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Old Coal Kings

| Sunday, Jan. 2, 2005

For a select few, the age of coal and coke in western Pennsylvania was a period of conspicuous wealth: of lavish homes, European vacations and works by the masters of art and decor.

The names Frick, Thompson and Cochran were emblematic of the time. Leading lights whose prosperity bestowed wealth on others, these two men and one woman were also human; for as rich as they were, they also suffered their share of heartache and defeat.

Today, stirred by their triumphs and tragedies, visitors to their homes wonder: What was it like to have lived in that time, like that?


The frosty evening of Dec, 31, 1904, was a night to remember. There were 250 guests, sparkling champagne, fine food and enchanting music for dancing.

It was a New Year's Eve housewarming, and what a house it was!

"In the reception hall near the stairway is ... a magnificent screen over 101 years old from Japan," one local press account gushed. "The living room is finished in California redwood and one of the screens is from Cairo, Egypt, and is of ivory with mother of pearl and ebony wood. On the floor are rugs ... from Athens, Greece."

The opening of Oak Hill, continued the commentary, "was the greatest of all social events."

Commanding the crest of a small hill three miles west of Uniontown, the $3-million mansion was the proud possession of newlyweds Hunnie Thompson and her husband, coal baron and banker Josiah Van Kirk Thompson, or J.V., for short.

By virtue of his success in buying and selling coal lands, J.V. Thompson was the most important man in town and one of the most renowned in western Pennsylvania. His marriage -- his second -- to Hunnie made front-page news.

Everything J.V. did was big. When his financial empire crashed in 1915, the tremors were felt all the way to New York City. A reporter dispatched from the big city found the beleaguered tycoon not at his downtown office but at Oak Hill.

"I have been a worker all my life," Thompson was quoted in the New York Tribune the next day. "I am a worker now. I am going to work this through all right."

J.V. never found a way out of his financial mess.

The couple's divorce in 1913 set him back $1 million. Although some said that was the start of his decline, there were other factors. Thompson was land rich and cash poor, and so when depositors spooked by an unflattering government banking report began withdrawing money from his bank, it was all over but an endless parade of lawsuits that bedeviled Thompson to his dying day.

Thompson died a broken and bewildered man in his second floor bedroom at Oak Hill, which remained his, thanks to the largesse of former business associates.

That fall of 1933 the house was sold for $50,000 to a most unlikely group, the Sisters of St. Basil, who renamed the estate Mount St. Macrina. The Order has taken special care to preserve the mansion, which it uses as a retreat house.

When the roof sprung a leak a few years ago, the Sisters replaced the old slate roof with new slate, at considerable cost. The 100-year-old plumbing has undergone major repairs and the electrical wiring is being worked on now. Outside, the masonry has been repointed; inside, whole walls damaged by moisture have been ripped out and rebuilt.

The mansion's 13-inch-thick steel and concrete walls may be the biggest headache of all, said Sister Carol Petrasovich, retreat house director, who ruefully noted the need for jackhammers to break through to piping and wires.

In 1999, Oak Hill was named to the National Register of Historic Places. According to Sister Carol, the Sisters of St. Basil meant to "preserve Mr. Thompson's legacy."

Pat Pallini, whose parents worked for Thompson, has the distinction of being the only person to be born at Oak Hill. Maintaining a lifelong affection for the house, he complimented the sisters by noting Thompson would be "pleased" with what has become of his former residence.

A church-going Presbyterian, Thompson would appreciate the Sisters' spiritual mission, their outreach to the community, Pallini said.

When Hunnie and J.V. lived at Oak Hill, guests could try their hand at the roulette wheel and other games of chance, or refresh themselves in the detached glass-domed swimming pool.

The Thompsons strove to be the perfects hosts. When the famed Polish pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski performed a recital at Oak Hill, he had the pick of three Steinways, thanks to the master of the house. Hunnie gave away Japanese kimonos to guests.

The house is more subdued today.

The billiard room was converted to a chapel. The adjoining Louis Quartorze room was transformed into the Shrine for Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Religious objects elsewhere in the house bespeak the Order's spiritual goals.

