My husband, Jonathan, made a Christmas video and posted it to our other blog.
Here’s the link: https://www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com/lifeblog/2021/12/merry-christmas-heres-a-video/
Places and Their People, History, and Lore
My husband, Jonathan, made a Christmas video and posted it to our other blog.
Here’s the link: https://www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com/lifeblog/2021/12/merry-christmas-heres-a-video/
Our new Victorian porch now includes all of its Victorian columns.
One of our neighbors stopped on her Sunday walk to tell us how excited she was to see that our porch contractor was “able to save the house’s original columns” for our porch rebuild.
Jonathan explained to our neighbor that these columns AREN’T the house’s original columns. However, we know exactly what the original columns looked like. Our new columns are close reproductions of the original.
Jonathan DID NOT explain to our neighbor that in our quest to identify the house’s original columns, Jenny saw a ghost.
Jenny saw several ghosts, in fact. Maybe.
I am Jenny. I am a semi-educated adult. (I don’t usually refer to myself in the third person.) I do NOT walk through most of life talking about ghosts all day. However, it’s almost Halloween. So, for the pure entertainment value, let’s talk about my “experiences” seeing things that “might be ghosts.”
Jonathan and I attempted to have the porch rebuilt starting in 2014. (We had several, ahem, “false starts” with contractors and vendors as we planned our porch rebuild.) Jonathan attempted to figure out what the original 1890’s porch – especially the original porch columns – looked like. We had seen photos of what our house looked like during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood that hit Pittsburgh and also a bunch of the other river towns in Western Pennsylvania. (The flood waters went up to the intersection of our street, which is why our house is in the background of some of these flood photos.) We knew that the house’s original 1890’s front porch was replaced in the 1930’s. (The 1930’s porch was the porch that we had removed in 2014.) So, the photos that we saw of our house during the 1936 flood included the 1930’s era porch, not the original 1890’s porch.
Sometime around 2014, I fell asleep in my bed. Jonathan was still awake. I sat up and said the following to Jonathan:
“Jonathan. The people in the hallway want to talk to you about the porch.”
Or – I said something to that effect. I don’t remember what exactly I said because I don’t remember ever saying this.
I was asleep when I said this. Dead asleep.
What I do remember is that during my sleep, I saw people standing in our upstairs hallway.
All of these people wore clothing from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s.
These were the people who wanted to talk to Jonathan about our porch.
Shortly after this happened, Jonathan went through random piles of stuff that previous owners of our house left in our basement.
Jonathan uncovered one of these piles and discovered two of the house’s original porch’s columns.
Here is a photo of one of these columns. The photo is so dark because Jonathan never brought the columns out of our basement. They are heavy.
Circa 2014 or 2015 or 2016, Jonathan located a company in Texas that produced several of the most popular styles of Victorian-era porch columns. We ordered from this company the porch column style that most closely matched the original columns that Jonathan discovered in our basement.
So, we ordered and paid for these Victorian porch columns circa 2015 or 2016.
The porch columns arrived to us from Texas via a tractor trailer.
There wasn’t enough room for the tractor trailer to park along the street in front of our house. The truck had to park on the next block over. Jonathan had to enlist the help of the truck driver to carry the porch columns over to our house.
The porch columns sat under a tarp in front of our house from that day in 2015 or 2016 until September – October 2021.
We have waited ever since at least 2015 or 2016 to see these columns installed on our rebuilt porch.
We got to realize our Victorian porch column dream last week. Last week, our porch contractor’s crew installed the final column on our porch.
I can’t believe that I finally got to see these porch posts installed on our rebuilt porch. Jonathan’s mom died in 2016 and my mom died in 2018. When we started to plan our porch rebuild in 2014, I never dreamed that both of our moms would be gone before we could sit on our porch again. Within a week from today, I will observe both my mom’s birthday AND the anniversary of when she passed away. (I actually said good-bye to my mom ON her 64th birthday and she passed away less than 48 hours after this.)
The YEARS of delays on our porch rebuild demoralized both of us. We weren’t exactly twiddling our thumbs during these years. Jonathan attempted to hire contractors, find suppliers, etc. We hired an architect. We are so thankful that we found our current porch contractor.
We heard that at least one passer-by asked our current contractor’s crew whether somebody new just bought our house. I guess that they were trying to figure out what prompted the sudden porch activity after years of “inactivity.”
I can imagine this passer-by thinking, “So, is this place Under New Management now, or what?”
I guess that they never attempted to rebuild an 1890’s porch before.
