Canal Days

The physical evidence of the existence of a major American canal running through portions of Indiana and Westmoreland Counties is now almost entirely erased by the ravages of time, weather, and modern industrial development.  However, it is still possible to find short sections of watered canal bed, crumbling culverts which once ducted streams beneath the canal bed, and even portions of ruined locks with some of their beautifully cut stones still in place.  Other sites, which are known to have contained major canal structures, are now only remembered in the pages of old canal company records of preserved in old photographs.

In 1826, it became apparent to Pennsylvanians that a route of commerce must be opened to the west.  The successful completion of the Erie Canal in New York State had already begun to draw commerce away from Philadelphia, and with the proposed construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which it was hoped would link the rich agricultural lands of Ohio with the great port of New York City, the Pennsylvania State Legislature was forced to act.  On February 26, 1826, a bill was passed to promote a system of internal improvements establishing an “uninterrupted waterway” from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was never a truly uninterrupted waterway, but by April 15, 1834, it was possible to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on a canal system combining manmade and natural, land and water sections.  Passengers and freight moved by steam train from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River at Columbia where they were lowered to the canal basis by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  From this point to Hollidaysburg, the canal travelers rode in canal boats pulled by mules, along the Susquehanna River to the Juniata River, and then along the Juniata to Hollidaysburg.  At the Hollidaysburg canal boat basin, the canal boats were floated onto railroad flatcars, and hauled up and over the Allegheny Mountains by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  This series of ten planes was known as the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  It began at Hollidaysburg and ended in the Johnstown canal boats were floated again in the canal, and pulled in canal and slackwater pools[1] following the banks of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Allegheny Rivers to Pittsburgh.

The completion of this internal improvement in a period of eight years was astounding feat.  Consider first its length: 395.19 miles.  Then ponder the problems of crossing rivers, streams, and mountains before the age of dynamite and gigantic earth movers.  Rivers and streams were crossed by means of troughs of water called aqueducts.  Mountains and steep hills were crossed by using inclined plane railroads powered by stationary steam engines which pulled the canal boats up and over these obstacles.  More gradual increases in land elevation were overcome by means of lift locks which raised or lowered canal boats from eight to twelve feet.  And finally, consider the tremendous effort required to dig a ditch over 250 miles long, five feet deep, forty feet wide at the top and twenty-seven feet wide at the bottom.  Consider also that this was done with only pick and shovel and black powder and mules, and it can be seen what a tremendous feat of engineering and pure physical effort the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal really was.  With this improvement in transportation, it was actually possible in 1841 to depart Philadelphia at 7:30 a.m. and arrive in Pittsburgh at 9:30 a.m. seven days later.

There have been a number of interesting accounts of travel on the Main Line Canal.  Outstanding among these are ones by Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Phillip H. Nicklin.  None of these give much attention specifically to Indiana County, but by drawing on old pictures and photographs, we can build on their accounts and imagine that a traveler writing in his diary in 1841, in the heyday of the canal, might have described his trip through Indiana and Westmoreland counties something like this:

June 25, 1841 After descending out of the Allegheny Mountains by the ingenious devices of the inclined planes of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, we slip into the canal basin in the village of Johnstown, and take rooms for the night at the American Hotel.  At first light we board our Marshall Company packet boat “Pennsylvania,” Captain H. H. Jeffries, at the tiller, and slip out of the basin by way of the guard lock at the west end, and we quickly move into the Conemaugh Gap slackwater.  Here we find ourselves in a deep, mountainous pass, hemmed in on the right and left by its steep walls, covered with a luxurious growth of hardwood. Not a trace of road or trail can be seen so interrupt the green of its sides.  In a short while we are told by Captain Jeffries that we will be passing out of the gap, and into Indiana County.

We leave the smooth slackwater in the gap and enter into the canal at Guard Lock 3.  The rolling hills of Indiana County spread out before us, and we are now pulling in a straight stretch of the canal at about four miles per hour, as we approach Rodger’s Mill and Lock 22 of the Ligonier Line.  Occasionally a cleared piece of farm land breaks the solid carpet of trees, and the Conemaugh flows swift and shallow on our left.  We pass by the villages of Abnerville and Centerville with Locks 20 and 18 at these places.

