Puttin’ on the Ritz

What a debut!  The biggest star in the history of American entertainment was born onstage at the Fourteenth Street Theater in New York on October 24, 1881.  Though she died in obscurity some fifty years later in Hollywood, most radio, film and TV greats to this very day acknowledge their debt to the star whose stage name was Voix de Ville . . . “Vaudeville.”

An eclectic mix of music, comedy, drama, dancing and circus-style acts, vaudeville was developed as a family-friendly alternative to the more bawdy saloon and burlesque entertainment of our post-Civil War era.  The secret of its longevity lay in both the ever-changing variety of its acts and the invention of the theatrical circuit by vaudeville promotor Benjamin Keith.  Acts would get their start in the catch-as-catch-can world of small venues, and if successful, were signed to a contract by one of the national circuits.  The 400 theater Keith Circuit, ancestor of RKO Pictures, was the biggest.

Vaudeville came late to Indiana County.  At first our towns just weren’t big enough to be worth a troupe’s while; after all, Voix de Ville meant “voice of the city.”  Besides, nearby Punxsutawney had more full-size theaters than our entire county AND was on a circuit.  But as our population grew in the 1890s, professional acts began to be hired for charity events, private functions and even the County Fair.  The curtain went up on big-time vaudeville here on September 6, 1899, when the Gazette announced: “The theatrical season in Indiana will be opened by the Russell Brothers Vaudeville Company, which will play Library Hall.  The troupe numbers 29 people and carries its own brass band and orchestra.”

Located behind where Indiana’s post office now stands, Library Hall (later called the Auditorium) was one of just two venues large enough to host such a full-size troupe.  Einstein’s Opera House in Blairsville, “unquestionably the largest and best theater in the county” when it opened in 1904, was the other.  So even counting the tent-shows that occasionally passed through, Indiana County vaudeville remained sparse until a certain technology changed everything….

Silent films became available to small towns about 1905, and they began to form an unexpected symbiosis with vaudeville here almost immediately.  Public demand for “flickers” caused the opening of at least eight nickelodeons (movie theaters) between 1906 and 1913, and even roller-rinks showed films after hours.  Managers needing to fill the rewind-time between films began hiring non-circuit vaudevilleans to share the bill.  It worked.  From tiny Dreamland to the spacious Globe, business boomed, and THAT caught the big boys’ attention.  The Keith, Nixon and Polock circuits started booking acts that fit on our nickelodeons’ stages (Dreamland’s was only 10’x15’) and sent the bigger ones to Einstein’s and the Auditorium.  The golden age of Indiana County vaudeville had begun.

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Ad for vaudeville at Indiana’s  Star Theater (1909)

The sheer number of entertainment choices was now staggering, a sudden increase analogous to the coming of cable TV in the 1980s.  On any weeknight through 1918, an Indianan could see six vaudeville acts between three movies at one of up to five theaters . . . all for a dime.  To name just a few: The Lilliputians, midget acrobats; Harry Martine, the Juggling Jester; The Rockwell Minstrels; The Great Lamar, King of Handcuffs; Fairy Plum, the Dancing Comedienne;  Crighton and his Trained Roosters; The Mysterious Henrello; The Four Mirrors, mimics;  Valmore the Human Orchestra.

Vaudeville even did its patriotic duty in 1917 when our boys enlisted to go “Over There,” as vaudvillean George M. Cohan’s song put it.  Troops of the 110th Infantry, sent to train at Fort Lee, were entertained there by troupes hired from the Keith Circuit.

You may recall from a previous article that our county was a morally stringent place in those days.  There were no Sunday shows, nor any alcohol backstage or front.  Ads went to great lengths to assure the public of a vaudeville act’s good character.  A typical 1916 Gazette review found the Sunny South Company’s show to be “good, clean comedy . . . free from any suggestion of vulgarity.”

The one big gap in vaudeville’s character was its caricatures: ethnic and racial stereotypes formed the core of many a vaudeville comedy routine.  But there were also ethnic circuits from which small town immigrant groups sometimes hired acts for special occasions.  Heilwood’s Star Theater hosted just such a “Yiddisher troupe” during the 1916 Jewish War Sufferers fund drive, and Il Patriota gushed proudly when maestro Pietro Pastori played the Strand.

