La Roche archivist aims to shed light on Pittsburgh during World War I

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The contributions that Pittsburghers made to help propel the Allies to victory in World War 1 nearly 100 years ago still are impressive by today's standards.

Unfortunately, few people know about them, lamented Elizabeth Williams, college archivist at La Roche College in McCandless.

The aim of her new book, “Pittsburgh in World War I: Arsenal of the Allies,” is changing that.

“Through the book, I painted a portrait of what Pittsburgh was like during World War I because we did a lot of things, and nobody talks about it,” she said.

For instance, with more than 250 mills and factories, the Steel City and Allegheny County produced half of the steel and much of the munitions used by the Allies.

Westinghouse Electric Corp. — based then in downtown Pittsburgh and with plants throughout western Pennsylvania — produced turbines and coils for electricity prior to the war, Williams said. But when it became the first American company to get a war contract with the British in 1914, it was asked to make 3 million shells.

“It was a bit of a problem because Westinghouse wasn't a munitions company, Williams said. “Still, they were able to fill the order in just 45 days.”

But Pittsburghers did much more than manufacture weaponry, said Williams, 28, of Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood.

The Mellon Institute in Oakland developed one of the first gas masks used on the western front.

An early female war correspondent — Mary Roberts Rinehart — was born in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side. Her war accounts from the Belgian front appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

Pittsburgh also boasted the largest American Red Cross chapter in the country. Employees and volunteers assisted more than 20,000 local families affected by the war and worked with the draft board to review and make recommendations concerning draft exemptions, Williams said.

In all, 60,000 men from Allegheny County served in the war, and women flocked to the front lines as nurses; a total 1,527 of them never made it back.

A war monument honoring the casualties from Greenfield inspired Williams to write the book, which was published by The History Press, based in Charleston, S.C., and retails for $19.99. It is available online and in bookstores.

“I passed that monument a lot but never paid much attention to it. Then, one day, I stopped to look at it. I became curious over what Pittsburgh was like back then and went to find out more but couldn't find anything. That's when I decided to write a book,” said Williams, who earned a bachelor's degree in history from La Roche in 2007 and a master's in public history from Duquesne University in 2009.

“This is the first book I've come across that deals with local history during World War I,” said Darlene Veghts, assistant director of the John J. Wright Library at La Roche College.

“Elizabeth's style is clear and free of academic jargon, which makes the book an enjoyable, as well as an informative, read.”

Veghts' favorite chapter deals with Pittsburgh's immigrant neighborhoods during the conflict.

“I'd never thought about what it must have been like for families with German and Eastern European ties during that time,” she said.

In the book, Williams addresses how the large Polish community urged leaders to join the side of the Allies, while those in German neighborhoods supported the Central Powers.

“This led to tensions and sometimes even fistfights in the streets,” Williams explained.

“The stories about what happened to community relations when fear took over rational minds still resonate in today's world,” added Veghts, 50, of Glenshaw.

Williams researched and wrote the 142-page book in one year, while simultaneously planning her wedding.

“My fiancé knew up front that the book took priority,” she said. “I told him that our wedding day would only last 24 hours, but this book would be around forever.”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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