Just before we pass through Lock 16, our boat pauses near a number of substantial stone buildings associated with the canal company.  Here a fresh team of mules is attached to our tow line.  Without undue delay we are lowered in Lock 16, and glide smoothly over a handsome culvert of beautifully cut stone. In less than a mile’s distance we find ourselves crossing the Conemaugh on a marvelously constructed stone aqueduct supported by five elliptical stone arches.  Just over the far end of the aqueduct we are lowered in Lock 14.  Here we are in the village of Lockport in Westmoreland County.  As we pass through the town the cliffs of the Conemaugh on our right loom above the oxbow of the river and over the cornfields on the flat.  At the western edge of the town we drop in Lock 13, and we pass on through Bolivar, crossing over Tub Mill Creek on a two-arched stone aqueduct.  Ahead of us we can see a deep gap cutting through another ridge.  After going through Locks 12, 11, and 10, the gap looms even larger and more foreboding as we approach it.  Captain Jeffries explains that this is the Chestnut Ridge and that the passage through it is called Packsaddle Gap.  We quickly descend the closely spaced Locks 9, 8, 7, and 6, and find ourselves in the upper end of a slackwater.  It forms a broad expanse as smooth as glass, mirroring the steep and rocky sides of the gap.  Not a sound is heard as we pass below its towering sides, slip through Guard Lock 2 and into a short stretch of canal.  We are pulled through Lock 5 and then into another slackwater pool.  At last we burst forth from the confines of the gap into the rolling valley beyond.  With the sun low in the west, we are pulled out of the slackwater through Guard Lock 1, and again into the canal.  Next we go down Locks 4 through 1, and out through Lock 17 into the Blairsville slackwater at McGee’s Run.  We are now in the Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh section of the canal.

The thriving town of Blairsville now comes into sight through the tres surrounding the slackwater.  Opposite Blairsville we enter the canal again through Guard Lock 5, at the village of Bairdstown.  Because of commerce from the canal and from the Huntingdon-Cambria and Indiana Turnpike, Blairsville has become the largest town in Indiana County.  The warehouses by the shore of the slackwater on the Indiana County side attest to this, and the bustle of activity of men and wagons can be seen across the river in the late afternoon light.

We are now on the Westmoreland County side of the Conemaugh, slipping silently by the rolling hills.  We descend through Locks 16 through 12, and pass the villages of Social Hall and Livermore, and into the slackwater.  On our left, above the tree tops, a large mountain looms.  WE pass through Guard Lock 4, turn sharply left, and plunge directly into the mouth of a tunnel in the side of the mountain.

This tunnel, Captain Jeffries tells us, is cut through the mountain to avoid the additional four miles around it.  Although I must admit to a slight feeling of apprehension as the darkness surrounds us, he says it is a wonder of modern engineering, being 817 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 14 feet high, and cut through solid rock.  Our nighthawker lanterns show up the brickwork on the inside.  As we emerge from the confines of the tunnel, the Conemaugh River is far below us, and we cross this dizzying space by means of an aqueduct.  After crossing the aqueduct we turn sharply left and look back and find it to be much the same as the handsome aqueduct we crossed at Lockport, being supported by five elliptical arches, a magnificent and solid structure.

We are now again on the Indiana County side of the Conemaugh, passing through Locks 11 and 10 and the village of Tunnelview [now Tunnelton].  We pass the saltworks just east of the village of Saltsburg, and descend Lock 9.  As we enter the village of Saltsburg the canal channel makes a graceful curve, and we pass beneath three high bridges.  On our right is the Butler Myers boat building yard.  Captain Jeffries tells us we will make a brief stop here to change mules.  I can see a small crowd of people gathered to watch us go through the lock.

We slip into the chamber of Lock 8, and the gates are closed behind us by the lock keeper.  The tow line is detached as usual, and the tired mules are led away to the stable on our left between the river and the lock.  The fresh mules are brough up, the tow line is attached, and it seems we are ready again to proceed.  But, instead, our boat remains stationary. I wonder why we are waiting.  Maybe I will have a chance to look around a bit.