Then came Intermission.  The Colonial and the aged Auditorium closed in early 1919.  National circuits, learning of the Auditorium’s pending demolition, had withdrawn all future Indiana County bookings well in advance for want of a large enough anchor theater (Einstein’s had closed in 1916), and the remaining nickelodeons found it hard to attract independent acts.  Vaudeville all but vanished from the county for five long years.

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Heilwood’s Town Hall hosted vaudeville shows.

Two full-size modern theaters rose to fill the void in 1924: the 1,200 seat Ritz and the 1,100 seat Indiana, within a block of each other on Philadelphia in our county seat.  National circuits resumed bookings, finally sending us their biggest and best thanks to the opulent new movie palaces and some theatrical mergers.  From Blairsville’s Richelieu to the Knights of Pythias Hall in Clymer, vaudeville was back!

Three years later, the old vaudeville/flickers alliance made the next great leap when vaudeville star Al Jolson appeared and sang in the 1927 film  The Jazz Singer.  But instead of benefiting both parties as the silents had, “talkies” cleared vaudeville from most movie houses nationwide by the end of 1929, and the Great Depression did the rest.

The curtain came down on professional vaudeville in Indiana County in the early 1930s.  Half the theaters on county tax rolls in 1927 had closed by 1932, and one by one, those that remained stopped featuring live variety between movie times.  The last troupe took a bow on March 19, 1932 at the Ritz in Indiana: between showings of the film High Pressure, the Vanity Fair Vaudeville Revue presented “8 BIG TIME ACTS—30 Minutes of Comedy, Singing, Dancing!”  In the corner of their Gazette ad was an unintentional but fitting obituary: Last Times Today.

There was a curtain call of sorts thereafter.  Catering to nostalgia for the good times before the Depression, some radio networks featured travelling vaudeville teams making broadcasts from local venues what we now call “remotes.”  One of those shows came to Indiana in 1935.  For three days in July, episodes of the sitcom/variety show Salt and Peanuts NBC Revue  were broadcast live from the Ritz.

And then they were gone.

Pennsylvania’s love affair with vaudeville was a passionate one, immortalized long afterwards by George Burns’ famous tag-line, “They still love me in Altoona.”  So if there are any remaining vaudevilleans out there who remember playing the Ritz . . . we still love you in Indiana!

Portrait of an Indiana Community, Part 2

Nerim – Three Who Showed the Way

Like all communities, the Jews of Indiana have produced “lights” over the years – outstanding individuals in public office, private industry and military service who show the way for those who follow.  Three such NERIM  (“lights”  נֵרים ) were Noah Adler, Max Israel and Ruth Marcus, whose lives in Indiana spanned the first 140 of our Jewish community’s 150 year history.  Far better than any dry list of dates and events, these three lives illustrate the character and development of a remarkable people.

Noah Adler

Indiana’s first permanent Jewish resident was born in Germany on August 14, 1834 to Solomon and Frau Adler.  Fleeing the famine, economic depression and failed revolutions of the 1840s, the Adlers joined the first great wave of European emigration to America and settled in Philadelphia.  There is no record of Noah’s early occupation, but in May of 1861 he enlisted in Company B of the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry to “Fight for Union” in the Civil War.  Stationed at Washington D.C.,  he fought at Cross Keys in 1862 and at Gettysburg the following year.  There he was captured and sent to the infamous Confederate P.O.W. camp at Belle Island, where he endured starvation, disease and abuse before being released in a prisoner exchange – one of the lucky few.  He was mustered out with his company in June of 1864 and would later receive a pension for his service.

Noah migrated to Pittsburgh after the war and from there to Indiana in 1867.  While our county seat had been visited by itinerant Jewish peddlers since its founding, Noah Adler was the borough’s first permanent “Israelitish citizen.”  He was still one of just three found here in 1878 by the Union of Hebrew Congregations’ census (his wife Jeanette being another), and a Gazette article dated 1891 says that his was the only Rosh Hashanah celebration in town that October.

