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Glass company in Belle Vernon was oldest in U.S.

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The American Window Glass Co. played an important role in the history of Belle Vernon Borough, which is celebrating its 200th birthday this year.

The firm also held a mark of distinction in the history of the United States.

That was the message Norman L. Niece, superintendent of the firm, emphasized when he addressed a meeting of the Brownsville Rotary Club on July 20, 1939.

Introduced by Dr. Kenneth G. Knapp, chairman of the club's vocational services committee, Niece outlined the history of the glass industry and explained with samples placed on each plate the use and processes of its manufacture.

According to a story in The Charleroi Mail on July 24, Niece told the Rotarians the first glass was manufactured by settlers in Jamestown, Va., in 1607 and the first glass produced in Pennsylvania was near Lancaster in 1761. The Belle Vernon glass plant, he said, was built in 1834 and began operations in 1836.

“It is the oldest window glass factory in the United States,” Niece said.

Niece did not mention it but it should be noted that another glassmaking firm, R.C. Schmartz and Co., began operating in Belle Vernon in 1882. It later was purchased by American Window Glass Co.

Niece said products manufactured in Belle Vernon “are used for different grades of window glass, the heavy glass windows or lenses in glasses and photo glass, mirrors, picture framing and many other purposes.”

The Belle Vernon Window Glass Co., “is the only plant in the United States equipped for cutting photo glass,” Niece said.

The significance of the Belle Vernon factory drew attention in a Tuesday, June 16, 1908, story in The Charleroi Mail that said, “an important but very unusual shipment” from the Monongahela Valley will be made this week from the American Window Glass Company's works at Belle Vernon.”

“The consignment will consist of 8,000 boxes containing 400,000 feet of window glass valued at $16,000,” the story added. “This cargo is consigned to the Campbell Paint and Glass Co. of New Orleans and is the first shipment of the kind made directly by water, probably for many years and, if successful, others may be made to many other points along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.”

The shipment of glass was being made on the River Combine's large model barge “No. 26,” which arrived from the Donora mills, owned and operated by the United Steel Corp., which had on board a large complement of wire and nails also consigned to southern markets and is “in itself a very valuable cargo,” The Mail reported.

With the addition of $16,000 worth of window glass it will be “one of the most important river shipments of miscellaneous products moved from the Valley at one time.” it said.

W.M. Dravo, superintendent of the American Window Glass Co. in Belle Vernon, told the newspaper the firm was making the shipment for a “two-fold purpose, largely as an experiment first as to safety in shipments in bulk cargoes.”

“Second, the consignment by river will be largely in our favor as to shipping rates and expenses from freight charges and demunerage usually incurred from shipments by rail.”

Dravo said if the venture proved successful the company expected to ship largely in the future by river to such places as Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Cairo, Ill.

American Window Glass Co., which also operated facilities in West Monongahela (Wightman Plant) for many years, incurred a devastating setback at the Belle Vernon site on Tuesday, July 23, 1907, when an early-morning fire destroyed the old No. 1 factory.

An archives account of that blaze from Sherry Shondelmyer, historian for the Bicentennial festivities, said damages to the plant were expected to exceed $20,000.

Walter Lewis of the Charleroi Volunteer Fire Department was injured when he fell from the fire wagon en route to the fire and was struck by two hose carts.

He was taken to Charleroi in an automobile for treatment of his injuries and was expected to recover. An employee at the factory also was severely injured when falling glass cut his leg.

Another destructive incident occured Saturday, March 26, 1949, when a tank being drained sprung a leak and molten glass started to flow onto the floor.

It is interesting to note that the near-disaster occured nearly four months before Niece spoke to the Rotarians in Brownsville.

The Monessen Daily Independent reported that only 17 men were working when the March 26 incident began around 5 p.m. and “they tried to stop the flow with water.”

“However, becoming exhausted about 7:30 p.m. and the flow still out of control, they summoned the Belle Vernon Fire Company No. 2,” the newspaper said. “Later, the North Belle Vernon and Charleroi fire companies were called.”