There are a number of shops and stores on our right near the lock, and I can just read their signs in the late afternoon light.  I can see Alcorn’s and Kelly’s general stores, the S.S. Jamison warehouse, fronting the boat basin below us, and Henry Blank’s bakery.

Suddenly the door of Blank’s bakery swings open, and a most singular man strides energetically out toward our waiting packet.  He speaks briefly to a man in the crowd and pats the head of a little girl as he approaches.  He carries a small valise in one hand and a paper bag under his arm.  In one energetic leap, he is on board, right beside me.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he says, with a sweeping gesture of his arm that seems to encompass everyone in sight.

Then to me he says, as if he had been my friend from childhood, “And now, dear sir, you seem to look a bit weary from your long journey.  I hope you haven’t suffered unduly.”  Without a pause, but with a chuckle, he continues, “And now I am about to offer you the best ginger cookie in the world.”  Inclining his head toward mine, with an air of confidentiality, “Mr. Blank, the baker, makes them, and I just had to have some before we got underway – here, try one,” he says, extending the bag toward me.  I take one from the bag as he continues.

My same is Samuel S. Jamison,” he says, pumping my hand in greeting, “I supervise the canal form Lock 6 to Pittsburgh, and there’s been a problem with leaks in the lock at Leechburg.”

He chuckles again, but without a pause for breath, turns and looks straight at the lock keeper, and calls out in tones of mock gravity, “Mr. Hugh Kelly, you may now let the water out of the lock.”

And so Mr. Kelly does, and with a rush of water, we sink in the lock.

We wave to everyone from the bottom and everyone waves back.  Hugh Kelly opens the lower lock gates and we glide smoothly into the Saltsburg boat basin.  Our tow line slaps the water as we begin to move out into the lengthening shadows of the early evening.

What a delicious ginger cookie! What a delightful man! I turn to thank him, but he is gone into the cabin, talking with some of the other passengers who are beginning to gather around the supper table.

Here is a fine gentleman, I think, and he should go far.  But I suppose I will never know.

Leaving Saltsburg, the Loyalhanna Creek joins the Conemaugh River to become the Kiskiminetas River, and we follow its bank as the town recedes behind us.  Shortly, we cross Black Legs Creek on a wooden aqueduct and pass through Lock 7 just as the sun dips behind the trees.

The captain’s son has come into the cabin to make up the banks, as we will travel all night, arriving in Pittsburgh in the early morning.  Coalport and Locks 6 and 5 are passed in the dark; I can hear the swish of water in the lock and the ropes dragging across the deck.  Leechburg is up ahead, but I shall surely be asleep by then….

Such a trip on the canal would have been possible until about 1863 when the canal was replaced by a swifter, if less romantic, means of transportation, the railroad.  Even before the railroad posed a serious threat, the canal was in financial trouble due to inefficient operation by the state.  But by the late 1840s, so much freight and passenger business was being lost, that the Commonwealth determined to unload its financial burden.  Finally, in 1857, an agreement was reached with the Pennsylvania Railroad and the entire system was sold for $7.5 million.  The railroad, which was primarily interested in the level right-of-way across the state, began to lose the canal section by section.  The first part to cease operations was the portion from Johnstown to Blairsville.  By 1864 the remaining activity halted and the canal days, for Indiana County, were history.


[1] A smooth, calm, and quiet water created by the construction of a dam across a stream and used for navigation purposes instead of a canal channel. A guard lock is located adjacent to a dam in the stream and permits boats to pass from slack-water into the canal or from canal to slack-water.

Socialist Women in Black Lick and Socialville

The coming of the Great Depression brought major economic and political changes to the county, as poverty and unemployment became more oppressive and pervasive, creating a situation which led some of the unemployed and their supporters to organize and protect.

The problems of the coal industry, the major business and the leading employer in the county, illustrated general conditions.  Many mines which had operated through the lean years of the 1920s had closed by 1932.  County residents also suffered when the unemployment rate reached 25.4 percent in 1932.  In that year the county fair was canceled for the first time in the twenty-five year history, because of the state of the economy.  Other indicators of the county’s economic plight included more than twenty-five thousand property liens issued by the tax collector in 1932, and more than nine hundred children unable to attend school because of a lack of clothing.