“The Old Soldier,” as Indianans would later call him, opened his clothing store in the Bell Building at Philadelphia and Seventh Streets.  His stock at first consisted of military surplus garments.  When these sold out, he used the profits to open at a new location “opposite Apple & Thompson’s” where he sold men’s suits and boys’ clothing.  There he introduced a concept revolutionary for its time: price tags, for no-haggle shopping.  Adler’s One Price Clothing House would relocate five times in the next twenty-five years.

Like most businessmen of his time, Noah Adler was an active participant in fraternal organizations.  A founding member of Grand Army of the Republic Post 28 and Encampment 11 of Union Veterans Legion, he served as Quartermaster for each and as Treasurer for the Odd Fellows and Foresters lodges.  His second wife, Odelia (Jeanette had died in 1885), was Treasurer of the G.A.R’s auxiliary.  Though he was never elected to public office, Noah was active in Republican politics through the 1880s.

The 1890s were not as kind to the Old Soldier.  Citing inability to rent a showroom of sufficient size, he liquidated his stock and left for New York or Philadelphia (reports differ) in March of 1892, yet returned eleven months later to reopen in the Wissel Building where Caffe Amadeus is today.  Influenza, then pneumonia, struck Noah in 1894.  Bankruptcy followed; to satisfy creditors (including nephew Louis, at whose wedding he’d been Best Man), the Sheriff seized and sold Noah’s stock on the day before Hanukkah in 1896.

More legal troubles followed when Noah was charged with having “obtained under false pretenses” his final stock.  He was acquitted handily when some Indiana lawyers, in Pittsburgh on other business during the trial there, showed up to provide character witness.  After the trial, Noah moved to North Cleveland Avenue in Philadelphia, but returned here on occasion for G.A.R. functions and reunions of his Civil War unit.  When the Gazette noted his passing at age 75 on May 25th, 1910, the article called him “an affable man, large-hearted and kind.  His many acquaintances here will learn of his death with sorrow.”  Noah – “rest”, in Hebrew – now rests in Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom Cemetery.

Max Israel

In time, profession and personal history, the second of these NERIM  straddled the first two generations of Indiana’s Jewish community.  Contemporary with its immigrant first generation, he was native; one of Indiana’s first permanent scrappers, he had not first been a “huxter” (itinerant peddler); a resident here for fifty years, he grew up elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Russian immigrants Rose and Moses Israel named the first of their six children Max when he was born in Hazleton on August 18, 1888.  Moses, who had made the classic transition from huxter to scrapyard operator in his twenties, moved the family to Leechburg after 1890.  It was there that Max learned the scrap trade before opening his own Indiana yard at Eleventh and Chestnut Streets in 1907.  He married Petrograd native Sarah Chalit nine years later, and the union was soon blessed with Pearl, their only child.

His timing proved to be perfect.  Indiana’s Jewish community was just beginning to bloom, and the Israels were involved from the start.  Max was one of the thirty-eight founders of Hebrew Unity Congregation, and its first Secretary; Sarah was a member of B’nai B’rith and a founder of Hadassah’s local chapter.  During the hard years of the Depression, Max’s name appeared regularly on donor rolls of the Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial Fund and of Community Chest, the forerunner of United Way.

Max’s parents joined their eldest here in 1925 after their five other children, all of whom remained in Leechburg, were grown.  Moses died three years later, becoming one of just ten people ever interred in the tiny Hebrew Unity Cemetery located where Indiana Area Senior High now stands.  Max’s wife Sarah would join her father-in-law there ten years later after a year-long illness.

The scrap business in small town America had much in common with the Jews who frequently operated it.  Labor-intensive, ever-evolving and seldom granted due respect, it was run by men who matched it with quiet energy, persistence and adaptability – men like Max Israel.  They had history in common, too.  Considered lowbrow until 1941, the profession and its operators rose in public esteem during WWII when the collection and recycling of strategic materials became so crucial to the war effort that scrapmen were granted exemption from the draft.  The “All Out Scrap” drive of 1942 was typical: teaming up with the local Boy Scout troop, Max Israel and his peacetime competitors Kovalchik, Roumm, Brodsky and Lias cooperated to fill Indiana’s quota of metals and rubber.