I told Jonathan that I was going to start a local rumor that the influencer couple from “Young House Love” actually bought our house for their next social media project.
“What’s Young House Love?” Jonathan said.
I explained that Young House Love was an old house renovation blog from about a decade or so ago. The married couple who wrote it branched out to Instagram and sponsored posts, and soon they were rich and famous. They were a brand.
“You should turn this house into a brand,” Jonathan said.
Perhaps I will turn this house into a brand.
How does “Porch Column Ghost Love” sound?
Our first porch contractor found this bottle when he dismantled our 1930’s era porch in 2014.
What’s this? you say. A broken bottle?
We saw the words “Natrona Bottling Company” on the back.
So let’s start here, at the Natrona Bottling Company’s own website. Because luckily for us, they still operate, only six miles from Parnassus. Per this website, the company started in 1904.
Jonathan searched eBay, where he learned that bottles such as these dated from the 1950’s – 1960’s. Frostie was a brand out of Baltimore, and during that time period it contracted with several companies to bottle it. Including Natrona Bottling Company.
You can still purchase Frostie Root Beer.
Natrona Bottling Company no longer bottles for Frostie, but luckily for us it currently does bottle its own root beer today. Jonathan and I drink it, out of glass bottles much thinner than the one found under our porch.
I intend to bore you for several paragraphs if you don’t have any interest in Parnassus or its history. But – I wrap up this blog post by talking about controversial old houses in other states. Maybe that’s more up your alley.
So, in 2014, Jonathan and I truly believed that we were going to get a new porch very soon. Our house was built in the 1890’s. Jonathan blogged about our house’s history here on our other blog in 2014. Heck, in 2016, we still thought that we were going to get a new porch in the immediate future. I was so optimistic in 2016 when I blogged here.
We were so naive.
The good news is, if you visit the first link that I posted, you can read Jonathan’s write-up about the first owner of our house, Frank R. Alter Sr., co-founder of the Keystone Dairy Company. Keystone Dairy Company was also located here in Parnassus, New Kensington.
So, anyway, by 2014 we realized that we needed to hire somebody to tear off our circa 1930’s front porch and replace it. You know, before this porch affected the entire house’s structural integrity. A contractor tore off the 1930’s front porch and started to replace it. Started to replace it. After that, from 2014 until the near present day, things did not go at all the way that Jonathan and I expected. Just one setback after another. I haven’t had a porch on which I could sit with Jonathan since 2014.
I didn’t mention any of this on my blog in September because I was afraid that I might jinx this. I still might jinx it. I’m still holding my breath out this. However, it looks as if Jonathan and I are going to be able to sit on our porch together again soon!
You see, we finally found a new contractor who actually committed to building a new porch for us. During this past September, this contractor’s crew tore off the “porch” that the previous contractor started to build in 2014. This new contractor started from scratch. His crew made a great deal of progress this past month.
I posted above a photo that I took today. I took that photo from the approximate spot at which I used to sit and blog, prior to 2014. From the approximate spot at which I am blogging this right now!
You see, years after the porch saga started in 2014, Jonathan lost his mother and then I lost my own mother. I came home from each of their funerals and thought, “Now she’s never going to see how nice our house looks with a finished porch!”
I promise you that if I die before this porch is completed, or even if I die after the porch is completed but before I have time to enjoy the new porch, I will come back and haunt this place. I will stand on this porch and bug the crap out of whoever enjoys it in my stead. You better hope that my two shots of Pfizer actually work.
I am an extremely privileged and semi-educated. I said what I said partially in jest. But partially not in jest. I associate the entire porch saga with family tragedy. I can’t believe that I might finally see the end of the porch frustration.
We still have a long way to go on the old house work. We need to think about replacing the entire back “mud room” next.
I wasn’t a very ambitious 12-year-old. I wanted to do two things in my adult life:
1.) Live in a house built in the 1800’s.
2.) Have a cat. (My parents wouldn’t let me have a cat.)
I accomplished both of these goals that I set for myself at the age of 12. So, I win!
I wish that I could go back in time and tell myself about the realities of life as an old house owner. Not even my own experiences in Parnassus, but also about other people’s experiences.
North Side / Allegheny West, Pittsburgh
For instance, Jonathan and I used to take tours of Pittsburgh’s North Side / Allegheny West neighborhood. On one of of these tours, we visited a home that the homeowners spent the past twenty or so years renovating. We toured a beautifully restored parlor and dining room.