The Depression created great hardships, and county residents searched for new solutions to their problems.  The unemployed responded to this economic crisis by affiliating with national and state activities and groups and by establishing their own organizations.  When the national Bonus Army passed through Indiana County in the spring of 1932, local people gathered to cheer them on.  Father Cox’s Hunger March received a warm reception in Blairsville as they marched from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  On the local level, the Worker’s Unemployment Council of Indiana County emerged in 1933.  The Workers Federation of Pennsylvania was also becoming active at this time.  Both groups held meetings and conducted protests highlighted by a giant action at the County Relief Board held by the Workers Federation in July 1933.  County and local unemployed groups had a diverse membership and leadership.  Socialists, including women such as Marie Widdowson and Florence McNutt, played prominent roles, through their activities.  Yet this along with the growing presence of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic Party failed to dislodge the Republican Party and the business elite from their dominant roles in Indiana County.

The Republican Party dominated politics in Indiana County prior to the mid-1930s.  This dominance reflected the realities of the state and the political power of the business community in the county.  Socialists failed to threaten this supremacy even with the opportunities provided by the Depression of the 1930s.  However, a different story unfolded in a small enclave around Black Lick and Socialville, a community named after the Socialists who lived there.  This enclave contributed many socialist candidates, hosted numerous speakers and provided a sense of community for participants in socialist activities.  Although socialist men contributed to these achievements, it was socialist women who played the pivotal roles.

Socialist Women Newspaper
Socialist candidate campaign advertisement from election of 1934.

Prior to 1930, Indiana County socialists engaged in a number of political contests.  In the election of 1912, Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, polled 6% of the countywide vote, but did much better in the Black Lick and Socialville areas.  Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville merchant, entered several local races, and in 1917 won 45% of the vote in a race for burgess of Blairsville.  Davis A. Palmer, a leading Black Lick merchant, ran several races for state and national offices on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920s.

Socialists continued to run for office in the 1930s, with women joining men as candidates.  Marie Widdowson, a prominent Black Lick socialist, ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the 1932, 1934, and 1936 elections.  In the latter year, Florence McNutt, another key Black Lick socialist, also ran for a Pennsylvania General Assembly seat.  While they won negligible proportions of the total vote, usually 2-3% in these races, in the races for local offices they achieved more impressive results.  Florence McNutt was elected as inspector of elections in Black Lick, and Marie Widdowson became the township auditor.

Black Lick and Socialville socialists maintained contact with the Socialist Party and other progressive causes by attending state and national conferences.  Florence McNutt attended socialist conferences held in Reading and Harrisburg, while Mrs. Eugene Morton of Socialville attended a socialist conference in Reading and Marie Widdowson and Rhoda Lowman of Socialville attended a state socialist convention in Harrisburg.  Mrs. Widdowson also attended a meeting of the Worker’s Federation held in Harrisburg and a meeting of the Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers for Economic Reconstruction held in Washington, D.C.  In addition, she represented Indiana County as a delegate to a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace held in Pittsburgh.  Florence McNutt served as a delegate to the 1932 Milwaukee Convention of the Socialist Party which nominated Norman Thomas for President.

Socialists also hosted a variety of local activities which attracted large audiences and brought outsiders to the area.  Campbell’s Mill Park, in Black Lick Township, provided the site for outdoor activities, particularly the very popular annual Labor Day basket picnics.  In 1932, party members and friends from Indiana County and surrounding counties, including Allegheny County, attended the event.  The celebration featured athletic events, speakers and a supper served to over 300 persons.  Mrs. Mary Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) won a special prize for being the oldest person at the picnic.  On a smaller scale, the enclave received some attention when Mrs. Eugene Morton hosted a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League’s State Executive Committee at her home in Socialville.

Campbells Mill
Campbell’s Mill Park, location of socialist gatherings in the 1930s.