Eighteen men were taken to Charleroi-Monessen Hospital for treatment, including four plant employees who were overcome by gas and 14 Belle Vernon firefighters who were injured in trying to stop the flow of the molten glass.

All but two men, who were kept overnight at the hospital, were treated and released.

As the men were overcome by the gas fumes, an emergency call went out for doctors and ambulances belonging to C.L. Melenyzer, Harold Toner and the Charleroi Volunteer Fire Department.

Firefighters said Bell Telephone Company operators were of “great help” in the crisis effort.

Oxygen was administered to the men at the plant through resuscitators owned by Toner, the Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon fire departments and the glass company.

When a call went out that hot water bottles also were needed, “neighbors in the vicinity responded quickly,” the newspaper said.

Company officials said the leak in the glass tank started when it was being drained as part of a shutdown operation the plant.

The factory was closed because of needed repairs and a seasonal slackening in business, it was reported.

The bottom of the tank “had been worn thin ... by 41 months of continuous operations,” the newspaper story revealed. It was one of the tanks listed for repairs that were to be made before the plant reopened.

In addition to members of their unit being sent to the hospital, the Belle Vernon Fire Department incurred damage to or loss of equipment, including a light generator, several sections of hose and three hose nozzles.

Damages were estimated at $500.

Some 80 volunteer firefighters from Belle Vernon, North Belle Vernon and Charleroi responded to the alarms and were on the scene until 11 p.m.

The Charleroi Mail reported that Monessen firefighters also were involved.

The Belle Vernon factory did not reopen, as many had anticipated.

American Window Glass Co. announced on Tuesday, June 7, 1949, that the decline of business would “force the company's hand” in plans to abandon the plant in Belle Vernon.

A United Press story on the front page of The Monessen Daily Independent stated:

“In view of operations now under way at the company's new plant at Okmulgee, Okla., a company spokesman explained, it was decided that the Belle Vernon plant, the company's smallest plant, would eventually be abandoned. Current business conditions have forced the move sooner than anticipated.”

The story recalled that the Belle Vernon plant had been closed since March, leaving the company with operating units in Jeannette and Arnold, in addition to the Oklahoma facility.

It reported a skeleton work force from the approximately 550 employees at Belle Vernon “is still engaged in clearing stock” from the site.”

Ensuing action involving the Belle Vernon facilities evolved on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 1949, when the Hetz Construction Co. asked the Fayette County commissioners to reduce the tax assessment on the plant from $210,350 to $50,000 – a 75 percent cut.

Russell W. Hetz Jr. said his company was asking for the slash during the “dismantling process.”

The Daily Independent reported that he said the company “wants to be judged and assessed on a ‘temporary idle plant status' and not on an ‘operating status.'”

Belle Vernon Borough officials were opposed to any reduction of the assessment, emphasizing that the lessening of the levy would amount to approximately one-third of the municipality's total assessment of $648,845.

According to Hetz, his company purchased the property from the American Window Glass Co. for $75,000 with the stipulation that all the machinery used in the manufacture of glass would be removed and sold “but not on this continent.”

The newspaper explained that the Hetz company “makes a specialty of purchasing abandoned plants and remodeling them for sale to small fabricators in part or in whole.”

At present, The Daily Independent said, plans for the Belle Vernon plant, which occupies some 25½ acres “call for 12 separate units, with one unit already sold to Santori Brothers of Monessen, who will use the space for manufacturing small furniture.”

The Santori Brothers Cabinet Co. was one of several businesses that operated at the site over the years before a spectacular five-alarm fire, visible for miles along the Monongahela River, gutted the plant on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 1976.

Arson was suspected in the blaze, which caused an estimated $100,000 loss.

Patrick C. Herforth, a custom furniture maker and woodworker, owns and operates PCH Furniture Design and his business is currently located at the American Window Glass Co. site.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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