some Point Thrillers, which were the only things in the world that I read in seventh grade. He also wrote Goosebumps. R. L. Stine might be the reason that I know how to read chapter books.
Currie wrote this before she wrote Scritch Scratch. I would have never read this book had I not first discovered Scritch Scratch. This title does not summon me to read it.
However, the plot included visits to a real Chicago cemetery and a real Chicago grave. The junior high school kids in this story solved a mystery about a real person buried at this grave. This real person is the star of a real cemetery ghost story.
Adult Jenny really enjoyed this spooky book written for kids.
Here’s what happened: During Covid lockdown, I watched a virtual talk about historical fiction. I won a history trivia challenge question. I forget the question, but the answer was “the French and Indian War.” I submitted the first correct answer. The contest hosts promised to ship me a book as my prize.
I won a paperback copy of Bellewether. I won a paranormal suspense / romance that look place in the modern day with frequent flashbacks to the French and Indian War in the 1700’s. The flashbacks explained why a ghost from the 1700’s haunted the present day. Everything took place in the Lake George / Fort William Henry / Fort Ticonderoga area of upstate New York.
Now, Jonathan and I spent a week in this exact area with Jonathan’s sister S. (so, my sister-in-law S.) and S.’s now-husband E., and also with Jonathan’s parents.
(FYI: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper took place at Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War. Cooper based his novel on actual events at the fort.)
I read Bellwether in one day, even though it isn’t a YA novel.
However, my sister-in-law S. will also love this book. So, S., when I see you, I will hand you my “won” copy of Bellewether.
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and also in a little farming community down the road from Shanksville (the Flight 93 crash site). However, not everyone who reads this blog lived in Pennsylvania for decades like I did. (Not sure whether I should actually admit this . . . ) So, if you’re still new here and want to learn more, here are some books about Western Pennsylvania history that I enjoyed:
1.) Anything by Thomas White
White teaches and archives at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and he also wrote a million books about Pennsylvania history and folklore. I just finished reading White’s “The Witch of the Monogahela: Folk Magic in Early Western Pennsylvania.”
2.) “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Turnbull grew up in New Alexandria in the late 1800’s. She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After World War I ended, she wrote this fiction novel about colonial settlers in Hanna’s Town (Hannastown) during the Revolutionary War. When I toured the visitor’s center at the Flight 93 National Memorial, I learned that Flight 93 travelled over part of Westmoreland County just moments before it crashed in Somerset County. The plane travelled over the same mountains that provide the setting for this book about living with fear and hope in the 1700’s.
If you decide that you liked Turnbull’s historical fiction, note that she wrote “The King’s Orchard” about early Pittsburgh businessman James O’Hara. (O’Hara was philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather and also the source of her significant fortune.) She also wrote a novel titled “Remember the End” about Alex MacTay, a fictional mine owner in Greensburg during the Industrial Revolution. I suspect that Turnbull based MacTay on a hybrid of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.
I don’t recommend any other of Turnbull’s many, many novels. For instance, I attempted to read her story “The Richlands” about a farming family in Westmoreland County. The book took place in the late 1800’s – I think? Everyone travelled by horse. The farm boys had to physically build their own prep school. (Kiski Prep?) There was a creepy farmhand. The father fired the farmhand before he did anything exceptionally creepy, such as murder the wife and kids. Kinda disappointing. Turnbull forgot to include a plot in “The Richlands.” NOTHING happened for 300 pages.
3.) Hannah’s Town, by Helen Smith and George Swetnam
This book was “The Day Must Dawn” for kids. It followed a fictional girl named Hannah who lived in Hanna’s Town and thought of it as “her town.” Hannah’s family very conveniently moved away from Hanna’s Town right before the British and their Native American allies sacked and burned the town. The book was written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. I mentioned that I just finished reading a Thomas White book. Well, in the White book that I just finished, White specifically cited “Hannah’s Town” co-author Geroge Swetnam as one of White’s folklore sources.
4.) Grant by Ron Chernow
Grant was a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow also wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton upon which Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote his Hamilton musical. In Grant, I learned that Grant’s father, Jesse, actually lived in Greensburg (down the road from Hannastown) for years before he moved to Ohio and fathered Ulysses.
5.) The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
I learned that in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, somebody fished a live baby out of the Allegheny River at Verona. (Verona is downstream from Parnassus (where I live) and upstream from Pittsburgh.)
6.) American Elegy: A Family Memoir by Jeffrey Simpson
Simpson wrote this memoir about several generations of his family who lived in the Parnassus neighborhood of New Kensington. His family lived on the same block on which I now live.
7.) The Girl Factory: A Memoir by Karen Dietrich
Dietrich grew up in Connellsville. She wrote this book about her experiences in elementary and high school in Connellsville. I read this because I saw a write-up for it in a Pittsburgh newspaper. I included it here because the author is my age. She graduated from high school with a whole bunch of people who then attended college with me. Then, even though she didn’t go to college with me, she eventually (briefly) taught creative writing at my old college. I read this book while wondering the entire time if she wrote about anybody that I recognized. I did not recognize anybody. Maybe I’m not very perceptive.
Confederate soldiers climbed the circular staircase that inspired “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery novel about a haunted house.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve blogged in the past about Simon Girty. I don’t feel like linking everything that I’ve ever wrote about him. I created “Girty” as a new category on this blog tonight, so you can just click on this to see what I wrote.