In addition to these special features, local socialists organized many ongoing services and activities. Some of these activities were directly related to socialism while others were of a general progressive nature.  The socialists established a reading room on Main Street in Black Lick for the benefit of the community.  While it housed some socialist literature, it also included a wide variety of reading materials, especially those which covered current events.  Regular meetings of the Black Lick local, often held in conjunction with an active Young People’s Socialist League branch, attracted approximately forty-five participants from both Black Lick and Socialville.  At these meetings members received pamphlets from the national office and discussed national and local issues.  The Young People’s Socialist League published The Rising Sun, a newspaper which contained articles about local and national history, and political commentary often written by Florence McNutt, as well as a page of ads for local businesses.  Local socialists also devoted much of their efforts to aiding the unemployed.  Several socialists played leadership roles in unemployed groups.  For example, Florence McNutt and Marie Widdowson served on a local committee to provide relief work for the unemployed.

Socialists also participated in more informal activities which included paying one another frequent visits and periodic bingo parties.  Socialville socialists, especially Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton, hosted most of the bingo parties, but Black Lick socialists also held parties.  These events raised funds for the Young People’s Socialist’s League and provided entertainment for guests who often numbered from twenty-five to forty-five.  Local socialists often exchanged visits and socialized and traveled together.  A few items from the many examples in the Blairsville Dispatch illustrate some of the personal connections which linked enclave socialists.  Florene and Darius McNutt and their children and Mrs. Widdowson were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton in June 1932.  Later that month Mrs. Morton was a guest of the Widdowson family.  The McNutt’s, the Widdowson’s and Mrs. Morton attended a meeting sponsored by the Saltsburg socialists held the following month.  In February 1933, Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Widdowson were guests at the Morton’s, and later that month they attended a meeting of the Federated Council of Churches in Pittsburgh.  In November 1934, the Widdowson’s were guests of the Forest T. Lowman’s of Socialville.

These activities reflected and reinforced a strong sense of community which resulted from ideological affinities and connections based on family and friendship ties.  Florence McNutt was a cousin of Marie Widdowson who was the wife of Dr. Widdowson and the daughter of Jessie Palmer, both prominent Black Lick socialists.  Mary Jane Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) played the pivotal role in Socialville both as a co-founder of the Socialist Party in Indiana County and as a mother whose daughters helped to spearhead enclave socialism in the 1930s.  For example, one of her daughters married Forest T. Lowman, a Nash dealer in Blairsville, and both of them became prominent local socialists.  Bonds of friendship helped to form ties between Reverend Theodore Miner, the leading Socialist in Saltsburg, and Black Lick and Socialville Socialists.  He joined the Black Lick socialists when they attended major meetings in Pittsburgh, and he came to many meetings in the Black Lick area.  He and his family were guests of the Forest T. Lowman family of Socialville in July 1933.  The following month Mrs. Lowman joined Reverend Miner and his family for an evening at Campbell’s Mill Park.  In November, Reverend Miner and his family were guests of the Widdowson family.  Furthermore, a strong friendship formed between Florence McNutt and Mrs. Miner.

In the Black Lick-Socialville enclave, women served as political candidates, convention and meeting participants and organizers of social events.  More crucial, however, was their role as initiators and catalysts.  Mary Jane Bennett played that role in Socialville and Marie Widdowson in Black Lick.  She brought Dr. Widdowson and Florence McNutt into the Socialist Party.  Under her tutelage his politics shifted from a conservative Republic stance.  Florence McNutt also experienced a political awakening through discussions with Mrs. Widdowson.

A small corps of women supported by men built a movement which produced annual picnics, a reading room, an ephemeral newspaper and frequent meetings.  They attended events in other locales, and attracted speakers and spectators to their local activities.  They saw the plight of people and worked through their own channels, unemployment organizations and government agencies to alleviate their problems.  They built a sense of community which sustained and nourished them.  They offered some residents of the area a temporary alternative or supplement to mainstream politics, information and entertainment.  Even after the demise of the local Socialist Party some of the women found other outlets for their civic-mindedness, with Florence McNutt playing a crucial role in the development of the community center and the park in Black Lick.

