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Past 25 years have seen much progress in preservation of local history

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By Robert B. Van Atta
Sunday, April 21, 2002
 

This column marks 25 years of Vignettes, the weekly assemblage of local history.

Three years after the Sunday Tribune-Review made its debut, Vignettes first appeared in the issue of April 24, 1977.

It was the result of the publisher's quest for more attention for the rich heritage of southwestern Pennsylvania history and has been verified by consistently high readership ratings.

However, the writer has one regret — that he has not been able to answer all mail, calls, e-mail inquiries and other communications. While it has been gratifying to receive these from all over the United States, age and time limitations have taken their toll.

These 25 years have seen noteworthy progress for history in the area. A number of new historical societies have been formed, and several historical groups have moved or are planning such to larger quarters, including Indiana, Westmoreland and Western Pennsylvania.

Local universities have gotten involved in several ways, such as Penn State-Fayette with the coal and coke museum near Uniontown and Pitt-Greensburg.

Those have included an annual week highlighting historical activities with a prominent speaker, and the Westmoreland Heritage promotion program with the county historical society.

A review of new and upgraded historical activities would include many more. The obvious need to get this area its deserved recognition for its role in national history, happily, is moving forward with the interest of many volunteers.

CANAL IMPORTANCE UNREALIZED

Often little mentioned in historic impact on the southwestern part of the state is the Pennsylvania Canal, which in the second quarter of the 1800s had an important role in passenger and freight transport.

The canal's disregard comes in part from its northern route between Johnstown and Pittsburgh. It included the railroad portage over the mountains and following the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny rivers to Pittsburgh.

Quite busy in its time of expanding commerce before the railroads, in six weeks during the spring of 1839, there were more than 1,400 canal boats arriving at and departing from Downtown Pittsburgh.

Yet, there is little mention of the canal activity in most histories.

The canal's creation resulted from the concern that the Erie Canal across New York was taking business from Pennsylvania. In 1826, the portion of the canal from Freeport to Pittsburgh was authorized by the state Legislature.

This completed the division of the canal from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, and on Nov. 10, 1829, the Grant's Hill tunnel for it was finished to near the Monongahela River.

Although the canal entered Pittsburgh on a viaduct from the far side of the Allegheny River, the then even higher Grant's Hill made it difficult to reach the Mon.

The coming of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1852 doomed the canal, which the railroad purchased and closed down in 1857.

Parts of the Downtown tunnel have been unearthed in recent years in major excavation projects, such as the U.S. Steel building in 1967.

PENNSYLVANIA MILITIA

Although Pennsylvania militia activities date back to 1755, southwestern men were not involved until later. Some militia units from the eastern part of the state participated early, however, and their experience and observation lured them west for later settlement.

The 28th Division of the National Guard traces its history to the units that fought in Lake Erie in 1813, while the then-Greensburg Guards fought in the middle west under General Harrison.

Local units were involved in Mexico during that war, and extensively during the Civil War.

In 1870, the term "militia" was abandoned, according to state law, and such units became part of the National Guard of Pennsylvania.

Their most common involvement was strike- and riot-control duty in the 1870s. That included the 1877 rail strike in Pittsburgh, although eastern units were sent in for that event.

In 1878, the state Legislature reorganized the Guard in Pennsylvania, the advent of what became known as the 28th Division.

It was summoned to duty in 1898, and its 10th Infantry Regiment, primarily from the southwest, was sent to the Philippines. There, the men were engaged in difficult campaigning and earned accolades.

In World War I, the 28th earned more tributes. World War II actually began for the 28th with maneuvers in 1939, and the division was mobilized in February 1941.

Floods, snowstorms and other tragedies have called the men to duty.

However, a tri-state configuration took effect in the 1960s, and other changes through the years have minimized the local pride and effect of the troops.

GIBSONTON AND RYE WHISKEY

What was claimed to be the largest pure rye whiskey distillery in the world a century ago was at the now nearly forgotten town of Gibsonton in Westmoreland County, near Belle Vernon.

By 1890, when the plant alone covered 10 acres of ground, its daily capacity was 4,000 to 4,200 gallons. Fifty thousand gallons were stored in bonded warehouses, with other warehouses for current sales.

Average yearly demand was more than 15,000 barrels of a product that was at least three years old.

Various members of the Gibson family developed the business, starting with John Gibson, who came from Philadelphia, where he was a dealer who couldn't get enough supply.

The land was owned by the Speer family as early as 1771. The distillery was erected in 1856-57. In 1884, the distillery became Moore & Sennott, and later just Sennott.

An explosion of a copper still caused a fire in 1882, and the main building and a warehouse were rebuilt by October 1883. Another warehouse fire caused the loss of 7,000 barrels in June 1883, and rebuilding was accomplished with increased capacity.

Security was substantial, and to remove temptation, workmen were not provided with access to the product. Such precautions included exposing each barrel stave to the atmosphere for three years before use.

The distillery's principal office was in Philadelphia, with expensive quantities of the rye whiskey imported to other countries around the world.

Actual settlement at Gibsonton covered about 400 acres.

THIS DATE IN HISTORY

Amid the fervor over the start of the Civil War in 1861, on April 21 the Fayette Guards militia unit left Uniontown for active service.

The cornerstone for what has evolved into Seton Hill College in Greensburg was laid in 1887.

Water somewhat higher than normal was a spring problem in Pittsburgh in 1901, when flood depth reached 36 feet — 11 feet above flood stage.

A particularly dry season in 1931 had created a severe forest fire threat, which ended on this date with some welcome rain.

In 1949, a major department of Pittsburgh Steel's Monessen plant was hit by a fire.

One of the most devastating traffic accidents in area history occurred April 21, 1956, when six persons were killed in a crash at the foot of Jacktown Hill, Irwin.

CHANGES IN RELIGION CENSUS

Far and away the fastest-growing religion in Pennsylvania between 1790 and 1850, according to census and other estimates, was Methodism. During that period, it grew 22,700 percent, from 1,500 to 341,000.

The 1850 figure was based on seating capacity of churches, a more reliable measurement then.

However, a substantial change in more than 200 years is noticeable in all, based on these 1790 estimates.

Presbyterians led with 80,000 in the state, followed by 60,000 Lutherans, 35,000 German Reformed and 30,000 Friends (Quakers).

After them came 10,000 Roman Catholics, 5,000 Baptists, 4,000 Mennonites, 3,000 Episcopalians and 2,500 Moravians.

The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans and Reformed were dominant in early southwestern Pennsylvania settlements.

SPORTS HISTORY

Despite the fact that it was illegal, outlawed by a Pennsylvania legislative act of March 1867, the late 1800s and early 1900s saw a strong interest in local prizefighting.

In the case of the 1889 brawl of 75 rounds elsewhere between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, Pittsburgh and some nearby newspapers covered the events thoroughly.

River towns held many early boxing matches in the area, and, as railroads developed, rail centers joined them.

Actually, the 1867 statute remained in effect in the state until 1923, when an act legalized "boxing, sparring or wrestling matches" and established an athletic commission for regulation of the sport.

The area increase during the 19th century's last decade came generally from matches in mill towns such as Allegheny City, Aliquippa, Homestead and Millvale rather than Pittsburgh.

The city newspapers, such as the Post, Daily Dispatch, Press, Chronicle and later the Sun provided extensive coverage, however.

Athletic clubs prominent at the turn of the century became dominant sponsors of fights. The first championship bout in Pittsburgh involved middleweight champion Stan Ketchell with a title retention at Duquesne Gardens in 1909. Then Export native Frank Klaus held the champ to a draw in 1910.

 

 
 


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