Then, as we walked towards the kitchen, the homeowner said, “We are currently working on the kitchen.”
The kitchen was a pile of bricks.
A pile of bricks sat in the kitchen.
The McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois
I have an old house renovation horror story that I learned about from podcasts and Facebook. Whenever I feel down about the lack of progress on our porch, I think about the McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois.
At least Jonathan and I don’t have as many old house problems as do the owners of the McPike Mansion.
Now, everything that I know about the McPike Mansion, I learned from Season #1 of the American Hauntings podcast hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck, some Google research, but mostly just from lurking on the McPike Mansion’s official Facebook page and official website.
A rich businessman built the McPike Mansion shortly after the Civil War. The house has not been occupied since the 1950’s. The McPike mansion is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
From what I understand, the McPike Mansion is not currently approved for occupancy – except for the wine cellar. The current owners, Sharyn and George Luedke, purchased the mansion in 1994. I learned from American Hauntings that the Luedke’s had been led to believe that they would be eligible for some sort of grant money to renovate the place. This turned out not to be the case.
It is my understanding that the Luedke’s intended to renovate the mansion into a bed and breakfast. They have owned the house – and worked on the house – since 1994.
It is STILL NOT CLEARED FOR OCCUPANCY.
The Luedke’s have been working on trying to restore this house FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS, and they still can’t let guests sleep inside the place.
I learned from reading Facebook that the Luedke’s raise money for the old house renovation by:
1.) Renting out the wine cellar for parties.
2.) Selling tee-shirts. (More on that below.)
3.) Letting people “sponsor” and sign pieces of lumber.
4.) Selling tickets for ghost tours of the wine cellar and premises.
That’s right – ghost tours.
The McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois is regionally famous for being haunted. That’s how I found out about the place.
And, to me, this “ghost tour as a profit center” thing is a double-edged sword.
One the one hand, the Luedke’s sell tee-shirts that say “McPike Mansion” above a graphic of a cute ghost.
On the other hand, thrill-seekers, vandals, and thieves show up on a regular basis and damage the place. In fact, even the McPike Mansion’s sign got stolen at least once.
I got exhausted just reading about the saga on Facebook. I mean, at what point does this turn into Captain Ahab’s search for the White Whale in Moby Dick?
Sauer Castle, Kansas City, Kansas
Another “old house in need of repair” that fascinates me is Sauer Castle in Kansas City, Kansas. This was another mansion built in the 1800’s by a rich guy. It is listed on at least one “endangered historic structure” list. There is a Facebook group devoted to the castle that has over 12,000 members that I used to follow. However, from what I understand, Sauer Castle is privately owned and the mansion’s owner did NOT manage the Sauer Castle Facebook page. The last time that I followed this Facebook page, I noted that almost all of this Facebook page’s posts criticized the current owner for failing to maintain Sauer Castle.
Sauer Castle has a long history of family tragedies, ghost stories, and vandalism. Nobody currently lives in the place. From what I understand, a descendant of Sauer Castle’s original owner purchased the place several decades ago with the intent to restore it. However, after several vandalism incidents, he halted the restoration efforts and he also refused to sell the place to a developer that expressed interest in restoring it. Every article that I Googled about Sauer Castle regurgitated the controversy between the current owner and preservation advocates.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, Illinois
If you’re still bored, Google “Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery” in suburban Chicago. Some people claim that this cemetery holds magic powers. Other people claim that the only magic power found at Bachelor’s Grove is the ability to turn grown adults into quarreling children. Google and Youtube have a bunch of stories about Bachelor’s Grove enthusiasts calling the police on other Bachelor’s Grove enthusiasts for having “unsanctioned” cemetery clean-ups there, people showing up drunk at other people’s houses in the middle of the night just to yell at them about Bachelor’s Grove-related disputes, and people trying to get other people fired over community events held at Bachelor’s Grove. It’s an easy way to waste several hours.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. Hope to post photos of a completed new porch soon.
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.
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 “EGER.” 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. )
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:
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 expensive (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.
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:
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.
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 woke up this morning and realized that today was THE DAY. Today was Gingerbread House Demolition Day.
Here in New Kensington, officials mark unsafe and abandoned buildings with a red “X.”
Upon inspection, I was forced to mark the Gingerbread House with a red “X” for the following Code Enforcement violations:
1.) A critical load-bearing wall leaned.
2.) The structure had no actual means of ingress or egress. I noted that all “doors” and “windows” were actually painted on by icing. This presented a fire hazard.
