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A look back: Protest by North Belle Vernon residents resolved highway dispute in 1952

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Part 2 of 2

Protesting North Belle Vernon residents, fearful of losing utility services in the fall of 1952 because of construction of a new highway, were cheered by a visit from Francis M. Brady of Uniontown, construction engineer with the state Department of Highways, on Sept. 30.

Brady told the group, whose picket lines on Grant Street delayed the road project, that they would not be without water and gas services during the work.

But the concerned citizens, mostly women, decided to remain on picket duty until they received formal assurance that their water and gas services would not be knocked out.

“Why should we quit now when the battle is only half won?” Tony Stringhill, a member of North Belle Vernon Borough Council who supported the protesters, told The Monessen Daily Independent.

The newspaper also emphasized that the North Belle Vernon group's efforts drew considerable attention in Harrisburg.

“Telegrams sent by (state) Senator (John H.) Dent to Gov. John S. Fine drew an answer from Secretary of Highways E.L. Schmidt, who said it was the ‘responsibility of the Municipal Water Authority of Belle Vernon to make such adjustments as may be necessary,” the Independent said. “However, his opinion will have to be backed up by a legal ruling, according to Brady.”

Picketing at the construction site, which began in mid-September, continued into October with no signs of abating.

In Harrisburg various state agencies were still trying to decide whether responsibility for relocating the water and gas lines rested with the utilities, the contractor for the road project or the state.

“We intend to stay on the picket line until the lines are established,” Stringhill said. “We don't care who does the work as long as it gets done.”

Media coverage of the picketing grew as the protest continued.

A story in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph on Sunday, Oct. 19, 1952, noted that “for three weeks 20 determined ‘Lost Knob' housewives ... have held up with a day and night picket one of the state's multi-million dollar highway projects.”

“They say they will stay all winter rather than be deprived of water, sewer and gas lines to their homes, which will be isolated by the new four-lane highway improvement,” reporter J. James Moore wrote. In preparation for the $3,458,000 road project, one of the biggest highway excavations ever in Pennsylvania, the state did buy homes in the right of way area of the new highway. But under state law, according to Brady, nothing could be done about the isolated homes despite the fact that it would cost more money — around $40,000 — to install the new utility than it would to buy the home.

“The fight over payment of the cost of installing the water and gas lines will probably have to be decided by the Public Utility Commission and maybe event the courts,” the newspaper said. “That may take many months.”

Andrew A. McDonald of the engineering firm of McDonald and Brigley, which handled engineering for North Belle Vernon and 25 other communities in the Monongahela Valley, said the revenue to be expected from the affected families “does not justify the (water) authority to make the expenditures and the authority has notified the unfortunate people that their service will be discontinued.”

“I take the positive that the improvement will be a great thing for all people of Charleroi, Monessen, Donora, Washington, Greensburg and all the people in western Pennsylania, but why should a handful of people be burdened with an expense of $40,000,” McDonald said.

Emphasizing the scope of the protest was a panoramic eight-column picture showing women, men and children on the picket line. Large tents and American flags were prominent on either side of the residents, while the Mashuda construction equipment sat idled and muted in the background.

Like all disagreements, the dispute over the new highway and its possible ramifications to the North Belle Vernon residents ended to the satisfaction of all involved.

A story on Page One of The Charleroi Mail on Oct. 25, 1952, revealed that Altoona Construction Co. had finished footers on the Twilight Hollow arch for the new Express Highway approach to the Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge and “is presently advancing work on another arch at Pricedale.”

The Altoona firm was subcontracting for the work under direction of the Frank Mashuda Co., general contractor for the 5.2 miles of highway and approaches that included the North Belle Vernon area work.

“Work is expected to advance until the most severe Winter weather interferes,” the newspaper said.

The project did continue and the new Express Highway evolved into Interstate 70, which now stretches from New Stanton into West Virginia, Ohio and other points west.

Many people played important roles in that development including a determined group of women in North Belle Vernon.

“They were committed to having their voices heard,” said Fred Fundy, a longtime resident of North Belle Vernon, whose mother, Assunta (Santoro) Fundy, was among the protesters in 1952. “I don't think they were opposed to the new highway; they recognized that it was going to become a reality one way or another. But they truly cared about their families and friends, especially in light of the possibility of losing gas and water services as the Fall and Winter weather loomed around the corner.

“They bundled themselves against the elements and took on the establishment, if you will. Their voices were heard locally and as far away as Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. They did what they thought was right and wrote a lasting legacy in the process.”

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer.

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