Sesquicentennial organizers to publish updated Bolivar history book
After residents and visitors celebrate Bolivar's history at the town's sesquicentennial festivities this weekend, another chapter will remain in the community's tribute to its past.
Organizers of the event are planning to release a full-color commemorative book that reviews Bolivar's 150 years of change and brings the story up to date with photos from the current observance.
Colleen Mazey, who chairs the sesquicentennial planning committee, has been researching information and gathering old photos for inclusion in the volume, concentrating on events and images from the relatively recent past.
With its location along the main rail route between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Bolivar has seen its share of train wrecks — a topic that Mazey intends to include in the book.
According to period newspaper accounts, there were two railroad accidents at Bolivar late in 1907 — an isolated incident where a Johnstown man was fatally injured while trying to dismount from a freight train and a crash between a mail train carrying Christmas presents and a derailed freight train that injured at least a dozen people.
The sesquicentennial book also will touch on the coal mining industry that provided much employment in the town through the 1980s. That includes the local impact of the national United Mine Workers of America strike of 1977-78.
“It was the longest coal strike ever. It lasted 110 days and it affected all the UMWA members,” Mazey said.
She added that a section of the book will be devoted to tracing the history of education in Bolivar — much of which occurred on the land that is now Burkey Park, the site for many of this weekend's sesquicentennial activities.
Until an updated school, now shuttered, was built south of New Florence in the early 1960s, “The Laurel Valley School was still there. Before, it was the Bolivar High School,” Mazey noted.
With two friends with cameras roving among the crowds through Sunday's final day of the sesquicentennial observance, Mazey said. the book also will document “the events that happened during the three days, the bands that perform, the people in attendance and the Civil War reenactors.”
She said the book is expected to be at least 50 pages in length and will be priced at $15 per copy.
During this weekend's observance, orders for the book may be placed at the main information booth located at the edge of Burkey Park, near the corner of Lincoln and Fourth streets. Afterward, online orders will be accepted through Sept. 30 at the sesquicentennial website: bolivar150yrs.weebly.com.
“We hope to have it delivered to everyone by the end of November,” Mazey said.
According to Mazey, the book additionally will benefit from the work of local history buff Jeff Miller, who also is the solicitor for Bolivar Borough. She said Miller has focused his research on the town's earlier years, beginning even before its incorporation as a borough in 1863.
Though the railroad and coal mining would boost the town's fortunes in later years, construction of a section of the Pennsylvania Canal linking Blairsville to Johnstown is credited with giving the community its first real growth spurt.
“Bolivar really exists today only because of the canal,” Miller said.
According to an Historic American Building Survey of the town, completed in the 1990s by the National Park Service, Bolivar was initially established as a village by canal builders in 1829. It was named for the famous South American soldier and statesman Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), known as “The Liberator.” By 1832, the community boasted a store, post office, two taverns, a forge and 20 houses.
Though few structures remain from that early period of Bolivar's history, one that does is a two-story red brick house at 415 Shaffer St. that has been owned for the past decade or so by Arthur and Michelle Stiffey, who reside next door.
The Stiffeys have traced the history of the dwelling, which is reputed to be the oldest house standing in the borough.
The original section of the house was constructed in 1820 by Peter Wolf and his two daughters. It passed through numerous hands and was, for a time, owned by Charles W. and Nelie D. Hammond. who purchased it for $1,000 on Feb. 27, 1922. The property had depreciated in value to $700 when it was purchased by Everett M. and Mary Miller in the 1940s. With an addition constructed in 1954, the house was most recently owned by a Miller descendant, Sally Foust, before the Stiffeys purchased it.
Construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad through Bolivar was completed by August 1851. It initially coexisted with but soon supplanted the canal as the primary mode of transportation for commerce.
By that time, another important contributor to Bolivar's economy — the manufacture of bricks — had been established.
Scottish immigrant James Glover is credited with initiating the local brick industry. He reportedly worked in the clay mines of Mt. Savage, Md., before discovering similar deposits at Bolivar in 1842. The raw material was suited for making firebrick, or refractory brick, which could withstand heat and was used in construction of coke ovens and iron furnaces.
“Later on they saw use for them as pavers,” Jeff Miller said of the locally produced bricks. “But the really big-ticket item was refractory bricks.”
A Saltsburg area native who went on to fame as an inventor and petroleum pioneer then entered the picture.