3.) It appeared that the lower body of Santa Claus was stuck in the chimney.
4.) The Gingerbread House was constructed in mid-December 2020. Since today is January 3, 2021, the Gingerbread House was at increased risk for hardening and cracking. Thus, it was imperative that the Gingerbread House be demolished this weekend.
The demolition crew arrived in time for an aerial photo. Flying conditions in the Gingerbread House’s neighborhood were NOT optimal for drone photography. So, I had to improvise for the below photo:
Now, literature and folklore claim that the fork ran away with the spoon. I maintain that the fork did NOT in fact run away with the spoon. The fork participated in the Gingerbread House demolition crew.
As we removed the roof, we confirmed our statement that a load-bearing wall leaned.
Unfortunately, upon the removal of this same load-bearing wall, we discovered the decapitated remains of a missing local Gingerbread Man.
It was necessary for us to summon the coroner of North Pole County. An investigation determined that the Gingerbread Man suffered decapitation when Jenny Woytek accidentally dropped him.
After we completed the demolition, we took a final aerial photo of the site.
This dining room table real estate is now available for a new project. Contact Jenny Woytek. Serious inquiries only, please.
I work in downtown Pittsburgh. (Well, I haven’t actually been to the office since March. But, I still get taxed as if I work in Pittsburgh.) Part of my team works out of downtown Philadelphia. I have several managers, and one of my managers works out of Philadelphia. In “normal” years, we have separate holiday parties.
However, this year, my employer didn’t host in-person holiday parties anywhere. So, for this year’s holiday party, my Philadelphia manager had gingerbread house kits shipped to everybody’s houses. We assembled our gingerbread houses ahead of time. Then, we decorated them together over video conferencing. (I didn’t say “over Zoom,” because my employer uses a Zoom competitor. We’re not permitted to install Zoom on company-issued machines.)
The kits that my manager ordered listed “Age 3 and Up.” I personally found the house pretty easy to assemble by myself. However, my house has some structural deficiencies. A load bearing wall is visibly leaning in the above photo. So, maybe you shouldn’t take my word for it. I’m not confident that my gingerbread house is “up to code.”
I had a lot of fun with this. I only got my gingerbread house partially decorated during the “party.” Jonathan actually finished decorating the house for me after I let the unfinished house sit around for a week.
Jonathan and I might purchase the same kit and do another house together, next year. This might even be fun to do over Zoom with my sisters.
You hear that, sisters?
Local history buffs are in the planning stages of organizing a historical society for Arnold, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, and Upper Burrell.
I wasn’t able to attend the first meeting this month, but I will be keeping an eye open for the group’s upcoming events.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in New Kensington history, here’s a redux from my older blog:
I live in the Parnassus section of New Kensington. Parnassus is older than New Kensington. It sits along the Allegheny River. It existed as its own place until New Kensington annexed it in the 20th century.
A few years ago, I googled combinations of “Parnassus” and “history” and “Pennsylvania.” I found this link to a Chicago Tribune reprint of a New York Times article that Jeffrey Simpson wrote in 1996 about his family’s experience in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.
I posted the link to a Facebook group about local history.
Somebody on the Facebook group responded to the effect of “Oh, yeah, we already know about that article. Jeffrey Simpson wrote a whole book about Parnassus back in 1996. It’s titled American Elegy: A Family Memoir.”
So, I found American Elegy: A Family Memoir on Amazon. It’s out of print now. I bought a used copy pretty inexpensively.
As the title promises, this is a family memoir.
About half of the story takes place in Parnassus, within walking distance from my own current house. The rest takes place at a farm about ten or so miles outside of Parnassus, or else in an upscale suburb on the opposite side of Pittsburgh.
The author changed the names of his relatives and also the names of some of the places. However, I figured out the actual places whose names he changed. Also, he kept the actual names for still other places. (For instance, he kept the name “Parnassus.” I posted at the top a photo of a church that the book actually mentions.)
I found a Pittsburgh-area newspaper article, archived online, that referenced American Elegy. The article listed some of the “real” names of the family members from the memoir. Armed with this information, my husband and I researched the people and places mentioned in the book. For instance, American Elegy references a farm and cottage that was the author’s “family seat” for about two hundred years. Since Westmoreland County’s property records are online, my husband figured out the location of the old farm – and also the cottage, which still stands.
We actually drive past this farmhouse every time we visit my own family. Each time, I say, “There’s the American Elegy cottage.”
Drop me a line if you want to discuss the book or the research that my husband and I did on the book.