A Labor Trilogy Party III – Socialist Surges: 1912 and 1917

The Socialist Party reached its peak strength in 1912, and in 1917 performed well in several key municipal races.  Eugene Debs offered a rallying point for many dissidents.  In Indiana County the Socialist Party achieved limited success.  However, several communities provided Debs with significant proportions of the vote in the election of 1912.  His totals in these areas ranged from 10-40% of the vote.  The Socialist Party showing in 1917 had a very different character.  The major race featured Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville businessman, winning 45% of the vote for burgess in an election against a fusion candidate.  Protest activity diminished in the 1920s but Reuben Einstein remained active.  A local of the Socialist Party operated in Homer City and John Brophy provided leadership for coal miners in District 2 of the United Mine Workers.  Socialist activity revived in the 1930s as unemployed organizations emerged and workers struck and organized.

Many observers viewed socialism as a rising tide between 1910 and 1920.  Europe exhibited numerous strong socialist movements.  In Germany the socialists played a particularly important role in the national legislature.  The United States failed to duplicate this level of performance.  Nevertheless, the Socialist Party of America became an important presence.  Eugene Debs, the party’s perennial presidential candidate, became the tribute of the poor and the conscience of the nation.  The party elected candidates, held meetings and published newspapers.  Cities such as Milwaukee and Reading became socialist strongholds and Debs won 17% of the Oklahoma vote in the 1912 election.  Schisms and other problems undermined the party but it achieved a temporary revival in the municipal elections of 1917.  Morris Hillquit, the Socialist Party mayoral candidate, polled more than 20% of the vote in New York City.

The Socialist Party of Indiana County began its 1912 campaign in February.  Jack McKeown, state organizer for the party, addressed a meeting at the Court House.  The following week a mass meeting at the West Indiana House resulted in the establishment of a permanent organization.  D.R. Palmer of Black Lick served as permanent chairperson and Reuben Einstein became the secretary.  The audience chose a committee of urged socialists to continue to educate the public until socialism achieved a global triumph.  A speech by James H. Maurer highlighted the activities of the following month.  Maurer, the only socialist member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, later became president of the Pennsylvania Federation and vice presidential candidate on the tickets with Norman Thomas in the elections of 1928 and 1932.  Maurer lectured to a large audience on the topic of “How our Laws are made.”  The audience included delegations from Clymer, Dixonville, Black Lick, Creekside, and Blairsville.  The sponsors invited workingmen, farmers and decent citizens and issued a special invitation to women.  Two other socialist speakers came to Indiana in April.

The election results showed the growth of socialist sentiment since 1908.  At the national level Debs increased his vote total from 400,000 to 900,000 in 1912 as he won 6% of the ballots.  His Indiana County vote almost tripled.  He polled a little over 6% of the vote in 1912.  In some districts, however, his performance far exceeded this level.  For example, he won 11% of the vote in Montgomery Township and 12% in Blairsville.  In some coal communities he achieved his peak strength.  Glen Campbell cast 24% of its vote for Debs as did Burrell Township.  Black Lick Township No. 2 cast 18 of its 45 votes for Debs as he outdistanced Theodore Roosevelt, the runner up with 12 votes, and the other presidential candidates.

The 1917 election lacked this broad based socialist turnout.  However, the race for burgess in Blairsville offered a showcase for an unusual socialist candidate – Reuben Einstein.  Einstein opened a clothing store in 1892 and soon achieved local prominence.  The Blairsville Evening Courier described his marriage to an Oil City woman in 1894.  The article noted their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls and the many presents received by the bride and groom.  Einstein’s involvement in socialist politics preceded the 1917 campaign.  He played a role in the 1912 election and ran for Congress on the socialist ticket in 1914, polling about 5% of the vote.  The Blairsville Courier provided little news coverage of the race for burgess, but a series of socialist party ads and letters offered readers its perspective on the issues.  The party pointed with pride to its provision for the recall of officials unfaithful to their constituents.  Municipal housekeeping received consideration as the socialists promised to watch cost sheets carefully and town water works, streets and schools in a manner beneficial to the public.  The party promised to mail a leaflet “What Is Socialism” to every Blairsville voter.  The socialist party criticized the economic system for underpaying workers and an inability to generate sufficient demand to consume what the economy produced.  The final ad written by Reuben Einstein, criticized the railroads for gouging and called for the people to own the railroads as well as industry and the natural resources.  A fundamental problem resulted from our toll gate system in which the few exercised control over the industrial life of the nation and imposed low wages and bad conditions on the workers.