Like his itinerant predecessors, Max faced perils inherent in the business.  But these were legal rather than physical.  Thieves would bring fragments of metal, machine parts or copper wire to sell at the scrapyards.  When they could detect fraud, scrappers avoided buying them, but when a thief succeeded, charges could follow.  Max stood trial four times between 1928 and 1941 on charges of receiving stolen goods and “buying junk from a minor,” but was acquitted thrice.

Things changed after the war.  With peace came a robust economy in which fewer and fewer people availed themselves of the reconditioned cars, plumbing and hardware that were part of Max’s stock in trade.  His ads in the Gazette, offering to buy and sell pretty much the same things they had before the war, continued to run through 1955, but ads for temporary employment at his scrapyard ceased in 1950.

Max Israel passed away on the Jewish Sabbath of January 11, 1958.  He had lived to see his Congregation move into their new synagogue, the turning of an era.  His own passing was just such a mark; family members told the Gazette, “Mr. Israel’s business will be discontinued immediately.”  Max was buried in the Beth Israel section of Indiana’s Oakland Cemetery.

Ruth Marcus

“Why have I found favor in your eyes that you should take account of me, seeing that I am a stranger?”

Like her Biblical namesake, Chicago-born Ruth Walner was a stranger to her adopted community when she married the son of its leading citizen in 1947.  But the new Mrs. Clarence Marcus quickly found favor with Indiana, becoming as much a part of its life as any native.  Ruth was considered a “homemaker” in her time, yet this college-educated mother of three was no one’s idea of a stay-at-home.  Co-owner of McGregor Motors,  Red Cross officer,  president of Indiana’s Hadassah chapter, five-decade member of B’nai B’rith,  head of Israel Bond Harvest, fundraiser for United Way, New Century Club, Jimmy Stewart Museum . . . .  The list goes on.

The historical memory of Indiana’s Jewish community owes some of its breadth to the daughter of Louis and Ethel Walner as well.  The Ruth Marcus Jewish History Project, a comprehensive collection of documents, photos and videotaped interviews from the 1930s to 1990s, resides at IUP Archives’ Special Collections, and her own writings can be found in surviving copies of Beth Israel’s mid-century periodical, the Yiddisher Indianan.

Stranger no more, Ruth Marcus passed away at age 79 on July 11, 2007.  She rests beside her “Sunshine” (likewise-remarkable husband Clarence) in Oakland Cemetery, and in Indiana’s fond memory.

_________________

In their passage through Indiana’s history, these three describe the arc of both its Jewish community and Indiana itself through their collective lifetimes.  Will there be other NERIM  to show the way for future generations?  For those who doubt, just remember what some were saying about Indiana’s future thirty years ago.  Like their forebears through the centuries, the Jews of Indiana have produced “lights” in plenty, whenever they were needed.  “Number the stars of heaven if you can….”

Portrait of an Indiana Community

1655 to 1900: Chapmen and Merchants

Though  Jews have been in our state from the start – the first were river traders in Peter Stuyvesant’s time – it wasn’t until the early 1800s that sons of Abraham settled in western Pennsylvania.  Their numbers were at first few; there were just 4,000 Jews in the entire United States at the time, and only seven US cities had a Jewish population greater than one hundred by 1830.  But events in northern Europe would soon cause the first great wave of Jewish emigration to the New World.

A series of failed revolutions compounded the effects of famine and economic depression already underway in the German Confederation by 1848.  The least privileged suffered most, and it was these – the Jews of Prussia, Hanover and the Slavic territories among them – who fled to America.  In a few short years, major coastal cities like Philadelphia had absorbed more immigrants than they could employ.  To make matters worse, Jews were often excluded by law from many professions and by custom from many of the rest.

