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Growing up in a Connellsville that few can remember

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Jim Smith grew up in a Connellsville that few can remember.

When he was born in 1920, it had only been nine years before that New Haven Borough had merged with Connellsville Borough to become the City of Connellsville — the first city incorporated in Fayette County.

He grew up on Ninth Street in the “new” Connellsville City —the part of town now known simply as “West Side.”

In those days, Ninth Street wasn't Route 119 South. It was a sleepy rural street passing through a slow-paced rural neighborhood — one of which the 92-year-old speaks fondly.

His maternal grandfather, George W. Gallagher, was a West Side physician who made house calls in a horse and buggy. “Grandpa's horse, Nellie, could find her way home without him having to steer her,” said Smith, who is proud of the fact that Dr. Gallagher was involved with the founding of Cottage State Hospital.

Started in 1891, Cottage State Hospital was located at the corner of Murphy and Cottage avenues and resembled a large house with a wrap-around porch. Several years later, a brick building was constructed there. Throughout the region's coal and coke boom, the state operated the facility, which was renamed Connellsville State General Hospital.

In the 1980s, the region's economy and population declined and the state was no longer interested in operating the hospital. It was renamed Highlands Hospital. It has soldiered on over the years as an independent, non-profit acute care facility.

Jim Smith's family pride doesn't end with his physician grandfather, though.

His paternal grandmother, Anna Porter Smith, was related to William S. Porter. In 1903, Porter filmed the silent movie “The Great Train Robbery” — the first Western ever. He is known internationally for his contribution as the first movie director to use a screenplay to tell a story.

Porter's techniques of using close-ups and different settings to tell a story are mentioned in film books — including ”Behind the Nickelodeon,” written by UCLA film professor Charles Musser in 1992. Musser also produced a documentary that featured Porter's work.

Porter, who died in 1941, worked for Edison Films. His silent movies included several major stars, including Mary Pickford, one of film's earliest sex symbols. A historical marker on Fairview Avenue marks his birthplace — and the theater at Connellsville Community Center bears his name.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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