The race for burgess pitted Reuben Einstein against J.W. McAnulty who ran as a fusion candidate of the Republican, Democratic and Prohibition parties.  McAnulty viewed an unequal distribution of wealth as a natural condition.  His reply to the socialists emphasized his patriotism and a condemnation of the Kaiser as an enemy of mankind.  A week before the election Einstein pointed to his wealth as qualification for public office.  He stated that he paid more taxes than any individual property owner in town and depicted that status as a strong motivation to look after the interest of the voters as well as his own.  However, McAnulty won the race for burgess by 52 votes as he carried the 2nd and 3rd wards.  Einstein won 45% of the total vote and a 30 vote margin in the 1st ward.  Protest movements in Indiana County began to fade after this defeat although Einstein remained an active socialist, and John Brophy became a rallying point for miners in the District of the United Mine Workers as he opposed John L. Lewis and supported progressive measures including the nationalization of the mines.

Protest continued in Indiana County.  However, the 20th century differed from the late 19th century.  The role of farmers receded and the activities of miners increased.  The Greenback-Labor Party and the Populist Party gave way to the Socialist Party of America.  Protest lacked a county wide constituency but in some areas it emerged and even flourished.  Glen Campbell, Black Lick and Blairsville provided continuity with earlier protest movements.  In the 1930s socialism rose again and for a time Black Lick and other areas emerged as centers of protest.  The New Deal and the United Mine Workers received most of the attention, but grass roots activities by the unemployed, workers and socialists provided channels for protest as they had in earlier movements of the 1890s and early 20th century.

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.

ritz2
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.

Ritz
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!

Cool!

Did your parents call the family fridge an “icebox” when you were growing up?  If you’re a Baby Boomer, they probably did, because it really was one back when they were kids.  Their generation was the last to use iceboxes, and the last to know firsthand the people and processes that supplied the ice inside.

Humans have preserved their food with ice for thousands of years, but the harvesting, storage and distribution of natural ice reached its historical peak right here in the eastern United States during the 19th century.  Democracy, geography, and industry gave birth to the new “Ice Age.”  Ice in summer had been reserved for aristocracy since ancient times, but the American Revolution democratized its use and thus increased demand.  Our north Atlantic seaboard had the right climate to produce harvestable ice in quantity, and the ports to ship it from.  As for industry; well, we were that century’s keenest entrepreneurs:  if there was a high demand for something, American traders would find a way to supply it.

cool picture 1

The ice trade actually began as an export business, since most early 19th century Americans lived in rural areas where they could harvest their own ice.  Boston’s Frederic Tudor first shipped ice to the Caribbean in 1806, and by 1840 had ice houses around the world.  But the biggest consumers of all were America’s two largest (and hottest) cities: New York, which used more ice than most countries, and Philadelphia, which had the highest per-capita consumption of ice on the planet.  Domestic ice sales overtook exports after the Civil War, and our expanding railroad network allowed long-distance transport of meat, produce and dairy products for the first time thanks to ice-cooled refrigerator cars.

By 1870, most Americans had stopped harvesting ice for themselves, happy to let commercial suppliers relieve them of the task.  But in more remote areas like Indiana County, many farmsteads, butchers and hotels had their own ice pond and ice house.  Making ice cream, brewing beer, and drinking ice water were now possible year-round.  Not everyone approved;  the Indiana Democrat equated drinking ice water with drug use and implied that those who indulged in it were bound for “a clime where ice water is not used” after death.

There was social status in ice as well.  Serving ice-cooled drinks to summer guests meant you were a “somebody,” so upper-class folk built ice houses behind their homes, and social columns noted who had filled them in the past week.  The icewater-and-chocolate tradition still observed by Indiana’s Shakespeare Club was born of that practice.