Word soon spread that for those willing to work hard and take risks, there was opportunity in the hinterland.  But few of the new Jewish citizens had the means to buy or rent land.  What to do?  What outsiders so often do best: adapt.  They became itinerant peddlers, scrapmen and rag recyclers, independent trades needing little capital investment beyond a pack or a horse.  These “huxters” (as the term then was) served the remote coal camps in our area, where immigrant miners spoke the same Silesian dialect of German many of them did.

The life of a huxter was not easy, and not without risk.  Some were robbed, and a few even murdered.  They looked different and often spoke limited English and so were viewed by some with suspicion.  Yet these Jewish peddlers also brought news of the outer world to an eager audience.  When at last they were able to save enough to leave the road, they set up shop in small towns where the demand for their goods was high and competition was low, then sent for their families.   As historian Deborah Weiner observes, “For immigrant Jews, the American Dream revolved not around economic success or owning a piece of land, but around achieving self-employment . . . owning and operating their own store.”

By 1878 there were a quarter million American Jews, and of all the thirty-eight states, none had  more Jewish communities of over one hundred than Pennsylvania.   In that year, a certain town  which would one day join the ranks of “hundred-plus” had just three Jews in residence.  It was Indiana.  But change was in the wind for our county, in the number of its Jewish citizens and in the small-town suspicions of at least some of their neighbors.

In one of history’s great ironies, it was anti-Semitic atrocities halfway around the world that paved the way for better relations here.  Speaking from the Courthouse steps in 1882, Kiski School founder A.W. Wilson addressed Indianans:

“Whereas, we read with horror . . . of the oppression and cruelties perpetrated by the government and people of Russia on its own Israelitish citizens . . . we hereby express our sympathy for the suffering of persecuted Jews, welcoming them to our own hospitable land, in the hope that this age of advancing civilization may no more witness proscription of peaceful and law-abiding citizens anywhere on account of race or creed.”

The ancestors of most present-day Pennsylvania Jews came as refugees from Russia between 1880 and 1910, fleeing pogroms in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s assassination.  Those who settled in western Pennsylvania often came by “chain migration,” having first come to larger communities elsewhere and later to small towns at the invitation of relatives or friends already there.  And unlike the early peddler, the late-century Jewish newcomer often found a social network already in place; the traditional Hebrew concept of  TZEDEKAH, a communal obligation to help others, meant that he would seldom go hungry or homeless while he sought employment.  Thus, by the dawn of the new century, the stage was set for Indiana’s Jews to take their place – and set the pace – in retail commerce, and through it to gain the social acceptance so long denied them in the Old World and the New.

1900 – Present : Foundation, Floruit and Fade

The third and final wave came from Poland, Russia and economically-distressed Lithuania.  By the time WWI ended the Great Migration of 1900-1914, most members of Indiana’s Jewish community were of Lithuanian descent.  Many of its institutions were born in that period’s final years.  Hebrew Unity Club, chartered in 1914, would become Hebrew Unity Congregation two years later; both the Hub and Bon Ton, founded in 190708, would surpass the twentyfive year record set by Noah Adler’s clothing store (1867-1892) to become future Indiana icons.

The signal event in the community’s history took place on October 20, 1916 – the 23rd day  of Tishri, 5677 by the Jewish calendar – with the founding of Hebrew Unity Congregation.  Each of its thirty-eight charter members represented one of the twenty-five Jewish families of Indiana or one of thirteen in towns nearby.  They began meeting and worshiping in homes, then in rented rooms.  The new White Building’s third floor was finished in accordance with the congregation’s needs, and it remained their home for the next thirty-six years.

The word “Unity” in their name was neither incidental nor coincidental.  Many smaller Jewish communities of the time had split into separate congregations over differences in ethnic tradition or denominational practice; with its members representing four ethnic groups and all three traditions of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), Hebrew Unity’s founders could not afford to let those differences count more than their common heritage.

Terrible events on the world stage would once again broaden Indiana’s acceptance of its Jewish citizens as they matched their community’s response to World War One.  Joint committees of Jewish and Christian leaders spearheaded at least four war-relief drives through 1919, and Hebrew Unity’s young men enlisted to go “over there” alongside their gentile age-mates.  Lieutenant Charles LeVine, who would join the Red Cross at war’s end, survived artillery barrages, air strikes and even a submarine attack, but his Blairsville kinsman Mayer LeVine was one of many Indiana County doughboys who never came home.  Death is the great equalizer.