So, I mentioned before that the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission installed a marker along the Susquehanna River to note Girty’s birthplace near Harrisburg. I actually Googled the distance between Girty’s birthplace and my very first childhood home in Perry County, Pennsylvania. Turns out that I spent the first seven years of my life only ten or twenty miles from Girty’s birthplace. We both started out in Central PA and then went on to have new adventures on the OTHER side of the Allegheny Mountains.
I’m a Central PA native because of economics. Both of my parents grew up in the Greater Pittsburgh area. (My mom grew up in Carrick.) My dad’s first teaching job out of college came from rural Perry County. So, he moved there a month before their wedding. Mom moved to Perry County the weekend that my parents got married.
I mean, if you want to get technical about it, the Girty family and all of their fellow colonial settlers of European descent lived in what became of Perry County due to economics, too. They moved into the already-occupied lands along the Susquehanna. They struggled with the indigenous people who already called dibs on that whole place. Girty grew up to see the the non-European point of view on this whole mess. If you want to get even more technical, this land around the Susquehanna wasn’t Perry County back then. The county was later named after the War of 1812 hero Oliver Hazard Perry. Girty was born in the early 1700’s. He was an old man taking refuge with the British when the War of 1812 happened. (Though, I just found out through a Google search that Simon Girty only preceded Oliver Hazard Perry in death by a year and a half. Girty died old. Perry died young. So, I guess that nobody wins in the end? Except for me. I made out well because my husband just made me fresh stove-popped popcorn to eat as I write this.)
I should have warned you about tonight’s history dump. That way, you could have closed out this post to go read a Reddit message board about vaccine shaming or about that physical fight that happened last weekend at a Bath & Body Works store.
Anyway, I spent the first seven years of my live in a pretty rural town in Perry County, near the farm where Simon Girty was born in the 1700’s. I wasn’t born in the 1700’s, but some days I feel as if I am indeed that old. “My first hometown” in Perry County was so tiny that it made my “second hometown” in Somerset County seem like a regular little city.
For instance, back in the Perry County days, we lived next to the town’s elementary school. (The high school was twenty miles away.) It was still light outside when I feel asleep each night in the summer. I fell asleep looking out of the window at cows in a field on a mountain. The other thing that I saw on that mountain each summer night were trees with no leaves or dead leaves. (The area had a gypsy moth infestation in the local forests.) The town itself was only about one mile long or so. I walked and biked the entire length of it many times before we moved away.
An Amish community farmed in the area. Some of these Amish were teenagers. Some of these Amish teenagers hung out with the teenagers who lived next to us. These teenagers all drove around in a car meant to emulate the jalopy known as the “General Lee” from the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” That is, the neighbor’s car played the song “Dixie” just like the car in the TV show did. Also, the neighbor’s car was orange and I think that it had Confederate battle flags on each side, just like the “General Lee” did.
We all had huge backyards. The neighbor’s teenagers allegedly grew weed in their backyard garden, according to my mom. One day, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter flew low over our little neighborhood in our little rural town.
So, back to the house that became my first childhood home. My parents bought it shortly before I was born. It was an old house. It was a fixer-upper. (I keep ending up living in fixer-uppers in interesting neighborhoods. Story of my life.) Also, somebody was electrocuted on the power lines. Whoever this poor man was, he died right in front of the house. This happened before my parents bought the place. This was all before The Internet happened to us, by the way. Google didn’t exist. After my parents moved into their new home in their little town in Perry County, the neighbors came over and told my parents all about the terrible accident. Caveat emptor!
So, my parents told us kids this story about the electrical accident after we had moved away and we were all adults. And one of my siblings said,
“I used to hear a man’s voice calling out when we lived there. I used to call back “Dad, is that you?” I thought that it was Dad. Except, Dad was at work when this happened.”
This particular sibling was five years old when we moved away from the house.
And that’s how I found out that my first childhood home was haunted.
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.
I found an article titled “Who Was Alexander Hamilton’s Real Nemesis: Aaron Burr or Albert Gallatin and the Jeffersonians?” by Christopher N. Malagisi, dated August 30, 2018, on the Townhall website. This article referenced the book “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” by Gregory May.
The idolized and fabled Alexander Hamilton served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton rival Albert Gallatin served as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury.
Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States who appointed Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Aaron Burr was elected as Jefferson’s Vice President in the election of 1800. So, these guys all knew each other.
Now, my brain totally shut off about one paragraph into reading about the subject matter. Just as it did when I had to learn about the Federalists and the Whigs and the Jeffersonians in high school. So, I don’t have my own fully-formed opinion about whether Albert Gallatin was Hamilton’s real nemesis. I do think that if Lin-Manuel Miranda had rewritten the Hamilton musical so that it was just a bunch of guys arguing about whether Hamilton or Gallatin made a better Secretary of the Treasury, it would not still be on Broadway.
Albert Gallatin owned an estate in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, is buried on the estate. The National Park Service now runs the estate as Friendship Hill National Historic Site. There is no admission fee to visit.
Part of me wishes that Miranda had at least written Gallatin into his “Hamilton” musical – even in a tiny role – so that Point Marion could use it to lure tourists there.
If you want to sight-see while also social distancing, you may want to check out Friendship Hill. Here is my prior blog post about Friendship Hill.