Where did the rest of us get our ice?  Depends.  Those living in rural townships or small boroughs could help fill the community ice house with each winter’s harvest and tap it in summer.  Citizens of larger boroughs bought ice from the butcher, grocer or fishmonger until ice supply houses sprang up in the 1870s.  Then in the summer of 1875 came the Indiana debut of an American classic:  the ice wagon!

cool picture 2

Ice came daily to our homes in Blairsville and Indiana.  Deliveries were not suspended on Sundays the icemen were exempt from Blue Law strictures because ice preserved food and therefore life.  It sold at 35 cents for 100 pounds in 1880.  Horses drew their brightly-colored wagons through the streets each morning from April through October, rain or shine; one or two men hefted blocks of up to five cubic feet with giant ice tongs and brought them in to our iceboxes.  And though it was illegal and the subject of many a parental lecture, hitching one’s bike or velocipede to the back of the ice wagon as it passed was a favorite childhood sport.  There’s a little Marty McFly in all of us, eh?

Demand increased here until, by 1887, there were at least five ice merchants in Indiana and three in Blairsville.  Ours was cheaper than ice sold in Philadelphia, where the Knickerbocker monopoly imported it from Maine after local harvests couldn’t keep up with demand.  (It was healthier, too – most major rivers were polluted!)  No figures exist for our county’s per-capita consumption, but it never matched the average Philadelphian’s 1400 pounds per year.

So, how was it harvested?  At first we used tools of the carpenter, stonemason and lumberjack, but purpose-designed equipment was available by mid-century.  The Wyeth horse-drawn ice cutter allowed fast, high-volume harvesting, but not all of our lakes and licks froze deep enough to support its weight, so much of the harvesting here was done manually.  A depth of 8 to 12 inches was typical, and some years brought up to 18 inches.  Harvest usually began in January and continued into March, when gorges ice jams that blocked and flooded waterways put an end to the season.  Here’s a description from the 1892 Indiana Progress:

The first process is (to use) a scraper which removes snow, rough ice and other substances. Next is to mark out blocks…. Then the ice plow is brought.  (It) resembles a saw with large teeth, is drawn by a horse and is guided by the marked lines.  The ice is plowed within four inches of its depth, (leaving) enough to bear the workmen’s weight .  Large cakes are then sawed off by hand and floated through canals kept open, guided by men with steel bars.”

Our supply was more than equal to the demand.  We harvested waterways from Mahoning Creek to the Conemaugh, but the most productive sources were excavated “ice ponds.”  The biggest of them was created by the Pennsylvania Railroad at Black Lick in 1870.  It yielded 241 boxcars of ice that first winter, most of which went to Pittsburgh (Blairsville and New Florence got the rest).  There were even three ice ponds within Indiana borough itself; of these, the hands-down favorite was Gessler’s.

Carl Gessler prided himself on being “Indiana’s Original Ice Merchant.”  His ice house, ice pond, and ice wagon were each the borough’s first.  Gessler’s Ice House on Chestnut Street, where he also sold ice cream and other confections, was served by its adjacent ice pond starting 1879.  The pond was Indiana’s favorite skating venue between winter cuttings and was stocked with fish in summer.

But history was catching up with the ice pond.  Ice famines caused by warm winters and increasing demand in the 1890s brought an alternative source to the fore.  Production of artificial ice had been possible for decades, but the technology was unreliable and cost-prohibitive.  Improved techniques made “plant ice” practical and profitable, and by century’s end it accounted for almost half of US ice production.  Carl Gessler and the PRR both abandoned their ponds in 1903 when they switched to plant ice.  Even so, natural ice wasn’t frozen out of the market just yet; the progress of each year’s ice harvest was followed by our county’s newspapers through 1936.

The fate of home-delivered ice (and the icebox) was sealed when domestic refrigerators were introduced after World War I.  Not much of a threat to Jack Frost at first, they cost more than a car and were harder to maintain.  But price and compactness had improved enough by 1930 that we bought more refrigerators than iceboxes that year.  And for those of us who still couldn’t afford one, there was even a conversion kit that turned our icebox into a Frigidaire!

Pennsylvania’s last ice wagon horse died in 1936, and “retired” wagons were used as mock tanks for training during WWII.  When the final icebox maker closed in 1953, the “Ice Age” was over.

If you’re ever out by Aging Services in Indiana, walk around the block.  There where the tracks cross Chestnut between 10th and Edgewood you’ll find it, the last trace of our “Ice Age:” some gravel-mounds and a bulldozer or two in a field that was once Gessler’s Ice Pond.

 

“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.