Indiana grew rapidly in the postwar boom.  Jewish retailers opened stores along Philadelphia Street in such number that they were in the majority there by 1929.  Yet beyond their entrepreneurial skills, it would be thrift and sacrifice – virtues on which immigrant Jews had long relied – that would see them through the Great Depression to come.

Radio and newspapers were at their zenith in the 1930s.  Hebrew Unity members unable to attend Sabbath services listened to WCAE’s broadcast from Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh, or read that city’s Jewish Criterion for inspiration and information.  Locally, former pro basketballer Dave Abrams coached Indiana’s Cardinals in the Inter-County League, a source of pride and welcome distraction in those hard times.

Pearl Harbor changed everything, from economics to attitudes.  Looking back, men like Dave Luxenberg – then an Army battalion commander – would identify WWII as the turning point, as the military and humanitarian involvement of Indiana’s Jews proved their mettle beyond any doubt.  Eighty percent of the boys in Hebrew Unity’s 1941 Confirmation class were in uniform a year later, and the salvage business, once held in low esteem, was so crucial to the war effort that half the men in that typically Jewish profession were granted exemption from the draft.

Like much of small-town America, Indiana’s Jewish community began its Golden Age in 1946.  For a quarter century, their second generation rode a rising tide that lifted institutions of local business, nuclear family and post-secondary education to heights not seen before or since.  Social and religious groups like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith flourished.  Now over sixty families strong, Hebrew Unity became Beth Israel Congregation when the cornerstone of its new synagogue was laid in 1952.  The lot was purchased, design commissioned and building constructed WITHOUT  DEBT  OR  MORTGAGE  – a remarkable feat for a congregation of any size, much less for one of 300 souls.

All good things must come to an end.  With the opening of Regency Mall in 1969, the first of three changes that would close the Golden Age struck family-owned retail businesses.  As Stan Luxenberg would say of Indiana in Roadside Empires, “Franchised outlets now lined the highways leading to town.  Downtown stores that had once flourished closed or moved to the three malls….”  Then came the wave of outsourcing in the Eighties and the rise of E-commerce in the Nineties.  The educated children of small town Jewish families dispersed to population centers where professionals were in demand, and by 2000, Beth Israel Congregation was too small to support a full-time rabbi or even to hold regular Sabbath services.

What to do?  What the children of Abraham have always done best: adapt.  No one knows the future, but given history’s example, it would be a mistake to count out the Jews of Indiana.

The Works

“The Conemaugh Saltworks, we are happy to state, are now in the full tide of successful operation . . . rewarding the enterprising individuals who constructed them (and) conferring important advantages upon the district as well as the country.”  So said the Greensburg Register in 1816, just three years after the commercial production of salt began where Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh River join to become the Kiskiminetas.

Salt is so cheap and abundant in our time that we hardly give it a thought, but the fact is, we literally cannot live without it.  When Britain’s blockade choked off imports during the War of 1812, the United States had to rely on just four internal sources of salt: Onandaga/Cayuga Counties in New York, Gallatin County in Illinois, Kanawha in the Cumberland, and – just in time – the new Saltworks right here in Indiana County, PA.  For folks along the Kiski and Conemaugh, the Salt Boom predated the Coal Rush by a quarter century.

But how did it all begin, and who were those “enterprising individuals” responsible for it?

A saline spring rising from beneath the Kiskiminetas near what is now Saltsburg had long been tapped by local Indian tribes, for whom it was a zone of truce; that there was salt in the area was known to Europeans as early as 1755, when Lewis Evans’ General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America noted, “The Kishkeminetas . . . has Coal and Salt.”  In 1766, one Frederick Rohrer of Greensburg may have become the first settler to discover that spring and boil its waters to extract salt.  Or it could be that a certain Mrs. Deemer, who chanced to taste salt water in a Conemaugh pool near White shortly before 1800, was the first.  And Doctor Samuel Talmadge, our county’s first resident physician, is said to have noticed animals licking rocks out in the Conemaugh opposite Broad Fording (Burrell) in 1810.  There he sank a barrel lined with clay to keep salt water and fresh water from mixing, dipped out the saline and boiled it down in iron kettles.