“Samuel Keir, the father of petroleum refining, had an interest in a canal boat business and brickyards in Bolivar and Salina,” Miller noted.
In 1851, Keir and Glover were operating two “brickworks” at Bolivar and by 1856 had built 14 tenant houses for their employees. By 1876, the town had four operating brickyards.
Soon, the growth of the community prompted a petition to incorporate as a borough distinct from Fairfield Township, a request granted in 1863.
According to a 1906 “History of Westmoreland County,” the population of the borough was 378 in 1880 and the town's prominent buildings included two hotels and a Methodist Episcopal church.
At that time, the text notes, the brickyards employed more than 100 men and each year processed upwards of 20,000 tons of clay and shipped about 2,000 tons of bricks.
While other local brickyards changed hands through the years, the National Park Survey points out that the Garfield Refractories Company remained independent of national companies throughout the 20th century. When it closed in 1979, it was still run by descendants of Elliot Robinson, an area native who opened a brickyard in the 1850s.
In 1940, Garfield Refractories was still the largest area employer, with about 165 men on its payroll. In the plant's later years, automation reduced the force to about 60.
The final Garfield manufacturing site was located just across the Conemaugh River, in the Indiana County village of Robinson. That site is now occupied by the community's sewage treatment plant.
But the company's office for a time was located in Bolivar, at 622 Washington St., the building that currently houses the borough municipal offices and community library.
That versatile address has seen multiple uses over the decades. It began as the first permanent church building in Bolivar, dedicated by the local Methodist congregation on Feb. 2, 1856.
It has since been used at various times as a school building, the office and print shop of a local newspaper, the town post office and a bank operating under a series of names including Citizens National Bank, Johnstown Bank and Trust, and Laurel Bank. The old bank vault remains inside as a reminder of the structure's long history.
Similarly, the former Bolivar National Bank, at 603 Washington St., has survived to perform a new function. Donna Pardee operates her beauty shop in the building's intact former cashier office.
Along with the building's period architecture, which includes an exterior facade of enameled tile, Pardee has inherited tales of past gunplay.
According to a period newspaper account, the bank's cashier, though wounded, was able to reach his own revolver and, with added firepower from bank Vice President Frank Hammond, was able to drive off four would-be robbers in a July 1919 incident.
Over the years, Jeff Miller noted, members of the prominent Hammond family played a leading role in most all important undertakings in Bolivar, from industrial enterprises to financial institutions to civic improvements.
The clan immigrated to the area from Scotland sometime before the Civil War and became involved in such businesses as mills, a meat market and a hotel as well as brickyards. Jeff Miller said the Hammonds were largely responsible for the town receiving such modern conveniences as electricity and a sewer system.
Referring to one of the most ambitious of the Hammonds, James Brett Hammond, the National Park Service survey concurs that he “seems to have been involved in virtually all the important municipal, business and fraternal organizations. The Hammond family played a literally and figuratively formative role in Bolivar's development.
“....By the late 1890s J. B. Hammond oversaw five of the local brickyards. As the principle property owners and overseers of Bolivar's prosperity, in early 1902 the Hammonds had two plans drafted for the town's expansion along Walnut, Lincoln and McKinley streets” and “built a variety of houses along the new streets.”
In 1914, J.B. Hammond was a Progressive, Prohibitionist candidate for Congress, but he lost the race by 400 votes. He did, however, serve two terms as a state representative and a representative to the state and national conventions of the Republican and Progressive parties.
Gradually, over the past few decades, Bolivar's various longtime industries have finally succumbed to the changing times.
After the demise of the Garfield Refractories, there were the closures of local coal mines and a wire mill.
The last to go, in 2003, was the Allegheny Foundry.
“They made road and sewer grates that were used all over,” Jeff Miller noted.
Reportedly started in the 1880s by J. Shields Miller, the business had once been known as the Bolivar Foundry and Machine Shop. It survived such setbacks as a cyclone, the Great Depression and damage during the 1977 Johnstown Flood before finally closing its doors in the new millennium.
In addition to the National Park Service survey, Jeff Miller said his research has drawn upon some previous historical works, trade publications that included references to local industries as well as conversations with some older residents in Bolivar, including some who worked in the community's vanished brick industry.
That era of local industrial vigor may be gone, but it's not forgotten.
“People here have been pretty good at preserving the history of their town,” Jeff Miller said. “They're very proud of it.”
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.