According to Pallini, Thompson would be neither disappointed nor surprised by the virtual disappearance of coal mining as a factor in the regional economy. "He knew there was a termination point" for coal, Pallini said.

As a student of history, he would have had an easier time adjusting to changing conditions than most of his contemporaries, Pallini believes.

As for Thompson's legacy, that's tougher. Maybe it's Oak Hill, Pallini said. Or maybe it was Thompson's capacity for hard work, his sunny optimism and his open, humane character.


Few men have entered history as hard-pressed for praise as Henry Clay Frick.

The West Overton native and undisputed master of coal and coke was considered among the toughest, most competitive businessmen of his era. For many, his character was stamped for all time on the bloody streets of Homestead in 1892, when his hired Pinkerton guards killed 10 striking steelworkers.

And yet there was another, softer side to Frick.

It blossomed at Clayton, his family's estate in Pittsburgh's Point Breeze section. Clayton is where Frick's four children to his loving wife Adelaide were born. It's where he played weekly poker games with rich friends and where he teased dinner guests, asking if they would like to hear music. Turning to a butler, he would say, "Ask the orchestra leader to play something." Soon, a whole orchestra was playing, thanks to a music roll and the family's orchestrion, a huge music-making machine.

And Clayton is where he played host to President Theodore Roosevelt one memorable Fourth of July.

"Two different H.C. Fricks were emerging," wrote Samuel A. Schreiner Jr., a Frick biographer, of the would-be tycoon of the mid-1880s. One was the "tough-minded" business executive and deal-maker. The other was the refined man of art and the loving husband and father who found a "domestic idyll" at Clayton.

In many ways, it was ideal.

"There are pretty flowers and birds painted on the ceiling and walls," wrote Frick's daughter, Helen, of her bedroom at Clayton. "If all the children had such a pretty room as mine, there would not be any of them sad or unhappy."

Helen, who survived into her 90s, remembered Clayton as a place of "azure skies and green lawns."

Yet it was not always easy for the master of the house. Clayton is where Frick's namesake and second son, Henry Clay Jr., died after just a few days of life.

Clayton is where Frick, exhausted from work, frequently collapsed at the front door and crawled unaided to the nearest couch.

And Clayton is where Frick recuperated from wounds suffered in an attempted assassination brought on by the standoff at Homestead. Carried home that evening, he manfully called out to Adelaide, who was still weak from childbirth, "Don't worry, Ada, I'm all right. I may come in and say good night; how is the baby?"

Frick was a man of many facets. The tough businessman was devastated by the death of his oldest daughter Martha, who suffered a two-year ordeal brought on by having swallowed a straight pin (unbeknownst to her parents). At the same time, his reply to a conciliatory message from his estranged former business partner Andrew Carnegie was malice itself: "Tell Mr. Carnegie I'll see him in hell, where we are both going."

No wonder Robin Pflasterer, registrar at today's Clayton, called Frick "inscrutable," a puzzle to his and later generations.

According to Pflasterer, the Frick home -- the centerpiece of The Frick Art and Historical Center at the corner of Penn and Homewood avenues in Pittsburgh -- is more a reflection of Helen Frick than her father. It was Helen who orchestrated the emergence of the modern Clayton and its companion art center, gourmet cafe and car and carriage museum.

A fierce defender of her father's legacy, Helen Frick maintained Clayton largely as it was. Slightly altered following her death in 1984 to reflect more of its original appearance, modern Clayton attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Visitor Kay Maxwell, of Murrysville, was familiar with Clayton years ago.

As a child she paid frequent calls to a friend who lived close to the Frick estate. World War II was raging, and Maxwell said a "victory" garden took up most of Clayton's grounds. It was a time when neighborhood children were allowed to roam the estate, just as long as "Miss Helen" was not in residence, she said.

According to historian Joe Rishel, of Duquesne University, Frick was "an outstanding proponent of that progress which America desired" as the 19th century closed and the 20th century opened, rapid industrialization

Frick "didn't see any contradiction between being sensitive to a beautiful painting or a beautiful child and then compartmentalizing them to a certain section of life," Rishel said. He was preeminently a man of his time.

