Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971). 
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“Time in the woods is important…”

If you spend any time outside you may have seen a salamander that is bluish-black with large, scattered white spots on its back. This little six-inch creature is related to Indiana County, the Salamander’s name is Wehrle’s Salamander named after Richard White Wehrle. It was in 1911 that Wehrle discovered a new type of salamander in Indiana County’s Two Lick Hills area and it was in 1917 that the salamander was named in his honor.

Wehrle was born on October 1, 1852 in Indiana, PA; his parents emigrated from Germany. Growing up, he attended the public schools and learned the jeweler’s trade from his father, Blaeus. Richard began an apprenticeship in Brookville, PA with his uncle Sylvester M. Tinthoff, at the age of fourteen. But young Richard did not take the easy way from Indiana to Brookville – he went on foot, a two-day trip, with three dollars in his pocket.

Wehrle
Richard White Wehrle

In 1873, Wehrle returned to Indiana County and operated his own jewelry store in Blairsville, which he operated for over 20 years. In 1895, he sold the business and moved to Indiana to operate a jewelry store with his brother, Boniface. The pair operated under the name of B.I. Wehrle & Brother, located at 560 Philadelphia Street, and they remained in business together until Boniface’s death in 1899. It was after his brother’s death that he operated the business under R.W. Wehrle & Co. He was a skilled jeweler and gave personal attention to the repair department. Eyeglasses were also sold, and he functioned as an optometrist would today, even though he was not formally trained.

In addition to the jewelry business, Wehrle owned other business interests as well. In 1889, he purchased two stone quarries, which shipped bluestone and Belgium block paving stone to Pittsburgh. The quarries were sold and he later acquired over one thousand acres of coal and timber land in Center and Burrell Townships.

Wehrle was not only involved in business; he was also a naturalist – he also devoted a lot of his leisure time to the study of the natural history of Indiana County. This included making collections of fish, snakes, salamanders, insects, and turtles in the County, which he submitted to museums.

In 1912, the Boy’s Naturalist Club was established by Wehrle, to provide opportunities for boys to go on field trips and participate in other activities related natural history. He was known as “Uncle Dick” by the children in the community. He also served as a Game Commissioner of the Indiana County Branch of the Wild Life League and was known as the “Bird Doctor” thanks to his efforts to rescue and rehabilitate birds.

Wehrle remained active his entire life and he credited his good health to his outdoor lifestyle. It was on his 70th birthday that he walked from Indiana to Punxsutawney to visit relatives – a distance of 25 miles. He received an honorary lifetime membership in the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia for his collection efforts on behalf of the Academy. The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh was also blessed with many collections from Wehrle, which he provided on a regular basis through 1936, a year before his death. Many of these collections came from the Two Lick area and from property he owned near Black Lick, PA.

werhle3side
Wehrle’s Salamander (from PAHERPS website).

R.W. Wehrle died on July 4, 1937 at his home located at 36 South 5th Street in Indiana. He is buried in the Wehrle family plot at the St. Bernard’s Cemetery. The pallbearers at his funeral were six men who were members of the Naturalist Club as boys.

Wehrle’s collection of specimens are still in existence. Wehrle is still remembered around Indiana, PA – look up on the building at 560 Philadelphia Street you will see etched into the building “R.W. Wehrle 1904.” There is also a side street in the Borough “Wehrle’s Way.” Although, if you are like most people, you have never heard of this unique individual who hailed from Indiana County devoting his life to the natural history.

The title of this post comes from a newspaper advertisement for watches marketed to outdoorsmen at the R.W. Wehrle & Co. Jewelry Store.

Buttermilk Falls: Home to Fred McFeely’s Estate

Earlier this month, February 19, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. This anniversary got me thinking about Indiana County’s connection to Mr. Fred Rogers, with Buttermilk Falls. The falls are located a short distance off Route 22 at 570 Valley Brook Road, New Florence, PA. The site not only offers a 48-acre natural area, but it also has a unique history behind the grounds which relate directly to Fred Rogers.

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The grounds were donated to the Indiana County Parks in 1995 by the Keystone-Conemaugh Group, who are the owners of the nearby Conemaugh Generating Station. The park features an impressive 45-foot waterfall. More interesting is the history behind the site, it was once home to Fred McFeely’s, Fred Roger’s grandfather, summer estate. Fred McFeely owned the property from 1930 to 1956. The grounds once featured a large house, horse stables, a three-car garage, outbuildings and a swimming area in the creek above the falls. Although the buildings are no longer in existence, stone foundations and dams are still in existence, and with a little use of your imagination you can imagine what the grounds would have looked like to a young Mr. Rogers.

As a child, Fred Rogers, would visit his grandfather’s farm, and walk the grounds with Fred McFeely, after Sunday dinners and during summer vacations. Mr. Rogers conceived many of his ideas for his television program, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” while visiting Buttermilk Falls. Even as an adult Mr. Rogers fondly remembered his time at Buttermilk Falls. In a 1996 Indiana Gazette interview, Mr. Rogers remembered climbing on the stone walls at the site and crawling behind the falls to look through the cascading water

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If you’re looking a springtime day trip, Buttermilk Falls is an excellent place to get away. Enjoy the beauty of this natural wonder, but also do not forget to look for the remnants of the estate that once stood at the site, and picture what it must have looked like to a young Fred Rogers.

Jim Cheney, Pennsylvania Waterfalls: Visiting Buttermilk Falls in Indiana County. https://uncoveringpa.com/buttermilk-falls-indiana-county
Buttermilk Falls Natural Area Brochure