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Histories of Monongahela, Charleroi intertwined

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 3:34 p.m.
Terry Necciai

For one year in the late 1980s, Terry Necciai balanced his time serving as president of the Monongahela Area Historical Society and as the Main Street manager in Charleroi.

He likened it to Friday night between two rival towns.

“I was always fighting this feeling they were like two football teams. But they're not. Each has its unique features.”

For the first time, the two communities' historical societies came together for an event Thursday in the parlor of First Presbyterian Church, Sixth and Chess streets, Monongahela.

Six years after his work on Charleroi's successful nomination as a historic preservation district, Necciai spoke on the historical connection between the two communities.

“When I was Main Street manager in Charleroi, I thought they were developed the same,” Necciai said. “But Charleroi was opposite in lot of ways. Charleroi has a busy business district and is 100 years younger than Monongahela.”

The development of Charleroi's business district “all happened at once,” Necciai said. When The Charleroi Land Co. in 1889 began selling plots of land that sold “like magic” and the nickname of “The Magic City” was born.

“In Monongahela, you'll find buildings which played off each other,” Necciai said. “That did not happen in Charleroi — they all happened at once. There was a conscious effort to form a boom town.

“Monongahela's buildings were built to make each other better,” Necciai said. “They were dependent upon each other for how they looked, for aesthetics.”

Monongahela was developed in several different town plans over several decades. Each plan follows the bend of the Monongahela River, which frames the city. With each subtle bend of the river, a new plan was developed.

For example, Necciai noted, from the 100 block of East Main Street to Fourth Street was the Joseph Parkinson Plan.

The next plan stretches along Fifth and Sixth streets and was developed by Adam Wickerham.

Wickersham's daughter, Mary Chess, developed a plan that centers around the street named for her.

But in Charleroi, the town was laid out when trolleys were in place, Necciai said. Shoppers could jump on and off trolleys to shop from block to block. Because the lots were only 20 to 25 feet wide, they were conducive to small, narrow shops like shoe stores. As a result, as recently as the 1970s, there were 13 shoes stores in Charleroi; five still existed in the 1980s.

“Every block had a hotel, shoe store, clothing store, cigar store, confectionary,” Necciai said.

Charleroi was laid out as the light bulb became popular. Thus the buildings didn't need side light. They were built without side windows, unlike the businesses in downtown Monongahela.

Monongahela was laid out and developed over a century. In contrast, the first 1,000 lots in Charleroi were sold within a year.

The Charleroi Plate Glass Works was founded in November 1889. The same day, the Charleroi Land Co. was founded.

“That shows they were just as interested in selling land as selling glass,” Necciai said.

J.K. Tener, the former baseball player and future governor, founded the Charleroi Savings and Trust Co. in the late 1890s.

“Tener got the idea that stores were more important than the glass company, so he started the chamber,” Necciai said.

Necciai said although Monongahela had been around for nearly 120 years at the time, by the beginning of the 20th century, Charleroi had grown larger than the nearby city.

But it was some of Monongahela's prominent families who were developing Charleroi. For example, the Yohe family built a block of homes on Fourth Street in Charleroi.

According to the records of the Charleroi Area Historical Society, Dr. A.F. Chandler is responsible for the community's name. He visited Charleroi, Belgium, encouraging skilled glassworkers to come to the Washington County town to help develop the growing industry.

But when he died suddenly, Chandler's wife had him buried in Monongahela Cemetery, Necciai noted.

“If you think of these towns as competing, you have to wonder why she chose to bury him in Monongahela,” Necciai said.

According to the Charleroi Area Historical Society records, M.J. Alexander was a showman who helped develop Charleroi and coined the phrase “The Magic City.”

Alexander must have liked the nickname, Necciai said, because Alexander used it to promote Barberton, Ohio, home of Diamond Matches, after he left Charleroi.

By 1897, he developed Monessen, and in 1900, he helped to develop Donora.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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