Kevin Boyle, a labor historian at Ohio State University, said Frick was representative of his age. A businessman who rejoiced in the ethos of "unfettered capitalism," Frick saw that hard work was rewarded with "freedom and opportunity" unavailable to the average American.

"(The successful businessmen of the period) saw in their own lives confirmation of these beliefs," Boyle said. "And they saw no reason why they shouldn't enjoy the fruits of their labor."

Frick did, which was one reason he moved his family from Pittsburgh to a spacious Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City early in the new 20th century. He died in 1919.


Relatively little is known about Sarah B. Cochran, the Dawson woman who built the estate Linden Hall. The home was reportedly modeled after London's St. James Park, which she'd seen during her eight-year absence from the United States after the deaths of her husband Philip Cochran and her son James.

A farmer's daughter, she met Philip, whose family were pioneers in the coal and coke trade, while serving as a housekeeper in the Cochran home. She was devoted to educational philanthropy and gave generously to several colleges, including Bethany College in West Virginia and Allegheny College in Meadville.

In fact, she was called "the Lady-Elect of Allegheny" College. On the day Cochran Hall was dedicated, the campus newspaper rhapsodized about it being a "monument to the causes of higher education and culture" and rejoiced that "Mrs. Cochran (had) opened a new era and vaster future for coming generations."

Cochran replied, "Tell (the students) I think they are all perfectly lovely. I am so glad to give this nice building to such a splendid company of young men."

According to Eugene Lint, of Dawson, a former curator at Linden Hall, Sarah Cochran had no business experience or formal business training and realized she needed help running the family's affairs after Philip's death in 1899. She evidently handled it well, because the business grew threefold under her rein, Lint said.

It sounds simple. It wasn't.

One of Cochran's few surviving letters belongs to Bill Colbert, a retired railroader from Dawson. Colbert is something of a Cochran collector and owns a dozen or more dusty Cochran business ledgers.

The letter, dated January 1936, recounts a dinner of male business partners that took place "even before" James "was laid away."

"I fought with the directors for two weeks to put you in (James') place," Cochran wrote to "M.M." -- perhaps Mark Mordecai Cochran, a Uniontown attorney, whom Colbert identified as Sarah's chief adviser. "Of course you were not in line and did not want to take it but I wanted you to have it because (James) had told me to take your advice in everything and how else could I do it but by putting you in his place?"

Cochran worried that the other directors "would take all the business to Pittsburgh and what would we know about it?" All turned out well, however, with Sarah confiding that M.M. "had been so good to me and took such good care of these properties for these thirty-five years and I thank you so much."

Colbert stated that in contrast to Frick, the Cochrans were beloved by the workers who toiled in their mines and coking facilities at Star Junction, at the Jackson Mine in Tyrone Township, the Franklin and Clinton mines in Upper Tyrone and at mines in Dunbar Township and Dawson.

James Cochran's untimely death in March 1901, while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, robbed Sarah of her only child and also robbed the Cochran business interests of their natural successor. Two weeks before succumbing to pneumonia in a Philadelphia hospital, James had visited Dawson, spending joyous moments with his mother.

Linden Hall was built between 1911 and 1913. Italian immigrant labor helped with the construction. American citizenship was one of the rewards for their work, Colbert said.

In 1927, 21 years after presenting the United Methodist Church in Dawson with a rare copy of the Sistine Chapel's Madonna, Sarah B. Cochran paid for a complete new church building, a magnificent Gothic structure dedicated to the memory of her late husband and son.

An invalid the last 13 years of her life, Sarah Cochran died at Linden Hall in October 1937.

The house has undergone many changes since -- first as a religious retreat and later as a private club with golf course. In the 1970s it was purchased by the United Steelworkers of America as a conference center.

Earlier this year the USW sold off Cochran's three large Tiffany windows for $6.8 million. Rugs original to the house but not used for years may be the next to go. It's part of a drive to pare insurance costs, USW spokeswoman Colleen Moore said.

Despite rumors that the union might try to sell Linden Hall, the estate's future is secure with the union, according to Moore, who said the conference center is always busy between April and November.

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