Well, maybe.  Even if each story is true, they’re not mutually exclusive.  What is certain is that commercial production here began in 1813 when, on his second local attempt, William Johnston struck a saltwater aquifer beneath 450 feet of rock while drilling “on the bank of the Conemaugh near the mouth of the Loyalhanna.”  After buying a manual pump, building a furnace and installing evaporation pans, he lined his 2½” diameter drill-hole with copper tube and began producing 30 bushels of salt per day.  The blockade had done wonders for the price of that already-precious commodity, and at $5.00 a bushel, salt soon made Mr. Johnston a wealthy man.

Drilling, pumping and evaporating were no easy tasks in those days.  It took two men up to nine months to drill through 400 to 600 feet of rock with their swing pole drill, a weighted chisel suspended by chain, rope and pulley beneath a wooden tension pole.  A “blind horse” powered the pump that drew the saline from well to furnace.  Four men operated the furnace and deposited the boiled-down residue in twenty-foot “grainers”, or evaporation pans; four others mined coal from the nearby hillside, and one more led a horse hauling coal to feed the furnace.  Pay ranged from .75¢ to $1.00 per twelve-hour day.

[Though defined in none of the surviving records, it is almost certain that the “blind” horses were simply those fitted with blinders, also called blinkers.]

By the time of the Register article there were fourteen furnaces fed by four wells within a mile of the Conemaugh/Loyalhanna confluence, owned respectively by William Johnston, Samuel Reed, Andrew Boggs and the partnership of Boggs & Forward.  Between them they produced over 100 bushels of salt per day, selling at the post-war price of $2.00 per bushel – still a tidy sum.

But the Boom was just getting started.  High demand, the introduction of steam engines and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Canal caused the number of producers and their total output to climb steadily through the 1820s.  Records show ten wells producing 1,750 bushels per day in 1821 and 31 producing 7,600 bushels per day by 1829.  That’s an amazing four million pounds a year!  Both the settling of Saltsburg (laid out by salt magnate Andrew Boggs) and the rise of Blairsville to become the county’s chief city were direct consequences of the flourishing salt industry, and the Conemaugh Saltworks boasted the fourth largest post office in the county.

Boom was nearly followed by bust when overproduction and price wars brought salt down to just .19¢ per bushel in 1826.  As the price of salt fell below the cost of production, well owners announced that they had agreed among themselves never to sell their salt below $2.00 per bushel – legal, in the days before the Sherman Antitrust Act.  It worked, and the Boom continued through the 1830s.

Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t always take kindly to the changes Man’s endeavors impose on the land.  By 1830, proliferation of wells had caused the minimum depth at which adequate concentrations of saline could be struck to drop more than 200 feet, and many a producer went out of business when his well failed.  Exacerbated by poor engineering decisions made in construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, the river flooded disastrously in 1828 and 1832, bankrupting Andrew Boggs and several others.  The Boom continued even so, reaching its peak between 1838 and 1840.

But it was history that finally closed the book on the salt industry of Indiana County.  Westward expansion of the United States brought the discovery of mineable salt in Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana.  These sources were easier and cheaper to exploit, and were more productive than our saltwater aquifers.  Steady decline after 1840, relieved only briefly when the Civil War cut off access to southern mines, left just two producers by 1870.

Yet despite its brevity, the Salt Boom’s long-term effect on our county’s economy was broad and positive.  Our coal-mining industry owes its start to salt:  the Works were the single greatest consumer of coal in southwest Pennsylvania before the 1840s, increasing local production by more than three thousand percent between 1814 and 1838.  It drove demand for iron and wood products, attracted immigration from pre-famine Ireland and was one of the main reasons for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s road and canal systems.  You might say that salt gave Indiana County . . . well, “the Works”!